Visual Arts

GLAZE OF GLORY

Always borrowing, American artists are the greatest cultural debtors on Earth. And few among them owe the world more than potters do.

Over the years, potters have rummaged the cupboards of virtually every mud-baking civilization--often extending their slippery reaches overseas and into the grave--to come up with what we like to think are innovations in modern ceramic form.

Not too long ago, this appetite for the foreign and the dead was considered a weakness--a sign of American timidity and immaturity in the arts. In the 1950s, noted English potter and author Bernard Leach said that this "disadvantage of having many roots" inclined American potters to follow "many undigested fashions." Yet he also acknowledged that the resulting freedom to choose gave Americans an unparalleled openness and hunger for the new. Two shows, a retrospective of Paul Soldner's ceramics and a showing of recent ceramics by Kurt Weiser, offer vivid glimpses of what American potters have done with that freedom in the past 40 years.

At 71, Soldner, who lives in Colorado, belongs to the generation of rebels who took pottery out of the kitchen and put it on a well-lighted pedestal in the salon. Bridging the old and the new, Soldner's finest works give subsequent generations of potters a clear view of where in the bedrock of tradition his efforts are anchored.

A student of Peter Voulkos--long considered the leader of that troublesome gang--at Los Angeles County Art Institute in the 1950s, Soldner has been credited with innovations that are now the stuff of every potter's upbringing. He was one of the earliest and most talented American practitioners of raku, a Japanese method of firing ware, which he improvised from a description in one of Leach's books. Like the ceramics of Voulkos, Soldner's large, pummeled pots helped ceramists adjust the scale of their work to its new and increasingly visual purpose. And his free-flowing surface designs helped to relieve the austere grip of those stoneware fundamentalists who commanded, "Thou shalt not decorate pottery." He didn't do much to brighten or broaden the earth-colored glaze palette of the 1950s. But his preference for the accidental and spontaneous helped to steer the modern potter's wheel away from the deadening perfection of "good design."

Any one of these was enough to knot the underwear of the devout, utilitarian craftsmen and -women of the day. Yet the striking aspect of the earlier of the 65 works in Soldner's show at Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe is how tame and elegant they now seem. As if--like the Beatles, who hang in my grandmother's memory as those excessively well-mannered Brits with tidy hair--they have been made cozier by all that has been done since in the name of free expression.

That isn't to say Soldner's early forms and decorations aren't lumpy or raw or painted with a broad, sloppy brush. They are. In his series of "Floor Pots" from the late 1950s, he did little to hide or to refine the remnants of the means he used to make them. This was the modern twist on pottery's historical and somewhat magical effort to make transitions of abstract shapes and volumes appear seamless.

The heavy throwing rings, the rumpled seams where pottery sections join and the matter-of-fact splatters and drips of glaze all say, "I am a modern pot." But they say it in a Zen-inspired voice that whispers sweet acceptance of ceramic imperfections.

One of the luckiest of these effects is the glowing halo line around the dark brush strokes, drips or finger dabs on some of his raku pots. It gives the surfaces of pieces such as the vase from the Marer Collection at Scripps College (1965) and the elongated vessel with the reclining woman (1973) the rich gradation of toned black-and-white photographs. It also gives them a detail whose precision seems to be a gift from nature. These works and several of the smaller raku vessels from the early 1970s are far and away the strongest examples from Soldner's productive career. They exemplify his remarkable resourcefulness in using old techniques to enrich new forms. They also suggest that he didn't stray as far as some enthusiasts say he did from the formal artistic values of traditional pottery. They are undeniably fatter and lumpier than the gravity-defying Chinese Sung and T'ang Dynasty models that defined ceramic elegance through the 1950s. But they follow the basic classical format of a small base surmounted by a larger, spherical or flaring body.

This is even true of the more recent "Pedestal Pieces." Built with jagged slabs of elaborately textured clay--flaring up and away from precariously small bases--these are substantially larger than the earlier pots. But they don't feel larger. The reason for that is that Soldner flattened and reduced the walls of the forms to two-sided clay reliefs in his effort to turn their textured surfaces into a kind of sculpt-a-pot. It's ambitious stuff, but too literal, and too full of the effort to leap a chasm rather than to cross a bridge. If Kurt Weiser, who teaches at ASU, hasn't crossed that bridge, he, at least, has gone to the edge and taken a good, long look. At 42, he comes from the generation that has inherited the ceramic freedom that Soldner's won. But as the cold warriors used to say, it's freedom with a price.

The price is deciding what to do with the nearly unlimited choices available in the galleries, museums, libraries and schools of the world. Until several years ago, Weiser's choice was to concentrate on some soothing and lightly decorated forms. Then he realized there was nothing to keep him from turning his back on those and setting his sights on pots with busier surfaces.

His first efforts were meticulous, black-and-white drawings on cast teapots. Then he wandered into what must be the last of pottery's forbidden frontiers: china painting. For the better part of this century, china painting has been the domain of ladies of leisure and retired hobbyists. And for good reason. The amount of time it takes to effectively dab, fire and refire layers of expensive colors on white pots puts it in the realm of long-term vacationers, pensioners or the obsessed.

Judging by the six teapots and two vases in his current show at Scottsdale's Joanne Rapp Gallery/The Hand and the Spirit, Weiser is among the latter. And there is more than a remarkable method to his inspired madness.

The extraordinary scenes he paints on his pots are fictions of an Eden where exotic birds, bugs, beasts and usually a fetching Eve linger in predatory jungle foliage or overlook prospects of unattainable romantic splendor.

Most of the backgrounds are glowing fantasies derived from Renaissance pictures of apostles on the land, or from decadent 18th- and 19th-century paintings by Europeans longing to brighten their cold, dark winters. The clouds are as rich and moist as cake. The critters and exotic plants and flowers are as authoritatively beautiful as they are in the sensational historical, botanical and zoological prints from which Weiser lifted them. And the clothing--what little there is--is skimpy. In these moral allegories from Weiser's world of sexual hunters and their dreams of prey, someone or -thing is always getting whacked. In "Same Girl" (1993), for example, you'll find the fate of the frantic-looking, long-necked swan on one side revealed by the raised, scissor-shaped hand on the other. Taken as a symbol, we're talking castration. But taken in parts, it's an enchanting scene filled with the allure of everybody's "other world." It's a world in which the temptations of the flesh lie down beside the steady, sobering fear of godly or--worse--spousal reprisal.

A throwback to an age that wasn't ashamed of lavish decoration, Weiser's work is among the most ambitious decorated pottery being done in the United States today. The weakness in the teapots is their two-sided formula of depiction. The intellectual exercise of comparing the sin with the retribution makes you want to see the other side, but much of the power and the humor in his painting stops at the pot's shallow curve between front and back.

"Orchid Jar" and "Iguana Jar" (both 1993) are forms that give Weiser the chance to extend his sharp eye and skills more fully to decorating in the round. And they suggest that when he masters the advantages of volumetric painting, he'll join the great china painters of the industrial potteries of 18th- and 19th-century Europe. That's a bridge that few serious potters in this century have attempted to build or to cross.