It has been nearly three years since the Bellevue Arts Museum decided to focus on the display of craft-based art. The current show of Arizona potter Kurt Weiser highlights the strengths of BAM’s specialized approach, showcasing the work of a major artist whose work would not be an easy fit at other area museums. Here to discuss this impressive exhibit is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
I have no doubt that the early, pre-doodle Weiser work in the exhibit represents a potter at the top of his craft. The various plates, teapots, and vessels on display have striking, nature-derived patterns and intriguing shapes (especially a two headed Toucan jar from 1981), but it’s the sort of thing I’ve spent years not noticing. For me, the business of high-fire versus low-fire, hand-thrown versus slip cast, functional versus decorative is someone else’s conversation. I’m personally most drawn to work where the craft is in service of an idea, not the main impulse behind a piece. Pottery folks can get excited about the quality of a glaze, its depth, purity, and color; I want the glaze to depict something.
And so, it turns out, did Weiser. According to the catalog and descriptive text accompanying the show, Weiser led a double life until 1989, filling stacks of notebooks with intriguing, freely associative imagery (they remind me of drawings by Salvador Dali or Frida Kahlo), but making ceramics without any direct link to that work. He felt constrained, it appears, by his role as director of a major ceramics center, where he felt bound to work in the tradition of the craft like his predecessors in the job, keeping the decorative surface of the pieces he made subordinated to the form and function of the piece itself, abstract or abstracted in nature.
All that changed radically when Weiser left the center and took a teaching post in Arizona. The shift in environments and professions seems to have liberated him to take a completely different approach to his pottery. The older works were objects with intriguing surfaces, typical of traditional pottery; with the new work, one notices the painting first, the object it is painted upon, second. The surrealist imagery Weiser explored in his pencil and ink sketchbooks, newly expressed as porcelain paint, emerges as a shimmering vision, greatly enhanced in detail, depth, and color. The musty old art of hand-painted china gets a kick in the behind, and the results are often spectacular.
A breakthrough 1991 piece, done after a trip to Thailand, is entitled "Bird Merchant." The foot-high teapot is vaguely misshapen, like all of Weiser’s more recent work; it’s as though the fluid forms of the vessels are acquiring some of the qualities of the people and animals they display, caught in some midpoint of their evolution.
Crowding much of the teapot surface is the somewhat sinister face of a poorly shaved man, his smoking cigarette about to burn the forehead of a tightly gripped yellow songbird, with a lush landscape of tropical foliage behind. One froggy eye seems to bulge out of the man’s head, an exact counterpart of the domed lid just above, and his forehead is wavy like the pot’s curving upper edge; the vertical white spout echoes the vertical white smoke plume from his cigarette. But using a teapot as support for this drama seems rather arbitrary; the last thing one imagines is actually drinking from such a vessel, and what does making tea have to do with a man selling tropical birds?
Elsewhere Weiser uses less clearly functional objects as canvas, torso-like forms derived from a traditional Chinese model called a ginger jar. Though these pieces are also modest in size, they support a teeming Technicolor world, dreamy and highly sexual in mood. Detailed flora and fauna is everywhere, recalling the natural history illustrations of earlier artists like John James Audubon, whose Birds of America were made into a set of dinner plates years after his death.
There is also much to remind one of the surrealist painters Frieda Kahlo (moody figures; jungle life) and Paul Delvaux. Delvaux, in particular, shares with Weiser a fondness for idealized, nearly look-alike young female nudes, expressionless but evocative of a state of uncomplicated sensuality. Weiser, unlike Delvaux, doesn’t tend to repeat himself; each of Weiser’s self-contained narratives represents an interesting, unique twist on his ongoing exploration of natural urges and their consequences. Animals are fondled on a vessel front, then eviscerated on the back; women are decoratively abducted , then unceremoniously discarded; a randy swan prepares to ravish a sleeping Leda, while a lovingly-rendered civet looks curiously on.
Sometimes the imagery seems to threaten the very solidity of the ceramic surface itself. In the most beautiful of the ginger jars, "Semi-Conscious," the jar has sprouted a Siamese twin, with the head of an exotic looking female filling the surface of one jar, her gesturing hand occupying the surface of the other. Both jars are leaning dangerously to one side, as though the figures they support are about to break free of their existing containers. Perhaps this is the ultimate craftsman’s revenge: the dream of shedding the physical constraints of form and substance entirely; here, it’s the tension between the two that’s compelling.
There seems little danger of Weiser losing his edge anytime soon. The most recent piece in the exhibit is also the most ambitious. "Europa" continues the theme of sexual conquest being part of the natural order, with the namesake maiden being carried off by Zeus in the form of a bull. Europa sits on the watery upper half of a large peanut-shaped ceramic globe, complete with metal stand. Below the watery world sits a naively drawn miniature civilization, a sepia-toned medieval village with features of both the East and the West: pagodas and bell towers, schooners and strutting potentates sheltered by servants holding umbrellas. Other globes, not in the exhibit, are even more imaginative and extravagant in their imagery, but they never threaten to be merely oil paintings on a round surface – the imagery always responds somehow to the nature of the materials and support. It’s the combination that works, not the paintings on their own.
Perhaps Weiser himself is unsure where his particular exploration is leading. Those who practice craft without art can enjoy being certain; art at its best is a journey into the unknown.