exhibition review

Blue Jeans & Brown Clay at Kate MacGarry

Artists and designers at the J B Blunk house, curated by Mariah Nielson

by Sophie McAlpine | May 2021

I do not come from art-loving stock. As a result, I’ve often wondered where my interest stems from. Whilst I was happiest spending Saturday afternoons inside with a stack of magazines, the rest of my family preferred more hands-on activities; my brother is a gifted carpenter, and no one is more appreciative of what he creates than my mother who has instilled in us both her appreciation for the beauty of a well-grained piece of hardwood or a pristine dovetail joint.

Still, I have never considered such inherent beauty to have anything more than an incidental relationship with Art.

Blue Jeans & Brown Clay forced a reckoning. These works are not transcendent, or didactic or even subliminal- that is to say, the Art does not drown out the material. The way in which Blunk responds to the natural characteristics of his materials- a knot, a split, an impurity, makes it seems as though each piece was a work of art long before Blunk laid his hands on it.

But in the deliberate asymmetry of every curved line and the pairing of gold leaf with unglazed clay, there is humour. It is this humour that transforms beauty into Art. As Andrew Rusuth writes in Apollo, JB Blunk’s works ‘evince the sensation of an artist having a very good time’(1).

 

Blunk, whose work is at the centre of this show, was an American sculptor- though the moniker fails to convey the spectrum of his activities; he was also a ceramicist, painter and occasional jeweller. In 1951 he had graduated from UCLA and was drafted to serve in the Korean war. After he was discharged, he travelled to Japan where a chance meeting with the sculptor and landscape artist Isamu Noguchi set of a chain of events culminated in Blunk studying and working under master Bizen ceramicists for several years. The unglazed red clay typical of Bizen ceramics is an ongoing presence in his work, as is the Japanese acceptance of objects having both utility and artistic value.

 

On returning to the United States he built a home in rural Inverness, California. “Blunk House” was constructed from the ground up using found materials. Mariah Nielson, the curator of the show and Blunk’s daughter writes of the place where she grew up ‘There was a time when the eccentricities of our home (penis stools and carved cypress wood sinks) were embarrassments,’ Nielson recalls. ‘But by my early 20s I began to appreciate what my father had created and now it’s something I’m enormously proud of!’(2).

Several works in the show belong to artists and designers who have spent time at ‘Blunk House’. These works are not ‘After Blunk’: there is a series of brightly coloured tiles by Sam Bakewell, whose organic forms appear at first glance to mirror the pattern of a thumbprint, of sand at low tide or of the cross-section of a tree but on further inspection morph into nude torsos (the humour, again). Attua Aparicio subverts the trajectory of Blunk’s work by melding borosilicate glass with marble and stoneware to create sculptures resembling pebbles or sea glass.

My mother’s personal favourites are Max Frommeld’s floating shelves, formed from glorious hunks of California redwood. The underside is carved away in gradients so that every aged ring is visible. The synergy between man and material has created something more than the sum of its parts which, I suppose, is exactly what art is after all.

(1) Andrew Russuth, ‘The Mischievous and Mysterious Art of JB Blunk’, Apollo Magazine, www.apollo-magazine.com., 30th October 2020

(2) Harriet Lloyd-Smith, ‘Redwood giant: a monograph explores the life and work of sculptor JB Blunk’ Wallpaper Magazine, www.wallpaper.com, 16th June 2020

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Blue Jeans & Brown Clay at Kate MacGarry, Image courtesy of Kate MacGarry

Caz Egelie, The Critic - More Than You Wanted to Know About Caz Egelie, books and wood, 2017-2020 (Instagram: @cazegelie)