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 March 2010
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Terra sigillata technique sculpture by Francesc Burgos
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Exhibition Spotlight: Salt Lake City
Hard Wall, Empty Space
A conversation with Francesc Burgos

A conversation with Francesc Burgos ranges from ancient ceramic firing methods to the way Mozart visualized a musical composition “almost as a three-dimensional form” before he ever wrote it down, a method not unlike this ceramist and sculptor’s manner of creating his own work.

That intellectual scope is to be expected from a man who holds a multitude of master’s degrees: one in philosophy from the University of Barcelona in his native Spain; one from the University of California at Berkeley in architecture; one in ceramics from the University of Utah where he studied under David Pendell and was awarded his MFA in 1999.

That he applies all of these academic degrees to his work will be evident in his Phillips Gallery show.

Burgos can’t remember a time when he wasn’t involved in visual art. As a teenager he did freelance illustrations for magazines, then went on to furniture design. When he came to this country he made masks for many years, first in papier-mâché, later in synthetic material. Then, working with paper, he came up with a series of forms that became origami masks that were commissioned by the City of Barcelona for Carnaval and later sold in museum gift shops. “Each mask comes flat and creased. You fold along the lines and it becomes a three-dimensional headgear,” Burgos says.

He lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years and spent some of that time utilizing his architectural degree. One day, he went to the Asian Art Museum there and saw an exhibition of early ceramics, mostly from the Japanese tea ceremony. “In all my life,” he says, “I had not paid attention to ceramics. When I left the museum, I knew I was at least going to learn about it.” He began taking classes at the local community college and when his wife, Ruth Tsoffar, got a teaching job at the U of U he determined to start over, to “learn ceramics properly.” And so he did.

Today his studio is in Ann Arbor, near the University of Michigan, where his wife teaches comparative literature and women’s studies and Burgos lectures as an adjunct.

The artist makes unforgettable simple forms and magical abstracted animal shapes of hand-built clay. Several of the pieces for the Phillips show are porcelain and incorporate terra sigillata, a technique used by the Greeks and Romans. A very fine slip fills the surface and enhances the surface texture, Burgos explains in a telephone interview. Although first fired in his electric kiln, these pieces were then surrounded by sawdust and pit fired. “The smoke created by the sawdust creates random patterns on the surface of the pieces,” Burgos says. “It’s a very old method.” |0 - 1| American Indians use only the pit and cow dung to create a similar effect, he said. “It’s much more efficient.”

The artist is pleased with the spiral piece he completed for the show.|2| He explains the difficulty with the pieces he makes: “I try to push the structural possibilities of the clay while it is being built, and also afterward, while it is being fired, when the pieces start to become soft at the firing point. I have a certain number of losses,” Burgos says. He frequently will study a form in drawings and templates before starting a piece, sketching “elevations, plans and sections to understand how to build it and how it will support itself.”

The tower was built and also fired on its side.|3| That was necessary so it wouldn’t collapse, Burgos explains. Afterward, most pieces are stable on their own. “I never know if they will stand up as I need them to, but most of the time I get it right.”

He has made three related pieces that he likes; one will be in the show of new work. The first piece sold at Phillips and “to some it looked like an antelope and to others it looked like a Chinese symbol, so we decided it would be the Chinese symbol for an antelope,” he says, laughing. The new piece clearly could come directly from The I Ching, but it is intended as a very abstracted antelope.|4| Another delightfully debatable figure, not in the show, is what Burgos describes as "the Chinese ideogram for a prancing deer."|5|

Burgos is inspired by geometry and music, specifically “Italian Renaissance up to Mozart” and Irish music. No incongruity there. Each has a very clear structure, he says, the melody is orderly. “Very often in Renaissance and baroque music the rhythm and structure almost has a volume to it – it is organized the way an architectural building is organized. Listening to the music often urges me to sketch.”

He has said his main interest is in vessels, in those structures (natural or human-made) that can “contain and protect life in its multiplicity of form, a hard wall around an empty space . . .” Most of his clay pieces start with a thin slab as a base. He says he then layers and pinches successive coils or wads of clay around the outside, what he terms one of the oldest clay-building techniques.

Burgos has requested wall space for this show. He plans to install murals and free-standing structures of different sizes using wood dowels and porcelain connectors. It’s an art form he developed when he had to transport the large, heavy ceramic pieces from his MFA show to Michigan from Utah. He wanted something in the future that was light and cheap to move. One time he used wine corks instead of porcelain to connect the dowels; another time he used no connectors at all. “I figure out the angles I want the dowels to meet and the junction points and then I build the junction pieces I want the connectors to hold together. Very small variations in the spaces in the connectors will affect how the wood responds. I can assemble the same piece at different times and it will have a completely different impact on the viewer. That interests me,” Burgos says. “Referencing the metaphor of music, it’s like a different interpretation every time I assemble it.”|6|

Gallery-goers will have the opportunity to experience similar structures up close and personal. “If you poke it very gently, the whole piece quivers and sways like giant soap bubbles,” Burgos says. “It’s very difficult to invite viewers at the gallery to poke the pieces because they are very fragile. On the other hand, anyone who has worked with ceramics knows that to truly appreciate something you have to hold it, to touch it.”

Regardless, Phillips Gallery Director Meri DeCaria asks, in the very nicest way, that visitors please not touch the art.

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Exhibition Spotlight: Salt Lake City
Heavy Paper
A conversation with Carolyn Coalson

Carolyn Coalson feels another change coming on.

Best known for her lyrical works in oil on paper, the artist says she believes she is going to move to a different format after this show at Phillips Gallery. She doesn’t foresee continuing to do the paper works that she has been doing. “I had the feeling when these were done that I wouldn’t be ordering more paper.”

Of course, it’s difficult for an abstract expressionist to predict exactly what’s going to move her to create the next time she picks up a brush. And this artist certainly can’t say what she will be doing in the future.

Coalson broke with her poetic side for her still-talked-about 2007 Phillips show with ceramist Dorothy Bearnson. There were no flourishes to her pictures then, she acknowledges from her Arizona home. “I turned ‘Untitled Blues’ upside down after I did it.|0| The drips went up instead of down. For some reason I flipped it. It confused people, but it set a tone I wanted.”

There seems to be anger in the under-painting in “Untitled Blues,” as well as something else less easily defined. Particularly if compared to the poetic “2 Blue” in her current show.|1| There, the flourishes are back with a flourish. “I had some fun with ‘2 Blue,’ Coalson says. “It was much more deliberate than ‘Untitled Blues.’ It didn’t have connotations. I put it away and said, ‘It’s too blue, but I like it,’ then I maybe put another glaze over it and it was finished.”

Coalson says that blue is a hopeful, optimistic color while green is a healing color – and it’s a new color for this artist to use en masse as she does in “Crossing.”|2| “I crave green. I think this painting has an oceanic quality. It is water; it is not water. I don’t have any reference for it.” She does acknowledge a second piece of paper gives a horizon to the picture. “I flipped that bottom piece over so it does look like a landscape. It makes it a very calm place to be.”

The act of painting something that isn’t there visually, of finding a harmony between a developed technique and a state of mind can be unsettling for an artist. Take Coalson’s 2010 picture “Am.”|3| “This one was a gestalt. It just came and went. It didn’t get built up like the others. It didn’t segue between the other pieces. It just happened,” she says. It appeared spontaneously almost exactly in the middle of the paintings she was preparing for the show. Some of the emotion when she was painting for 2007 at Phillips came from the fact that her great friend Lee Deffebach lay dying in a Salt Lake City hospital. Coalson had moved from her Avenues home to Prescott, Ariz., some time before and Deffebach had only grudgingly forgiven her for leaving Utah.

She worked hard daily on a painting during Deffebach’s 2005 illness that she titled “Lift (For Lee).” She recalls talking with mutual friends about Deffebach’s situation every day. “Painting is a subconscious thing that keeps coming up. I stopped painting when Lee died because I knew the painting was finished.” An artist friend visited and said, “Carolyn, you need to put more staccato in that painting,” she recalls, and Coalson said “No, it’s done.” It’s a stellar picture.|4|

Like Deffebach, Coalson earned her MFA when she was older than most of the students around her. She started at the University of Utah in her 40s following a divorce and years of “domesticity” and found painting to be the connection “between me and the future life and the questions of the past life. It was a metaphysical bridge between the two.”

She took the same class from Tony Smith for three quarters because she found it/him fascinating, and she learned about the glazes she uses so proficiently from Paul Davis. “He used to say, ‘Pull it up, bring it down.’ And you do it all with glazes.” She recalls discussing the subject with Bearnson at the 2007 show: “Dorothy got it with the glazes.”

A big change in her work came, Coalson says, when she stopped trying to hurry the painting process along. “I spend time looking rather than painting when something begins to emerge. There’s lots of stuff under that first thing you see, OK? That doesn’t happen hurriedly. I have to let them cure and dry and I have to look at them. I have to spend a lot of time just letting things happen and seeing what they are going to become.” |5-7|

Coalson says she mixes ideas, content and intent into the pigment. “A lot of painters do this; I’m certainly not original. There’s just a history that I want to keep going back into. I go into it, paint over it, come back out of it, go into it and go back out again.”

That process creates some very heavy paper.

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