Ralph Bacerra’s Exquisite Beauty

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This summer the art news in LA has been about a giant, private collection housed in a sparkly new downtown gallery: The Broad. In the same time frame hundreds, no probably more like thousands, of smaller shows opened across the city and region, befitting the powerhouse that is the LA environs art scene.

I found myself drawn to 2 new exhibits celebrating ceramic history in Los Angeles. A history told through the prism and influence of Master Ceramicist and Teacher, Ralph Bacerra.

Primary is Ralph Bacerra Exquisite Beauty at the Ben Maltz Gallery, on the West LA Otis campus, a retrospective of 90 pieces showcasing the career of the Garden Grove born artist and teacher.

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A faculty member at the Chouinard Art Institute from 1963-71, he headed the ceramics department at Otis College of Art and Design from 1983-96, in a career that spanned 5 decades.

Enrolling at Chouinard in 1957, he studied graphic design, with a view to pursuing a career in Commercial Art. However, one elective seminar with pioneering studio potter, Vivika Heino changed everything and a new pathway emerged.

“I started to get more serious working with the wheel and the clay and the glazes. I said ‘this is for me’.This is where I want to be and I dropped everything and switched my major to Ceramics.”

With his mentors move to the Rhode Island School of Design, Bacerra became head of the Ceramics program.

A lifelong exploration of historic asian ceramics, textile and print designs and finely honed technical expertise became the beautiful vessels and sculptures that comprise the exhibit.

His work represents pursuit of beauty for beauty’s sake. Expressed in all forms, organic, geometric, traditional or sculptural and always a surface replete with pattern, color, composition and design.

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Not for Bacerra the prevailing exploration of the “humble pot”, the creamy earth toned stoneware with brushstroke calligraphy in a nod to Japanese folk art:much approved of in the 50’s and 60’s! Moving forward with glaze technology and drawing upon his earlier background in commercial art, he experimented with raised clay designs on his stoneware and then shifted to porcelain and white ware, where his increasingly complex and overglazed decoration could shine.

“China Painting” as it was referred to, had become the province of Women’s Art Clubs and hobbyists, ironic given the historic gravitas and tradition of similar techniques. A growing movement celebrating color and embellishment and drawing upon these derided techniques influenced and encouraged Bacerra.

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This retrospective shows the move from simple green & white or blue & white graphics to dizzyingly complicated patterns:patterns and techniques drawn from Asian ceramics, persian painting, middle eastern textiles and MC Escher’ designs. Kandinsky, Klee and Klimt all on display at the Pasadena Art Museum were particular favorites.


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He perfected increasingly difficult firing schedules to accommodate  the complex and multilayered combinations of glazes.Curator and Author of Ralph Bacerra Exquisite Beauty, Jo Lauria notes:

“As many as 14 firings were required for a single object and the labor intensive process was fraught with potential for breakages and flaws in the kiln.”  ..a 50% loss rate apparently.

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His tenure at Chouinard and Otis mentored an impressive number of students who follow in his footsteps.

The second exhibit celebrating Los Angeles’s storied clay history is Crossroads in Clay at Chouinard and Otis: The Ralph Bacerra Years, a group exhibition featuring more than thirty former students of the artist.

This exhibit, concurrent with the Ben Maltz show is at the Vincent Price Art Gallery, on the East LA  College campus.

It is an historic review, connecting the skills of the teacher (Bacerra) to the ceramic art of the students he mentored and a rare opportunity to see works created by these heirs of Bacerra’s tutelage. Many are now prominent artists in the field.

He challenged students to critically evaluate and recreate historic glazes and forms as part of their education and believed strongly in technical mastery and craftsmanship.

The show includes more than fifty artworks that demonstrate differing approaches, aesthetics and practice.Some retain a direct relationship to Bacerra and others are headed in alternate and innovative directions.

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A beautiful full-color catalogue, written by Jo Lauria and produced by the Ben Maltz Gallery accompanies Exquisite Beauty. And Crossroads in Clay curator, Christy Johnson has contributed an original essay discussing the lasting impact Bacerra had on his students.

Otis has also produced 2 “rolling clay” tours ( October and November) which travel to many of the ceramic artist’s studios featured in the Crossroads exhibit. 

A joy to explore Bacerra’s beauty for beauty’s sake .

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Set the Table.

arzbergedti

My grandma was cool.

Brilliant, intellectual, stylish and way ahead of her time.

Born in poverty, close to the Arctic circle she emigrated with her family to Australia when she was 12, never to see Norway again.

Pregnant and married to the love of her life at 16, living in a rough timber shack and raising 4 children, she embraced beauty and intellect and eduction. Each day included home schooling of music, culture or literature while she cooked on a primus gas ring, a practice she continued until the end of her life. Although my 14 year old father was supporting the family shooting rabbits when grandpa was injured, she knew that rigor and aesthetic would out and things would improve. A lifetime tradition of discussion (and argument!) over the dinner table was established.

My dad would describe this tough time as “bread and water, sometimes meat and potatoes but dreaming of fruit on the sideboard”. I have always loved this analogy.

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Fierce and difficult, brilliant and one of a kind, I think of her often.

Her youngest son became an academic. He travelled and studied abroad, and indulged her passion for china, dishes and modern ceramics. In the later years of her life she loved her hard won home and incredible garden and especially being surrounded by beautiful things.

Meals were times to gather at the table and enjoy food, the company, and conversation.

As children visiting, we were tasked with choosing which dinner set we would use to set the table for lunch.

The choice: Yellow and Black, mostly Villeroy and Boch, but amended and added to with dishes and jugs, salad bowls and bakeware from everywhere, as long as they were modern, yellow or black. Very dramatic!

My choice usually.

The other side of the kitchen held the cheery english red and black and white checked set. OK, but not my favorites.

In the sideboard there were White Arzberg dinner plates and beautiful platters, coffee pots, casseroles, little soup bowls and demi tasse coffee cups. These were used at night and for “occasions” when the modern teak table was extended and accented with peacock blue clothes and teal napkins. Some brass candlesticks too.

We took this task seriously.

To set a table is to be in control of a vision.

We would carefully count out knives and forks and spoons and put them in the right place. Spacing out plates and bowls just so, and making sure there were condiments and salt and pepper shakers.

The lesson: care and responsibility.

The end result: beauty and happiness.

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She didn’t live to see disposable dinnerware, nor travel to the United States to see real food served in foam boxes even at cafes. Or extremely successful wealthy people on reality TV programs eating from plastic take away boxes. She couldn’t imagine a world where people CHOOSE to drink from paper cups rather than a coffee cup. We had bright colored melamine picnic sets when we headed to remote beaches or went miles up bush tracks for billy tea and sandwiches. I don’t remember ever using  paper or plastic until I was catering.

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Decades after setting my grandma’s table, I love my shelves of china.

I have owned the yellow and black extravaganza collection since I was 30, and the white Arzberg for 25 years after my mum, downsizing, decided she didn’t entertain often enough to keep them. 50 plus  years of “occasions”, they are the heart of my dishery and I probably use some of them every day.

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Nothing is “for show”, and much has been broken or chipped, and thrown away. My newly, crawling son pulled a pile of Italian platters from the cupboard onto the tile floor, so the family joke is that a couple of pay checks are owed. . ..maybe those beautiful Heath dishes aren’t so out of reach after all!

And I dream of creating my own dinnerware…..

I wonder why you wouldn’t you set the table or eat from a cool bowl? Grab a tray and some napkins for the take away TV dinner? My husband’s idea of cooking dinner is buying sushi and setting the table!

The simplest meal is a quiet celebration: good fortune? A momentary respite? Companionship or family?

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Michael Pollan says that each meal is an opportunity for choice.

To show how we feel about agriculture vs. agribusiness, labor practices, health and nutrition, animal cruelty and our own self worth and traditions.

I think the set table is also another choice, and like many of the small and simpler things of life, wrongly perceived as trivial.

It’s not fussy or pretentious or god forbid,  “tablescapey”, but recognition that work has been done to create this meal (even to buy it) and now it’s time to stop and sit.

Take a moment. Feel happy and blessed.

And dig in!

Amen. grandma

Valdris Woldseth: 1906-1985

Thank you Beatrice

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She’d got used to being stuck.
but suddenly
Beatrice calls

and lures her forward
with saris and pots

mama of dada,
lover of love
vessels and vases

So tired when she started
and now such joy
Susan’s joy!

Time stretches but nothing looms…
shapes and songs and words appear

brooms sweep
making a place
My space.

muses, craft and beauty beckon…lustre and grace

BW in red sari