1 Shumpei Yamaki’s jar with ears, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, Scattergood stoneware, wood fired in the Scattergood Friends School’s kiln. 2 Tim Rowan’s wood-fired bowl.
Differences define better than similarity. When comparing two entities—similarities becomes invisible while the differences become magnified. This dynamic played out in the two-person exhibition “Exchanging Fire,” at Sara Japanese Pottery (www.saranyc.com) in New York, New York, which featured works by Tim Rowan and Shumpei Yamaki. The two first met in 2003 when Rowan was a visiting artist at the university where Yamaki teaches, and their friendship, exchange of ideas, and time spent working and firing together has continued since then. Both artists make vessels out of clay and wood fire the majority of their work, but their techniques, processes, and finished pieces are quite different. Rowan makes roughly hewn, highly textured, carved and handbuilt sculptural pieces while Yamaki makes wheel-thrown and altered functional work. By linking the two, who share some aesthetic influences, wood fire their work, and yet create very different pieces, Exchanging Fire created an interesting dialog.
The extent to which the maker imposes his personality on the objects he makes differentiates the two approaches. While all artists infuse their work with their identities; functional potters like Yamaki must do so while also being mindful of the demands of making a piece that can be used. Sculptors have fewer parameters (unless they impose some on their own, as Rowan does), and have the liberty to explore and invent whatever form they choose.
In the exhibited works, Rowan’s sculptures dealt with a single theme—making objects that evoke geologic time, yet are contemporary. He explored the formal differences between found and fabricated objects. From the clothes we wear, to the majority of the food we eat, to the computers and phones we communicate with—almost every object we use is made, not found. Objects are made by processes in the natural world as well. Influences of both kinds of objects showed up in Rowan’s pieces as he contrasted weighty organic shapes with crisply defined abstract shapes.
This dynamic appeared most immediately in Rowan’s teabowls. He altered the simple form of a short cylinder or half sphere by carving out sections to reveal cubes, ridges, and pyramid shapes, which he then hollowed out to create a vessel. As formal experiments in morphing geometric shapes, the forms fascinated. As functional cups, some looked like erudite dribble glasses. Exhibiting these pieces with Yamaki’s tea bowls magnified that their focus is not functionality. While they certainly can be used, they can’t be easily used.
Rowan’s teabowls were atypical of the work he exhibited. Most of his sculptures used a functional form as a starting point, but moved into abstraction and negate function or had no functional intent. Some of his most interesting pieces in the show were bowls that were made by hollowing out the centers of solid triangular blocks of clay. Formally, the intersection of the two shapes generated considerable visual interest. One specific bowl’s rim went from knife-edge thin to broad ridges. This contradiction mirrored and magnified the varied surface colorations, a product of the shifting air currents and atmosphere of the wood firing. The work adhered to Rowan’s theme of merging natural and fabricated shapes. While the exterior was clearly shaped and carved—the interior bowl shape looked as if it could have formed through a process of weathering and erosion. While referencing a functional form, these pieces did not present themselves as objects meant to be used.
Rowan’s most engaging work took the random surface quality created through the wood-firing process and made it the central concept of the form. To make Sculpture with Natural Stone, he encased a stone in a block of clay. As the clay dried and shrank, it cracked away from the core. The scarring from the wood firing exponentially increased the piece’s visceral appeal. Two characteristics of this piece distinguished it from most of Rowan’s other works on display. First, all of his other works were essentially representational. Each referenced something other than itself—even if it was a pure geometric abstraction. With Sculpture with Natural Stone the process and transformation of materials became the subject. Rowan created the illusion that the kiln authored the piece, although he selected the materials, constructed them and placed them in a certain spot, all of which contributed to the final piece far more then the idiosyncrasies of the firing.
This tension between natural and invented objects was paralleled in the process that Shumpei Yamaki used to create his functional pieces included in the exhibition. As a maker of functional objects, he is restrained in how much he can alter his forms. But whereas all of Rowan’s work was consciously controlled (even Sculpture with Natural Stone alludes to intent, albeit intent to give up control) Yamaki’s process contrasted this deliberateness. He originally studied dance, specifically hip-hop dance, in which he moved from a conscious control to more instinctive and intuitive control. Yamaki described the connection between the two:
“My former experience in hip-hop culture and Capoeira (Afro-Brazilian martial arts) still exists in my body and soul, blending with and influencing my wheel-throwing techniques. When I dance, I dance with flow and force. I dance to express my primitive spirit, and my intuition is exactly what I feel at that moment, completely removed from myself.”
This process of removing his conscious self from his process manifested in his work at Sara Japanese Pottery, like his subtly expanding and curving teabowls and katachuchi bowls, which appeared almost to have grown into their shape as opposed to being made. One of his vases, a small, squashed, sphere-shaped vase with a large mouth and two handles, epitomized this dynamic. Yamaki placed the widest point of the vase below half the vase’s height, while leaving the mouth undulating so that it looked like it was in flux, rather than leveling it off. These decisions made the piece seem animate. This illusion of being kinetic seemed a natural extension of his background as a dancer.
Tim Rowan’s cup, wood-fired stoneware.
Yamaki’s functional pieces embodied the strength of restraint in both design and ego. He exhibited several tumblers that consisted of a tapered, bellied cylinder. Aside from a bare semicircle of clay at the bottom—which looked like a finger mark created when the piece was held and dipped in glaze, Yamaki left no mark of his authorship on the piece. They were simple, economical, and designed to be used.
The exhibition also included a series of works where Rowan and Yamaki exchanged bisqueware and fired them separately. This process may be an extension of their experiences firing together, seeing one another’s work go into a kiln, and thinking about how different surfaces could change or complement the other’s forms. While the idea seemed exciting, its execution did not engage in the same way as the individual works, because all of the collaborative process tended to blur each artist’s identity in the work. Both Rowan and Yamaki work with nuance; however, the pieces they exchanged and completed together lost this sense and became homogenous. The strength of the exhibition came from drawing clear and substantial distinctions between the two artists’ styles and their individual focus on sculptural and functional ceramics. These works muddied those distinctions.
the author Anthony Merino, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Adams, Massachusetts.