Your use of ceramics breaks expectations that traditionally label clay as a medium of “craft” and not “fine art”. What tactics do you use to break down these assumptions?
I feel like a lot of time and energy has been sucked into the black hole that is this “craft” and “art” hoo-hah with ceramics. I know where I stand for myself, and I know what I talk about in the classroom. For me, the technique (craft) should always be in the service of a greater idea or concept, the content of the work. If the work digresses into merely technical exercises that initiate no greater dialog going beyond the physical object, then something is missing.
There are a lot of technical masters out there, who invest lots of research capital on getting glazes to do just this or that, then they sit around with a little club of like-minded individuals congratulating each other for achieving this or that glaze affect, all the while neglecting to think about what they are putting that glaze on, or why they are making the object in the first place, the “why” of their work. Technique (how) serves concept (why), that’s my rule in the studio. When I have an idea I am trying to express, that idea is where I look for clues to help me make purposeful decisions about what techniques will best manifest that idea.
Technique always follows, never leads (for the most part.) What do you want to say? Wrestle with that first, then decide how you might best say it. I also feel like our regional geography is a bit of an impediment to the medium of clay, there are other regions in this Great Nation of ours where this dialog has been put to bed decades ago, West Coast, Northeast, even in places like New Mexico and up in Seattle and the greater Northwestern area, this craft-art stuff has diminished due to the variety of high-quality work being made. Go to the Philadelphia Clay Studio, and you won’t see philosophical rants about craft and art, you’ll just see world-class work.
I am a big fan of high-quality functional work, I have learned a lot from world-class potters like James Watkins, Peter Beasecker, who make pottery simply to DIE for. I tell my students to make the best work they possibly can at that instant they are working, and if they can do that, no one will care if it is art or craft, they will care because it is good. Make good work, that’s what is needed right now. I am also a big fan of the intimacy of the pot, how we crave to reach out and touch it, hold it, bring it to our lips. That’s a big part of the allure of the medium for me, we want to explore it not just with our eyes, but our sense of touch as well. Few things make me as happy as watching viewers reach out to touch the work and encounter that odd internal speed-bump of not being allowed to because it’s art, but also having their primitive brain remember that it’s made of clay, and we touch clay, we have been handling it for as long as we have developed civilization. Just go work, work hard, and make sure the work is the best it can be at that particular time.
What contemporary ceramicists and artists influence your work?
I am embarrassed to say as an educator, but I don’t do my homework like I used to, and the most current work is often not on my radar. As a student, I can remember being enamored with the abstraction of Constantin Brancusi, that concept of diluting a subject matter down to its conceptual essence, not even based on the corporeal form any more.
The work ethic of Richard Serra stokes the inner fire and compels me to just go work, even when feeling tired, sick, or not necessarily “moved by the muse”. Any recorded dialog of his is gas in the tank. His buddy Philip Glass moves me to work, too. If I have a big run of pottery to make, that’s the golden ticket. Martin Puryear makes forms that, when I have been lucky enough to see first hand, fuse me to the spot.
I love how work seen in books, magazines or photographs that appear so clean, refined when met in person carry with them a patina and residue of the process, a record of their making, much like a Jackson Polluck is a record of the choreography between canvas and the body of the painter.
The Scottish artist David Mach shows up in my 3-D Design lectures regularly, I like his wit and inventiveness. How he can turn a recognizable subject on its ear and make it new to us. I think that can be some of the best work, something familiar that you meet again in a new way. Yoshitomo Nara is a Japanese artist who I met thanks to a children’s book given to us by family friends many years ago, his sculptural forms are exciting.
I find it simultaneously inspiring and disheartening when I find work by someone exploring similar themes but doing a much better job of it, Kukuli Velarde is an artist like that working in clay. She weds history and contemporary more beautifully than I could ever hope to. The emotional-narrative-animal based ceramic magic (for lack of a more appropriate word) of Beth Cavener is beyond impressive.
Joe Bova, my undergrad professor’s grad professor at LSU, is someone whose work I regularly look up, my academic “grandfather” in a way. Politial narrative-figurative forms, and masterfully executed. I watched him give many a demo at Loyola as a student, and can remember those events being important moments. I think an implied narrative is something I enjoy. There’s a lot, but I need to be looking more than I do. Sometimes, it gets hard to find the time to keep up.
Many of your pieces feature recurring symbols, such as the luchador mask, and the bunny and cat-eared headpieces. How are these motifs chosen, and how do they function?
The luchadors were chosen as contemporary renditions of Pre-Colombian warriors, Jaguar Warriors, which are among my truly favorite historic subjects. In “Mexico Before Cortez”, Ignacio Bernal describes Jaguar Warriors defending Mexico City from the surrounding jungle, these mythic super-warriors who, after killing a jaguar, would assume its traits and powers. They would seize approaching Spanish infantrymen from out of the jungle, leaving soliders behind wondering what the hell that was, that half man-giant cat that just grabbed their buddy and dragged him away screaming. In grad school, I read this book many, many times, which is funny, because my work had not yet moved in this direction. For me, the Luchador is a modern reference to these superheroes from Pre-Colonbian cultures.
Many of the animal forms were based on cartoon characters pulled from my childhood and thankfully returned to my world through my children when they were younger. I can remember my daughter, now 10, asking me about 3 or 4 years ago what I was going to make art about once she grew up. At the time, I was making large-scale “mash-ups” of Kathy the Bunny, loyal sidekick to Hello Kitty, and Q’in Dynasty Chinese Terra Cotta warriors. The animal forms are intended as light-hearted icons, evocative of a simple, pleasure-seeking childhood frame of mind. They function to disarm the viewer a bit, make them comfortable with the work, and hopefully to then create a stark contrast to other ideas present in the work, ideas associated with conflict, combat, warfare, fighting, death. The cute is the counter to the bitter, which I openly admit can be a heavy-handed formula. Is this getting a bit formula?
What aspects of pop culture inform your work?
I grew up on comic books, so it would be silly not to admit that is where most of my image-making began. My older brother was much better at drawing, I can remember watching him spend hours drawing large blow-ups of individual panels from Sgt. Rock and X-Men comics, later I would get my ass kicked for sneaking in to his room and dropping in some colors. Exaggerated heroes and villains from comic books, villains always seemed more inventive. I also watched a lot of cartoons; Masters of the Universe, Transformers and G.I. Joe were my after school ritual for a long while. Possibly too long.
I can’t express the joy and excitement that my first trip back into a comic shop with my son brought. He’s 15 now, at the time 4 or 5. After one of the most thoughtful walk-throughs I’ve ever been a part of (lots of “What’s his name? And what can he do?”), he settled on Batman. Oh, the chance to go back through it all again, to revisit familiar stories, to explore those I chose not to when it was my first time, it was great. The door back into this world was unlocked and flung wide with the key called parenting. I certainly have gotten more out of it than I deserve. Now with the movies, my goodness. And there is so much new stuff that is so smart, so well done. The first time I watched an episode of “Adventure Time” with both of my kids about 2 years ago, I think they were scared for me.
What aspects of history inform your work?
Some of the warrior figures I make are heavily influenced by the style of Moche work, Azec, Mixtec, there is acuity and brevity of image making there that is remarkable. Pre-Colombian clay work is in my work, there is something magical about the balance of detail and abstraction that I enjoy and seek. Japanese Haniwa figures and horses equally inspire me. Colossal Olmec Heads are great.
Regarding clay, well before we developed the technology for fired ceramic that led to functional work, we were proto-cultural image-makers in the caves of Altamira, Lasceaux and Tuc d'Audobert in the French Pyrenees, sculpting clay bison by firelight. This is the beginning of the story that every ceramic artist is contributing to today. That’s amazing to me, knowing that I am part of that continuous narrative, a human making forms out of clay for my fellow humans to contemplate and enjoy. What is possibly better or a more species-defining practice? Got me. Then we mastered how to fire it, how to make pots, forms that are impervious to rain, to the elements. Bricks. Where would we be without bricks? Fired clay was an evolutionary step for us as a species, it is what the heat-reflective tiles on the nose of the space shuttle are made out of, and what we drink coffee out of. It’s an exciting material that brings with it a rich history that is imbedded in us on a molecular level.
How do you see these references to contemporary pop culture functioning within the work? Are they critical, analytical, investigative, etc.?
I’m not entirely sure how these references function. I don’t think it’s critical, I don’t like preachy work, I think it’s more about reminding the viewer that we are not so far from where we began, but not in a bad way. I like the idea that ancient “pop” culture (such as Jaguar Warriors) can easily be compared to contemporary luchadors or superheroes. In that way, I guess it’s analytical, reminding us of who we are, comparing the old and new, creating a time-based hybrid. We are myth builders, storytellers, ranters all. I guess for me it’s investigative, I like seeing how I can concoct a new combination of images or sources to make something new, something I have not seen in the studio before. That’s investigation for me, that moment where the parts are coming together, and I’m not quite sure when it will be done, when it will be complete, that’s the fun. I have colleagues who talk about the struggle, but I find it extremely fun, The struggle is usually finding the time, but once that is done, it’s just fun. Even the failures are fun, because you build on them.
John Donovan's latest exhibit New Personal Best! is on view at Zeitgeist through June 27, 2015