Jay Kvapil: Brilliance

1 Small folded bowl, 2 in. (5 cm) in height, wheel-thrown, low-fire black basaltic clay, gloss and crater glazes, fired to cone 012, 2013.

For a number of years, Jay Kvapil has been making vessels that embody a highly articulated and psychological use of color and form. In his most recent work, his luxuriant use of glazes creates objects that are charged, expressive, and dramatic. Although the color is complexly nuanced, many of his objects at first appear to be monochromatic. There’s the illusion of a single, intense color but what’s actually present is a series of close chromatic values changing subtly across a surface. On close inspection, you see several slightly different glaze shades whose intensities are increased by their contrast with the minutely exposed, dark, basaltic clay body. The result is the appearance of a color that seems to be both expanding from and also contracting around the form. That the surfaces are actually subtle is extraordinary as the colors Kvapil has been using recently are super charged and electric. None are primary hues, they are bright, bitter-sweet tertiaries, sometimes almost neon in their intensity. The subtlety of color modulations is highlighted by the constantly changing textures of the surfaces. The textures are complex, formed from crater glazes; the glazes are so glassy as to appear molten. The combination of color and form creates an odd relationship; the elements balance each other only because the relative simplicity of the vessels’ shapes accommodates the extreme, brilliant coloration and nearly baroque surface.

2 Untitled from Nesting Vessels series, 13 in. (33 cm) in length, 2010.

3 Untitled from Pictorial Vessel series, 11½ in. (29 cm) in length, 2010.

Minimal Forms, Reactive Glazes

All of Kvapil’s work is thrown on the wheel using a low-fired, dark basaltic clay body. His forms are extremely thin and range from quite small, oval objects to large bowls 30 inches in diameter; his bottle/vase shapes may be up to 2 feet in height. Using both gloss and crater glazes, he compares his glaze-making process to cooking; he follows no empirical formulas and tends towards the experimental. Kvapil often layers several glazes. He also combines multiple individual glazes with multiple firings; some pieces have been fired as often as eight times or more. He takes chances with glazing, feeling that the potential for new effects is worth the risk. His gloss glazes are formulated to be as runny as possible; the streaking colors and sheets of drips dominate the forms. Although all his glazes are fired very low, (cone 012), the surfaces look like they are high-fired due to the glaze flow. Because the firing temperature is so low, the vessels are completely non-functional; they can’t hold water.

The high lithium content combined with granular silicon carbide in the crater glazes creates the distinctive mottled, crusty surface. The chemical also interacts with the clay body, eating away at it and keeping the glaze from becoming inert during the firing. After the crater-glazed pieces are fired, the surfaces are bubbled and rough. Kvapil grinds these sharp surfaces down with a piece of kiln shelf and smooths them further with sandpaper. The final appearance of the surface is satiny, textured, but smooth to the touch. There are huge variations in the cratered surfaces, some are extremely pocked and the clay body is exposed in patches, others are delicately cratered with more glaze and less exposed clay. The slight differences in color plus the contrast with the dark clay gives the glaze depth. The inside surfaces of his bowls present a completely different appearance; because the interiors hold and reflect heat during firing, they are often smooth or slightly textured. The glazes on the inside tend to run rather than crater and the clear glazes on the rims also affect glaze movement.

4 Miniature Pictorial Vessel, 5¼ in. (13 cm) in height, 2013.

5 Folded bowl, 26 in. (66 cm) in width, 2013.

Working in Series

From 2008 to 2012, Kvapil created three different series that played color and form off each other in various ways. His Nesting series, begun in 2008, rose from the practice of stacking pieces inside each other for bisque firing. The forms created by stacking have always struck him as having potential; he’s also interested in the ‘nest’ as an archetypal form with deep psychological meaning. For this series, Kvapil threw and altered bowl forms distorting them in a number of ways; pulling them from opposite ends to create an oval or square shape; rippling; inward folding; or extending delicate edges upwards. Once glaze fired, these bowls are set inside each other, the exterior bowl containing up to four other bowls  The nested bowls are glazed in a number of different ways; some are all in the same color range, others have an exposed clay body, there may be contrasting color on inner and outer surfaces.

The Pictorial series are tall, sloping, slightly oval vase forms with surfaces meant to be seductive and attract touch. Rather than crater glazes, they use gloss glazes applied and fired so that they run, leaving a fringe or skirt of thick drips that sits above and conceals the vessel’s foot. Before glazing, Kvapil sometimes augments the area near what will become the skirt with beads of clay, accentuating the visual effect of dripping and running. The pots are meant to refer to the pictorial space created by the runny, dripping paint of Abstract Expressionist painting.

The Tableaux series features three forms, a bowl and an elongated bottle on top of a thick, rectangular slab. The two figures, the female bowl and the male bottle are placed opposite each other toward the sides of the slab. Kvapil exaggerated the gendered qualities of the forms, intending them to infer sculptural still-life portraits of couples. Generally, the bottles have a large, bulbous base and a long, bulging, extended neck; the bowls are nested and infolded. All the elements are glazed in contrasting matte and subdued tones. 

6 Bowls, bottles, and vessels, to 24 in. (61 cm) in height, 2013. All pieces are wheel-thrown, low-fire, black basaltic clay, gloss and crater glazes, fired to cone 012.

Travel and Influences

From 1974–75, Kvapil lived in southern Japan working at the Takatori Seizan Pottery on the island of Kyushu. Over the course of a year, he made ceramics for the tea ceremony and achieved the rank of journeyman potter. The forms and glazes he learned there are reflected in many of his pieces; these have a warmer, subdued palette with glazes that have run rather than cratered. The way he models the lips of his vessels also shows the Takatori aesthetic; the edges are thin, inward sloping and covered with a clear glaze that emphasizes the culmination of the vessel. On his bowl forms, the edges lead the eye to interiors that, while different in surface and coloration, partner precisely with the outer surfaces.

The forms and crater glazes of Gertrude and Otto Natzler have had a particularly strong influence on him. His work has also been shaped by a number of mid-20th-century potters including Hans Coper, Lucy Rie, and Shoji Hamada. Takatori ware has been particularly important to him because of its lush, dripping glazes and rims. All these influences have combined to root his work in tradition but also allow him a wide experimental range resulting in objects with a distinctly contemporary and highly individual appearance.

Jay Kvapil received his MFA from San Jose State University, served as director of the School of Art at Long Beach State University for twelve years, and is now dean of the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communications at California State University Northridge. His work has been shown at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, Dorothy Weiss Gallery San Francisco, the Oakland Museum, the Scripps College Invitational, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, and in numerous other national and international exhibitions. The Couturier Gallery in Los Angeles currently represents his work.

the author Kathleen Whitney is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.

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