By Joanne Burstein
From: American Ceramics 1/2/82
A recent show of Paul Soldner's work served as graphic reminder of the unique combination of raw energy and refined technique, iconoclasm and caring that mark the man as seminal to two generations of ceramists. Soldner's attitude toward clay and its processes bridged Japanese aesthetic and presence with American ingenuity and vigor.
Soldner's personal impulse for expanded consciousness through the process of creating, distinct from successfully achieving a preconceived goal, did much to free clay from its functional tradition. Two decades ago, with typical directress, he took the Japanese method of raku as his own. He developed the reduction technique that, by now, is the only definition of raku most non-Japanese know. The qualities of accident and immediacy inherent to the raku process have allowed Soldner to express the rightness of the moment in combination with his more painterly concerns for image, color, and texture.
The pedestal pieces seen here (twelve to twenty inches tall) combine wheel-thrown bases with battered and torn sections of slab clay, which overlap and bend back upon themselves, juxtaposing smooth finish with flowing Baroque exuberance. They retain an intimacy of scale often rejected by younger artists and achieve their power through the compressed energy of rugged clay and overlays of surface design. The surfaces of these and the wall plaques (two to three feet wide) are the layered textures of burlap, tire tread, figurative plywood stencils, and who knows what else pounded into the clay with his tennis-shoe-clad foot. Over these impressions. Soldner lays washes of color and, in repeated firings, salt, copper, fuel oil, and other substances placed directly against the works in the kiln. Many pieces are scorched with a blowtorch after and between firings. Images and colors obscure and reveal each other in counterbalance with negative smoked areas, creating seemingly infinite combinations of decorative reality.
The spontaneity of his method demands a controlled instinct. It also requires careful editing of the results, which has seemed lacking in some previous exhibitions. Happily, that is not the case here. Each work serves to show the freedom and freshness resulting when the process of one's art has become second nature and the aesthetic can stand unfettered. His use of the female nude and profile, animal forms, and referential landscape as figurative imagery, in the context of such "masculine" clay handling, implies the quest to combine our masculine and feminine energies-with success and eloquence.
The underlying quality of Soldner's work, however, is his respect for and receptivity to the clay itself. This is most apparent in the pedestal pieces. The dynamic drape and rigidity of slab clay is enhanced in its struggle against gravity within the classic vessel form. His willingness to violate accepted clayworking procedures has led to further innovations as well. One of the wall pieces, for example, shows how Soldner develops and incorporates process into his formal vocabulary. The piece has a large crack down the center and he was apparently moved to try pouring hot lead over it to see if that would fuse the two parts visually. This was not totally successful. However, I then noticed poured lead on some other pieces-one a very successful patching of a base, the others using lead as decoration. Each of Soldner's seemingly random techniques is born of practicality, and his gift as an artist is the ability to incorporate such accidents into his aesthetic.
It is easy for us in ceramics to take the contributions of a Soldner for granted, as his innovations have become standard procedure for so many ceramists. We gain perspective on ourselves when we see the work of one of the few ceramists old enough to be considered a mature artist by art-world standards. This should remind us that the growth and development of American ceramics has been explosive (we have not even fully absorbed what we've witnessed so far), with the best probably yet to come. It is the integrity and dedication of artists like Soldner that have sustained us up to this point.
The work discussed here was seen at Marcia Rodell Gallery, Los Angeles (November 15-December 13, 1981). Joanne Burstein is a ceramic sculptor represented by Anna Gardner Gallery and a freelance art critic.