BROKENWARE, The Search for an Alternative Beauty,
Rob Barnard 1974 - 2018
Bernard Leach, in his seminal work, "A Potter's Book," introduced Japanese pottery to the West as an art-form in its own right and inspired potters from around the world to travel to Japan to study.
Rob Barnard went to Japan in 1974, seeking the romantic Japan that Leach described, but instead, found a deeper more profound direction for his work. His teacher and mentor, the late Kazuo Yagi, often described as the "father of modern Japanese ceramics,” challenged Barnard to pursue the conceptual, emotional, and spiritual side of pottery and forced him to be ruthless in eliminating from his work any false sentiment. Barnard thrived under Yagi’s guidance. When he returned to the US in 1978 the course his work would take in the future had been set.
I became aware of Barnard’s work in 1982 when I opened Anton Gallery in Washington, DC. As a university student, I participated in a three month travel study to Japan with the late Dr. Noburo Inamoto, professor of Japanese language at The University of Southern California. Dr. Inamoto believed that in Japanese culture, pottery, more than any other art-form, comes the closest to representing the true character of the Japanese people. So, with lack of the Western prejudice that pottery was incapable of serious expression, I experienced in Barnard’s work, the kind of seriousness and depth that I wanted to be the hallmark of all the art at my gallery. I instinctively felt that the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings would not only allow his work to fit in at Anton gallery, but also would make him an important artist in the years to come.
Barnard, subsequently, has become not only one of the most important post WWII American potters, but also a leading contemporary artist. He has demonstrated, over his career of exhibiting his work alongside painting and sculpture, that pottery is every bit as capable of serious and meaningful expression as any other expression in the fine arts.
Gail Enns, Director
Celadon Art Management
Broken Ware, The Search for an Alternative Beauty, Rob Barnard 1974 - 2018 represents the extreme edge of Rob Barnard’s interest in imperfection, what he refers to as the “imperfectly perfect.” The pieces in this exhibition are not meant to be read as unusable sculptures about pottery. They are presented to the viewer as “whole” and “perfect” functional pots, intimate in scale, that demand to be understood on their own terms.
The “break” may be a large, imposing crack, a flawed surface, or a distorted form. What they have in common is that they demand a reevaluation of the notion of wholeness and beauty. A few of the “broken objects” were the result of accidents in the firing process, but the vast majority were intentional attempts by Barnard to find an unpredictable beauty that transcends the mundane. These works point toward a greater mystery which is inaccessible by conventional methods.
Rob Barnard went to Japan in 1974, seeking the romantic Japan that Bernard Leach described in his writings, but instead, found a deeper more profound direction for his work. His teacher and mentor, the late Kazuo Yagi, often described as the "father of modern Japanese ceramics,” challenged Barnard to pursue the conceptual, emotional, and spiritual side of pottery and forced him to be ruthless in eliminating from his work any false sentiment.
Barnard thrived under Yagi’s guidance. When he returned to the US in 1978 the course his work would take in the future had been set. For over three decades Rob Barnard has pursued his fascination with the flawed, imperfect pot. And it is the “broken” pot ultimately that defines what Barnard’s work is about -- the struggle to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions inherent in the human condition.
I have been making this type of wood-fired work for just over thirty years. I started in Japan in 1974. I had seen historical Japanese pieces in books while I was a student at the University of Kentucky, but had not been able to achieve the colors and the natural ash glaze that runs off the shoulder of pieces and down the belly. When I was accepted as a research student at Kyoto University of Fine Art, I decided to explore this type of firing and satisfy my curiosity. Then, when I actually handled these naturally glazed pieces I found them to be much different than I had anticipated. First, the variety of surface effects was far greater and much more complex than I had imagined, but perhaps, more important, these pots were used. I had always thought that they were merely decoration, like a found object in nature, but the surfaces were tactile and vitrified. They interacted with food, flowers and drink in a way that was entirely different from the kind of glazing I had been accustomed to as a student in the United States. This was important to me because I was interested in how pottery makes us feel and how we interact with it. I was not interested in decoration per se, only in how it supports the aesthetic impact of a pot. Form was my overriding concern and I had not, until then, found a way to finish my forms. The abstract quality of the natural ash glaze and the flashing that occurs in this type of firing may not seem like “surface decoration,” but it is. It is more like the abstract quality of Mark Rothko’s paintings with two squares of color, one placed above the other, than, say, the Impressionist and post-Impressionist work that preceded it and the pop-art that followed. It is a type of expression, a genre that has its own vocabulary. It is the language that I use.
Mr. Barnard has glimpsed the true essence of pottery, and thus has entered deeply the philosophical world. This understanding can be seen in his quiet intensity. I feel that even Japanese would profit by the deep suggestions in his recent work which is highly unusual in that he is applying concepts evolved in modern ceramics to his work and congealing them into the unchanging tradition of Japanese pottery.
- Kazuo Yagi, Chairman, Ceramics Department
Kyoto City University of Fine Arts
....For Barnard, the decision to make functional pottery is not governed by commercial necessity or even a moral imperative. It is an act of stealth in which high aesthetics and complex ideas disguised as modest objects invade our consciousness.
-Julian Stair, CERAMIC REVIEW
A key dimension of Barnard's aesthetic has been a tolerance for the slight irregularities and imperfections engendered by the wood-firing. In his work, the inclusion of a number of cracked and dented works indicates a Zen-like acceptance of all of nature's workings, not merely those that suit the preset needs of man. The results are highly poetic. For example, in eloquent counterpoint to the regular, circular tracks left by the wheel, a vertical fissure creeps down the side of a cylindrical covered jar. The lid curves ever so gently above the crack, as if to acknowledge its presence. Another piece, a handsome globe-shaped vessel, has cracked at the lip and partially collapsed under the pressure of firing. The jagged opening yawns, like a mouth convulsed in pain, in violent negation of the rounded form’s connotations of nature and wholeness.
- Alice Thorson, The Washington, DC City Paper
...Just as accident invigorates abstract expressionist paintings, these imperfections imbue Barnard's austere forms with character. Evidence of the artist's hand and the effects of firing tell of the process of making and of the acceptance (rare in contemporary Western art) of the interaction with the forces involved in that making both on the physical level and the philosophic.
- Mary Mc Coy, The Washington Post