27.september - 31. desember 2013

Torbjørn Kvasbø (b. 1953) works in ceramics and is one of the few Norwegian artists to have a significant international career. His early works present him as a classic ceramicist, making household objects in the Western studio tradition, inspired by Asian, particularly Japanese, ceramics.

Suggestions of signs 
Torbjørn Kvasbø in the Nøstetangen Room

 

Torbjørn Kvasbø (b. 1953) works in ceramics and is one of the few Norwegian artists to have a significant international career. His early works present him as a classic ceramicist, making household objects in the Western studio tradition, inspired by Asian, particularly Japanese, ceramics. The major bridge-builder between Asian and European ceramic art was Britain’s Bernard Leach (1887-1979); the other important ceramic artist with whom it is natural to link Kvasbø is the American Peter Voulkos (1924-2002). For most really great artists in this field, it is possible to see how their talent was demonstrated in their early, hand-turned works in the form of vases, mugs, cups and plates. The potential of the material and the form of the object must be able to measure up to generations of outstanding ceramic art. They are judged by their ability to use the artists’ means, the nuances in the ceramic’s thickness, structure and colour, the object’s profile, the edges’ “lift”, the surface’s character and the glaze. Throughout his life, Leach stayed true to traditional studio pottery. Voulkos shared a starting point with Leach, but his work gradually assumed larger, heavier forms, making use of the clay’s own weight and plasticity. This development can also be seen in Kvasbø. After 15 years with variations on traditional forms, with a richly varied and original idiom, he has moved into ceramic sculpture, often without the utility value that was characteristic of his works up until the early 1990s. In his works after this time, Torbjørn Kvasbø has developed some of the world’s most original and magnificent artistry in ceramic sculpture. He has scaled up the size, so that you feel as if you are meeting a “body” more than seeking to grasp an “object”, but it is always the classical ceramic’s corporeal and technical aspects that have governed his work. He finds new ways in which to create shapes, but it is the clay’s softness – its plasticity – and resistance that are used. Colours and surface characters vary in works that have matte or shiny glazes. In recent years he has developed the use of bright colours and large ceramic sculptures in bold blues, green, yellow or red, giving his work a visual and physical presence with which little contemporary art can compete.

In our time, when elements of neo-conceptual contemporary art have become an academic discipline, when “renewal and transgression” are found more in rhetoric than in visual structure, it can be worth remembering something that the influential Austrian art historian Alois Riegl (1858-1905) wrote in his book Historische Grammatik der bildenden Künste (published in 1966, more than 50 years after his death). Riegl was one of the founders of modern art history as an independent academic discipline. He worked with most genres and techniques and one of his specialities, in addition to Oriental textiles, was late-Roman industrial art. Riegl wrote on the significance of architecture and the industrial arts:

“Let us now look carefully at a second point. People typically relegate architecture and industrial arts to a subordinate category. But man is most genuinely creative in these domains. Here he uses no models but rather invents forms utterly independently. If a completely unrestricted contest with nature is possible anywhere, it is here. If man transgresses a certain boundary, he submits to dependence on nature. In this respect, architecture and industrial arts constitute a higher form of art than anything else.”[1]

There are four things in Riegl’s philosophy and method for art history that are relevant to an understanding of Kvasbø’s art. The first is that he extracts a world view – a Kunstwollen or “artistic will” – from the basic analysis of an artwork. The second is his belief that artistic ideals, such as the classical ideal, are not eternal standards, but that the supra-individual “artistic will” shifts from culture to culture and that ideals are thus historically and geographically determined. The third is that he was very early in including not only the way in which the artwork is shaped, but also how observers and users relate to it, physically and mentally. He used insights from that period’s new gestalt psychology, and developed a useful method for how different periods’ artwork is best observed from close up, a normal distance, or from a long distance. The fourth thing is what Riegel calls a “contest with nature”. Nature is taken to mean the human body’s biological structure (mental/cognitive, sensual and physical) and materials, climate and natural processes, such as clay, rotation and fire, which are particularly relevant to ceramics. “A condition for the understanding of art is that the artist and observer in a certain period and culture share the same world view and thus Kunstwolle”.

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Let’s try approaching Torbjørn Kvasbø’s art using Riegel’s methodology.

When Alois Riegl talks about industrial art, it is closer to what we now call arts and crafts, but in Riegel’s time it was also called industrial art in Norway, which is why the museums in Kristiania (Oslo), Bergen and Trondheim, all include “industrial art” in their names. This was not industrial production of the kind that revolutionised the West’s production and working conditions during the 1800s, with the resulting changes in living patterns and social life, that he was thinking of. However, urbanisation and proletarianisation and the use of labour in the European and eventually American major industries is a necessary backdrop, because it was the vulgarisation of objects through efficient mass production and the resulting adverse social effects that boosted the arts & crafts movement, without which contemporary arts and crafts and ceramics is almost unimaginable.

Industrial production is serial production in which identical units are made. The machines’ construction must be very precise, but not so tightly put together that the components jam and movement stops. There must be a little bit of wiggle room to make it possible – quite literally – for the wheels go round. Some deviations have to be accepted, but they must be as minimal as possible, so minimal that people do not perceive them as a deviation due to production. Industrial art, arts and crafts and modern ceramic art are not like this.

Kvasbø uses mechanical devices. He has tools that are used to make elements that are similar but not industrially identical. Handicrafts and handiwork become production, but what type of production? For artists like Kvasbø, who was educated during a period with a strong counter culture in all social structures, not least within higher education, the Marxist criticism of capitalist and dynamic industrial factory production was the phenomenon they tested themselves against and created alternatives to. We can say that the structural form of Kvasbø’s works displays a world view that is that of the counter culture, the socially aware counter culture. The counter culture was originally Christian-socialist and then affected by Marxism and neo-Marxism. The student uproar in 1968 gave it its final form, so far, and it is this that comprises the world view we relate to in our understanding of Kvasbø’s works. From the historical avant-garde, the counter culture has adopted a reluctance in the face of materialism and mass consumption in which objects become goods (the throwaway mentality), efficiency measures are found in paid work (time clocks and strict production targets), and there is administrative management and regulation of production and life.

Marxism has an overarching story that can be divided into three parts – similar to the Judeo-Christian story of salvation, but without the metaphysics. In Marxism there is the idea that at one time free people lived as social beings in harmony with themselves, their surroundings, their fellow people and their activities. Property was collective and work was characterised by cooperation and was done in order to fulfil domestic needs. This is followed by the next historical period, with the alienation and fragmentation that occurs with capitalism and which is exacerbated through its phases (“progress”) and growth. The aim of the third phase is to escape from this alienation. These divides will cease due to a revolution that achieves a classless society, where the “natural human species” can once again live as a social being, but with all the benefits of the technological development that capitalism has entailed. Work and production are not something negative in themselves in this story. Work and struggle can be good and they can be harmful. Early in his career, the young Marx was clear about the harmful work of capitalism. In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 he wrote:

Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and does so in proportion in which it produces commodities generally. This fact expresses merely that the object which labour produces – labour’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour which has been congealed in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labour. Labour’s realisation is its objectification. In the conditions dealt with by political economy this realisation of labour appears as loss of reality for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and object-bondage; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.”[2]

Such analyses are based on the face that modern industrial production is divided, so that each worker produces a small part of a larger product. The product is designed by others, the production equipment is put together and owned by others and the final product is completed and put into circulation outside the worker’s perspective and influence. In other words, there is no connection between the producer and what is produced. The relationship between the workers and the products they help to make becomes alienating and hostile.

Counter culture arts and crafts and avant-garde art cannot be fully understood without this narrative framework. Their activities become an alternative to capitalism’s objectifying production of goods. Arts and crafts as a form of life is rooted in the natural, primal state and is held to one side, anticipating an elevated final state. Accordingly, Torbjørn Kvasbø’s work is a form of production that is freed from objectification and alienation. The work is creative because it is an end in itself and the artist has a complete presence and freedom of action throughout the process. The product is not primarily goods[3], rather an artwork is usefulness that comes through contemplation and the free play of the senses when encountering it.[4]

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Torbjørn Kvasbø expresses himself through round, curved shapes. Riegl has the following to say about this:

It is only logical that industrial arts drew on Organism to a much greater degree. Given that the practical function of industrial objects required their being in continuous motion (in the human hand), it makes sense that curvature had long prevailed in this domain. We also observe the direct application of organic motifs to utilitarian ends – for example, human figures as tool handles, animal bodies as vessels.[5]

In the world view of the counter culture and Marxism, humanity is an aim in itself. Without gods, humanity is the measure of all things, as was the case in Antique classicism and the Renaissance. As the painter Barnett Newman said in the 1950s, we make cathedrals of ourselves. A human as a physical-mental being results in a naturalistic view of mankind and can lead to behaviourism. The bodily, the physical-visual meeting between artists, artworks and the audience was strived for during the post-war years and reached its height in the art of the 1960s. Art is experienced in real time at a scale of 1:1. For Torbjørn Kvasbø we see how the corporeal has always been decisive for both the modus and technology. When he made household objects, his works were relatively small, adapted to hands, mouths, shelves and table tops. After his works were detached from direct, daily utility, their size increased in towards that of a biological body, like a medium,-sized mammal, like humans. The organic element of Kvasbø’s more recent works is experienced visually, mentally and purely materially and physically.

The sculptures that are shown in the Nøstetangen Room at Drammen Museum are in the latter category. They are made and produced by the same person who has had an impulse (a Kunstwolle) to make an object using it and the technology and method of production. The method is based on extrusion, i.e. pressing soft clay through a cylinder, where the artist uses his muscles to pull down a long handle, causing a stamp to press the soft clay so it falls out of the cylinder in the shape of a sleeve, or a wide hollow tube or a pipe. The length of these sleeves is dependent on the diameter of the specially developed and owned “workshop machine” and the length resulting from the handle and the height of the cylinder. This method means that the beginning and end of these soft and flexible sleeves have a lipped edge. These lipped edges are a type of “edge structure” that the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) placed great importance on, because they are associated with the mouth, nostrils, ear holes, anus, genitals and the bodily chambers they lead into. In Kvasbø, these edge structures are generally so large and abstract that it is only in a transferred and general meaning that it is possible to talk about them with such words. The latent eroticism and intimate theme found here is emphasised by the way in which the artist works when he puts together these sleeves. He sharpens one end and, holding one in his hand, the open sleeve opening is then penetrated using considerable physical force. He has shaped the edge to a soft lip and, with his hands in the sleeve, he presses out the receiving sleeve so that it bulges and sometimes splits slightly.

The organic metaphors expressed here also shift depending on the colours he adds to the glaze; the reds are more corporeal, the greens somewhat more vegetable, the yellows and blues carry the thoughts to manmade sleeves, such as pipe systems and hoses, or they are not reminiscent of anything in particular. In the encounter with such an abstract, organic sculpture, one has to be very cautious about emphasising an empathy that gives these shapes human feelings and qualities.

Each sleeve or holster carries traces of its origin and these are fixed when the soft clay is fired. The sleeves are piled up and pressed against each other while the clay is still soft, so they droop down over the surface on which they are placed. They become a stack of wet organisms that are reminiscent of some type of seabed colony, gently swinging in the force of the heavy water before, like giant corals, they are left as rigid shells. In shaping, glazing and firing process, Kvasbø conducts his “contest with nature”. He does not submit to nature, but nor does he place nature beneath him. It is a mutual cooperation, working together and meeting midway between dominance and submission. A meeting in a place where humans recognise nature’s insurgence and its potential. And how, in shaping nature’s potential, people show that balance and reconciliation can be created between the nature that is a reflective human and the nature that is not.

The organic is the founding metaphor of this artistry, but even if the human body and its mental and sensory control organs are so central, the resulting product will rarely be anthropomorphic, human-like. There is no central, structural and supportive spine here, no heart, no brain to be centres for inward and outward flows. It was just this view of art, based on the human body as a core system that generates form from the inside out, that Rosalind Krauss criticised in her famous essay from 1977, “The Double Negative, a new syntax for sculpture”. She set up a phenomenological view of art against this one, in which the work’s structure is influenced from the outside and where its form is always a result of people stacking or organising objects so that there is neither a shaping-giving core to the work’s structure or a fixed, privileged place in which the observer – like the artist – can observe it in its entirety. It is in this new syntax that Torbjørn Kvasbø works. His method is a reaction to the process artists like the post-minimalists Robert Morris, Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, Barry Le Va and Richard Serra.

It is important to look a little more closely at this, because it is not unusual for Kvasbø’s art to be depicted as the result of an inner energy. This is both true and not true. The sleeves become jointed shapes, like those of a plant that grows in joints – such as the horsetail – coming out from a node that is genetically located in the plant’s material. As in a jointed plant, we cannot observe a physical skeleton in Kvasbø’s shapes, but there is a sense of something waving and moving in the rounded edge and lip structures, like sea anemones or subterranean, soft and blind creatures that gasp for air. The thing that could be a growth node in the jointed, massed sleeve structure must be a part of the artist’s and his culture’s Konstvolle, because these works are organised entirely unlike a jointed plant or an armadillo. In Kvasbø’s work, a joint does not grow out of the one before. The next joint is pressed into the previous one. In other words, the process is counter to the growth metaphor, but it can just as well be experienced as if the shapes are growing out of each other. Firing the shapes and making them rigid means that one also experiences them as petrified organisms, like a discarded shell, as much as moving organisms.  

Finally, what about Riegl’s analyses of observation from close-up, normal distance and the work experienced from a long distance? Torbjørn Kvasbø’s work can be experienced from all three positions. It is typical of post-modern art that it can build upon several thousand years of artistic practice and use different art epoch’s world views, and make a selection of them useful at the same time.

When Kvasbø’s more recent works are experienced close-up, one wants to concentrate on parts of the surface, and the works’ materiality is emphasised, as sight can be reinforced by touch. Seeing them close-up makes them physically present, but one cannot see the entire sculpture, not even the whole side you are facing. Seeing them on a stand or the floor of a room, so that you can approach them and walk around them at a normal distance, means that they can be experienced in the round like a classical sculpture where the entire work’s physical presence (all its sides) can be seen by moving around it. The work’s dynamics and turns and vectors can be observed in their overall roundness. Seeing them from far away and high up, such as on a stand on a huge wall, makes a visual mode of viewing necessary. Colour gains importance as shapes, shadows and highlights are experienced less three-dimensionally, and more as a play of light and shadows, a relief that is seen as being like a painting.

All three modes of viewing can be experienced by the public at the major retrospective show taking place at Lillehammer Art Museum in parallel with the exhibition in the Nøstetangen Room. The first and second modes are possible in the Nøstetangen Room at Drammen Museum; the room’s size and décor provide no opportunities for long-distance viewing, but close-up and normal distance viewing will be possible. Seeing these relatively big and heavy ceramic works in a room filled with small, delicate objects made from glass, silver, tin and faience, will help us understand how far development has come in ceramic art and industrial art, from household objects and ornaments to modern sculptures the size of the human body. These artworks show us the result of non-alienating work, where the product carries its entire process of becoming in itself and allow us to experience what it looks like when artists meet nature in an even contest.

In association with the exhibitions in Lillehammer and Drammen, the German-English art publisher Arnoldsche Art Publishers has published a book by Jorunn Veiteberg/Kerstin Wickman, Torbjørn Kvasbø Ceramics, Between the Possible1 and Impossible, (Stuttgart 2013). It is richly illustrated and includes a thorough biography. Veiteberg provides a thorough review of Kvasbø’s development as an artist and shows his breakthrough and international influence. Wickman describes Kvasbø’s importance as a professor and in building up the art colleges in Gothenburg and Stockholm.

 

 

[1] Alois Riegl, Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, 1966, English edition 2004, quoted from page 352 of the English edition.

 

[2] The Marx-Engels Reader, Edited by Robert R. Tucker, New York 1972, quoted from a 1978 edition, pages71-72.

[3] We know that even the most useless and incomprehensible avant-garde artwork is included in the art trade and speculative economy. Even international ceramic art is traded but, like household ceramics, its price is not part of the logic of trading goods and the speculative economy. Craftspeople have used their own sales and sales channels to a greater degree than painters and other fine artists. The price of a good piece of utility art is low and tied to work costs, not to demand, and even internationally renowned ceramic art has so far managed to remain outside of the large auction houses and famous galleries in the world’s capital cities of art, but there are no absolute guarantees of this.

[4] It is typical of Kvasbø and other artists in the post-industrial period that they first enter the production halls of major industries when they are going to cease working as production facilities. Kvasbø has thus worked with the final remains of Porsgrunn porcelain factory’s moulds and porcelaine, and he cuts up porcelain tubes and puts them together in strange jointed forms at the Norsk Teknisk Porselen factory in Fredrikstad. In both these instances, it is non-functional porcelain that is the result of his work. It is an observation on a production process that has passed.

[5] Riegl, ibid., page 370.

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