Mark Pharis: Geometry of Experience

Cluster of vases, 32 in. (81 cm) in length, earthenware, 2012. Photo: Peter Lee.

Whether clad in a dark monochrome that seems to strain vessel walls with the weight of cast iron or painted in a balmy Portofino palette of pink, lime green, and yellow-orange—warm as the midday stucco of villages far away—the slab-constructed vessels of Mark Pharis raise impressions of surfaces that one recalls having touched sometime, somewhere before.

This mnemonic consequence seems a deliberate aspect of the works’ aesthetic effect. Through it, Pharis can confine his forms to a characteristic clarity and simplicity, almost minimalist candor, while nudging the mind of the viewer into increasingly complex and infinitely widening currents of association. By drawing the viewer’s own past into the experience of the works in this way, he makes his vessels seem inherently familiar, and even genial, despite the fact that formally they depart only a few steps from the stringent, impersonal confines of geometry. Eschewing the mathematical but retaining an underlying conciseness and clarity, he relaxes geometry into the more experiential form that we associate with the world and our wanderings through it.

Teapot, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, earthenware, 2010. Photo: Peter Lee.

Though Pharis cannot pinpoint the influences that initially oriented him toward a non-objective aesthetic of color fields and quiet planar construction, he recalls an affinity for orderly structural relationships and balanced proportions early in life, before he ever took to clay. Although the arrangements of textures, colors, tonal contrasts, and simple but allusive profiles of his works share much with second-generation New York School formalism or the Ocean Park paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, the work of other artists had little impact on his formal preferences until he had already found his aesthetic path. If anything contributed to his facility with a certain kind of form, it was perhaps a familiarity with no-frills utilitarian buildings. “Living in a rural area I saw a lot of vernacular architecture,” he explains, “corn cribs and granaries made for storage: simple geometric structures built in the 1930s and 40s, before everything went to metal. There was a nice use of material: mixtures of textures and colors but with nothing intentionally complex about them. I don’t know if that was an inspiration, though. I never made an intellectual choice about the forms I use. It was just something that I felt made sense.”

Platter, 28 in. (71 cm) in length, earthenware, 2009. Photo: Peter Lee.

Given his penchant for unadorned architectural form, Pharis would later take natural interest in the Usonian homes of Frank Lloyd Wright and the serene Modernist designs of Luis Barragán. When he considers architecture in relation to his own work, however, architectonics are less important than associations; that is to say, he is less concerned with producing vessels that imitate the lines of architecture than with making work that associates itself with architectural space, specifically domestic space. That association does not result in the aesthetic submission of his work to the organizing principle of the building, as in Bauhaus designs, but rather in a certain sense of fittedness: compatibility with a specifically domestic space, especially in terms of function. “Some of it for me is scale and location,” he says. “Inside of domestic space pots go somewhere. There are conditions under which they come into the room. One is that a teapot can’t hold five gallons. It needs to fit on a table. It needs to be able to live with those kinds of considerations, and that’s the framework inside which I work. I don’t think that because architecture is a partner, there necessarily has to be some kind of visual continuity with the architecture.”

Vase 10¼ in. (26 cm) in height, earthenware, 2011. Collection of Connee Mayeron/Fuller Cowles. Photo: Peter Lee.

Pharis is of a similar opinion regarding historical pottery, in which he finds a tremendous heritage and the potential to explore, but not necessarily an imperative to do so. Ancient Persian vessels of Tepe Sialk, with their long gutter spouts, as graceful as heron bills, have been inspiring over the years, not for the specifics of their form but rather for the implicit encouragement they give to push the envelope of proportions in functional objects. A student at the University of Minnesota in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pharis also developed an appreciation of East Asian pottery through Warren MacKenzie’s infectious enthusiasm for the vessels of Japan and Korea. “I think if you grow up speaking somewhere you acquire an accent,” Pharis reflects. “That was certainly true for me. All those pots I was introduced to are still really important, but I don’t think there’s a particular time period or culture that’s more important than another. Though it all still matters, it’s receded from me to a different location.”

Vase, 20 in. (51 cm) in length, earthenware, 2013. Photo: Peter Lee.

The only obvious link between Pharis’ vessels and those of the past is through function, though in his work function serves primarily as a means of connecting forms to domestic space. Over the course of his career he has produced a multitude of plates that have seen their share of use, but much of his work is unlikely to be in daily employ—and if it were, it might, by his own admission, not function very well. “That doesn’t stop me from making it,” he confesses. “I think it’s always about wanting to have that reference to utility, and that reference is almost always about the home. That’s different from problem-solving out in the world. To make a home is to create an environment where everybody is comfortable—or where everybody is supposed to be comfortable. So pots are part of that. They’re that kind of everyday, ordinary stuff that forms the environment that we nurture our children in, create our politics in, and on and on. I think that, generally, functional work does the best in that environment, because it’s familiar and nonthreatening, but also because that’s where pots do their work.”

The work of Pharis’ pots, unlike that of more common utilitarian vessels, is less often physical labor than the kind of persuasive exertion on the mind that characterizes art. Consequently, surfaces are conditioned not so much to carry food or contain drink as to convey aesthetic information. In his application of glazes Pharis is a masterful formalist, seeking a range of surface effects that he likens to the dynamic possibilities of music, the artistic medium that above all others inspired the birth of Modernist non-objective painting in the early 20th century. Like Kandinsky, Delaunay, and the myriad painters who have followed their lead ever since, Pharis employs color, texture, and shape to evoke content rather than represent it. Doing so effectively requires the kind of attention to nuance that he has developed over a long career as a colorist. Although a certain contemplative, sometimes even meditative, serenity is a hallmark of his work, he attains that effect through a careful balance of elements that, if arranged with less sensitivity to the whole, might easily come into conflict or even clash with one another.

Vase, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, earthenware, 2013. Photos: Peter Lee.

The final effect of Pharis’ compositions—a deceptive simplicity in which local tensions contribute to rather than undermine the serenity of the whole—is obviously a consequence of control, but not the kind of absolute control that tends to calculate and rationalize the life out of art. For Pharis, control is often a matter of setting parameters for the unexpected and then letting chance take over. “Some things are planned, but sometimes it’s choosing circumstances,” he says. “I’ve been trying to work with glazes that have a tendency to misbehave. In other words, depending on thickness and temperature, they’re not always going to be the same. There are some soluble materials in the glaze, so some part of the flux will end up somewhere where you might not have planned for it to be. I want that kind of variation, because an electric kiln can be a really dead place. The atmosphere isn’t particularly interesting. What I’m trying to do with surfaces is use glazes and colorants that will provide variety on their own. Sometimes I like what comes out; other times it’s all wrong. That’s the nature of the game.”

This openness to serendipity in surfaces is key to the effect of casual geometry in Pharis’ vessels, since it ensures a softer counterpart to the relative precision of the method he employs in constructing his forms. To cut slabs to the proper sizes and shapes for the walls of his often asymmetrical works he relies, as he has since early in his career, on templates. Sometimes these are produced through what he now describes as a longhand or analog process consisting of working out the particulars of shape through sketches then converting these into the equivalents of blueprint patterns using a compass, square, and straight-edge ruler. Cutting these shapes out of paper, he employs them directly as guides for shaping clay slabs or creates tar-paper intermediaries. Alternately, the templates can be developed digitally, using a computer-aided design (CAD) program to design more complex shapes. When employing this method he transfers the digital shapes to heavy craft paper using a large-scale printer. This technology, which he began utilizing in 1998, led to changes in the complexity of his forms. “The pattern-making used to be intensive, and it was a blind activity,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. With the CAD program I could model the shape then unfold it to get the 2D iteration. It made it possible to see complex things in a simple way.”

Set of bowls, 4 ft. 4 in. (1.3 m) in length, earthenware, 2007. Photo: Peter Lee.

Complexity presented in terms easily grasped by the eye and mind—complexity experienced as simplicity—is typical of Pharis’ compositions. It consists of regional contrasts of color, tone, texture, or shape that, through loose repetition on a broader scale, are reconciled into a harmonious whole. For example, in a vessel with an asymmetrical rim that drops dramatically then rises again like a battlement on a castle wall, Pharis might paint a strip of green glaze on either side of the gap, inviting the mind to complete the line to form a perfect continuity across the empty space. This imagined continuity is especially important in the case of multiple forms designed to stand separately from one another but in rows that emphasize their mutual dependency. Within a single piece, glazed elements often echo fragments of a vessel’s profile, though not necessarily in an immediately obvious way. “I try to have them refer back to the entire piece, not in every painted shape, but somewhere,” Pharis explains. “The clay form always comes first, so that’s the canvas. That’s what you get to work with. The painted forms are either identical or similar to parts of that. They’re either right-side up or upside down. It’s not a big conceptual step.”

Big conceptual steps have never typified Pharis’ works, nor have they characterized the development of his career as a whole. The subtleness of his compositions is, after all, a product of the kind of sensitivity to formal elements that can only come through long experience and dedication to goals not attainable overnight. Although the generations of students that he has taught at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, in Minneapolis, have, constantly reinvigorated his interest in clay through their enthusiasm and curiosity, he has in his own explorations held himself to the measured pace that has always proved most effective. “By nature things don’t go quickly for me,” he says. “There have been incremental changes since I began the work. The earlier forms were more geometric and the use of color was literally in blocks or rectangles. There’s a kind of thread that runs through the work that has to do with structure and body and a set of proportions that I don’t seem to be able to shake, but I think the work is more abstract now. It’s taken a while to see that. I’m getting older, and that’s what happens, I guess. That was true of [artist Giorgio] Morandi—he’s a profound example of that. Things got more and more abstract the longer he was able to work. I will probably keep playing with form for as long as I have the opportunity, but I certainly can do it better now. It’s not the struggle anymore.”

the author Glen R. Brown is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.


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Subscriber Extra Content

Vase, 32 in. (81 cm) in length, earthenware, 2014. Photo: Peter Lee. Courtesy: Lacoste Gallery.

Soy Bottle, 5½in. (14 cm) in height earthenware, 2010. Photo: Peter Lee.

Envelope Vases, 32½ in. (82cm) in length, earthenware, 1991. Photo: Peter Lee.

Envelope Vases, 30 in. (76 cm) in length, earthenware, 1991. Photo: Peter Lee.

Vases, 28 in. (71 cm) in length, earthenware, 2013. Photo: Peter Lee. Part of the Huntington Museum of Art collection.

Tray, 22 in. (56 cm) in length, earthenware, 2013. Photo: Peter Lee.

Vase, 22 in. (56 cm) in length, earthenware, 2014. Photo: Peter Lee.

Vases, 21 in. (54 cm) in length, earthenware, 2012. Photo: Peter Lee.


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