David Hicks’ work implies nature, mirrors its infinite and varied manifestations, and embodies the energies of the vegetable world. His botanical imagery addresses the characteristics of a dozen or so different fruits or vegetables, but imitates none. His work is an amalgam of seeds, pods, buds, stems, flowers, a reinvention of botanical potential. It’s pointless to attempt identification—these objects are 100% artificial, totally invented. While they may bear some resemblance to something actually occurring in nature, the most important aspect of Hicks’ work is its science-fictional quality. The work bulges, contracts, expands, and has a distinctly anatomical presence, as if he’s merged the mammalian with the botanical and come up with some impossible vegetate chimera. He echoes the astonishing fecundity of nature through reinvention. His forms sometimes resemble the odd plant, vegetable, and human combinations found in Hieronymus Bosch paintings. These inventions have an otherworldly aspect; his point is not to duplicate nature, but to reinterpret it. The results could be seen as futuristic representations from the swiftly morphing landscape of gene splicing and recombination. Through the repetition of forms and the wire armatures supporting them, Hicks also comments on mechanization, on the mechanical proliferation of objects, and the contrast between mass-produced and handmade. His work, colonies of highly detailed objects held within bent and fitted metal supports, slows viewing down and exposes the time-consuming nature of his process.
A Voyeur of Nature
David Hicks is no gardener; his intense interest in nature is more theoretical than tangible. He’s a voyeur of nature, someone who values it, is attracted to its beauty, but has no actual physical relationship over and above consumption. Like most of us, he passes through nature, beholds it from the car, contacts it in the supermarket, but the relationship, though acknowledged, is distanced, detached, indirect. Hicks lives in what could be considered the heartland of California, the immense fields of the San Joaquin Valley. As he commutes through this landscape, he says he finds himself “looking at nature from a distance, separated through an abnormal mechanism that keeps me physically disconnected, but visually immersed, experiencing the landscape locked behind auto glass.”
In his recent show “Field Language,” at Edward Cella Art & Architecture (https://edwardcella.com) in Los Angeles, California, Hicks exhibited aggregate works—collections of objects held in place by squared-off, steel or copper armatures. These collections of botanical forms are like coral reefs—there are multiple components, each of which is highly individualized. The parts have family resemblances, but are never identical. His process of selecting forms begins somewhat randomly, but he says, “Almost always the first piece I create becomes the nucleus that all the other objects get their formal considerations from.” The armatures are a gridwork of metal loops and rods, each wide enough to contain the stalks/stems of a single ceramic object. This collection of loops and rods often supports dozens of discrete forms that vary in terms of shape and size. While not presented in a regimented, purely gridded fashion, there is a particularly uncomfortable tension between the twisted, biomorphic ceramic forms and the way they are held rigidly parallel to the wall.
The contrast between the mechanical nature of the metal and the organic irregularity of the ceramic pieces underscores the artificiality of our conception of nature as something that can be controlled and conditioned. The aggregations are built around fundamental tensions—while they create a formal conversation about pattern, color, texture, and beauty, they are also about obscurity and a kind of choking density. These objects are more about anxiety than about beauty; they are too crowded in, too strictly held in place to have a simple, relaxed, bouquet-like presence. It’s clear why Hicks has long been fascinated by Dutch still-life paintings—those elaborate floral displays whose beauty is always distorted by the presence of a worm or something decaying in their vicinity.
Although many individual pieces included in the show at Edward Cella Art & Architecture employ a narrow range of color, the small piece Citrus and Turquoise is emblematic of his body of work as a whole. It uses a range of blue-green and orange-yellow colors on surfaces that are bubbled, pocked, and sandblasted; the glazes seem to ooze from the forms. There are dozens of stemmed objects capped by a profusion of ambiguous shapes that could be bones, spikes, dried fruits, or vegetables. Each piece is encircled by one or two steel loops that hold them parallel to the wall. The loops are welded to a narrow, rectangular steel frame and the ceramic forms protrude from it. The pieces, some piled on top of others, leap out from this framework in orderly but congested rows, twisted and turned so they seem to be wrenching free of their constraints.
3, 4 Pale Field, 6 ft. 6 in. (2 m) in length, ceramic, steel, 2017–18.
Technical and Experimental
Hicks’ organic/mechanical forms are a consequence of his commitment to material and process. He speaks of his work using the formal language of texture, color, form, and composition, citing the complex relationship between touch and material. His work is both highly technical and experimental. Equally reliant on well-honed craft skills and the lucky accident, he wants to break the traditional molds he sees as strangling ceramic practice. Hicks started his ceramic practice as a functional potter; he now uses many fabrication techniques to make his forms; mold making, casting, and handbuilding.
Nothing could be more experimental than his work with glazes. Hicks uses a wide and eccentric variety of commercial and studio glazes—in all, hundreds of different formulations including lusters. He does multiple firings at all ranges. He has no trepidation about the one-shot experiment; dusting or sifting chemicals directly onto forms, making up glaze pastes, and massaging them onto pieces. Glazing is often not the final step for him; he makes extensive use of sandblasting to alter the fired surfaces. His goal is surfaces that blend texture, color, and variation. Although he has worked monochromatically in the past, he considers himself to be a colorist at heart. His use of color is not limited to the descriptive or thematic—it’s contentious, emotional, and occasionally irrational.
David Hicks teaches at Reedley College in Reedley, California. He has an MFA from Alfred University and a BFA from California State University Long Beach where he studied with Tony Marsh and Kristen Morgin—he attributes their influence to his interest in cumulative work. Hicks’ work is in the collection of the Boise Museum of Art; Arizona State University Art Museum; US Embassy Art Collection, Washington DC; American Museum of Ceramic Art, Pomona, California; KOCEF, Cerapia World Ceramics Center, Icheon, South Korea; and the Glory Hole Collection, Schien-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art, Alfred, New York. See more of his work at www.dh-studio.com.
the author Kay Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.