The work of Svend Bayer lingers on the retina as an afterimage, still visible with closed eyes. This is especially true for Bayer’s most recent work presented at Jane Hartsook Gallery (New York City, February 19 – March 18).
Svend Bayer, Jar, wood fired stoneware, 13 x 14 inches.
Bayer’s pottery declares curves whose lines have been the thesis of potters’ proclamations for centuries, but his inflection in interpreting these curves belies a subtlety of understanding uncommon in contemporary work. While he rarely strays from the vernacular of what A.A. Milnes’s Eeyore calls “Useful Pots for putting things in,” Bayer’s work is impossible to accurately dismiss with that categorization.
Bayer’s claims about his own work are deceptively pithy.
“I want my pots to bring pleasure.
“I think a good pot has to kind of reveal something about the maker. What you find in it is actually not so different than you would hope to find in another person. You would hope to find sort of life and a kind of response –it’s a rightness. I think it is important that you would want to touch it, to hold it.”
Comparing the work of potters to experiences of nature or natural processes by evoking arctic dawns or the rush of saltwater over sand is somewhat useful in examining Bayer’s work. Anyone who has spent time on moving water will recognize in Bayer’s largest pots the rippling compound curves of standing waves on whitewater rivers. We could describe Bayer’s work as having “fluid” curves and leave it at that, but it goes deeper. Fluid dynamics are inextricable from his pots. If we held a drop of water dangling from the end of an icicle side by side with one of his jars the surface tension of the water would cause it to echo the shape of a jar. This is the same shape as a candle flame, and some of Bayer’s kilns are also candle flame, or tear drop shaped. Fluid dynamics retain further importance in the surfaces of the pots’ “directionality”— to use wood fired conference vocabulary. Ashes carried on the path of the wood flame transform the glaze’s chemistry, and thus it’s eutectic, causing viscous runs, gathering points, craggy textures, and occasionally puddling skin from cooling contractions of the glaze surface as it shrinks faster than what’s beneath it.
Bayer’s earliest mentor Michael Cardew might decry further analysis, calling critical writing “killing something to take measurements of the corpse.” Glenn Adamson lauds the value of post-millennial studio pottery but concludes that it remains the cultural discourse equivalent of a cul-de-sac. Mark Hewitt, also a Cardew student, used to jokingly describe the potter’s slide show at academic conferences as an image of a casserole, and then intoning only “that’s a casserole” before advancing the slide. These assertions incompletely describe pottery whose stated aim is to be “just pots.” There is more to the restraint in Bayer’s work than pastoral simplicity. More is afoot in the show than forces of nature.
Color is the most perplexing aspect of Bayer’s oeuvre. He is color blind, not able to see the red and green spectrums. While one could simply adjust some filters in photo editing software in a glib attempt to see the work as the artist sees it, this would not enhance the work for us. Is there some other resonance or frequency that allows Bayer, during the editing process that is unloading and sorting the results of his five day woodfirings, to see a characteristic of his surfaces that do not easily reveal themselves to us?
Creative genius and divergent thinking have been linked to various forms of either leaky or selective sensory gating, a condition called misophonia (the corpse measures 72.65” in length). Successful artists are unable to filter some things out, and simultaneously are able to focus in on nuances to a neurotic degree. No news there and, yes, neuroscience discovers proof of what artists had known intuitively and anecdotally for decades if not centuries.
Bayer overstates the case that electric and gas fired pots tell their story all at once, with the counterpoint that wood fired pots only reveal their entirety over time. As Anya Ventura recently wrote “attention is no longer a necessity, but a discipline.”
Bayer is making the case for a high level of complexity in the experience of ceramics. His lava-like ember scarring, or the baroque drips of ash ending in multicolored marbled beads might be ample evidence for his case, but there is complexity in the quieter parts of his glazes as well. For example, the black iron glaze has optic blue crystals —the blue comes from a refraction of the light wavelength, not a pigment— in the ashy runny overlays, while away from that drama it also has a quiet stippling that gently agitates the retina even in the leeward areas of the pot. Complexity need not be drama.
A neurosurgeon once said that the only way he was able to function at work week after week was because he could come home and lose himself in the comfort of home, and in the surface of paintings. The pleasure and escape this brought allowed him to return to work refreshed though he was not able to quantify what permitted his respite. The lives of his patients depended on pleasure in aesthetic complexity. What is a healthy dose of complexity? What percentage of our population receives that dose?
Good pots can inveigle their way into our domestic life without aggressive narrative, without disrupting post structuralist cultural trends. Subversiveness arrives quietly disguised as a Useful Pot that functions as a misophonic beacon. The harmonic resonance in standing wave curves and hypnotic surfaces reveal themselves over time and, like a Trojan Horse, smuggle pleasure-in-complexity through our sensory gates. These pots are as the movement of leaves in the wind, or the more-than-disco-ball-glitter of light on the surface of a lake stirred by breeze. They are respite. They are retreat. They are resplendent. All of this before you touch, before you hold, before you sip. This is the invitation of the Useful Pot.
Jordan Taylor is an artist and writer based in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to cfile.daily and is a whitewater instructor.
What do you think of Bayer’s exhibition of contemporary ceramics? Let us know in the comments.