The Counterculture Ceramics of Tom Bartel

1 Installation view at Northern Clay Center, 2016. Photo: Peter Lee.

Reds, baby blues, yellows, and black; textured surfaces showcasing dots turning into polka dots; single lines turning into stripes. Magical, mysterious, and frequently gritty, these fragmented figures stand firm, embedded with broken, cracked lines that suggest a sense of experiences and the notion of implied time. The intriguing and transgressive ceramics of Tom Bartel are fueled by a combination of fine art, historical, and contemporary themes, reminding us of the ontology of humanity. His works reflect a depth of art historical knowledge, thoughtfully and attentively considered in a world of overbearing visual clutter, exploring many cultural references through reconceptualization.

Tom Bartel has been working in sculptural ceramics for more than 20 years. In his formative years, growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Bartel took inspiration from his childhood experiences, as well as some unexpected places. As he roamed his home town, he brought to life the architecture that surrounded him, the breaks in the façades of buildings, the cracks on the concrete beneath his feet, recognizing the ability of a city to hold its history and capture time within its broken surfaces.

His fascination with the architectural landscape brings to mind the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, an artist for whom the cityscape provided creative fuel for an ongoing internal dialog, a means to communicate time and decay through frequently abandoned and invisible architecture, recomposing them into art. Tom Bartel says, “In this time and place, I grew up surrounded by decay. I think the interesting part of this is how it eventually clarified that my aesthetic originated from an early age. I am enamored with heavily worn and rustic surfaces. I find them to be rich and beautiful. I intend them to also perform as evidence of, or a record for (signifying), how something has changed over time or how something has been affected by the elements and/or time.”

2 Dormant Figure, ceramic, wood, 2016. Photo: Peter Lee.

3 Red Janus Head, ceramic, wood, 2017. Photo: Ben Siegel.

Memento

His most recent body of work is framed around the concept of a memento, an object kept as a reminder or souvenir of a person or event.

With some of the works in this collection, you can identify Bartel’s signature style, echoing the fractured lines in the Ohio landscape within the surface of his sculptures, using clay surfaces as a tool to map out our experiences and the decay of skin. These are works with significant power to inform the viewers of their own demise. “I see our skin as having the same potential as the surfaces by which I am intrigued,” explains Bartel. “Throughout our life as we age our appearance inevitably changes, and in the process, our skin records this story. The surface imposed on human form performs as metaphor for how things change over time and how we are affected by both the passage of time and an accumulation of experiences.”

At the same time, Bartel also employs a playful visual cultural connection with 1970–80s counterculture reflecting his childhood influences, such as Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, and Wolfman. This visual aesthetic brings to mind Tim Burton’s lovingly crafted animation Frankenweenie, and John Waters’ black comedy Pink Flamingos and the pivotal role that black and white colors, polka dots, and stripes play within the design. Bartel uses these recognizable patterns to open the discussion around counterculture and the application of these symbols in contemporary art (such as Camille Rose Garcia’s Down the Rabbit Hole), and their significance as visual cultural signifiers for those who grew up watching the 1960s television series The Munsters and The Addams Family, both of which offered up a popular and yet subversive advert for nonconformity and dark humor.

4 Blue Figure Afflicted with Hearts (After Kouros), ceramic, wood, 2016. Photo: Ben Siegel.

Dots or Stripes | A Cultural Connection

Emotion can be read with every mark, and with every sculpture that Bartel creates, he brings to the surface our relationship with polka dots, lines, and stripes. Each has a unique personality and rich history aligned with contemporary fine art and fashion.

Bartel employs these simple shapes with a direct understanding of their historical and countercultural significance. An investigation into these everyday forms reveals that polka dots were symbols of supernatural potency and various other beliefs, before adorning clothing and, of course, Minnie Mouse back in 1926. An almost inescapable motif, the polka dot first appeared in Switzerland in the 1850s used by a textile company, but didn’t gain in popularity until the Industrial Revolution enabled manufacturers to create evenly spaced and consistently sized spots on a large scale. Fashion became (somewhat) accessible at this time, and polka dots were seen to be on the cutting edge.

In the 19th century, Pointillism nodded toward the polka dot in the works of Georges Seurat, who, along with Paul Signac, is the style’s founder. One marvels at how the paintings are made up of thousands of colored dots: distinct pricks of red, green, indigo, and zinc yellow. In the 20th century, the polka dot took a more subversive turn and more artists embraced the abstract pattern within their work. Yayoi Kusama used the abstract pattern as a visual object in its own right, while Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein poked fun at American iconography and elevated the dot in his work.

During the 13th century, stripes had a rather controversial status, as they were used by individuals and society as a symbol to signify outsider status. This symbolism continued with the prison jumpsuits used in the early 19th century. Jude Stewart in Patternalia writes that, “Stripes used to refer to individuals barred from polite society.” Even with the passage of time, stripes still have a significant power to inform audiences, and in contemporary fashion are still applied as symbols of rebellion. Consider asking French fashion icon and “l’enfant terrible” Jean-Paul Gaultier.

5 Red Figure Afflicted with Hearts (After Kouros), ceramic, wood, 2016. Photo: Peter Lee.

Bartel says, “If I analyze the simple patterns I employ from an intent standpoint, they come from a place of imposing pattern on human form, though in my view some of the most simplified patterns, either stripes or dots have become archetypes of sorts in modern time.”

Northern Clay Center and the Archie Bray Foundation

The Memento series was exhibited at the end of his residency at the Northern Clay Center (NCC) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Bartel investigated the dichotomy of life, death, modernity, and the historical. These works are beautifully anthropomorphic forms with sociological investigations that celebrate Bartel’s own unique aesthetic. The exhibition comprises six figures. They are man, they are child—striped, defiant, patterned, fragmented, and historic. They are as complex as they are revealing, a reflection of Bartel’s intention to remind us of our temporality.

As an artist in residence at NCC in 2014, Bartel pushed himself into creating various interpretations of figuration. Looking to the historical and the notion of the memento he produced works that are raw and infused with meaning. In one interpretation he created Figure Afflicted with Red Hearts (After Kouros), his own personal interpretation of the Greek statue Kouros, existing as both a symbol of youth transitioning to adulthood and a memorial commemorative object. A nude figure stares dead-eyed downward, their body scarred with lines and tattooed with red hearts.

Today, Bartel’s aesthetic is changing, moving away from traditional ideals of figuration, color pattern, and lines, dissolving the parameters that lineate meaning and form, and offering up just enough visual clues to evoke a sense of the human form. “During this time, the goal I set for myself was to condense my work in a way, and thus the figure, through editing familiar tropes of bright colors, pattern, and traditional figuration,” Bartel explains.

6 Hamburgula (overall and detail), ceramic, wood, 2016. Photo: Peter Lee.

After completing his residency at NCC, Bartel traveled to Helena, Montana, for a month-long residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. There he worked on developing this new aesthetic and erasing some of the complex qualities of his signature style. Even though the new sculptural objects are more tranquil and seemingly at ease, they still encompass Bartel’s personal history and his use of the material for over 20 years. You might be able to remove gestures, expressions, and limbs, but you can’t eliminate the well-educated hand of the artist. Bartel notes, “A lifetime of creative work devoted to examining the human condition (the cycle of life, rites of passage, fertility, and mortality) has provided me with a continual source of information. I am obsessed with and observant of how powerful time is and am intrigued by the many ways in which we are affected by its passing.”

Tom Bartel received an MFA from Indiana University and a BFA from Kent State University in Ohio. Bartel has lectured, conducted workshops, and exhibited extensively throughout the US and internationally. His work is included in numerous public and private collections. Bartel is currently an associate professor and ceramics chairperson at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

the author Edith Garcia is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the California College of the Arts, where she was awarded the Viola Frey Distinguished-Visiting Professorship. Garcia is strongly engaged in the critical research of contemporary art and craft issues through curating, publishing, and creating works that reflect this passion. Garcia received a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, an MFA from the California College of the Arts, and an MPhil from the Royal College of Art in London. To learn more, visit www.edithgarciastudio.com, Instagram: @nenagarcia, Facebook: edith.garcia.nenadot.

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