Friday, January 1, 2010

Fires beneath the surface

Just before Christmas, we went to Bellevue, WA, where the Bellevue Arts Museum had an exhibition of Robert Sperry's ceramics. Sperry taught for decades at the University of Washington, and evolved from a fairly standard ceramicist (teapots and vases) to a funky and then a profound abstract expressionist. He died in 1998.

Ceramics are hard for me to appreciate, but I'm trying to learn. How to appreciate randomness, for example? Some of Sperry's transitional works were raku, I think: at any rate, they had that rough texture and almost random coloration that wood ash gives to Japanese pots. As you can tell from this blog, I tend to like order in art -- I think I might actually be still living in the Enlightenment period -- but here I started to see why the randomness matters.

For me, the connection is fire. I love watching, tending, feeding fires. . . .  the smoke, the swirl of flame, the transformation of neat logs to ash that clings to surfaces. So now when I see the finished pots that come out of such fires, I try to re-imagine the flames. The cold pot starts to glow with a fantasy heat; the museum (God forbid!) starts to fill with eye-watering smoke. And ceramic, I realize, becomes a liminal thing, a threshold piece, between our safe world and the dangerous fires beyond.

In Sperry's last pieces, the fire matters, too, but with a different aesthetic. These are abstract plates, big in scale, useless as household objects. They are massively crinkled, the glaze and the slip broken in deep gullies. There are blobs of clay, often at the center, sticking up from the plate surface. The upshooting blobs eat into the space of air and coolness around these plates, dangerous vestiges (or sacred orifices) of fire. They ooze with a deep pigmented blob around them, as if lava or blood were coming up out of the center. There is a pent-up energy in these pieces that is belied by their cool abstraction, the neatness of their circular outline and the coolness of their white glaze. Like manuscripts overwritten, they hold vestiges of the energies that have both created and wiped out, that have written, erased, rewritten, torn, and poked through the surface of meaning.

Gerard Manley Hopkins knew about fires beneath the surface: the end of his wonderful sonnet on "The Windhover" -- a bird of prey, turning from calm soaring to a steep dive, like a coal in the fire suddenly falling open:
. . . and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
Or, in a more elegiac vein, Shakespeare, in his sonnet about growing old:
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie. . .
(Interesting that in both poems, the verbs for these fires are "g" words: "gall," "gash," and "glow." Does anybody know what that might mean about language?)