REVIEW | Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby

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Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby

Racine Art Museum

The Pythagorean Archytas once declared that place is “the first of all beings, since everything that exists is in a place and cannot exist without a place.” The philosopher Aristotle, acknowledging with Archytas that “everything is somewhere and in place,” adding that “if such a thing is true, the power of place will be a remarkable one, and prior to all things.” It is with this idea in mind that I begin.

In his own words, artist Wayne Higby writes: “Longing has always possessed me. Longing for what? I have never been sure: a connection, contact, knowledge, and sense of place, revelation?“ He goes further, “Earth, sky, time, light, space: my work is a meditation on the relationship between mind and matter. It is not about landscape.” His words, like his ceramic constructions, are both poetic and prophetic. When he addresses his work, as well as others in the field do, there are recurring words noted, such as: reveal, longing, memory, grand, feeling, perception, depth, and vulnerability. And, unquestionably: landscape – the very beginning and the very subject of Wayne Higby’s work.

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Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby explores and celebrates the forms, techniques, and firing processes used throughout Higby's career, focusing on his ground-breaking work in raku earthenware as well as his later production in porcelain. It is one of the most beautiful and intoxicating exhibitions I’ve been to in 2014, if not the last few years. Having only seen a few of his individual pieces (and only one in person), I wasn’t prepared for the exquisite bombshell that is this exhibition. It is perfection in every sense of the word and in every reference to the work.

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To say that Higby is acquainted with the landscape would be an understatement. An acute observer with an intense curiosity, he embraces the vast landscape of the American West – beginning as a child growing up in the foothills of Colorado Springs. Anyone who has visited the western United States will recognize the imagery, texture, and color palette that Higby uses to reference the mysterious craggy rock outcroppings, hidden caves, and majestic views of the landscape of his youth. His work is tenderly crafted without pretense or ego, it is vulnerable and inviting. He has technically and beautifully considered and captured the landscape in form, color, dimension, and scale through elegant compositions that evoke panoramic scenes and grand moments in nature. From a purely material focus, there is enough substance here to keep me both occupied and satisfied.

Yet, as Peter Held, curator of ceramics at the Arizona State University Art Museum Ceramics Research Center writes in his introduction, “as the breadth of his work demonstrates, it would be too simplistic to define him only as an innovator of (process); although his iconic, raku-fired bowl forms made during the 1970s and 1980s are considered to be his signature works, his technique never took primacy over content.” It is Higby’s content, his successful investigation and emotional exploration of the landscape that I am transfixed by – not a subject that typically captures my interest. Yet, Higby displays remarkable ability to express such an immense concept, an entire landscape, as an intimate work of art. I am surprisingly and delightfully guided to an aesthetical and philosophical crossroads with the artist: “a zone of quiet coherence, a place full of silent, empty space where finite and infinite, intimate and immense intersect.”

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I am immediately drawn to Higby’s oversized bowl forms, both universal and classic and full of historical and personal connotation. The concave and convex walls with their soft sweeping ovoid rims provide ample volume to mine his interplay of real and illusionary space. In considering the notion of landscape in these specific works, I can’t help but reference philosophical ideas about place. In Physics, Aristotle defined place as “the innermost motionless boundary of what contains.” Signifying the relationship between thing and place, it can be inferred that the outer surface of the thing coincides with the inner surface of the place. He goes further, “Place is thought to be a kind of surface, and as it were a vessel, i.e., a container of the thing. Place is coincident with the thing, for boundaries are coincident with the bounded.” Thus, place (landscape) becomes container. Aristotle continued, “The vessel is a transportable place,” place itself is, “a nonportable vessel.” Though he began with jars and covered containers, a logical starting point for this type of conversation, it is when Higby turned the bowl right side up that he was able to attain the infinite space he sought after. By utilizing the bowl for his exploration of place/landscape, he turns object into subject through both form and surface. Higby’s vessels, then, are a place for places.

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In Shelter Rocks Bay, 1980, Higby nestles an entire cosmos in a bowl. Both intimate and immense, it is “the space beyond the physical.” And yes, it is, that magical. Boldly graphic and illustrative and mimicking of an actual landscape, Higby teases my eye to determine where the exterior of the bowl begins and the interior ends. He distorts my under- standing of form from the outside, yet soothes my wanting once I fully take in the inside of the bowl. He describes his surface as a “repetition of line with a rhythmical attention to evolving pattern.” In particular in his bowl forms, his ideas of pattern have formed the basis of structure in the mental and visual orientation of his work. His patterned sequences repeatedly suggest a psychological picture, an ideal rather than a realistic rendering of image, which holds me captive to overreaching questions of reality, space, and perspective.

Midsummer's Bay, 1991 detail.JPG

The stabilizing persistence of place as a container of experiences in Higby’s work powerfully contributes to its intrinsic memorability. Midsummer’s Bay, 1991, is an evolution of his previous bowls as the form heaves and undulates to become the physical embodiment of the radical landscape it evokes. Unbounded, mythical and shape shifting, it is increasingly topographical and exquisitely raw. I have to stop myself from running my hands along this surface, this “landscape,” which so obviously invokes the sensibility the artist is after. In manipulating the surface, these contusions become the physical markers of experience of viewing this place. These outcrops, like handles, beckon and invite me in as though I am a returning visitor. It is simply divine.

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Without the connotation of the vessel as a philosophical and conceptual grounding, it is clear how Higby’s works have been widely interpreted as merely three-dimensional landscapes (an interpretation the artist repeatedly refutes.) Instead, he insists, he “engages landscape as the panoramic outer membrane of an inner manifestation of unity – a silent, unseen, unknowable resonance of coherence.” Pictorial Lake, 1986, is evidence of how the landscape and our experiences within it can transfigure us in subtle yet significant ways. Higby intelligently opens and removes the closed boundary of the bowl and introduces open forms that I am now able to navigate in, through, and out of. In doing so, I am consciously aware of the spaces between. What were once lines on a surface become the joints between towers and careful folds reveal openings in the crust. This transfiguration to object highlights Higby’s search for the intangible, and widens the possibilities for its arrival through shape and form.

Whether it is the inspiration or the anticipated result, it is evident that memory plays an active role in Higby’s work – it feels pivotal in every piece. Philosopher Edward S. Casey, in Remembering, discusses the necessity to heed the proper place with matters concerning memory… “it's a manner not just of occupying place but of incorporating it into its own content.” He quotes Heidegger to prove his point: “To situate means…first of all to point out the proper place or site of something. Secondly, it means to heed that place or site. These two methods, placing and heading, are both preliminaries to a topology.” By clearly identifying the landscape and prominently heeding its value (through his making), Higby is able to examine place/landscape as its own content, as his content. And as it turns out, his terrain is ripe with memory. He crafts powerful associations between time and place, infusing each with a recollection of his own journey (past, present, and future) that is returned, interpreted, and revealed. As Higby moved beyond the vessel, it becomes obvious that he is conscientiously setting up opportunities for indulgent moments where I, too, am able to conjure memories – whether they are his or my own is irrelevant.

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After a visit to Jingdezhen, China in 1991, Higby’s work took a dramatic shift. He began working with slabs of glazed porcelain that continued to reference landscape, but more so purely as a focal point of meditation. His notions of unity and relationship and space are technically composed through subtle nuances and catastrophic events occurring from the heat of the kiln that cracked and ravaged the sculptures. Though modest in scale, precarious and fragile, works from the Lake Powell Series: Lake Powell Memory – Recollection Falls, 1996, Lake Powell Memory – Winter Rain, 1996, and Lake Powell Memory – Cliffs III, 1996 are deceivingly massive, both conceptually and visually. Seductive rock faces in a delicate celadon green embody the “meditation on the relationship between spirit and matter” that Higby seeks. These glaciated sculptures, imbued and fused with porcelain’s rich history, are relatively diminutive in comparison to the vast expansiveness they express. The resulting abstraction cleaved from an invisible yet present greater whole epitomizes Higby’s desire to interpret and reveal.

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Equally as sublime, but with a more earthen, intense palette (reminiscent of his bowls) are Green River Gorge, 2002, Laguna Rock, 1999, and Eidolon Creek, 2002. Each a masterful display of the integration of surface and form, the bold and dense colors capture the essence of these locations. I lean in closely, feeling what I can imagine is a dry heat come across from my face; somehow knowing a barren landscape is behind me if I would only turn around. I am both struck and comforted by a feeling of the familiar.

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EarthCloud, Sketch Gold #1, EarthCloud, Sketch Gold #3, and EarthCloud, Sketch Gold #4, all from 2012, are the standout works of the exhibition for me. Just a glimpse of Higby’s masterpiece, what the artist refers to as his magnum opus: EarthCloud, these intimate “sketches” have a deliberate gravity to them. The spirit of the movement evident in his vessel works collides with the boldness of his slab pieces to create elegant tectonic fields. The ground and sky intermingle into an atmospheric realm where rocks become clouds and sky becomes ground with dashes of gleaming gold bricks – each clamoring over itself, multiplying exponentially in a means, seemingly, to reach out to me. Transcendent in both process and product, EarthCloud reflects years of considered thought and sincere engagement with the material. It is the final transformation of Higby’s connection with the landscape as subject; he has thoroughly, beautifully, and ceremoniously crafted the intersection of intimacy and immensity.

Featuring more than 50 sculptures, jars, plates, bowls, boxes, and tiles as well as a wall-sized installation and studies for large-scale commissions, this landmark traveling exhibition is the first major retrospective to provide an in-depth critical analysis of ceramic artist Wayne Higby’s body of work created during a fifty-year period. This show complements RAM's emphasis on contemporary ceramics and includes examples from museum's collection alongside the borrowed works. Infinite Place: The Ceramic Art of Wayne Higby is on display now through January 4, 2015. I implore you to go. For more details, visit: http://www.ramart.org

Images (from top to bottom):Stone Gate, 2007, glazed earthenware, raku-fired, 14.5 x 16 x 6 in., Collection of the artist, Photo credit: Brian Oglesbee; Installation view, Photo credit: EMCox; Green Terrace Canyon, 1975, glazed earthenware, raku-fired, 13 x 13 x 11 in., Collection: Marlin and Regina Miller, Photo credit: John Carlano; White Terrace Gap, 1984, glazed earthenware, raku-fired, 11.5 x 18 x 16.5 in., Private Collection, Photo credit: Brian Oglesbee; Shelter Rocks Bay, 1980, (detail) glazed earthenware, raku-fired (all), Collection: Robert Pfannebecker, Photo credit: EMCox; Midsummer’s Bay, 1991 (detail) glazed earthenware, raku-fired (all), Courtesy of the Artist (all), Photo credit: EMCox; Pictorial Lake, 1986, glazed earthenware, raku-fired, 13 x 34 x 9 in., Collection: Sarah H. Morabito, Photo credit: Steve Myers; Lake Powell Memory – Recollection Falls, 1996, glazed porcelain, 16.5 x 20 x 9 in., Private Collection, Photo credit: Brian Oglesbee; Green River Gorge, 2002, Laguna Rock, 1999, and Eidolon Creek, 2002, (Left to Right), glazed earthenware, raku-fired (all), Courtesy of the Artist (all), Photo credit: EMCox; EarthCloud Sketch Gold #3, 2012, hand-cut, glazed porcelain tiles, Courtesy of the Artist, Photo credit: EMCox

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