Eden Revisited: The Ceramic Art of Kurt Weiser

Eden Revisited: The Ceramic Art of Kurt Weiser

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Untitled, 1996, Ink drawing on paper,
{h. 11 in, w. 8.5 in.}
Photo/Craig Smith.

Although many visual artists use drawing as a form of diaristic practice, the role these drawings play in creative outcomes is as varied and complicated as the artists themselves. For Kurt Weiser, drawing once served as a kind of private parallel universe, intersecting with his production of functional pottery only as suppressed artistic longing. In the early 1990s Weiser began outing the preoccupations and fantasies visualized in his drawings, a process that resulted not only in a new body of work, but also a shift in his authorial voice.

Weiser's mid-career retrospective, "Eden Revisited: The Ceramic Art of Kurt Weiser," documents this significant transition. Organized by the Arizona State University Art Museum Ceramics Research Center and its curator, Peter Held, this traveling exhibition opened at Portland's Museum of Contemporary Craft, which recently moved to a new and expanded downtown arts complex. The show includes 40 ceramic objects dating from the 1970s to the present and several drawings from Weiser's notebooks.

A former student of Ken Ferguson's at the Kansas City Art Institute and an M.F.A. graduate of the University of Michigan, Weiser is Regents Professor of Art at Arizona State University. From 1979 to 1988 he served as director of the Archie Bray Foundation, where his work, he says, "was an effort to somehow express the beautiful nature of the material. . . . Problem was, nature and I never got along that well. Somewhere in the midst of this struggle I realized that materials are there to allow you to say what you want to say, not to tell you what to say."

This realization coincided with Weiser's departure from the Bray for his teaching post in Arizona. The exhibition makes clear, however, that Weiser's efforts to express the "beautiful nature of materials" were often spectacularly successful. The breakup of glaze into low-relief patches in his 1986 stoneware Blue and White Crackle Bowl, for example, not only produces
a gorgeous surface, but is also tied into a nuanced formal interplay with the rippled edges of the rim.

In the mid-1980s Weiser was also making cylindrical, footed vases that leaned right or left, as if the container were striding forward. These vases evolved into slip-cast porcelain pots, undulating groups of columnar forms that suggest female bodies movingin space-_Tango_, 1988, is one example. Drawing plays an important role in these compositions: sgraffito inscriptions on monochrome surfaces amplify the implied action of the curves.

After his move to Arizona, Weiser redirected the role of drawing in his work from a formal design to a medium of narrative content. According to the exhibition catalog, he started to approach the surfaces of teapots as if they were the pages of drawings in his notebooks, etching images of exotic plants through black slip, and soon adding representations of human hands and faces. In the past he regarded the notebooks as records of a hidden personality, evidence of "the juicy stuff" that should be hidden in order not to "reveal too much about the things that really interest you." He analogized the teapots to television sets, where a flip of a switch transforms blank squares into pictorial experience. The next step followed an encounter with a University of Arizona art history professor who suggested looking into European masters of china painting. In the exquisite imagery of Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain and Meissen court painting Weiser discovered a pipeline that could be directly linked to the private reveries stored in the pages of his notebooks.

The post-1990 work in the exhibition consists primarily of polychrome Chinese ginger-jar forms, single and double jars with asymmetrical shoulders, and teapots covered with images of female faces, nude women, water, plants and animals. The imagery revives the long association of china painting with feminized decorative arts traditions, a relationship Weiser extends in his visual commentary about the identification of women and the natural world. Weiser's images are much larger in scale than traditional Asian or European decorative motifs, and encircle the entire topography of the pot with a continuous scene. Many compositions are dominated by an idealized female face, some with two right-side, left-side or otherwise mismatched eyes. Typically positioned against a background of lush vegetation, the faces can be read in the context of the exhibition's title as contemporary representations of Eve, still presiding over her garden. Women are also depicted as nude bathers, sisters of Roman nymphs, the water divinities who inhabited brooks, springs and fountains.

Weiser's painted drawings are not just topographical mappings of these natural forms. They also reference time and history. In compositions such as Abduction Jar, 1999, or Bright Angel, 2001, a Techni-color female face is pushed into the foreground by the volume of the jar. Behind the face, rendered in the sepia tones of old photographs, is scenery apparently lifted from medieval or early Renaissance paintings illustrating the abduction and sexual assault of women in the woods. Other vessels include images of Leda and Europa, mythological women raped by gods disguised
as animals. Fidelity, 2000, pushes into the foreground a representation of a nude bather posed as the frightened figure of Susanna in old master paintings of Susanna and the Elders. In the show's catalog, the critic Edward Lebow describes Weiser's imagery as "suggestive narcotic reveries of an errant former altar boy," but the content of these panoramas seem to call for a more substantial analysis. It might be possible to interpret Weiser's iconography as a reflection on the post-Fall Eden we inhabit in real life and dreams, a paradise that enfolds in equal measure luxuriant growth, predatory violence, id and superego.

In Weiser's most recent work, vessel forms have morphed into globes of the world, but not necessarily the earth we inhabit. The imagery in these worlds circumnavigates the sensibility encoded in Weiser's drawings, a sensibility now firmly positioned at the center of his art.