Paddling is a term used by ceramic artists to refer to the gentle tapping and shaping of malleable clay shapes with flattened wooden tools. The six large ceramic sculptures by the Anglo-American artist Tony moore centered on the two-person exhibition “Sacred Structures”, curated by Osi Audu and with photographs by
Kenro izu to Kleinert / James Art Center of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, were shaped using a two by four. Moving the masses of the six 450-pound pieces of clay that were beaten, wire-cut, and stamped into the exhibited pieces was an immersive process for Moore; a passion and discovery based on his admiration for nature, which he came to experience as an all-encompassing reality. Made during the cauldron of events that was 2017, these are works that finally came to life in the elemental fire of Moore’s Anagama-Noborigama hybrid wood-fired oven. He walked away with an injured shoulder and nine monuments (including six in this show) inspired by a quote from Martin Luther King: “Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and deeds of the children of darkness but also for the fears and apathy of the children of the light.
Monuments are generally larger than life and often commemorate heroes and achievements of the past. Moore’s, which includes steel plinths of his own making, are on a human scale and are, on some level, calls to action now. At the same time, the internal geometries of the formal elements of the finished pieces create intimate relationships with much larger structures. Spectators with creative imaginations will see immense natural and architectural configurations in the eyes of their minds. An aura of timelessness emerges from these pieces evoking echoes of the past: dwellings, hermit caves, ancient cultures and civilizations. The themes of evolution, justice and the crises that humanity is currently facing are also discussed.
Moore says his approach to creating this set of works was linked to a 17-year hiatus in sculpture from the early 1980s, when his creative focus was painting. Working on large canvases on the ground, he came to consider his paintings as “arenas of activity” where his art is played out at all times. While the current socio-political situation was an aspect of his consciousness while he was working, many other factors came into play: personal history, previous work and most importantly nature, manifested in growth, vitality and energy as well as imagery.
Although his long foray into painting was influenced by the sacred geometry of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, among others, his primary goal has always been to replace earlier concepts and modes of expression. During his transition period of the ’80s and’ 90s, a new form of expression began to germinate – “one of his own -” as Moore began to seriously collect ceramic art, which ultimately prompted a friend to ask, “What have you got and clay?” One thing leading to another, in 1997 he was offered a ceramic residency in Byrdcliffe. Having spent decades in the art world in Brooklyn, the experience has been eye-opening on many levels. Gone are the competitive and hectic art environment in the city. There was a natural space here, a mental space, a supportive community, and the visceral process of sculpting with clay and fire.
As he worked through it all, Moore was also engaged in a psychological rite of passage, fending off depression and disillusionment by seeking wisdom and healing in Zen, insightful meditation, and various other therapies and disciplines. He states that from the start of his self-identification as a teenage artist to the present day, there has always been a spiritual dimension to his work. Although he obtained a master’s degree in sculpture from Yale and is familiar with art history, theory and developments in contemporary art, conceptual struggle is only part of his practice. ; it is not the core. This is reminiscent of the difference between being a scholar of spiritual traditions and an active practitioner who has internalized the essence of the teachings and put them into practice on a daily basis. Moore emphasizes that the art of ceramics has its masters who pass on traditions. He relied on and invigorated them to actualize his vision. While Moore’s sculptures can be decoded in various ways, they not only evoke but embody the trans-conceptual truths they convey. The artist’s process is a process of discovery rather than creation.
moore’s piece The injustice of silence bears the ridged markings of the two-by-fours which was used to hammer out its twisted, ascending upward shape. Stamps punctuate its surface, the letter is formed by silently intoning “Children of the light”. The square footprints also punctuate the surface of the clay building blocks which were literally tossed by the artist over the emerging contorting form in a sort of crazy game of Jenga, the cubes and their message distorted in the energizing process. Working in this way is risky – “there is no frame, everything could have collapsed at any time from a misguided action. Yet Moore reports that it never happened.
In another of the works in the exhibition, Appearance, a reddish wave rises ominously above a small abstract figure – “is it a seal?” May be. The artist recognizes the inevitability of visual associations while rejecting mimesis as limiting “ambiguity, vitality and engagement”. The wave remains frozen in a moment of stasis, like the sculpture being made, evoking the future to emerge forever and inviting us to engage.
Tony Moore’s sculptures are on display as part of the “Sacred Structures” exhibition (with photographs by Kenro Izu) at the Kleinert / James Center for the Arts through October 3.