Continuity/Contiguity: The Ceramic Art of Gerry Eskin
Anthropologist Fred R. Meyers has described artifacts used in cultural exchanges developed by human beings to “extend the cycle of social life beyond the reproduction of an individual’s life. This was the vehicle for a transformation in the organization of social life: these objects could extend through time.” 1
Time perceived is not always the same as time recorded. Artists working “in the moment” create objects that are embedded with time, memory, action, thought, emotion. Objects capture and embrace time, and yet they exist outside of physical chronology. While time is most often perceived as a linear sequence of events, a series of contiguous moments, time is also continuity, making divisions between past, present, and future permeable and vague. Issues of time and the ways in which we perceive and view it are addressed in the ceramic art of Gerry Eskin.
Gerry Eskin did not intend to be a potter. Growing up in Washington D.C., he was drawn as a young man to photography, a medium that constantly reminds him of the ephemeral nature of time and the timeless quality of vision. In high school Eskin’s photographs appeared in a daily newspaper and in school publications. He further pursued a career in photojournalism which in college, which provided a source of income as well as a creative outlet.
In 1959 Eskin moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, the heartland of midwestern culture, and attended the University of Minnesota. He earned his doctoral degree in economics, went on to a distinguished career in marketing research, and taught Marketing, Marketing Research, and Quantitative Methods at Stanford University (1969-1972) and at the University of Iowa (1972-1982). In 1979 Eskin, along with an associate founded a quantitatively oriented marketing research company in Chicago, a firm that pioneered the use of bar code scanning as a tool for market research. Twelve years ago(1990), Eskin retired and returned to the making of art in the medium of clay. This decision was not sudden or arbitrary, but one based on Eskin’s long love affair with a medium that had entered his life, fortuitously during the heyday of the 1960’s.
Over three decades ago, clay seduced Gerry Eskin at a “Love In” held in a neighborhood park in Minneapolis, an event that juxtaposed regional Nordic reserve and the new liberated spirit of popular culture. At the event artists offered ‘workshops’ in their area of expertise. Eskin taught basic photography to anyone who showed an interest; the next door booth offered hands-on experience with clay. As Eskin recalls, “We had little workshops to share skills. I ran one of photography and a neighbor ran one on clay. I took his course and he took mine. Ever since, I’ve done clay and he’s done photography.” 2
About 20 (1980) years ago, Eskin and his wife Sandie began to assemble a collection of ceramics. Works from Asia, Africa, and Native American works from the Southwest were fundamental to developing his own eye as a potter. Eskin did not aim to assemble a masterpiece collection, but sought out works that were to him “archetypal” more then being perfect specimens. The trajectory he established as a collector paralleled his own development as a potter: “My original interest was in finding the origin of pieces I was already making. Today the historical references in my work are more direct. I am struck by the artistic skills and technical innovations of ancient ceramicists; I attempt to pay homage to them and, at the same time, to integrate what I have learned from the past in my new work.” 3
Eskin’s visual and spiritual kinship with his predecessors in the field of ceramics underscores the importance of time in his work. The artist’s oeuvre, however is more complex in its layering of form, function, and decoration. Eskin’s work falls into three distinct categories: functional works, funerary urns and figures, and installation works.
Eskin has continued to make function pottery throughout his career, although that aspect of his career is not the focus of the current exhibition. Tea bowls, vases, ewers, plates, serving platters, and bowls are all part of the potter’s repertoire. Notable are Eskin’s essays using this delicate morning fog green celadon glaze so admired by Chinese and Korean potters. Eskin’s simple and ample forms are sometimes thickly potted and cut into irregular facets or panels.
As a result of and in response to the firing methods he has developed in his Iowa City and Aspen kilns, Eskin embraces the vagaries of fire and glaze though recognizing the happy “accidents” that produce a painterly smudge of color or a dimple of pooled glaze. Simple and unassuming, humble and dignified, Eskin’s functional works attest to his deep love of Asian pottery traditions; these pieces engage the eye, but also the hand-these are pots that one wants to touch, to handle, to bring to life in daily use. This development is more than just trompe l’oeil ambiguity and historicity of materials.
Eskin’s life-long interest in archetypal ceramics is best expressed through his monumental “Spirit Houses,” which have occupied a central position in his work for several years, and his more recent “Shaman Urns,” in the form of hollow seated figures with separately fabricated heads that serve as covers for the container. The “Spirit Houses” are weighty slab-constructed anthropomorphized dwellings. Angled or curved roof elements gives these containers their recognizably house-like form and are inspired by Chalcolithic period ossuaries found in the Jordanian Desert region.
Eskin’s modern interpretation of the form includes the transformation of the front facade of the building into a humanoid face. Daubs of clay create the eyes, and an angled slab stands for the nose. Drama is created, however by the large gaping mouths at the front - some open, others closed with clay slabs held by wooden dowels - into which the skeletal remains of the departed would be inserted. With their fierce, and yet childlike faces, these houses of time and memory are defensive and protective while being dignified and aloof.
Recent variations of the form have included spirit houses that the artist has consciously broken into jagged shards, reassembled, and refired. This gesture of destruction and reconstruction adds yet another layer of time to their visual poetry, suggesting that continuity of use over time has preserved what would otherwise have disappeared as meaningless fragments. Eskin’s most recent works in this format have also been cast in bronze and subsequently patinated to create a richly colored and variegated surface that at first glance looks like earthenware or stoneware. Only when the work is touched can one sense the cold metallic presence of the bronze, and the weight and substance of the material.
The artist has designated a second, but closely, related, body of work as “Shaman Urns.” Like their “Spirit House” brothers and sisters, these urns are anthropomorphized to an even great degree. These funerary urns are constructed as three-dimensional full figures, seated on a bench or stool, with solidly planted feet and buttressed arms, are almost Madonna-like - regal, imposing, and self-assured. The development of these forms is yet another indication of Eskin’s ongoing investigation into ancient ceremonial ceramics.
In 2001, a London exhibition entitled Unknown Amazon underscored the antiquity and vitality of Amazonian material and artistic cultures.4 A highlight of the exhibition was a number of unique polychromed ceramic funerary urns from the Maraca River region. These exceptional figures, referred to as “seated people” by writer Bernadette Arnaud,5 provide a rich contextual background to Eskin’s own modern ceremonial urns. Eskin’s figures sometimes include both male and female attributes, and some are further enriched by the addition of earrings or other jewelry. Their intriguing faces, staring through time itself, reiterate and amplify one of the artists’ distinctive themes.
Continuity of time, memory, and action is also embedded in another body of works created by the artist - his massive wall and floor platters. Eskin’s thick constructions are weighty and imposing concavities that serve as a canvas for calligraphic glaze painting. Eskin has favored a simple palette of colors in these works; most are, in fact, decorated in monochrome. Like the work of an Abstract Expressionist or a master Chinese calligrapher, these platters become a permanent record of a moment in time. Other designs are carefully plotted as geometric compositions, such as platters decorated with graduated black and white checkerboard triangles, creating the illusion of depth and movement. Even in these more calculated works, the painterly quality of glaze is exploited effectively by the artist to create richly textural pockmarked surfaces that make the opaque glaze take on the characteristic of encaustic.
As part of his working process, Eskin makes numerous brush studies on paper, using watered-down clay and iron oxide as pigment. While these works are considered preparatory to the actual act of creation, they capture the artist’s gesture with a refreshing intimacy and candor. By far the most impressive in this series of wall platters, however, are those works that record the physical process of movement and action in their glazed surfaces. In some platters a midnight black ground is slashed white, forming a simple cross created by two rapid strokes of a fully loaded brush. Other designs favored by the artist include spirals, basket weave patterns, and circles, generally carried out in thick white against the black or deep brown background. Alternatively, the artist animates a rich chestnut brown ground with slashes of pale celadon to create an object that is at once graphic and sculptural.
Continuity at yet another level has been achieved in Eskin’s multi-part installations, most often composed of four or more large concave platters arranged contiguously and painted with a simple design. Continuity and contiguity have become inseparable in these works. One is able to perceive the overall pattern only by visually linking the individual pieces and ignoring their physical boundaries. At the same time, it is the visual dynamism of the individual parts that give these installation pieces such vitality. Eskin’s current series of platter sets, as they become larger, more complex, and increasingly assured in their brushwork, are metaphors for the creative process in which eye, hand, and soul are fully merged.
Through his work, Gerry Eskin reminds us of our shared histories, our ancestral and archetypal memories, and of the shared humanity that links us in time and space to our past and our present. The artist asks us to experience this continuity, and also to appreciate the complex of contiguities of place and time that make up our lives.
American Craft Museum
1 Fred R. Myers and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Art and Material Culture: A Conversation with Annette Wiener,” in Meyers, Fred R., ed., The Empire of Things: Regimes of Value and Material Culture (Santa Fe; School of American Research, 2001):303.
2 Communication with artist, May 2002.
4 This exhibition was presented at the British Museum from October 26, 2001 through April 1, 2002.
5 Bernadette Arnaud, “ ‘ Seated People’ of the Rain Forest,” Archeology, vol. 52, no. 3 (May/June 2000)