Jeff Schwarz’s sculptural vessels are the result of a delicate conceptual balancing act. Lying midway between popular culture and fine art, between functional and sculptural ceramics, his work bears all the trademarks of cultural resistance while existing comfortably within ceramic traditions. His elongated cylindrical forms eliminate distinctions between pop and conceptualism, painting and sculpture. His expertly crafted work is confrontational and contemplative, freeform and intuitive. It gives the appearance of wild spontaneity while being grounded in a painstaking series of decisions that owe much to ceramic craft and his background in painting. His decorative appropriation of graffiti-like mark making is in itself contradictory as it results from a highly controlled, deliberate process in total opposition to everything graffiti generally represents.
While graffiti is the term used to describe spray-can tagging with its everything-on-the-street implications, Schwarz’s work could be more accurately described as post-graffiti as this more closely corresponds to his painstaking techniques. Since its first appearance in the 1970s, when taggers went around bombing subway cars with spray paint, graffiti has changed considerably. No longer a renegade form of expression, Graffiti is now an established art movement; in artists’ studios the spray can is as ubiquitous as the brush.
Jeff Schwarz has developed a distinctive visual vocabulary inspired by, but not imitating, graffiti. What he likes about graffiti is its spontaneity. As he points out, graffiti is a 20-second mark, and is of the moment, but glazing requires consideration. He has had to work out a range of technical problems in order to duplicate the free-form results of a spray can or marker. For reference, he photographs quick graffiti tags he’s seen in the bathrooms of bars as well as marks left in the streets by Con Edison workers. His highly abstract surfaces combine a number of influences synthesized into a complex net of references. Part of his interest in found art is derived from reading Soetsu Yanagi’s influential book The Unknown Craftsman. He also draws on elements from Japanese pottery, Chinese ink drawings and the techniques of Abstract Expressionism. He has been inspired by the work of both painters and ceramic sculptors including José Parla, Charline von Heyl, Jean Michel Basquiat, Michael Lucero, and Betty Woodman. He was Ed Eberle’s throwing assistant for many years. In combining all this acquired material, Schwarz has developed a singular style characterized by colors, layers, and random patterns, each crisscrossed by marks, swirls, and lines; a self-reflexive exploration of shape and distortion. Underlying all these influences is the importance of process, intuition, and spontaneity. Ultimately his work results from his substantial understanding of ceramic technique and its history.
Although Schwarz modestly claims “my techniques are straightforward,” he draws on considerable expertise in combining abstract painting with ceramic materials. Some of his methods result from working in a somewhat restrictive studio situation—he shares his small studio space in Bushwick, New York. Partly because he wants to keep his electricity usage low, he single-fires his work and has developed techniques of fabrication and glazing that facilitate this method. He fires for 15 to 18 hours between cone 04 and cone 1, depending on how far he wants to push the surfaces. To make the multi-colored backgrounds in which his glazes swirl together or fade from one color to the other, Schwarz applies successive layers of engobes and glazes. The surface quality ranges from matte to a satiny gloss. As a consequence of the way they’re applied, the layers of glaze have a perceptible thickness that can be both seen and felt. There is something of a risk factor inherent in his techniques; because of the shrinkage that occurs when clay dries, he can’t work on a piece for more than a week. This forces him to be spontaneous and make quick decisions. He uses numerous application techniques; brushes, airbrush, hair-dye bottles, newsprint transfer, pump sprayers, and latex and wax resist. One of his more ingenious glaze-application methods involves a transfer technique—painting the glazes onto dampened newspaper shapes that are wrapped around the cylinder. When he removes the paper, it leaves behind a layer of glaze painting, now reversed. He also uses wet newspaper as a mask when spraying glazes.
Schwarz refers to his pieces as stacks because any that are taller than 20 inches (his kiln is 24 inches tall) are comprised of several stacked-up sections that are ultimately bolted together. The taller stacks are thrown and sectioned one day, put together the next, then glazed. His 8-foot-tall piece was slip cast, then cut into pieces that fit in the kiln. Scale influences his approach to each piece; he enjoys making smaller pieces but finds them more challenging than the larger stacks as they require a more confident mark and there’s less surface to work with. One interesting direction Schwartz has taken is making pieces with a stack inside a stack, where sections of the shorter outer stack are cut away to reveal the inner. Not only does this assembly make the pieces more sculptural, it pushes them into the realm of three-dimensional painting. This juxtaposition of bigger with smaller pieces underscores what he was already doing on the surfaces—further making illusory spatial arrangements that confuse foreground and background.
Schwarz also makes wall-hung tiles that resemble sheets of corrugated aluminum, standard urban fencing material that is particularly attractive to bombers and street artists. These tiles are made using a custom-designed extruder die; the extrusions are joined side-to-side. They are almost photo realist in their evocation of the banged-up and dented sheets of metal that are inviting to urban graffiti artists. The spatial distortions seen in Schwarz’s stacks seem even more extreme in the way the colors float off the flatter surfaces.
Schwarz’s work speaks of his background in functional ceramics. His undergraduate education stressed Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Greek ceramics and pottery. He has always loved the wheel but always saw it as a tool; as he says, “using the wheel is like learning scales; but that’s not playing music.” This background informs the skills. Schwarz’s most recent solo show, “Stacks,” was at Outlet Gallery (www.outletbk.com/artists/jeff-schwarz) in Brooklyn, New York.
the author Kay Whitney is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.