“All that is conditioned is illusory. All phenomena are literally ‘appearances,’ the more ‘material’ and solid the appearance, the further is it from reality, and therefore the more illusory it is.”
—Annie Besant (1847–1933)
Christopher Dufala’s astonishing sculptures are complex exercises in the act of perception.
Dufala makes works that combine his strong interest in drawing and ceramic assemblage—utilizing handbuilt and cast parts—with a complex, multi-step, monoprint-transfer process to achieve objects of remarkable physical and intellectual sophistication. The resulting artworks are something like metaphysical haiku. As such, he is the inheritor of the rich tradition of tromp l’oeil ceramics practiced by notable artists such as Paul Dresang, Sylvia Hyman, Marilyn Levine, Richard Shaw, and Victor Spinski. Like Shaw, who was once described by writer Jan Butterfield in a 1981 essay as a “Super Object maker,” Dufala makes super objects that hover inexplicably between things we know—shovels, rebar, sewing machines, or typewriters—and that which we can’t know.
Yet, despite illusionistic elements, Dufala’s work always asserts itself as clay and reinforces ceramic processes and solid craft. In this way, Dufala’s approach is different from the work of other committed trompe l’oeil ceramic artists whose goal is verisimilitude. If the surfaces of Dufala’s work looks like riveted metal, there will be cracks where the clay was folded when it was leather hard; if it looks like thick-grained wood, a corner will be peeled back, inviting the viewer to see past the illusion. With Dufala’s work, there is no tongue-in-cheek, wink and nod, or Aha! moment declaring this is all to fool the eye. Instead, Dufala invites viewers to consider deceit as an ingrained cultural practice, to examine it and ask what it can do, and why deceit is interesting in itself.
Dufala says “the continuity [with these artists] is in the conceptual matter and the working process. I would like to think that my work is perceived as a relative break from those who worked in a similar vein before me. It’s not merely to fool the eye, but to build in a way that compounds the effects of deception in concept, imagery, and material. This notion of deception is important to me as it resonates with everything I find dishonest, contrary, and generally lacking integrity.” Yet Dufala distinguishes his practice from theirs, stating that the end product of tromp l’oeil is an object, a still-life, while he strives to make a concept. When viewers come across one of Dufala’s sculptures, they don’t think that a cross-section of the floor has been removed and hung on the wall, coupled with a piece of rebar and a drawing of a food mixer. They understand it as an artwork with a complex vocabulary of signs and signifiers set against one another.
Usually, deception is undertaken as a defense. The ability to detect deceit is a highly-tuned skill that has far-reaching consequences. In some cases, if we fail to distinguish the poison berry from the delectable fruit, we become gravely ill. Other times, we fail to uncover falsehood in speech or action and are the victim of duplicity. Less ominously, we bend perceptions of ourselves—or deceive— to appear smarter, more attractive or more accomplished, effectively fooling others and ourselves into being the kind of person we wish to be. Similarly, Dufala says, “A basic characteristic of human activity is that human relationships and civilization depend on shared accurate information. A person who possesses more information (knowledge) is usually more powerful in controlling both the environment and other persons. One way to affect a power relationship with other people is to provide them with misinformation or by keeping aspects of one’s own information a secret.”
Questions of integrity and authenticity are central to Dufala’s practice. Richard Shaw once said, “Making things for people is about teaching them to see,” a statement that seems especially apropos in regard to Dufala’s work. He is, in a sense, challenging his viewers to make deep-seated determinations as they encounter every one of his pieces—questioning not only the ambiguity of reality, but a host of sometimes contradictory social, environmental, and political ills. Occasionally, Dufala uses found objects in his sculptures to see “how seamless the illusion is,” and to challenge perception by allowing real and false objects to play off each other. But, the problem of perception, as stated philosophically, is that if illusions are possible, then perception is not absolute and nothing is what it seems. To determine what is real, we must establish a commonality—or a veridical experience—on which to found our perceptions. If a cup looks gray in one instance and brown in another, which is the true color? What is the real experience? If our eyes can’t distinguish between materials as different as ceramic and metal, if we can’t discern function from decoration, what is really going on? This indeterminate middle-ground is exactly what Dufala finds interesting.
Dufala stumbled onto clay while pursuing a BFA at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. He found that ceramics has an inherent capacity for imitation and duplicity. “One of clay’s best qualities is that it can record information. You can take wet clay and press something into it, and it becomes other objects very easily. It’s clay, but you [as the viewer] don’t know it’s clay until you pick it up. Oftentimes, you’re completely fooled by it.” He discovered the natural tendency of the medium toward mimicry and used it as the foundation of his artistic approach, or what he calls “illusionary commentary.”
Dufala coupled this discovery with an early love of drawing and realism. Born and raised in southern New Jersey, he was keenly aware of the inescapable presence of the artists N.C. Wyeth and his sons, Andrew and Jamie, who lived and worked directly across the Delaware River in nearby Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania—they formed an artistic tradition steeped in exacting Realism.
During graduate school at San Jose State University in California, he worked with Stan Welsh and Monica Van den Dool to focus on ceramic sculpture instead of drawing. He satisfied his need to draw by creating a series of works for an independent study. When his professors saw the installation, they were amazed and encouraged him to find a way to marry his love of drawing with his sculptural practice.
Dufala continues to rely on drawing, deftly rendering anatomy and objects with precision. To create strong lines, he uses a needle to indent the surface in a way similar to intaglio printmaking, creating a slight undercut that holds underglaze. The image can be modeled with additional underglaze like a watercolor painting.
During this time, Dufala began experimenting with sculpture made from combined extruded, press-molded, and handbuilt clay forms. He hit upon a method of generating a bin full of wet clay parts that he collects over a number of days, assembling them together in one fell swoop. He cast elements around him in plaster, first the attic floor in the big Victorian home where he lived, capturing the wide boards, large grain, and knots shaped by decades of wear, in remarkable detail. Then, he cast his basement studio floor, picking up every nuance of the cement. He started to pay attention to relief, to the matrix of textures and overlapping surfaces that comprise every object and structure.
Dufala’s incorporation of underglaze monoprints originated in a workshop with Arthur Gonzalez. It was an innovation that tied his process together. Dufala uses AMACO underglazes to create detailed images rendered on a plaster slab, which are then transferred to a ceramic ground. It’s not unusual for him to apply glaze and wipe it off, pressing color into every crease and corner of an object. He fires it, then buffs the surface with steel wool, wood stain, or applies a clear coat to build up a record of information that approximates a history of use. The printed imagery and sculptural elements vie for dominance in a dynamic interplay between object and image.
When Dufala’s wife visited Latvia to participate in an iron pour, she recounted that old Soviet-era equipment abandoned in fields was repurposed to make a gantry. This echoed his experiences seeing farm equipment rusting away on East Coast farms or mining equipment in the Arizona desert. The realization became a turning point in his work, fueling a growing concern over materialism and the detritus of consumer culture. He began to draw references from the golden age of industrial production, reflecting a time when belief in machines’ ability to improve the world wasn’t accompanied by a dystopian dismay. He gravitated toward tools and appliances that were created with integrity, built to last and be repaired, not discarded.
While exalting these objects for their utility and the quality of craftsmanship with which they were made, he can’t help but be dismayed by how our interactions with these objects replace genuine experiences, and increasingly, relationships. He notes humanity’s obsession with newness and convenience is a downward spiral. Objects that were intended to simplify life pull people away from interactions with people and nature. We become a society subsumed with our own importance. Technology doesn’t give us more free time, it creates a society that increasingly relies upon technology for entertainment and recreation. Instead of listening to the world around us—the chirps of birdsong, or the rush of wind through grass—we only hear the latest political debate, our curated playlist, an endless feed of social-media comments, and the thousands of whirring motors and engines that pervade our lives in our vehicles, the buildings in which we live or work, and in our ever-present computers.
Dufala muses, “We get all these appliances to make our life easy and in turn they kind of complicate things. Everyday life and society are fooling us . . . we make these things we might use or might never use and then we sell them again for a much cheaper price. Then we go out and buy more, discard, and buy more.”
the author Brandon Reintjes is the Senior Curator at the Missoula Art Museum in Missoula, Montana, and writes regularly about ceramics and contemporary art. Recent projects include an interview with the artist Sandra Dal Poggetto and a story for “Reflections West,” a Montana Public Radio program about the literature, history, and culture of the American West.