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.
3 thoughts on "Exhibition | Mark Hewitt on Daniel Johnston’s “783 – 804”"
I find all Daniels installations similar to this one to have a musical quality. There is rhythmic sense created by the shadows and light that sings in silence.
I would not call this a critique of the critic, because we all know where that can go, but rather I would like to make a few additional comments about the installation “726-756” by Daniel Johnston.
As a participant in the building of the Greensboro project, I had the opportunity to spend a full week watching this piece come together.
I would like to make an addendum to Mark’s comments, one which I think might further portray the conceptual stakes at play in Daniel Johnston’s project. The piece, at heart, is about the relationship between studio and market, between process of making and the process of representation, of the lived and the perceived. Walking the long curve of jars one is struck by the incredible similarity, the fastidious attention to reproduction, the linear elements of the architecture reinforcing this idea. Arriving in the “white cube” a albeit heavy handed metaphor for the gallery, one is struck not by the uniqueness of the jar, but again by its similarity to the other 29 pots one has just passed. Wood firing so lauded for its unpredictability, here seems to be an example of aesthetic control and precision. The pots in the hallway are intentionally elevated higher than the pot in the “gallery”, which you are forced to look down upon, a not so subtle force of perspective by the artist.
Why this one jar? What is this one special? What is here to notice? Looking so similar to the other 29, surely there is something inherently more “perfect” about this jar? Herein lies the truth of this piece as a whole. Of course there is nothing particularly different about this jar, put simply, it just came last. It bears its number in sequence which deftly undercuts any notions of its being singled out . The lower pricing of the series versus higher price of “the one” also reinforces notions of perceived value inflated by context. What is compelling is the process that lead to this one being able to be made. A simple truth of process and skill put on grand display and then problematized as we normally do not find pottery exhibitions to be.
The atmosphere of the hallway, is that of the workshop, the boards reminiscent of snake fences, of wareboards, and log cabins and firewood. After this experience the “gallery” setting seems such a let down, such a blank space, what is supposed to allow for pure contemplation suddenly seems vacuous and devoid of sensory information. One must also grapple with the fact that you are standing in a gallery, in a gallery. If the installation could wrap completely around, you would end up where you began, rather like the Ouroboros. Fairly heavy post-modern stuff for those expecting to see another brown and round pottery show.
This final piece is the pot that represents the whole of process, of technique struggled for and mastered, of countless hours spent evaluating curves and angles, of histories kept, of indulgences entertained, of hardships born. This one pot cannot ever possibly contain the whole of what was undertook to arrive at it, nor does it improve from being singled out, set alone, purified of outside influence. And here lies what I believe is the lesson to be learned, this show in many ways isn’t about pottery. It is about the architecture of your surrounding, pots only being one part of that, it is about that which will eventually influence you, about the context in which we choose to understand things. Drive to the gallery or drive to the country, buy the pots (or anything else for that matter) where you will, the experience is in the trip, not in the destination.
Unmentioned too, is the neighboring accompaniment, the film previously featured on this site, displayed on a cord of wood so neatly and tightly stacked that it is used as the screen. A comment itself about what is “behind” the glitz and glamour of the temporary exhibition, two days of carefully curating a stack of wood tight enough to throw a film against and still be viewable. Behind the fleeting image on the silver screen, there is trained skill, tasked at manual labor, however mundane. The question Daniel poses is one of which do you chose to notice? Where your attention lies reveals more about you than the artist, the artist seems to know exactly which side of the fence he lands on. As the title clearly states, these are just numbers in a series….
Yes! Bryce Brisco gets it!