Richard De Vore.
Stepping into this tradition, Richard De Vore (1933-2006) began a thoughtful exploration of the clay vessel in the early 1950s as an undergraduate in Toledo, Ohio. His tutelage under the masterful Finnish potter Maija Grotell, at Cranbrook Academy of Art, cemented his interest. Inspired by historical examples (the sublime bowls of Song dynasty China or the nearly hemispherical bowls of the Mimbres of the American Southwest) as well as the bold improvisations of Peter Voulkos in the 1960s, De Vore used the vessel as a metaphorical medium to explore human emotion, the passage of time, our connection and indebtedness to the earth.
He found his material and metaphorical vocabulary in the 1970s, with textures resembling human skin, earth, stone and a colour palette of whites, tans, pinks, browns and greys. The sensuous surfaces are the result of layers of transparent, matte glazes that De Vore hoped would appear to be born of "a natural occurrence". The topology of body and landscape suggested by the work from this time forward was reinforced by his move to the plains and mountains of northern Colorado in 1978.
The artist has long been appreciated for his sensuous bowl forms, in which the interior is of primary interest. In a series of later works, however, he pursues not just inside/outside but parallel dichotomies of body/earth, hard/soft, male/female; resolving the two poles not in either/or, but and. In these taller yet still open forms, De Vore gives equal consideration to outside and inside. The outer faces gleam subtly: Dark grey to near black, they are opaque, dense--like lead. We are more aware of their shapes than their colours or subtle variances in texture. Yet caught in the light falling on the outer surfaces are the marks of finger and thumb left by the artist as he shaped the forms, as well as occasional dimples, pockmarks, scratches and other marks.
Glancing past the exterior, we are encouraged to look inside these vessels by a common tactic of the artist: De Vore often shaped the back wall higher than the front. Inside the vessels is where crackle or lava-like textures are found, where colour may subtly shift from gray to green, where folds, indentations and small oval holes invite us to look closer. The textures and patterns of these inner landscapes (for that is what they frequently call to mind) are endlessly fascinating. A complex web of cracks resembles parched earth long after rain has gone (No. 1107), or the human mark left by ploughs or paths and roads, seen from miles up in the air (No. 861). In other works, such as 859 or 880, the rough, encrusted surfaces are more akin to the moon or some other remote landscape.
It is fitting to approach De Vore's forms as we would the human body, for the parts of ceramic vessels have long been named for their analogues to it: we speak of a vessel's lip, neck, shoulder, body and foot. Unlike most pots, but like the human body, De Vore compressed his vessels slightly to form an oval, rather than a circle. And like our own torsos, De Vore's asymmetrical bodies undulate or lean slightly.
Vessel No. 887 stands still and erect before us, like a narrow-waisted torso holding its breath. From the appearance of its flesh, covered with scratches, dents, striations and other subtle impressions, it has survived the toll of time and aging, its once-youthful beauty still apparent. These tender, sensuous bodies remind me just how fragile and fleeting our human lives are.
In the softly undulating, exterior surface of 887 De Vore shows us what some of the best artists do with clay--capture a quivering moment in wet clay and, like the photographer, hold that moment forever. Unconsciously, perhaps, we glimpse our own supple bodies in the fleshy, tremulous surface of the clay.
De Vore's exploration of the human body is not confined to the outside of his forms. Inside as well, he sought analogies between earth and flesh, the landscape of the planet and of the body. Just as time's passage is recorded on the exterior torso of No. 887 by dents, scratches and other marks, we find evidence of passing seasons on the far inner wall of the vessel. As in 880 and 1107, a cleft divides the rear wall of the vessel in two. Like two bodies standing shoulder to shoulder, here two opposing forces, two distinct land masses, have drifted together. The left body is nearly uniformly grey, smooth, a straight notch cut from its upper edge. The right body is variegated, tinged in green, lined with tiny crackle fissures and marked by a small, sloping hillock resembling a nipple. The two bodies have come to rest, come to an understanding, the tension of their collision now resolved--like two lovers at rest after the passion of coupling.
In No. 1107, the two halves of the back wall, nearly equal, meet like two land masses, pressed together by external forces. They seem balanced in their asymmetry. The crackled surface is pronounced, like elephant hide. Against a dark green ground, the crackle pattern of lines stands out: suffused with red on the left wall, white on the right. The lines crisscrossing over the rolling terrain again resemble the paths of humans, viewed from high in the sky.
In two works that manage to unite earth and body, inside and outside, De Vore sets his vessels in motion, figuratively. The front and rear walls of No. 861 stand in contrapposto. The rise and fall of the rim, like ocean waves, set the vessel in centrifugal motion. I see the outlines of two people dancing, circling one another. We could fancy the leftward-leaning curve of the far wall to be the couple's two heads, cheek to cheek, and the sweep of left and right edges to be their arms held aloft, meeting at the vessel's front where their two hands join together. The entire vessel seems to spin with the rhythm of the music propelling their dance.
Peering into the interior of No. 861, our sense of up and down is confounded, as it is in other vessels of this period. Are we thousands of feet up in the air, glancing down at the earth? It can be momentarily disconcerting, as when perched at the edge of a canyon, we are not sure how far the valley floor lies below. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon or looking over the rims of Nos. 861 or 880, we are confronted with a bird's-eye view of the landscape we rarely see, our sense of scale and distance confounded. Or we might be gazing up at the night sky, at the patterns traced there in constellations handed down to us by the Greeks.
By compressing his vessels to the shape of an oval, De Vore presents us with a foreshortened landscape--the front edge of the vessel being the foreground, the far edge the background. Distances are flattened, much as they are in the Kano school of ink painting of 15th to 18th century Japan, in which foreground and background seem to be on the same picture plane, floating in a mist of river and clouds linking the two. In De Vore's forms, the interplay between the two planes and their counterbalancing rhythms of hill and valley, afford a new way of looking at a vessel: not outside, not inside, but both at once. Our eyes are compelled to alternately focus near and far, traversing that three-dimensional space that lends physicality to De Vore's figurative landscapes.
In the final two works considered here, De Vore confounds our sense of space not by compressing it, but by inverting it: The interiors of vessels 880 and 859 appear concave one moment, convex another. Peering inside 880, we would expect to see the hollow volume of a container. But the inner rear wall, cleft down the middle, looks like the pectoral muscles of a man's chest. Below the chest is a smooth stomach and navel (a small oval hole cut through a false bottom--a common element found near the bottom of most of De Vore's vessels). These holes may, as others suggest, be in homage to the 'kill holes' the Mimbrenos of the American Southwest punched through their painted pottery and placed over the faces of their dead more than 1000 years ago. But for me they are also the navel, the omphalos, the centre of De Vore's art.
While nearly all of De Vore's tall vessels are meant to be viewed from one side, No. 880 surprises us when we walk around to the back: there we find the essential features of a human head, resting on its chin. A long, straight nose divides the face down the middle, but no details of eyes or mouth are indicated. For me, the white marble Cycladic heads of the third millennium BCE, with their long, prominent triangular noses, immediately come to mind. The felt presence of this striking, yet simple face underscores both the unconscious level on which we recognise a face, as well as our ability to imbue even a featureless head with sentience, with intelligence. (Think, too, of Brancusi's heads and torsos, reduced to their essentials.)
Like No. 880, the outside and inside of 859 continuously oscillate back and forth as we view them. The push/pull between these two views engages us, keeps us alert as we seek to understand the various picture planes of the work. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to take in the entire vessel at once and, when we do, we are merely seeing a cypher (like a postcard brought home with us from a trek to Nepal)not the lived experiences of traversing the swelling landscape. Rather than grasp the entire vessel at a glance, I think De Vore means us to continuously shift our perspective back and forth, inside and outside, landscape and body.
The opening of vessel No. 859 resembles a leaf, its stem at the centre. But so many other resemblances come to mind: a bird just taking flight, its arc of wings filled with wind as they beat against the air. The beak or stem, smooth, gleaming, also brings to mind an erect clitoris, or Georgia O'Keefe's provocative paintings of the calla lily. The centre of De Vore's vessel, now a woman's vulva, is the source of life, as pottery vessels have been for much of human history.
In all of De Vore's work, the boundary between inside and outside is the vessel's edge--that thin, wavering line that traces the circumference of the rim. When the dark edge of the vessel catches the light, it gleams silver white, encircling the form like a line drawing. From other angles, the rim recedes. Yet the rim of any vessel--such as the hemispherical, ethereally elegant Songdynasty bowls beloved by De Vore--serves as a critical juncture, the vessel's centre. Today, we might compare it to the event horizon of a black hole: we are either on the outside, figuratively light years away, or inside, incapable of escaping. The edge is the tipping point. Yet De Vore encourages us to step in and out of these two universes, to experience a succession of viewpoints; a simultaneity of in/out, landscape/body, hard/soft. In doing so, Richard De Vore blurs the dichotomy of bowl and vase, bringing human emotion, memory and body into our experiences of the vessel.
Article by Michael McTwigan
Michael McTwigan lives in New York and was the cofounder and Editor of American Ceramics (1982-1993). The work discussed here was seen at Meulensteen Gallery, New York (13 October-5 November, 2011). De Vore's work may be viewed there, as well as at Bellas Artes, Santa Fe; Frank Lloyd Gallery, Santa Monica and Jeffrey Spahn Gallery, San Francisco. All photos by Chris Lee.