Spanning a pair of tables placed end to end, unfired stoneware plates extend in orderly rows beneath thirty feet of rolled-out synthetic vellum still wound at one end around the roller, as if ready to spread itself over as many plates as one might choose to make. The translucent surface of the vellum bears in pencil a complex pattern of tear shapes and spirals that echoes the organic evocations of brocade fabric. Into the gray faces of the plates below, a motif—extracted from the continuity and repetition of the pattern—is incised through white slip, making each plate a reminiscence of a larger whole as well as an independent composition in which the formal elements, repeated in quadrants, create a pattern of their own. This implicitly conceptual work—Linda Sikora’s Unititled Drawing Table (2013)—is, in the manner of all effective abstractions, a revelation through reduction. Through its simple juxtaposition of two and three dimensions it condenses and expresses an aesthetic dynamic that has extended through Sikora’s art since her days of undergraduate study at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (now NSCAD University) and graduate school work at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.
At NSCAD in the late 1980s the influence of Walter Ostrom, a staunch advocate of education in ceramics history, led Sikora to explore glazes and wax-resist techniques that recalled Chinese Tang-dynasty sancai (three-colored glaze) and all of the variants—from Syrian three-colored to Staffordshire tortoiseshell wares—that it inspired as it worked its influence westward over time. Characteristic of such wares can be the appearance of thin veils of colors clinging to surfaces like variegated skin. It is no coincidence that, at the height of Modernist formalist influence in painting in the 1950s, when artist Morris Louis sought to emphasize the essential two-dimensionality of his medium, he poured paint down the canvas, producing the streaky effect of Tang sancai or 18th-century Whieldon wares. This appearance appealed to Sikora as well, but she did not succumb entirely to the spell of surfaces, however attractive they might have been. At the University of Minnesota, where she completed her MFA in 1992, the influence of Mark Pharis led her to favor altered and constructed vessels that achieved aesthetic impact largely through three-dimensional properties of form.
Sikora’s Untitled Drawing Table is most intelligible in light of her education first in surface and then largely in three-dimensional traits and of the way in which she has sought to reconcile these two formal aspects in the porcelain and stoneware vessels that she has produced over the past two decades. If the aesthetic goal has been a harmony of two- and three-dimensional elements, this harmony has not arisen through a perfect balance. On the contrary, it has emerged as a relationship of primacy and support in which surface has sometimes played the dominant role while at other times the three-dimensional properties of vessels have taken precedence. For Sikora, resolution of formal problems in the ceramic work has always involved arbitration between simplicity and complexity that unfolds in the relationship between surface and three-dimensional form.
“I came up through the school of cut and paste—making shapes by cutting, altering, and constructing,” Sikora explains. “A significant aspect of my education lay in pursuing that degree of complexity in a pot. After graduate school, I lost enthusiasm for these types of pots and the work changed dramatically. I began to make unaltered wheel-generated pieces. The acuity necessary to work in this manner provided productive challenges and evident progress. I was looking for another sense of interior space and looking to get closer to the essential, familiar quality of roundness—in life, culture, and in the historic pottery I am enchanted by. The expanse of the unaltered fields left room for pattern making and polychrome glazing. I see that it has always been necessary for there to be a certain level of complexity in the work. When it retreated from the forms it appeared on the surface.”
The complexity of Sikora’s glazed surfaces has been produced primarily through two separate strategies—treating the surfaces as single fields in which the elements of pattern are small and similar in size or dividing the surfaces into blocks that define discrete fields. The former treatment produces an effect of contrast and continuity between myriad small organic units, each slightly different yet consistent in kind, like plumage on the breast of a quail or petals in an orchard blanketing the ground after a windstorm. This kind of pattern lies as taut against the surface as fabric on a tabletop. In contrast, the second means of adding complexity to surfaces involves articulating space into larger shapes, like the division of a turtle’s carapace into organic hexagonal and pentagonal scutes. In Sikora’s work these shapes—or as she prefers to call them, reserves—are often themselves uniform, almost blank, but the borders between them undulate and drip in liquid acquiescence to gravity, or bleed into wispy transitions that recall an animal’s fur or the edge of a turning leaf in the fall. The effect of large, flat, pale shapes and the darker borders that meander between them can be atmospheric, imparting to a vessel the appearance of a cage and empty space glimpsed through it. As Sikora observes, “the glazing became a way of articulating and reconstructing the surfaces by using color and pattern.”
The play between simplicity and complexity and the dynamic between surface and three-dimensional form have recently led Sikora to explore what at first might appear to be a radical departure from the characteristics of her signature styles. Through a series of sturdy stoneware crocks and teapots she has introduced a dark, striated whorl pattern that she refers to as faux wood. Somber in tone and emphasizing line over shape in their decorative format, the faux-wood vessels play the Apollonian, structural counterparts to Sikora’s more Dionysian, coloristically expressive works in the larger exploration of formal effects. Though they began as scions of her earlier patterned wares, they were driven by conceptual as well as formal concerns. Color receded in the transition from the vibrant precedents to the faux-wood vessels not so much through essentialization of structure at the expense of emotional content as through focus on principles such as economy and effectiveness that have pervaded Sikora’s thoughts about pottery for some time.
Economy, in the sense of a conservation of energy, time, and resources is significant to Sikora’s work, as much in the formulation of aesthetics and development of conceptual content as in production. She speculates: “Though they have fewer moves in them—the foot is uncut for example—I don’t think that I could have made the faux-wood pots earlier. Their reductive qualities resulted from a certain economy in how I began to approach materials and how I thought about bounty. There was also an attempt to generate tension between the elemental and the banal by luxuriously surfacing basic shapes. In method the faux-wood crockery series comes together in a manner that feels more like the making of a poem than the telling of a story.” Such a poem would, of course, be in the vein of William Carlos Williams rather than William Shakespeare, exhibiting the terseness of Neo-Modernism rather than the regulation and intricacy of iambic pentameter. In the faux-wood vessels economy in making has resulted in economy of form—the condensation of expression as well as the quality that Sikora describes as effectiveness—while sacrificing nothing of the conceptual complexity of potential impact on the viewer.
The conceptual impact most important to Sikora in functional pottery is attained through effectiveness, by which she means a certain causality. “I’m thinking of pots not in animistic terms,” she explains, “but rather as dynamic objects in a living system. We tend to think about household matter or things including functional pottery as props in our human-willed dramas, but I’m suggesting that effective pots have affect and agency. This vitality brings into the room a capacity to script what occurs.”
This kind of causality on the part of functional pottery—of subtle influence over, even guidance of human behavior—is for Sikora not limited to the aspect of use. It figures as well into the stage of production, especially (as Untitled Drawing Table suggests) in the interval between finished three-dimensional forms and as yet not fully articulated surfaces. Decoration evolves in the space between prospective ideas, as sketchy as pencil lines on vellum, and the concrete qualities of pots and plates still in progress. “I have a notion of the type of patterns and colors that the forms will hold,” she says, “so arguably as I’m making form I’m embedding surface information in the piece. When the pots come out of the bisque firing they might demand reassessment because they’ve changed or because I’ve changed.” It is ultimately in this reassessment that Sikora’s works integrate form and concept, not only acquiring aesthetic effectiveness—their characteristic resolution of three-dimensional form and surfaces into roles of primacy and support—but also, and equally important, integrating this into causal effectiveness: the agency, rather than mere utility, that the best of pottery can possess.
the author Glen R. Brown, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.