What a curious thing – to see ceramics on the wall. As recently as a month ago in Pomona (at AMOCA) and in Claremont (at the Scripps College Williamson Gallery) I saw, well, there was a lot (and I recommend the trip) but what I recall best is a modest wall sculpture of John Mason’s – this was a sort of openwork plaque depicting a trellis with (I recall) blue flowers (not Mason’s grander, larger wall pieces that are scattered around the campus) and it felt simple to me and like a beginning. Flowers often suggest delicacy, but Mason’s choice to render his (potentially) delicate flowers in clay which looks as if it was pulled from the earth whole and then shaped, simply and roughly as the material asks, into blossoms espaliered (splayed?) across a wall… um reminded me that there is nothing delicate about nature and that the act of depicting is powerful and needs commitment from an artist. This sculpture of John Mason’s had an impact on me, and my feelings and thoughts about it returned as I looked at Tam Van Tran’s wall sculptures.
I want to stop for a moment and return to the first room of the gallery. There is a thread here, in this show, that leads back through much of Tam’s work. Small ceramic vessels placed on the floor in several grids remind me that often in the past Tam Van Tran’s work was made from food. In early paintings he used as a medium – as paint almost – broken egg shells in his now signature devotional/obsessive labor intensive manner (remember the adverb devotional, it will come in handy later) and later, as now in the large curved paper on canvas wall pieces also in the first gallery, Tran used chlorophyll to as a coloring agent. He has also used saffron to great effect, as in a recent show at Anthony Meier in San Francisco.
These vessels, these beakers – displayed on the floor like so many Rachel Whiteread voids turned inside out – speak to me of the nature of food as an agent of time and of ritual and social interaction: I or you or we prepare food, if alone we might consider each moment and each act as a ritual of devotion, of reflection, and when we work together on a meal our sharing is total and – like dance and sport – allows each of us to speak with our own voices and move as our own bodies move but also requires that we attend to each other and each moment, that we remain aware of the essence of what we are doing, if we wish to achieve our goal. Sharing the meal then continues and emphasizes these acts of devotion.
The wall sculptures have glazes that look like bottle glass and I think again of vessels for nourishment. And then I think of the distribution of such goods and I think that bottled sodas are more available elsewhere (wherever that might be) than here. And I notice cracks and absolute breaks in the plaques and I appreciate these because they show the struggle with matter that John Mason’s massive sculptures also made wonderfully evident forty and fifty years ago.
I think too that the obsessive nature of his paintings makes manifest Tran’s interest in time. I think this not in a “whoa – that took a long time to make. Dude – I am impressed” way, rather I am led to understand that Tam uses the simplest means possible to say what he wants to say. His labor intends not to impress but to inform, and I walk away thinking of the meditational nature of repetitive labor, and of epochal cycles of time.
(Possibly not specific to the work of Tam Van Tran, or perhaps due only to the coincidence of my seeing Alison O’Daniel’s film “Night Sky,” with its curious dual soundtrack that is crafted of audible and signed or physical communication, I imagine the artist’s hands working at the task of making this art and I wonder whether what I see before me in the paintings could be read in the movements of his hands as they punch and paint and staple. In my mind this resembles a dance of hands and is beautiful in itself, as is the language of signing.)
Also, yes, a tea ceremony comes to mind as I sit on the floor counting the beakers and looking into them to find weird pinched places and odd, pillow-like cracqueleure. This effect is repeated and exaggerated on larger sculptures in the show.
I want to back carefully and deliberately away from making this show, and Tam Van Tran’s work, sound heavy or portentous or precious, for it is none of these things. The vessels are simple and do not ask for the burden of meaning – instead, the ceramic pieces suggest to me and remind me of many things. The larger cylindrical vessels, against the wall, are spectacular in their way, and the finishes that Tran achieves are crazy with intuition and chance. There are funny camel soldiers in the second room, along with the ceramic wall pieces, these beings are lined up as though along some Silk Road; I dream for a moment of Samarkand, which city my father always spoke of to me as being the ne plus ultra in adventure. (Dad was rather Kiplingesque in his territorial outlook, in a nascently post modern way.)
In the room with the wall pieces and the funny soldiers I find a group of seven large vases that are lumpy and feature an incised diamond motif. In four the artist has applied glazes that, together, recreate the light smoggy rain that happens over the dry, tan hills of Los Angeles in one of our mixed seasons – these objects glow rather than shine. On two there are words in the Viet French patois that is native to the artist and this helps remind me that this work must be personal, as well as it is the larger cultural things on which I have been ruminating.
Aah, I am forgetting to mention the band aids that Tam has applied underneath the glazes in many of his ceramic objects, or perhaps this is some sort of tape – but you will find these for yourself.
As I leave the space I think, “Wow, all that adventure I just had and at a quick glance the ceramic work looks all tan and modest, and the paintings – so full of incident at close range – also beckon rather quietly. Tricky work this is, one can spend hours looking or no time at all – the experience is decidedly up to the viewer and depends entirely on time and attention.”
“Always,” says my constant companion, the lady in the front row.
(9:07 am on Wednesday, images perhaps later. And perhaps not – the show closes March 30. You can see it in real time.)
http://www.ceramicmuseum.org/ Such a good show at AMOCA and undersung. Go, go, go. Sure, go see the bigger shows out there but make sure you drive down to Pomona and see the surprises. I swear you will be pleased.
(I uploaded images on 22 March at 8:46 PM)