If you went to Peter Voulkos: Stacks, 1969 – 2001 expecting to find much to look at you may have been disappointed. On view at Burning in Water Gallery in Chelsea through September 21, the show was comprised of punctured plates and weighty mud and ash-colored vessels resembling chimneys or primitive ovens whose most defining features were cracks and slashes, sags and insertions of matter by which the artist had disfigured his vessel motifs into sculptures that were, you could say, ugly. But the power of Voulkos’s Stacks — large-scale bronze vessels cast from stacks of cylindrical clay slabs — lay less in their visual harmony than in their material vitality, in traces of the artist’s physical presence that appealed to a sense of touch. Wads of clay with impressions of fingertips conveyed Voulkos’s assertive hand; atavistic scribblings across a vessel’s surface, his curiosity and irreverence.
Born in 1924, Peter Voulkos achieved a sort of celebrity status in the ceramics world for his irreverent approach to traditional ceramic methods to create abstract and at times monumental works of art from clay. As well as innovating in the field of ceramics, Voulkos made his mark as an educator, founding the ceramics department at the Los Angeles County Art Institute, now the Otis College of Art and Design, before he taught at the University of California, Berkeley. At Otis, he taught and worked alongside other male artists who would go on to redefine ceramics as an art form, among them John Mason, Paul Soldner and Kenneth Price. With Voulkos’s leadership, the Otis group challenged and expanded the expressive possibilities for ceramic sculpture, asserting its relevance as form of art rather than craft.
A predominant way that critics and artists at the time conceptualized the aesthetic value of new ceramic sculpture — with Voulkos’s work at the forefront — was to compare it to abstract expressionist painting. In a 1961 article titled “The New Ceramic Presence,” a critic named Rose Slivka observed that American ceramists, Voulkos among them, approached clay in a similar manner to how abstract expressionists treated paint, valuing its physical malleability and the “spontaneous creative accidents” of the creative process. Slivka observed that these ceramic artists and abstract expressionist painters shared “the need for spontaneity in which the will to create and the idea culminate and find simultaneous expression in the physical process of the act.” Among the tens of other artists whose work was included in “the new ceramic presence,” few made work that embodied the performative, process-oriented aesthetic of “abstract expressionist ceramics” quite as completely as Voulkos, or in such monumental forms.
Much like the canvas was Jackson Pollock’s field of action, conventional pottery forms, for Voulkos, were the basis for his visceral expressions of bodily intuition and feeling. Particularly in the earlier works in this exhibition — plates and stacks created between 1969 and 1986 — expressive depth has been achieved in a tension between the uniformity of wheel-thrown forms, and the more unruly force of the artist’s actions upon the clay. In two untitled stacks that sit at the front of the gallery, created in 1969 and 1974, Voulkos has incised gestural lines by hand, poked holes of varying sizes and inserted clumps of clay into pockets he has dug out from the surface. In the one from 1974, an inches long, jagged hole reveals the dark hollow of space dwelling beneath the expressive facade. In several of the plates in the exhibition (half of them bronze cast, the other half ceramic) Voulkos has punctured the surface not from the front but from behind — evoking an internal source of pressure forcing itself outward through the membrane of the clay.
Whereas the earlier stacks bear traces of actions upon a stack of distinct wheel-thrown cylinders, in the later stacks, created between 1994 and 2001, Voulkos has hand-constructed their entire surfaces from hefty bricks and slabs. The primary cylindrical parts that compose these pieces may have been thrown on the wheel to start, but their basic cylindrical forms have been amended by heavy vertical and horizontal bricks and holes which invite the dark interior into dialogue with the reflective surface. In “Mimbres” from 2000, a horizontal brick hangs precariously off the surface, heavy yet seemingly immune to the laws of gravity. In “Isis” from 2001, Voulkos’s insertions and incisions have evolved into almost a geometric pattern language of holes, vertical bricks and wide rectangular slabs which he has pressed into the surface and blended with his fingers. This structure in particular achieves an abstract visual harmony, but one is able to connect with it more deeply in identifying its precarious heaviness and surprising weightlessness with one’s own embodied experience of things in the world. In this respect, Voulkos’s work brings to mind the post-impressionist painting of Paul Cezanne, whose brushstrokes, like the parts by which Voulkos constructed of his later vessels, serve to create in the painting an internal, bodily sensation of weight and volume, not in order to literally represent that of an actual object in the world, but to convey the motif within the universe of the artist’s embodied motives, personal history and physical sensations.
Voulkos helped expand the aesthetic possibilities in ceramics by using conventional pottery forms as a basis for abstract expressions of attitudes, sublimated desires and bodily feelings. That the ultimate form of the “Stacks” is bronze rather than fired clay brings these vessels into dialogue with the history of bronze sculpture and with that, sculpture writ large. Bronze, typically cast from wax or clay, has traditionally been a medium for monumental works, most often human figures, whose position in a public place was often commemorative. Voulkos’s stacks, as upright bronze figures, make monumental the artist’s private impulses, creative intuition and physical capacity — an endeavor that, because or in spite of its arrogance, has resulted in work that feels startlingly fresh and alive today. Laying bear the material origins of their construction, Voulkos’s stacks and plates give form to the physical conditions, in the body as in clay, out of which meaning assumes form.