by Rob Barnard
When I had my first solo exhibition in 1976 at Marroniere Gallery in Kyoto, I titled it "Between Points in Clay." The title had its origins in a conversation I had had with my teacher Kazuo Yagi many months before. In an effort to explain to me what separated pedantic and indifferent ceramic art from the kind of ceramic art that makes us reflect on the very nature of our existence, Yagi held up his index finger and pointed it straight up. This represented, he said, the predictably beautiful, then he turned his finger 90 degrees, parallel to the floor and said that this position represented what we commonly think of as ugly. The two positions he said have a tendency to be fixed in culture, but-and he moved his finger to a position 45 degrees between those two points-it is here, he said, where real ART takes place, vibrating between the beautiful and the ugly. This was my introduction into the philosophical world that surrounded ceramic art in Japan. Since then, I have essentially been absorbed in exploring that space between what Yagi described as predictable beauty and its opposite, the unaesthetic or homely.
When I returned to the United States in 1978, Yagi's paradigm took on new meaning for me. I began to think about the space between Eastern and Western cultures' attitudes about art. It was the space, I felt, in between both cultures' notions about correctness and inappropriateness where basic human feeling and emotion operated unhindered by those cultural prejudices. I started trying to reduce my work to elements that somehow seemed mysterious, provocative and believable from either perspective. It was during this period that I started looking for some irreducible kind of truth that would explain pottery's ability to communicate to people from a variety of cultures. I realized that the single element that made pottery special was its usefulness. I had always taken "use" for granted, but now I started to think of it as an active element in the aesthetic equation. My early plate with cracks around the rim as well as the torn vase on the announcement of this exhibition might appear contradictory to the everyday notion of use. Even the unglazed surface of the woodfired work appears at odds with ordinary ideas of usefulness. What actually keeps us from using any of these pieces, however, are our own cultural prejudices, not any structural or formal aspect of the work itself. And why is it important to use them as opposed to merely putting them on a shelf in the classical Western manner as "objets d'art"? John Dewey, in his collection of essays written in 1931, titled "Art As Experience," offered that "When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life experience." Use, I believe, can be an antidote to the kind of isolation of which Dewey speaks, by making the owner or user an important and active part in the aesthetic life of the object.
I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking that I am trying to compete with K-mart in providing useful everyday objects. Again, to employ Yagi's paradigm, I believe that the only place viable pottery can exist in our culture is between the extremes of the highly mannered, purely visual stance of art pottery on the one hand and the trite, cloying, sanitary air of commercial, mass-produced dinnerware on the other. My goal has never been to provide America with a good $2 mug. Rather, it has been to make a mug that compels one to be aware of every aspect of the act of drinking and hopefully to transform that mundane act into the kind of aesthetic experience that has a life beyond that fleeting moment.
Finally, there is an old conundrum that goes something like "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound?" Unless an artist exhibits, he is in a position much like a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it. I have been fortunate in that Gail Enns, the owner of Anton Gallery, has kept me from facing that predicament. She began exhibiting my work in 1980 when the notion that pottery was capable of any kind of serious and meaningful expression was scoffed at, not only by painters and sculptors, but also by the modern crafts establishment. That I have had a forum for my ideas over the years and a chance to test their validity has been invaluable to my ongoing maturation as a potter and artist. My thanks to her and all those who have supported me these past twenty years.
Rob Barnard, Timberville, Virginia