Clay is a uniquely sensitive material, picking up every nuance of a potter's state of mind throughout each moment of the process. The materials that are chosen, the way the tools are held, and the firing of the kiln imbue a sort of non-verbal communication, in ways like an instrumental piece of music, but with the added dimension of being both tactile and haptic. Ceramics almost demand to be touched and one's relationship with a piece comes through interaction rather than observation alone. Similarly, like a musician's solo, the potter relies on the embellishment of routine and established forms to convey their distinctive voice and vision.
All the same, in the dialogue between craft and high art, Pottery often gets camped with the former even while it embodies the latter. Technical vocabulary about clay-glaze chemistry and the illusive effects of high temperature kiln atmospheres, mostly inherited from the ancient alchemists who did the first actual research on ceramic processes in the 17th century, may not evoke a clear narrative line, yet the works themselves offer a multitude of ideas nonetheless.
Having been integral to the reintroduction and preservation of ceramic arts in the Philippines, Jon Pettyjohn's past exhibitions found him exploring these concepts and more, branching out beyond the typical applications of his craft into more experimental works. In his 2011 show, Flux, he explored the notion that change is constant. Through meticulously arranged works depicting the transition from wholeness to fragmentation alongside more abstract forms that resisted any utilitarian interpretation, he highlighted a process defined by transformation and subverted the expectations around the practical aspect of clay works. Subsequently, 2018's Stoneware Terrain mined the relationship between his environment – namely Mt. Makiling where his home and studio are located – and his creative output, a testament to the natural materials that he sources and how those earliest steps inform the rest of his practice.
Now Pettyjohn's third solo exhibition at Silverlens, Steps, advances the artist's pursuit of personal expression within the framework of traditions and techniques to which he has dedicated himself for close to fifty years. "It is a challenge and an honor for a potter like myself to be offered a space in a prime contemporary exhibition space like Silverlens." says Pettyjohn. "I have attempted to use my pottery skills to go a little further and say something more."
With a new series of thrown, wall-mounted platters, Pettyjohn embraces the symmetry of the potter's wheel without constraining himself to functional works. Using these cohesive, perfectly circular forms as a starting point, he has populated a diverse array of glazes and textures to create painted and relief surfaces that embody a spectrum: the orderly intention of the artist's concept leads to the coordinated havoc of raw materials reacting to the intense conditions of the high fire process. Amid the precision, an improvisational tenor evinces the rush of exploring new ground.
Facing the works on the gallery wall, framed at times by a hand-shaped lip or rim, one encounters vignettes both momentous and minute. A solid body punctured with holes neighbors one with wide, scraped strips of unglazed clay alongside another with swept remnants of the trimming process. The largest piece, with light and dark sections divided by a band like corroded thunder clouds on the horizon, suggests the fear, isolation, and anxiety of a force capable of disrupting the lives of many though it is itself a part of nature. Fittingly, it is also the only piece fired in Pettyjohn's anagama, a process that paints the storm of fire and wood ash that flows through the kiln onto the surfaces of the works within. This work is the most contorted, the darker side bending away as if rejecting its place in the whole. Seemingly in response, another striking work, calm and white, portrays two circles, one complete and the other partial and obscured like multi-phased moons in the stark clarity of daylight.
The varied and distinct interior of each piece ranges from fluidly calligraphic to geometric, reflecting the chance and unpredictability within each day. The reticulation of white glaze on a dark background nestles comfortably in its randomness while the next is disturbed with a quick swipe. Elsewhere, three different glazes run into each other, transparent layers transcending into unforeseen hues. The downward spiral repeated in a sequence of monochromatic works insinuates something like daily vigilance, only to be echoed in other pieces in the form of a brief smear of color or the impression of a brushstroke: the possibility of patterns broken. The resulting contrast between cycles of perfection and imperfection, between symmetry and distortion, captures the artist's experience over the last few tumultuous years. On both a global and a deeply personal scale, the path forward can only be reached one step at a time and with acceptance of the things that we cannot control.
Press release courtesy SILVERLENS.