Saturday, June 12, 2010

Why I think Don Pilcher is Important?

Some background:

We are currently hosting a show which features Don Pilcher as one of the exhibitors ("3+3"). The idea of the show was to invite 3 ceramic artists and educators that I felt were influential to the development of contemporary American ceramics. In turn, these individuals, each, invited a younger, less established person whose work they found interesting. Of the three main artists I invited for "3+3", for many out there, Don is the least recognized or understood. That's a shame.
Don has shown here a couple of times in the past. In fact, we were the first gallery to feature Don's work since he resurfaced as Georgette Ore, of Rascal Ware fame. We're still one of the few places where you can find his work. If you aren't familiar with Pilcher's work, you should be. This latest incarnation, as Georgette Ore, is part of a colorful career going back to the 60's. I see a direct lineage from the early work to Rascal Ware.
Pilcher was a kind of a "Wonder Boy" out of Califonria when he was hired by the University of Illinois, at Champaign, Urbana, to replace David Shaner. He had studied with the best. He was a remarkable and knowledgeable potter with awesome skills. He soon became well known for his salt-fired pieces. Some of them being very large. He was a macho guy ... a member of the "potters boys club" of that time. Maybe, what separated his work from some of others in the club was a certain sensitivity to detail and a chinese approach to form. Not fussy, just very tasteful. He progressed from stoneware to porcelain pieces with decorative slip trailing.

Over time, Pilcher moved away from the salt-fired work, even though he was doing well with it, towards a body of work that was to become the work most associate with him. This move was, and still is, typical of Pilcher. He's always on his way somewhere else. In the 70's, and into the 80's, his work focused on large, pristine porcelain, orb-like shapes, with Chinese touches. The surfaces ranged from glossy glazes to rich sandblasted surfaces with strategically placed contrasting drips, to extruded porcelain elements that were adhered to the surface. These pieces brought Don national attention. Over time, the forms of this work had been so skillfully reduced, the surfaces so refined, as to be almost perfect. I think that's where the problem, if that's what you want to call it, started. Where does one go from there?
Don's interest seems to have gone to the extruded elements on the surface. He says the influence for his next body of work came from the scraps left on his kid's plates after dinner. The forms were chinese influenced jars, vase, bowls, plates etc. The surfaces were covered with shapes extruded from pasta makers and play doh toys. The porcelain pieces still showed Don's attention to detail. They were often glazed in a clear gloss glaze. The white on white surfaces were a drastic change from what people (galleries) had come to expect from him. (In truth, he was ahead of the curve, as white on white became very popular, not that long afterward.) It was the extrusions that really set people aback. The extrusions were in total conflict with the refined Chinese forms, at times the forms were lost to the surfaces. Don wasn't expecting the beating he took for the work. For Don this was just a progression of an artistic idea that has its seeds back in his pots of the late 60's and early 70's. He was roundly ridiculed. People didn't get it. Was he serious with this stuff? Yes, very. Conceptually, much of what Don is doing with Rascal Ware can be traced back to what he was attempting with that ill-fortuned body of work. Don quit making pots and moved on to teaching design at the U of I.

Skip ahead many years and significant life changes later, and we find Don Back in clay. His first steps back were with the familiar; those Chinese influenced forms from his past. Before long though he steps into it with both feet. He recreates himself as Georgette Ore and begins confusing peoples expectations again. It takes a lot of balls to come from where Pilcher came and to come back as a woman named Georgette Ore. What more could he have done to invite questioning scrutiny and skepticism. And, this time there's a literary component that's tied in! "You mean I have to read stuff to get this???" Yep. To understand Georgette and Rascal Ware, one needs to read the story of Rascal Ware. This very contemporary notion, in art, of the "Narrative of the Object" is an important aspect of what Rascal Ware is about. We don't need to spend any more time on Rascal Ware. Go to Don's web site ( Read the Rascal Ware story. Look at the work. Is this guy serious with this stuff? You bet. Maybe you get it, maybe you don't. Maybe you like it, maybe you don't. Not to be arrogant about it, but Don doesn't care. That's not what the work is about. The work is intended to push boundaries and expectations and to create dialogue.

And, that is why I think Don Pilcher is Important.
At the heart of Rascal ware are important questions that all of us who are potters in America, at this time in history, should be asking ourselves. Why do I make the pots I make? Is there integrity in the work I make? What does the work of a twenty first century American potter look like? Why is so much pottery about style? Can pots be about ideas? What can pots be about?

This is why Pilcher is important. He wants to make us think. He wants to make us question. It's like an ideal that doesn't necessarily fit our everyday situation, but it's good to have it held up to us occasionally, as a reminder of what we can do, and maybe even, what should be.

Dave Toan

"Everyone has talent at 25. The difficulty is to have it at 50."
Edgar Degas

"Art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time."
Jean Cocteau

"Making beautiful things for everyday use is a wonderful thing to do.. making life flow more easily.. but art confronts life, allowing it to stop and perhaps change direction.. they are completely different."
Antony Gormley