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Vavrek brings relief(s) to Swarthmore

in Arts by

Last Thursday, a crowd of students, professors, and other members of the Swarthmore community gathered in the Lang Performing Arts Center cinema to hear artist Ken Vavrek lecture on his work. The List Gallery also opened an exhibition of selected works from Vavrek’s 50-year career. Every year, the Art Department and List Gallery invite an artist like Vavrek that they believe exemplifies Swarthmore’s intellectual ideals to present their work as the Marjorie Heilman Visiting Artist and Lecturer.

Marking the start of the ceremony, Professor of Studio Art Syd Carpenter delivered a warm introduction to Vavrek and his work. After a brief round of applause, Vavrek approached the podium to speak. He tampered with his microphone for a moment, took a sip of water to quell his nerves, and then began by gushing about the opportunity.

“[It] really is a huge compliment,” Vavrek said in regards to the invitation. “They’ve had some amazing shows in this gallery.”

Vavrek’s lecture explored several of his artistic motivations, highlighting significant shifts in his work. He opened with a photograph of himself in high school, holding what he called a “Calder rip-off,” and discussed his humble beginnings in art. However, even Vavrek’s self-proclaimed “cliché” mobiles illustrate his recurring theme of dynamic sculpture. This is particularly developed in his most recent low-relief sculptures, which he calls “sectionals,” and are on view at the List Gallery.

“Movement is…very eminent and prominent in the platters and sectionals,” Vavrek affirmed.

Despite their physical stillness, the forms of the sectionals seem to vibrate and swell. They also appear to overlap, creating an enveloping collage of moving forms.

“He had somehow managed, brilliantly, to amplify it all.” Carpenter said on revisiting his work after a number of years. “He pursues his vision with a graceful, yet relentless intensity….When I look at that work, I see this pulse that’s moving through the work that has not ceased … [this is] the work of a mature artist at the top of his game … you feel the pulse, the physicality, of this work … he knows what he’s doing.”

A 1975 trip to Utah’s Arches National Monument and other Southwest desert sites inspired the wall sculptures and boat-like vessels of Vavrek’s Desert series, which are also on view at the List Gallery and preceded his low-relief sectionals and platters. He explained his 1981 breakthrough when he realized he could fire sections and piece them together to make one large wall sculpture. A sense of dynamism and tension is also evident in these works, again particularly through the overlapping of forms. As the viewer explores these works, they may find themselves in pure awe at their execution — as Vavrek surely felt when he saw the desert structures on his trip.

During the lecture, Vavrek also explained the names of his work from the Desert period, which is of note since his recent sculptures are mostly untitled. Names such as Rough Break and Desperado, nostalgically reference the “imaginary culture of the West” Vavrek experienced through movies in the fifties and was reminded of during his trip.

In addition to experiences like the desert trip, Vavrek discussed various artists that influenced him. Willem De Kooning and Rudy Autio-inspired sculptures followed his early infatuation with Calder. Vavrek has always been in dialogue with his contemporaries, and Professor Carpenter has placed him amongst mid-20th century modernists like Anthony Caro, Hans Hofmann, and Mies van der Rohe.

Modest and transparent when it comes to his influences, he held that artists should feel free to “steal” from one another, but only in the event that their art reshapes the idea into something new.

Vavrek and his work are interdisciplinary, to which many students and professors at Swarthmore can relate. With strong math and science skills — especially in geometry — he initially went to college to study engineering. The geological influences in his Desert series reflect a close study of the earth, muddling the constructed boundary between science and art. Vavrek also spoke briefly to the “specificity of place” in his work.

“I expect people, when they look at my work, to not know what it is, but they know that some kind of an event is taking place.” Vavrek said.

This captivating notion of an event then introduces theories of physics, spacetime, and the cosmos to his work. Indeed, Vavrek’s work welcomes different interpretations from each viewer.

At the end of the talk, Vavrek was asked about any stalls in his career, or if he even had any, since it seemed to flow from one development to the next in his lecture.

“There were a lot of moments…where I was stuck,” Vavrek said. “Then…I would just start playing and not think about it….It took a year before something came out that was, you know, worth paying attention to, and I wasn’t surprised by that. I am not a naturally talented artist. I’m a moderately talented artist that has gotten a lot out of that talent by working.”

A founder of Philadelphia’s Clay Studio, Vavrek is an important member of the local ceramic artists community and his work has been exhibited and collected across the United States at many reputable institutions, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, the Everson Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His exhibit at the List Gallery will be open until February 28.

Elegant Quietude of Samantha Goldstein’s Night gallery

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

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The brief retrospective of Samantha Goldstein’s work, “Night Gallery,” consists of 20 works, the majority of which were completed in white, unglazed porcelain, with the rest in paper. The exhibition is separated into two sections: the front room holds sinuous, intimate, organic forms, along with four large paper wall pieces; the back displays sets of illuminated plates patterned with direct allusions to the natural world.

The works are then divided into series, each being a study on a specific motif. Indeed, these motifs are the binder for the entire exhibition. Each are elements or forms of nature: the moon, the sun, shells, wind. The show flaunts its inconstancy. The separation serves to bring the works together to form a cohesive conceptual whole. It escapes banality that might have been produced by fielding a show of composed entirely of similar forms with similar motifs.

There is a quiet elegance about the sculptures. The ceramics are formal, pristine, and calculatedly refined, while managing to celebrate a more natural morphology. Especially of note are the “Shell” and “Ephemera” series. The folds in the porcelain of “Ephemera #1” establish an abstractness within a recognizable form (a bowl) that emphasizes fragility, thinness and illusory lightness, which seems to allude to the fleeting crinkled, veined form of a fallen leaf in late autumn.

The piece pays homage to the ceramic tradition and the modern conceptual continuity in the show. Here, however, there arises a puzzling nomenclatural and spatial inconsistency. The decision to put “Ephemera #1” and “Ephemera 2” in a defined series is confusing as is the choice to present “Leaf Paper” as a separate piece. Comparing “Ephemera #1” and “Ephemera #2” yields few similarities in form, and if anything, “Ephemera #2” resembles Leaf Paper more than any other. It’s clear the themes of lightness and fragility are still important, but “Ephemera #2” lacks the folds and creases in “Ephemera #1,”  its form is completely different, and the viewer doesn’t encounter it until the very end of the show (it’s item number 18 versus number 3 for “Ephemera #1”).

“Leaf Paper” has a more appropriate placement, but its unclear as to why it was not included in the Ephemera series. If the motif is ephemerality, and the shared allegorical form is a leaf, it would fit well within the progression as a variation within the set, which is partly what a series of pieces is about. But although the nomenclature and placement within the gallery of these three pieces is a bit baffling, they are among the most beautiful and sensitive in the exhibition. The pieces are so thin that light is able to penetrate through the forms. This lends them a wonderful luminosity and aesthetic grace that evokes the image of looking up towards the sky through a translucent canopy. This naturalism is mirrored in the “Shell” series with its stylized, delicate curvilinear forms and fibrinous lace-like patterns in the interiors.

Highlights of the show were the “Wind Pattern” and moon series. These occupied the back room of the gallery, which as a whole, was the most successful portion of the exhibition. Here Goldstein utilizes backlighting to illuminate their concave interiors and emphasize the relationship between the intangibility of light and tangibility of sculpture. The addition of light invigorates the pieces and adds an entirely new and captivating dimension. While still elegant in their physical quietude, the warmth and glow of the backlighting animates the pieces as the viewer walks by. The surfaces of the moon series, “Eclipse,” “Gibbous” and “Crescent,” twinkle and change, which lends them an exquisite motion and visual presence that arrests and engages the viewer in perspectival interplay. These pieces, although intricate in their decorative density, are simple and restrained. Only the dots, in their multitude, define the overarching image on the façades. Like music, the series of sculptures convey time, harmony and grace, a sensation of timelessness and of beauty.

The “Wind Pattern” series, too, captures this sensation in a way. Each plate is scalloped to form an abstract, fluid pattern on the surface, with each indentation deep enough to allow some of the backlighting to emanate through. The most engaging pieces in this series are “Wind Pattern #1” and “Wind Pattern #3.” Their more random wind patterns defeat the symmetry of the circle in which they are contained and more effectively convey the motion and lightness of wind. Their illuminated designs are reminiscent of the trails a breeze might imprint upon grass on a full moon night. All this imparts a soft, nostalgic quality. The movement of the marks upon the pale porcelain, enveloped in the warm, subdued sentimental light is enrapturing.

More than anything, this exhibition is contemplative in nature. It celebrates the purity of elegant form and substance. The sculptures manifest beauty in their quiet, refined elegance in form and in aura. The sculptures are sensitive, restrained simple forms that in their thoughtfulness and poise provide a compelling aesthetic experience —  beautiful and worth remembering.

 

Philly artist talks ceramics and seduction

in Arts/I On the Arts by

Bill Daley is a distinguished ceramicist and beloved teacher who has been creating vessels for years. His works are often large and richly textured, imbued with symbolic meaning and allusions to the functions such vessels have served over the course of time. He has exhibited at and been collected by institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His new exhibit, “14 for 7,” focuses on 14 of Daley’s ceramic works over his 7-decade career and ties in with William Daley: Ceramic Artist, a new book about his life and work.

In this article, The Phoenix’s Deborah Krieger catches up with him about his artistic philosophy.

Deborah Krieger: What is your artistic background and your training?  What was that like?

Bill Daley: I went to art school as a G.I. after World War II at the Massachusetts School of Art. From there I went to Columbia Teachers’ College and got my Master’s in Art Education. And then from that I began teaching…

…One time I quit in protest because they thought we were all Communists!  Because [they] thought modern art was subversive. It was in Ulster County, New York, which is a very conservative county, and they just were not used to having contemporary artists in the art department at New Paltz.  So they were really pretty upset by it, and we were a bunch of radicals.  They fired—they relieved—two-thirds of the faculty of their positions and two of us resisted and quit.

DK:  So how did you choose your medium?

BD: I got started with being seduced by mud.  It’s a great medium.  It’s the most primal, metamorphic material because it changes from rock, to dust, to mud, to something you can form, and then [it] dries out and you bake it or you fire it, and it turns back into stone.  So it moves a whole cycle of what material can become.  It’s a marvelous material.  It’s also very seductive to use—it just feels great and slippery and all of it.  It’s great stuff.  I recommend it.

 

DK: Can you talk a little about your artistic influences over the years?  Or subject matter that has really inspired you?

 

BD: I just finished a book, a marvelous, marvelous book by a fourteenth-century cloistered nun.  And her name is unknown, but the name of her book is The Cloud of Unknowing.  And I’m very moved by it, and when she says “God”, I say “Art”, and when she says “prayer”, I say, “practice”.  So it’s the best description of what’s needed to understand—to become a good artist—that I’ve ever read.  I guess books have always sort of been a determinant to me, but books are just information.  Making stuff is formation.  If you’re any good, you don’t make anything that you already know.

DK:  How have your relationship with art and your journey as an artist changed over the course of your career?

BD: When I first began, I was a little child—I knew I was going to be an artist in kindergarten, which sounds bizarre to say.  But my father was a house-painter, and my mother let us paint with spinach juice and beet juice on brown paper bags, my sister and I, and she’d hang them up on the clothesline in the kitchen.  And my father would come home and look at ’em and tell us how wonderful we were.  So when I got to kindergarten and… all the way through school, art was my total focus.  And then when I went in the army, I had a chance to have experiences that convinced me that that was what I should be doing with my life.

Art’s not complete until it completes a cycle.  You have the maker, and the made, the object or thing, the offering, and then you have the audience.  The idea of the romantic artist in the attic… is a romantic misunderstanding.  Artists are really [some] of the persons in the community that get some of the signals about what’s important, just as early as the scientists and philosophers and so on.  And I’m not saying artists as in always physical artists; I think poets and singers and instrumentalists… the whole thing is all the same.  Different form, but totally about giving form to the ineffable.  It sounds pompous as can be, but I find it very compelling.

DK: What do you hope people who see your work take away from it?

BD: What would like [my audience]  to do is to experience it, and I know that sounds corny, but I would like them to touch it. I would like them to respond to its form by… I’ll call it caressing it or searching it out with their eyes closed.  I’d like them to understand that it’s about the inside of the inside of things, and it’s about the outside of the outside of things.  In other words, I’d like them to use what they feel and touch and see and sense to imagine things that call up experience in their own being that permit them to tune in on it.

So I do a lot of different things with different textures and different roughness, I [do] bumps and holes.   I’m interested about open spaces, I’m interested in intimate, closed spaces, I’m interested in transitions from wonderful—like you were sliding down a hill in a sled or down a canyon or into a whirl, into a helix… I think of it almost as psychic physicality that I would like people to have about it.  And as they wonder about it, they can wonder if it’s a palace or a temple… or a monument.  I give them all names and that’s a little kind of clue to what they might be about.

Right now, I’m making cisterns.  A cistern is a vessel that holds some substance for either ritual or for preserving life.  That’s either water, or holy water, or rain, or wine… so I’m making cisterns that are for libations and for… symbolic conservation.  You can put them in your yard, or you can fill them with things for a party.  And I’m having a great time doing it.  But I’ve made hanging planters and baptismal fonts and many different kinds of vessels or containers for evoking feelings about being a human being… and my pots about body parts.

I’m not a literal artist… I make objects that are about feelings.  And I see feelings as touch, and I see it as touching your mind, and I see it as touching your whole spirit, about experience you’ve had to the present when you come to this object.

This interview can be read in full and with photos online at I-On-the-Arts.com.

“14 to 7” will run from January 23 to March 9 at the Philadelphia Art Alliance

251 South 18th Street (Rittenhouse Square)

Impermanent Beauty: A Senior Art Thesis

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

Alex Anderson sits perfect postured on a stool, legs crossed so one knee sits over the other and his right foot bobs off the ground.  His black leather shoe is clean of the red dust that covers the floor of his studio space.  His hair in its trademark right triangle has been carefully teased and groomed into sharp diagonal slope.

He purses his lips, then speaks.

“Beauty is the first thing people see.  It draws them into a subject.”

Anderson’s manicured appearance hints at a preoccupation with externality evident in his ceramics.  About two dozen of the artist’s vases, teapots, and abstract sculptures will be displayed in his upcoming show as a part of the annual exhibition of works by studio arts majors.

Though most of his works are based on the functional forms of vases and teapots, all are heavily ornamented or stylized to the extent that they would look out of place in most American homes.

“When making my pieces, I don’t really think about function,” Anderson said.  “The forms are just a medium I like to work with.  Some people have described my pieces as nonfunctional,” he laughed.

Rather than focus on functionality, Anderson uses ceramics as conceptual art.  By depriving previously functional objects of their utility, Anderson creates forms that foreground their relationship to aesthetics, investigating the nature of beauty.

Anderson’s exposure to ceramics came late, but his passion for the craft blossomed quickly. He took a ceramics class in his junior year of high school to fulfill a graduation requirement in the arts.  He soon became enraptured by the process of shaping clay on the potter’s wheel and began investing his time in improving his technique.

“I’d stay in the school’s studio till the security guard kicked me out,” he laughed.

Anderson continued his study at Swarthmore, pursuing a studio arts major along with a major in Chinese.  His language study came in handy when he went abroad to China in the fall of his junior year, studying in Jingdezhen, often referred to as the “city of porcelain” for its century-long history of ceramics production.

“Being there I realized how little I knew,” Anderson said.  “It was a humbling experience.  I saw people making fifty pound bowls in five minutes, when I couldn’t even do that in ten times the time.”

Anderson’s time in China also exposed him to many techniques that would find their way into his work.  He learned how to hand roll clay flowers and expanded his knowledge of spinning techniques to create smoother, more elegant forms.  Working around so many other artists also pushed him to integrate more conceptual angles into his work.

One of his most confrontational works, a jar with a recently dead bird splayed belly-up on its lid, points to the ephemeral beauty of living things.  As shocking as the dead animal is, its body has yet to decay and the bird is still delicate, freshly feathered, and aesthetically pleasant.

The bird, captured in this moment just after its death, evokes another theme important to Anderson’s recent oeuvre — that only the inanimate can be eternally sublime.

On his artist blog, which Anderson sometimes utilizes as a venue for the thoughts that thematically guide his works, he posted the following: “Flowers wilt, trees rot, people wrinkle; yet throughout this process we strive to progress and present our most perfect selves to the world the way a rose continues to bud after it drops a blossom.”

This insight is manifested throughout Anderson’s work.  The flowers he hand sculpts all grow from inorganic vases and bases, pediments that the viewer realizes would long outlive their organic attachments.  But these organic forms are themselves artificial.  These blooms will last decades, but they lose the preciousness, the delicacy of their real-life counterparts.  Only the inanimate beauty can last forever, but it’s not the same as the real thing.

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