Wheels of Fire
CRAFTS, ONCE RELEGATED to roadside trading posts and flea markets, are slowly gaining legitimacy as art forms. Whether heralded as a new renaissance in populist art or condemned as regression, the surge in craft as art is a reality, and has invaded Harvard at Hilles Library in the form of a pottery exhibit, "Fire and Clay."
The difficulties of accepting crafts as pure art are exemplified by the exhibit. Although the pieces are beautiful and sensitively mounted on cork slabs, they are ultimately only exercises in one method of making pottery--the wheel method. The wheel method operates on much the same principle as a lathe. The medium (in this case clay) rotates so that all applied distortions become symmetrical and unified; abstraction becomes constricted. The other methods of pottery include slab construction, in which the potter joins planes of clay to make rectangular or free-form shapes, and coil construction, in which he carefully rolls cords of clay, and coils them on top of each other to build the shape. With one exception, both alternatives are absent from the show.
The exhibit's exclusion of constructed work returns the craft to its technical rather than artistic origins, limiting the show to the almost mechanical shapes generated by the wheel. It is only the glazes which elevate the work beyond mere utility, and they alone provide the diversity which makes the show enjoyable.
The three exhibiting potters, members of the Radcliffe Pottery Studio, exhibit wide variety in their glazing techniques. David Pribnow characteristically uses matte glazes of different colored slips (liquid clays), which he paints on meticulously in geometrical patterns. Along with the slip method he uses salt glazing, throwing salt into the kiln at a critical moment, producing glassy, speckled surfaces. The shapes are globular and difficult to throw; the decorations rigidly geometrical. The result is the antithesis of accident--he inspires admiration, not empathy.
ERIC ALLON also shows the meticulous construction which characterizes the exhibit, but the rich glazes and occasional accidental effects save his work from academism. Some of his pots look like archaelogical finds, with rusts and blue-green tarnished colors conveying an appearance of age. He also flirts with technology, photographically silkscreening designs onto platters, and using emulsions directly on clay to produce a startling image of a building within a bowl. He has few pieces in the show, and the impression is one of scattered explorations rather than a steady development of style.
Jeff Kristeller is the only professional potter in the show. His work, thrown during his leave of absence from Harvard this past year and a half, shows the widest range in the group, and contains the sole constructed piece (a rectangular slab, darkly glazed). His techniques include glossy enamelware and spartan slip-decorated stoneware; gigantic perfectly thrown jugs and tiny one-flower vases. The diversity of his work verges on disunity, and as with Allon's work, one senses the exploratory exercises of the craftsman rather than the developed and selective expression of the artist.
The work is good, and the potters show solid throwing techniques. The techniques can only be appreciated, however, if one has experienced the frustration of collapsing clay. Without the background or technical interest of a craftsman, the pieces are merely decorative.
It is perhaps here that art and craft diverge. Art transcends its medium, and its function is to express in some sensitive way the common denominators of human experience, the essence of human dignity. Craft remains limited by the physical functions it must serve and the specifications of its media--it is art only when it extends its scope to the universal. The work in "Fire and Clay" comes close to transcending this boundary, and even in its failure is a beautiful and masterly exhibit.