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Language of Nature


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Toshiko Takaezu

at Perimeter, through November 25

Joseph Bernard

at Arena, through November 12

By Fred Camper

Toshiko Takaezu's 41 sculptures at Perimeter have the shape of traditional pots, cups, and bottles but are completely closed save for a tiny hole at the top. They have the globular form and finger indentations of ceramics made on the wheel yet are not functional. The designs on their surfaces are abstract but hint at landscapes, clouds, water, lava flows. Varying in height from a few inches to almost five feet, each has a powerful presence--yet also seems to be drawing into itself. Assertive and modest, suggestive and mute, they are at once allusive and uninterpretable.

Born in 1922 in Hawaii, Takaezu--one of the most important living ceramists, a pioneer in the shift to nonfunctional objects--taught for many years at Princeton and still lives in New Jersey. Her objects range from spheres to cylinders to almost humanlike forms that narrow at the waist, their surfaces painted with soft-edged streaks and splotches that firing alters in unpredictable ways.

Four large freestanding pieces named after the three Graces and their mother allow one to see their designs on all sides. Alglaia ("Beauty") is paradoxically the most austere, done primarily in blacks and whites, reflecting Takaezu's self-abnegating sensibility. The black streaks suggest calligraphic lines or drawings of plants, but they smear to gray at their edges as a result of firing; for this and other reasons they lack the precision and certainty of traditional calligraphy. While the lines are nearly vertical, horizontal indentations from Takaezu's fingers undercut their impetus. Their boldness is qualified, conditional, even fleeting. The designs of the two other Graces--Thalia ("Charm"), with streaks of purple and orange, and Euphrosyne ("Joy"), with black areas that have dripped heavily--seem mixtures of intentionality and randomness, the randomness of natural processes.

Critic Mark Stevens has argued that Takaezu's designs could almost be "walk-around scrolls." But unlike scroll paintings, her designs have no beginning or end and no "front side" or focus of attention. Walk around these large, closed vessels, and at least for the first few times Takaezu's shifting patterns don't even seem to repeat, eluding memorization.

Takaezu told me that in her early training at the University of Hawaii she learned to make "whole dinner sets, pitchers and things like that." Her art evolved gradually during the 1950s: "I made a bird-shaped form with a spout and a tail--in a way it was a teapot, with the spout the head. Gradually these became abstract, and then it turned into a mask. The masks gradually turned into completely closed forms in 1958." There's something harmonious and unified, quite unlike the fragmentations of Western modernism, about Takaezu's shapes.

Five pieces of varying sizes have extremely deep blues in their upper halves so thick and seductive that they seem akin to the twilight sky; darker streaks and tiny dots and splotches further open up the blue. Others are incised with very thin slits near the top, disrupting the form visually yet offering no clue to the impenetrable interior. Mono-674 is especially compelling for its complex rustlike patterns of browns and tans, living shapes implying constant change.

The works' obvious origins on the wheel almost invite one in to eat and drink from them--but they close us off, keeping the interior mysterious. Their curves and layered designs create surfaces with their own ambiguous depth effects. Touching the pieces, which is probably allowed if you ask at the desk, both adds to their sensuality and reveals nothing.

Stevens suggests a Buddhist influence on Takaezu, and indeed she exudes a profound modesty in a video available in the gallery. A gardener, she suggests that her potatoes are "even more important than my pots" and says that if she preplans too much, her art is not successful. Their inherent contradictions--they're assertive yet withdrawn, suggestive yet mute, apparently but not genuinely functional--may sound modernist but are more the viewer's constructs than the artist's. Takaezu's work made me think of the exquisite stones that Chinese philosophers collected as objects of contemplation, and I hoped that some of these pieces would find their way not into a well-decorated living room to be proudly displayed but into a study or bedroom where the owner might notice how much they change from day to day.

Joseph Bernard's nine paintings at Arena (two of which are diptychs) don't simply evoke nature: he mixes paint and actual plants on his surfaces, covering them with a layer of clear urethane. Born in 1941 and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he's lived in the Detroit area for many years, teaching at the Center for Creative Studies. Rauschenberg was one key early influence, but in 1969, Bernard told me, "I saw one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen," Stan Brakhage's short film Mothlight (1963). Brakhage collaged actual plants and insect parts between strips of clear perforated tape; watching this film, one glimpses moth wings and grasses flickering by. When Bernard arrived in Chicago for graduate study at the School of the Art Institute in 1970, he discovered that Brakhage had just been hired to teach film history; Bernard attended all of his lectures.

By the late 70s Bernard was making abstract films in the tradition of Brakhage and his colleagues; by the mid-80s his films were collages, and soon he stopped making films and began adding strips of Mothlight-like collaged film to paintings. His work is on a wood-composite material called wafer board, which he paints both before and after adding collage elements. Thaw consists of two long horizontal panels, a bit like film strips, incorporating samples of the flower dusty miller amid less distinct forms--actually abrasions from Bernard sanding his work. Like Takaezu's designs after firing, these abrasions are not completely under his control, adding an organic element, and the clusters of similar forms rhythmically repeating reminded me of the Brakhage film.

Bernard collaged moonflowers onto the surfaces of two works--a single row of five flowers in Mandinga, three rows of seven in Blood Moon. The thickness of the flowers varies, so the paint shows through with varying intensity, illuminating the plants' structure as the projector beam does in Mothlight. Bernard frames his images with multiple painted rectangular borders, which together with the thick paint and reflective surfaces gives these images a sacramental quality: the moonflowers resemble not only tiny trees but images in narrative Renaissance altarpieces. I also thought of late-medieval illuminated manuscripts, with their repeating floral patterns around central images, and of Roman wall paintings, and Bernard confirmed that he had been inspired by a book of wall paintings from Pompeii.

The mottled, sometimes abraded paint not only looks organic but adds depth; all the parts of Bernard's surfaces seem to float in ambiguous, shifting relationship to one another, somewhat like Takaezu's. But Bernard's pieces have a peculiar glow, as if light were emanating from within them--a look likely inspired by film. Of course the film image hovers in virtual space, chimeralike, while Bernard's works are clearly objects. But if you stand back and shift position just a bit, they also seem to flicker and glow.

The ambiguous depth in Takaezu's and Bernard's work transforms their pieces from mere elegant objects into engaging experiences over time. And Bernard's borders are not truly limiting: whether he selects 5 or 21 moonflowers is arbitrary--we understand that what we see are samples from a much larger population. The fields of many tiny forms in the diptych Mix Remix have a feeling of "no beginning, no end," to use Bernard's words. Amid the plants and strangely organic abraded forms are bold geometric shapes that look like fragments of letters, suggesting links between decay, the evolution of plants, and the beginning of language--all the shapes begin to seem symbolic, but the absence of specific symbols opens up the piece rather than closing it down.

In the center of Flag are five bannerlike horizontal colored bands, each containing a row of plants--but this flag is no fixed symbolic entity. Instead Bernard presents us with something more like a sample case or museum display of objects that we're still in the process of learning to see.

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