John Balistreri: By and Large

By and Large at Belger Crane Yard Gallery (7)

Installation of the By and Large exhibition at Belger Crane Yard Studio in Kansas City, Missouri, 2014. Photo Credit: Belger Crane Yard Studio.

Towering forms that betray no hint of malice or desire to dominate the viewer through weight of mass or force of presence, the colossal glazed-stoneware sculptures of John Balistreri’s By and Large project exploit the pacifying properties of pleasing color and engaging pattern to quell the natural uneasiness that one feels in the vicinity of vaguely anthropomorphic objects of a stature that can kill. Despite defying gravity at up to 11 feet or more, the sculptures do not intimidate through technical complexity any more than through physical bulk, the secrets of their supporting structures being concealed beneath simple swelling planes and smooth spheroids that attract the eye like their organic counterparts in the human body. If the By and Large sculptures enter into an inequitable relationship of scale with the viewer, they do so with the benevolence of a parent toward a child rather than with the imperiousness of a sculpted deity or the menacing of a monumental tomb guardian.

In the fall of 2011, four months after arriving in Omaha, Balistreri set to work constructing the By and Large sculptures, anticipating the huge updraft gas kiln that had yet to be built at Kaneko’s facilities. Recognizing that the largest works would require a year and a half to dry thoroughly, he began with these and worked his way down to the smaller of the series, those roughly 5 feet in height (1.5 m), so that all 14 sculptures would be ready for firing together in 2013. This strategy, while logical (and ultimately successful) had the disadvantage of requiring that the most complicated engineering problems be addressed immediately, rather than building up to those challenges through success with the smaller-scale pieces first. “I had to jump into some of the most difficult technical things right off the bat,” Balistreri recalls. “One of the really big, complicated sculptures, called North Wind, has tubes that move all the way up the piece on different sides, coming out of the piece and going back into it. I had no idea if I could make those move up a sculpture more than 11 feet high. I really had to jump off the cliff at the beginning.”

The plunge into uncharted engineering territory was far from blind, however, not only because Balistreri had, through previous series, already accumulated significant experience working with clay on the five- to six-foot scale but also because he arrived in Omaha equipped with a well-developed metaphor for the kind of structure needed to produce the colossal works that he envisioned. Eschewing the egg form typical of pottery—nature’s solution to the problem of containing an inner space—he turned instead toward a model based on the general physical properties of a tree. Consisting of a core cylinder or group of cylinders, the vertically oriented form is capable of resisting a strong compressive force and even bearing a lateral, branching load as long as the tensile force is kept within reason and is evenly distributed. “If I can keep the weight consistent, the geometry on one side can be different from the geometry on the other side,” he explains. “It’s all held together by the central column, what I call the tube or tubes, which is like a tree trunk. Because of the stability of the trunk you can start to move out horizontally in different ways.”

This benign stance toward the viewer is crucial because it allows the anthropomorphic aspects of the sculptures to draw initial attention then recede into the background without raising anxieties that might interfere with the contemplation of form and its interaction with space. Allusion to the human figure is not, in other words, the primary goal of the By and Large sculptures. That allusion arises, as it did in the synthetic Cubist paintings of Juan Gris, for example, from an interface between a conceptual realm of pure forms—where relationships of shape, color, line, and space form a totality that is self-evident and self-sufficient—and the world of the viewer, where every nuance of form is considered a signifier of something and tapped for its hidden meanings. Balistreri does not thwart the viewer’s tendency to interpret his forms as anthropomorphic—in fact, in some sculptures he might be said to encourage it—but the figure in his work remains instrumental rather than essential. “It’s something the viewer can start with,” he asserts. “This thing can be seen loosely as a figure, and then you find out what I’m doing with clay.”

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2 John Balistreri loading sculptures for a bisque firing on a car kiln in Jun Kaneko’s studio in Omaha, Nebraska.

Displayed for the first time in 2014 in the gallery at Belger Crane Yard Studios in Kansas City, Missouri, the 14 works of the By and Large project were the culmination of years of formal and technical exploration. The latter was enhanced by a fortunate coincidence of two events in 2011, one of which was a year-long research leave (followed by a second year, then a year-long sabbatical) from Balistreri’s teaching duties at Bowling Green State University, in Bowling Green, Ohio, where he has been head of the ceramics program since 1996. “I had applied for patents on technology that we invented based on ceramics 3-D printing,” he relates. “Those patents were about to come through, and the university was interested in commercializing the technology. At the same time, Jun Kaneko, a friend of mine for nearly 20 years, told me that he was opening a new studio and building a facility for his large-scale work. He asked if I would be able to come out to Omaha and help manage that project. I showed him what was going on with the 3-D printing, and he said that could be really interesting. I asked permission from my university to take a leave to start commercializing the 3-D printing project, help Jun build a world-class, state-of the-art studio, and produce a body of large-scale work in that studio.”

3 Reef, 10 ft. 4 in. (3.15 m) in height, cone 6 stoneware, colored slips, clear glaze. 4 At Sea, 3 ft. 11 in. (1.2 m) in height, stoneware with blue glaze. 5 Signal, 6 ft. 7 in. (2 m) in height, stoneware, colored slips, glazes, fired to cone 6.

If the structural problems presented by colossal clay sculptures demanded that Balistreri take something of a leap into the unfamiliar, the aesthetic aspects of the By and Large project were thoroughly grounded in the success of two previous bodies of work: Geocubic and Problems of Sailing. The former, in which tubular construction played a central visual as well as structural part, actively explored the relationship between open form and surrounding space. The ongoing Problems of Sailing series, like the Geocubic works, has been strongly formal in orientation but has involved conceptual reflection as well. “I’m from Denver so it’s always been sort of a scary thing for me to be out on the water where I can’t see land.” Balistreri relates. “I started to think about people in the past who would get into ships and just sail off without really knowing what was going to happen. That’s still how we humans operate. We gather around some technology and we push it forward. The reason I called the series Problems in Sailing is that you get to the New World and what do you do to it? What do you do to the people who are there? I was thinking about how we’re working through technology. We’re affecting the world in very powerful ways, but we have no idea about the consequences.”

This conceptual aspect of the Problems in Sailing series became even more relevant as Balistreri speculated on the potential effects of his own contributions to the advance of digital-printing technology. In formal terms, the Problems in Sailing sculptures provided general compositional precedents for the By and Large sculptures, especially those pieces he would describe as airplane works: towering forms suggestive of jet-aircraft fuselages and horizontal stabilizers but also totemic torsos, torus–shaped heads, and arms extended laterally as if in caped gesture of benediction. The ability of Kaneko’s new kiln to fire such huge sculptures encouraged Balistreri to further exploit the surfaces for painting offered by the wings of his airplane forms. “Surfaces got somewhat simpler,” he observes. “There was more continuity in terms of how I could carry blocks of color and shapes throughout the piece. The earlier modular sculptures could be set up later as one piece but the physical disconnect was an interruption. The new opportunity allowed for more continuous flow from the bottom of the piece to the top of the piece.”

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6 John Balistreri glazing the top of Pilot from the By and Large series.

These kinds of formal concerns are central to the By and Large project, but the vague anthropomorphism carried forward from Balistreri’s earlier works is significant as well. Perhaps the most important consequence of the By and Large project is that it employs allusions to the figure to unify Balistreri’s art, bringing together two tendencies exemplified by the Geocubic and Problems in Sailing series. The Geocubic series could be described in terms of a geometricizing of the organic: a transition from natural forms, like those of the human body, to a more abstract modularity loosely oriented toward an invisible three-dimensional grid. The Problems in Sailing series, on the other hand, moved from the realm of purely non-objective form into a space where allusions to nature, particularly the human figure, can begin to arise. By bringing these opposing currents together, the By and Large works form a continuous spectrum between biomorphic abstraction and non-objective form, embracing the full potential that art offers beyond the confines of straightforward representation.

the author Glen R. Brown, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.

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