The exhibition of recent stoneware vessels by Peter Voulkos at Frank Lloyd Gallery features the sort of work on which the artist established his formidable reputation in the 1950s. Back then, when it signaled such a radical departure from almost every established norm of ceramic art, the work was greeted with stunned amazement. Now it is too, but it's amazement of a different order—the kind that comes from being in the presence of seemingly effortless artistic mastery. These vessels can make you gulp.
Artistically, Voulkos is a builder. Whether hand-held tea bowls, plates displayed on stands made from steel rebar or monumental vessels, his sculptural objects share a visceral sense of having been constructed, torn down, rebuilt, pulled apart and put together yet again. The elemental associations of the clay medium are acknowledged and exploited, not denied, while clay's transformative capacity under the intense heat of fire becomes a leitmotif in the building process Voulkos employs.
Every ceramic artist knows that what goes into a kiln looks very different from what comes out, and although what comes out can be controlled to varying degrees, it's never certain. Uncertainty feels actively courted in Voulkos' vessels, and this embrace of chance gives them a surprisingly contradictory sense of ease.
Most compelling here are the so-called "stacks." The chimney-topped shape of these 4-foot-tall vessels loosely recalls a cross between a classical jar and a firing kiln. Voulkos has been making these stacks at least since the 1970s, and as the name implies, they are built from disparate, often unrelated parts that are roughly stacked one atop another.
The stacks have the look of once-sleek vessels that shattered and were put back together, sometimes with pieces salvaged from more than one pot. Like assemblages, they are built from castoffs. The result is monumental clay vessels that, in our digital age of seamless imagery, stubbornly refuse to go away.
Voulkos has mounted each of these monumental works on a small lazy Susan. I suspect the reason is less about making it easy to view the vessel from all sides (how complicated is it to walk around a pedestal?) than about asserting the primacy of the human hand. You must touch the sculpture in order to turn it, engaging in an action that opposes learned behavior. (Don't touch the art!) The gesture again underscores something elemental.
Critical to the emergence of a significant art scene in Los Angeles in the second half of the 1950s, the 75-year-old artist has lived in Northern California since 1959. This is only his second solo show in an L.A. Gallery in 30 years. Don't miss it.
From "Peter Voulkos' Vessels Stack Up as Monumental Gems," by Christopher Knight. Los Angeles Times, Art Review, Friday, November 26, 1999.