A gear rich with the patina of age and use engages the inner teeth of its mate. That portion of a ring is itself balanced in a way that satisfies issues of composition while appearing to defy original utility. Elsewhere, another portion of a ring nestles in the groove of its housing. Again, the only complete element is the gear, whose engaged teeth suggest mechanical action. Smooth counters rough, shiny plays against matte as surfaces speak of prior use the way an unearthed artifact would to an archeologist’s eye.
In some assemblies, the viewer can all but hear the hum of efficient and precise operation as a flywheel drives its arm. In others, the mind’s ear conjures a screech as an unevidenced interruption in the system has visibly tumbled links one on another. But even here, this apparent aberration seems to yield a configuration that feels physically correct to its situation. Of course, we can also dream about what those shiny new links did to the ones that appear older and bearing all the consequence.
In several works, elements appear to reach for each other (in this mechanized world, should we say yearn) in an as yet incomplete coupling.
The world of Kenneth Baskin’s ceramic sculpture gives us situations of implied dynamics with an exquisite tension between the vigor of each suggested activity and the still silence of perfect balance, a push and pull resolved.
On one level, it seems correct to view these mechanical relationships on human terms. Dialog, coupling, disengagement, and ruin are all projections of the best, and less-best, of human endeavor. If the forms aren’t direct stand-ins for human beings, they are perhaps articulations of human strategy, acknowledging the dynamics of physical laws and devising mechanical systems that operate within them.
While all of that is plausible, Baskin doesn’t let us go that easily. In each piece, he gives us what is most essential to the interaction at hand, while choosing to omit large portions of the implied device. Here there is an articulate power to what is not visible. Indeed, in all works, what is not seen is the specific purpose of the implied activity. What does the flywheel keep in motion? What do the gears drive? The need these devices are meant to satisfy lies outside our grasp, haunting the viewer as Beckett does in Waiting for Godot. In the end, we don’t know, nor were we supposed to, therefore the import of all lies elsewhere.
On another level, Baskin allows us into his archeologist’s tent, pitched as it might be, by an unearthed trove of parts from some distant time. Each piece is evidence of his conjecture. Here, these gears seem to mesh. Try them and see. Well if these go together, what does this element do? In this sense, each piece may present an incomplete thought—the scenario up until his present thinking executed with the artifacts available.
Finally, over all these conceptual frameworks is a finely tuned sense of aesthetics and presentation. Divisions between planes may be identified with a glaze highlight. Rough, worn surfaces are played off smooth ones not simply to delineate physical action, but for the visual appeal yielded by contrast. A scored line might lend a spontaneous supporting factor within an overall vocabulary that seems more calculated than improvisational. In fact, these surfaces, diverse as they are, are all the products of glazing and/or firing strategies: the vocabulary of a ceramic artist. Wood, salt/soda, and pit firing, along with various glaze temperatures and strategies are brought to bear on elements not physically joined until after the kiln, thus extending creative options well past firing. By standardizing certain dimensions (for example, gear-tooth size and frequency), final configurations may be indefinitely postponed. This also maximizes the level of acceptable firing risk as multiple versions of an element may be plugged in, assessed, and then re-fired until suitable.
The Threat of Relevance
These works may comment on cast-steel machine parts, but there is no mistaking that a ceramic artist’s sensibilities are present; and one with quite a unique past. Baskin’s life as an artist is at least two lifetimes down a challenging road, with his origin in the forbidding (and somewhat antiquated) environment of Detroit, Michigan’s industrial district. The problems of aging mechanisms (dwarfing Baskin’s commanding physical stature) were his to diagnose and resolve. He speaks about it now as a gearhead might of a loved but worn-out car kept humming on sweat, love, and knowhow. There is a poignant nostalgia that creeps in, too, as Detroit’s gradual decay and the rise of the virtual world threaten both a way of life and the relevance of the objects produced. Ironically, it may well be a threat that extends to the subjects of his work. Seen against the backdrop of contemporary clay art, his work offers a powerful and important reminder to a culture perhaps too quick to marginalize the object. It’s a point of view he emphasizes as professor of ceramic art at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and in his many workshops in venues such as Penland School of Crafts and Anderson Ranch Arts Center.
Baskin’s process, in many ways, is that of a steel fabricator. Most pieces are the products of typical handbuilding techniques with plaster and wood molds employed where standardized elements are necessary (e.g. gear teeth). He acknowledges somewhat sheepishly his recent tool: a computer with CMC router technology. “It sure beats doing the math!” Observing his process in the studio, a large, thin slab (1/4 inch thick) awaits a paper template. A drawing is visible on the dry-erase board behind him, the original with amendments possibly suggested by his wife, Cynthia, herself a talented artist whom Baskin says is his “second brain.” He cuts precisely and dries the slabs beyond the comfort zone for most. (The need to make them all but bone dry often owes to scale and always to the nature of his steel fabrication approach.) If anyone is around, he’ll cheerfully take on the bets that, “It’ll never hold.” They might not make that bet if they saw the hours spent slipping and scoring the edges of each attachment. And later, he’ll collect his winnings as he hones and refines the form, painstakingly assessing each element relative to the pieces it may join much later.
In his studio, accepted and rejected elements from various pieces quietly assert themselves from their shelves. Any may quickly defy the irrelevance suggested by their dusty surfaces as a creative spark and a quick bath reanimate their purpose. Baskin may not think he is a writer, but his approach to his art, much like a writer, is incremental. He develops his world, as the viewer might expect, systematically and methodically. As an artist and as a person, he is the deliberate scientist who builds his case gradually with logical developments. But watch out. The careful observer is rewarded by leaps of intuition and delightful conundrums to remind us that an eloquent object may still provide a path to the ineffable.
the author Dr. Scott Meyer is a ceramic sculptor, writer, and professor of ceramic art at the University of Montevallo, Alabama, where he is beginning his 34th year on the faculty. His work is exhibited nationally and internationally in museums, universities, art centers, and at conferences including those organized by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA). He recently had a solo exhibition at the Yingge Ceramics Museum, Taipei, Taiwan. He has authored numerous articles for professional journals and a book, Richard Hirsch, a Life Between Chance and Design.