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How many worlds? The ceramic art of Stephen Braun.

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SCULPTOR STEPHEN BRAUN SEEKS TO CREATE A PIERCING visual language, one that motivates us, if not to act, then to think different). Out of the human figure and an ever-evolving inventory of icons, Braun constructs allegories that reflect fiercely held concerns. We often respond first to the wry humour and fiery wit of these articulate tableaux. Their sly titles, too, lead us to chuckle at uncomfortable truths: Talkin' Trash, Just One More Little Bite, Race to the Top, My Car Thing, Collateral Damage, Freedom-lovin' Patriot, Tele Prompted.

Braun's themes may be familiar--environmental degradation, excessive consumption, tragedies of war, alienation from any semblance of the real--but his works somehow render these tropes both fresh and urgent. His totemic sculptures possess uncanny presence; they haunt and prod us. They are not jokes, though they may appear jocular. Instead they touch us in some deeper place.

Braun's icons, which swarm about his figures like nettlesome insects, derive from many different realms: forms of transportation (automobiles, airplanes, boats), human anatomy (penises and sperm cells, uteruses and ovaries), the natural world (fishes and stones, the planets, and especially the earth itself), sources of energy (the oil barrel, the atomic symbol), various media (especially television and the Internet); an array of toxins (arsenic, dioxin, and the host of chlorine combinations) and every consumer product imaginable.

Braun works in what he calls the "bastardized American raku technique" developed by Paul Soldner in the 1960s. Traditional Japanese raku has been used since the 16th century to produce wares for the tea ceremony These handbuilt raku wares, redolent of contentment and calm, embody an aesthetic that aims at 'elimination of movement, decoration and variation of form'. Central to the American version, with its emphasis on improvisation, is post-firing reduction. This dramatic process involves removing the red-hot ceramic object from the kiln and placing it in a sealable chamber (a metal trash can with a tight-fitting lid), together with combustible materials (straw, in Braun's case).

In Braun's works, the resulting effects include well-smoked surfaces and muted colours, lending his works a quiet, restful quality akin to that found in the Japanese raku wares. Because he has often worked so large (the torsos of some of his pieces are life-size), Braun's raku process can involve considerable risk. Wearing asbestos gloves and protective garb, he has only seconds to shift the unwieldy pieces to the reduction chamber (before the gloves burn through and he sustains major burns). The quiet surfaces of Braun's figures, together with this element of danger fired into the works (and the seriousness of his themes), lend them a provocative tension, between tenderness and rage, between compassion and blame.

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Trained as an anthropologist at The University of Montana (where he also studied under ceramic revolutionary Rudy Autio and mixed-media sculptor Ken Little), Braun believes that each culture defines its reality through the construct of language. With his sculptures, he aims to "break culture down' and offer unadulterated "hyper-perceptions'. As a young artist, in an effort to shatter his own cultural projections, he fasted and deprived himself of sleep for days (in a kind of vision quest). Making his home on cattle and sheep ranches in south central Montana, at the foot of the Crazy Mountains (a "powerful spot"), he came to see the natural world as 'primary' and began to incorporate animal imagery; especially deer, bears and coyotes, into the imagined worlds of his monoprints and sculptures. While serving as visiting artist at Eastern Montana College (today, Montana State University, Billings), he connected with Crow and Northern Cheyenne (Native American) students who shared his evolving perceptions about the primacy of nature and the destructive qualities of the dominant consumer culture.

Like other socially conscious artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, Braun employs distortion, disjunction and defamiliarization to challenge the constructs our culture offers us. His powerful expressions bring to mind the works of German Expressionists George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann; John Heartfield, the master of political photomontage; the California Funk ceramists; and postmodern sloganeers like Barbara Kruger.

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Braun's giant Enviroman, at over eight feet tall, towers above our expectations. At the same time, Enviroman seems all too familiar, a kind of 'everyman', not unlike the Elck or Everyman--with his greed and vanity--castigated by medieval and early Renaissance moralists. In Dieter Bruegel the Elder's 1558 drawing entitled Elck, Bruegel's Everyman seeks himself (in vain) in the detritus of the world he inhabits. Like Braun's male and female figures Talkin' Trash, he loses his essential self in a welter of things.

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The comparison with the great Netherlandish painters of the 15th and 16th centuries is more apposite than it might seem. Braun acknowledges few influences but he speaks freely of Hieronymous Bosch as a seminal influence on his artistic vision. Best known for his triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (which features an utterly compelling vision of Hell), Bosch presented his contemporaries with moral lessons that, through the extremity of his vision, still move, trouble and fascinate us.

Vasari, in his Lives of the Painters, noted that both Bosch and Bruegel had their own modes of defamiliarization, rendering "fantasies, bizarre things, dreams, and imaginations' in an effort to shake the complacency of foolish sinners. Certainly some of Braun's figures dwell in a hell of their own making. In a work like On Board, six human heads project from a car, seemingly unable or unwilling to extricate themselves from this death trap, its surface ominously charred and emblazoned with crosses. And in his several Tired pieces, humans struggle desperately to avoid being entombed by rubber tires. As in Bosch's hell, Braun seems to say that the punishment must fit the sin--and then some.

Not unlike those of the stylized figures of Bruegel and Bosch, the heads and especially the faces of Braun's Everyman and Everywoman are somehow unsettling, even heart-breaking. By simplifying their features and rendering them bald and, for the most part, expressionless, Braun makes these creatures both like and unlike us. They seem to be marionettes or mannequins upon whom we can project our greatest fears and desires. And yet, unlike many of the early modernists (like Fernand Leger, who in 1923 was pleased to see technological man becoming a 'mechanism like everything else, Braun sees this dehumanization as a terrible loss. His figures' faces reflect a spiritual emptiness that still manages to retain vestiges of compassion, valour, and a capacity for love.

Those Braun works that focus on war and specifically the current Iraq conflagration, seem the most accusatory, the least willing to acknowledge that Everyman is simply lost, merely a fool. These raw works, whether they acknowledge the tragedy of Collateral Damage or the vicious patriotism of the torturers of Abu Ghraib, do not raise questions; they simply assert the monstrousness of an ongoing evil. Like the best photomontages of John Heartfield (think of his Pan-German, 1933, with brownshirt Julius Streicher standing proudly astride a bloodied victim of Nazi street violence), Braun's war tableaux hold us, without mercy, to account.

Art historian Peter Selz, in his recent study, Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond, anatomizes a rich tradition of socially and politically engaged art in the American West. Selz writes of Robert Arneson, "How can an outsider, a craftsman who works in the humble medium of clay, a man who lives 'out there' ... find his way in the art world?" Selz goes on to suggest that just such 'outsider' qualities served Arneson well and, in fact, allowed him the freedom to "achieve work full of personal iconography that also deals with politically charged issues like the catastrophe of nuclear annihilation or the absurdity of overindulgence".

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Curator Susan Landauer, in an essay she contributed to Selz's book, notes that "conditions in the West ... were conducive to a far greater range of artistic expression' than in the market-driven New York art world. Moreover, Landauer continues, artists in the West tended to be closely allied with the New Left and embraced a "far more inclusive approach that combined an intense personalism with an uncompromising critique of society'.

Braun certainly stands in this tradition and it can be argued that his critique of consumer culture and corporate dominance arises out of his education and life in Montana. Because of the state's colonialist history, Montanans on the Left, in the words of poet Kenneth Rexroth, "had no nerves, no illusions, and ... were curiously urban--but urbanites of a city which was gone". Montana history, as the late historian K. Ross Toole wrote, "has been brief, explosive, frenetic, and often tragic. The economic picture has often been one of exploitation, overexpansion, boom, and bust". Now making his home north of Whitefish, Montana Braun speaks of his adoptive state and much of the West as a "Third World economy".

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The exploitation of natural resources and attendant overconsumption of consumer goods remains a persistent theme in Braun's work. In an interview, he asks, "Is it ethically responsible that, just because you have wealth, you spend it by consuming things?" His How Many Worlds? pieces articulate another uncomfortable question: How many planets would it take to sustain humankind if all humans consumed goods (and natural resources) at the same rate as Americans do? The answer, of course, is many too many. With their high-end emblems, Rolls Royces, Rolex watches and unending battles for resources, the figures in these apocalyptic visions threaten to annihilate us all. The man in Braun's Just One More Little Bite, his suit emblazoned by symbols of excess, cannot stop eviscerating the planet. For him (for us?), there seems to be no turning back.

Despite the humour and wit in Braun's work, there is also melancholy. Like Hieronymous Bosch, he is a pessimist who persists in the effort to awaken his fellow humans to their/our collective follies. This struggle in the face of enormous odds adds another dimension to his work, a spiritual energy that cannot help but move us. In the presence of these works literally wrested from the fire, it is difficult to remain unscathed. Braun says, "I am not trying to tell people what to think or what to do, but instead to present a snapshot of culture as I see it."

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These snapshots, captivating and unsettling as they are, do not let us rest easy. And yet, through their spiritual force, they suggest that we are all in this together. In so doing, without in any way assuaging our guilt, they confer upon us a species of forgiveness. Powerful and tender, the sculptures of Stephen Braun speak both to our sadly fallible humanity and to our best selves. They ask us to choose, between a Missed-out media-induced blindness and a painful but exhilarating consciousness of our impact upon this earth.

Poet, editor, and cultural journalist Rick Newby writes frequently about ceramic sculptors. A resident of Helena, Montana, he serves on the Montana Arts Council and received the 2009 Montana Governor's Award for the Humanities.

Technique: All are made with a white high fire clay body with 25 percent grog, underglazed and bisque fired. They are then glazed and rakai fired between cone 07-05 and post-fire reduced in an air-tight container with straw.

This essay first appeared in the exhibition catalog, Stephen Braun: Cause & Effect (Davis, CA: John Natsoulas Press, 2007). All photos by Stephen Braun.
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Author:Newby, Rick
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2009
Words:1897
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