Warren MacKenzie reports that when Peter Voulkos presented his wheel-thrown pots to Shoji Hamada during the master Japanese potter's first visit to the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in 1952, Hamada's only words were, "Why don't you let the clay do more of the work?" If the seed of experimentation had already been idling below the surface in Voulkos' aesthetic radar, it was soon to accelerate. For in 1954, when Voulkos took over the chairmanship of the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, the world of ceramics was irrevocably changed.
Voulkos was like a generator who absorbed the energy and influences of the day ranging from Abstract Expressionism to Zen Buddhism to post-WWII optimism, and converted them into ideas and modes of practice not before seen in American ceramics. His students--among them Paul Soldner, now 85, and John Mason, 79--were like electrodes, accepting and dispensing Voulkos' energy while adding their own unshackled talent. Elsewhere, on a less frenetic level, ideas about ceramics were changing, particularly at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University where Val Cushing, 75, received both his B.F.A. and M.F.A. before returning in 1957 to teach for 41 years. He, too, was approaching ceramics in new ways that challenged the mediums limitations and traditions.
Thus, it was a historical and informative moment having the work of Soldner, Mason and Cushing all in the same room for the 2006 Regis Masters Exhibition, which was on display through April 23 at Northern Clay Center (www.northernclaycenter.org) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Regis Master Series honors senior artists who have had a major impact on the development of 20th- and 21st-century ceramics. Cushing and Mason were 2005 Regis Masters and Soldner is the 2006 recipient. Particularly fruitful is the opportunity to see and evaluate the work of Cushing, Mason and Soldner in the critical context of each other's work, knowing that each contributed differently, but significantly to the unique path of contemporary American ceramics.
Most immediate is the striking difference between the works of the three artists. That Soldner, Voulkos' first student, is still the wild card is no surprise given his legendary track record of energetic but nonjudgmental teaching practices, exuberant lifestyle, groundbreaking art, and his inventions of now de rigueur ceramic tools and equipment. He is probably most recognized for establishing an energetic raku tradition, altering the Japanese practice to suit his needs. Although still making vessel forms, he has been known for his sculptural work of torn, folded and overlapping sections of day, often imprinted with texture or pattern, all of which are heightened by the raku firing.
On view were nine Soldner pieces including three large teabowls, two tall attenuated vessels, three torn and folded sculptures, and one wall-mounted plate with figurative images, most of which were raku fired. Variously made of earthenware and stoneware, all showed Soldner's keen integration of form, surface and spirit to produce rough, tactile results. As always, Soldner's work begged to be handled to feel the work's sculptural elements, and eccentric coupling of positive and negative space.
By comparison, Masons four handbuilt sculptures are contained, conceptual, even intellectual. Infused with none of the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic informing Soldner's work, Masons are Constructivist in sensibility with highly premeditated, interlocking geometric elements and self-conscious glazing. These minimalist sculptures with unglazed edges are calculated puzzles of form and decoration; the edges visually echo or emphasize the construction of the piece. Studying them to identify shifts in form and pattern is akin to viewing elegantly conceived molecular models.
Aesthetically and stylistically residing between Soldner and Mason is Cushing, who never studied with Voulkos. Represented by seventeen works, Cushing is committed to the vessel form in all of its strict functional capacity, making teapots, vases, lidded jars, plates and tureens. Stylistically, the pieces are closely related, evenly displaying a repetitive vocabulary of forms and motifs. Most are oversized whose basic rounded forms seem full or inflated and are glazed in saturated but earth-toned hues with a semigloss finish. Exaggerated forms are embellished with circular, doughnutlike handles that emphasize their curvilinear profile. These works make evident that Cushing is an aficionado of glazing with his pieces featuring a range of color and application that reinforces the finished form.
The collective force of the creative energy of the artists in the 2006 Regis Masters exhibition influenced everyone within their uninhibited reach, from fine art painters to sculptors. The Regis Masters Series proves each year the importance and influence of a generation of artists who changed the course of ceramics.
PHOTO (COLOR): Top: Paul Soldner's sculpture, 19 in. (48 cm) in height, earthenware with terra sigillata, salt fumed with copper. Bottom left: John Mason's "Black Mystery," 22 in. (56 cm) in height, 2002. Bottom right: Val Cushing's vase form, 18 in. (46 cm) in height, stoneware, 1990.
PHOTO (COLOR): Paul Soldner's sculpture, 28 in. (71 cm) in width, stoneware with feldspathic rocks, unglazed; at Northern Clay Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
By Mason Riddle
The author Mason Riddle is a Twin Cities-based writer on the arts, architecture and design.