Yesterday we ran a video showing Seagrove, North Carolina potter Daniel Johnston creating his large-scale vessels at his studio. His “Large Jar Project” is impressive from a technical standpoint, but when Johnston reaches out and combines that formalism with installation art, amazing things happen. We have an essay written by Mark Hewitt, Johnston’s mentor, about Johnston’s exhibition 783 – 804 (October 1 – 29, 2015) at the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design in Asheville. Hewitt’s partial to Johnston, of course, but his role gives him a unique vantage point from which to view Johnston’s achievements.
A majestic combination of architectural intimacy, formal grandeur, and play of light is on display at the Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design, in Asheville, NC, where potter, Daniel Johnston, has created an installation, modestly titled, 783 – 804, so intimate that it borders on disturbing. It is a type of folly, an ornamental building serving no practical purpose, reconceptualized for the purpose of examining practicality, craftsmanship, and the vernacular.
As you enter the 13 foot wide and 10 foot tall wooden-latticed, circular tower, you are immediately put on the spot, as if being watched by the wise old jars sitting neatly spaced around you, one ring of 10 similar 5-foot high big jars at shoulder height, and an upper ring just above eye-level. Imagine entering a ceramic confessional, surrounded by benevolent Buddha-bellies, where it is not you examining the pots, but the pots examining you. You pause and listen, hoping you’re being received as an appreciative visitor and not an intruder.
Soon you’re put at ease, for this is what voluminous, resplendent, round jars do: they echo an ancient undercurrent of repose, of “Slow Time.” In this sense the installation is as much a rebuke as it is exultation, for these jars are not glittering gewgaws awarded to manipulators of “Fast Time” — they are not ostentatious, preening, kinky, or obscure. Daniel has transformed timeworn craft clichés (truth to materials, virtuous labor, the honest pot) into a subversive re-conception of the rural, the useful, and the traditional. As in a teahouse, a reflective mood has been established by the placement of evocative objects in a confined space. The jars are a memory; they resonate, and then they wake you up.
Daniel’s previous installation, 726 – 256, at Greenhill in Greensboro, reminded me of a souk. It was an arc of 31 similar, fabulous, big jars placed cheek-by-jowl at shoulder height inside a latticed rectangular tunnel, made of rough yellow pine 2 x 6 feet, measuring 8 feet high by 10 feet wide by 75 feet long. It invited action rather than repose. I wanted to run its length, playing each jar as if the assemblage were a giant xylophone. Its optical qualities were kaleidoscopic, as the wooden latticework cast tangential shadows across the jars’ curves. It was at once dizzying and serene, as though the jars were joyfully guarding a warm refuge, or they were a line of boisterous country folk about to do-se-do towards the final, lonely jar, shivering in its sterile, faux, white-cubed gallery.
This time, Daniel has conjured up a shrine, which invites both introspection and high praise. I could easily have spent a few hours sitting in the Asheville tower getting to know each of the slightly different jars and meditating about containment, the Olympian mastery of technique, and the expressive qualities of repetition, steadiness, and longevity. I suspect, however, that whatever my conclusions were, the jars would eventually prove me wrong. If they could speak, they might assure me that they were merely manifestations of Daniel’s progress in grappling with these and other aesthetic riddles.
Text (edited) courtesy of Mark Hewitt.
What do you think of Johnston’s installations of contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.