Vavrek brings relief(s) to Swarthmore

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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.

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