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Modernism born in potter's hands

George E. Ohr exhibit stretches utilitarianism out of clay and casts it into a creative light.

December 26, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

The first American artist to stand on the threshold of Modernism was not Stanton Macdonald-Wright, a Los Angeles expatriate in Paris, or New Yorker Arthur Dove. At least 15 years before them, the Mississippi artist George E. Ohr (1857-1918) was making radically inventive, highly individualistic work that turned aesthetic convention on its head.

Formally astute and joyously experimental, Ohr's art was a critical expression of his alienation from the brutalities of the industrializing modern world. If his name is unfamiliar, or is familiar only in a context different from Modern art, that's because Ohr was neither a painter nor a sculptor. Nor did he ever linger on the island of Manhattan, never mind the Ile de France.

Ohr was instead a potter, and his groundbreaking art took shape in a studio located in a small fishing and resort town on the Gulf Coast. A savvier art establishment might recognize him as America's first innovative Modernist, but he has two big strikes against him.

"George Ohr Rising: The Emergence of an American Master" is a modest exhibition that doesn't make so grand a claim, even though it could. Instead, the show offers an engaging introduction to the self-declared Mad Potter of Biloxi.

At the American Museum of Ceramic Art, a storefront space in Pomona, five vitrines hold 42 Ohr vessels. Almost all of them were made between 1895 and 1900. By contrast, Dove's and Macdonald-Wright's first Modern forays date from 1910 to 1912.

Emblematic of Ohr's achievement is "Fountain Vase," a bulbous, speckled red-orange form cinched and twisted in the middle. A tall neck supports a broad lip that folds over, cascading like water spilling off a fountain's edge.

Nearby, "Petticoat Vase" looks a bit like ruffled Victorian bloomers turned upside down, as five impossibly thin layers of crimped clay -- think exquisite pie crust -- swirl around the bottle's form. (They're so delicate you're not surprised to spot a tiny chip.)

A mug has multiple handles, so that more than one user could drink from it at an imagined communal table, while a bottle is framed by looping handles that coil like writhing snakes.

Several vessels are crumpled rather than smoothly cylindrical, as if the rapidly spinning potter's wheel had stopped abruptly and the centripetal force generated by pressure from the artist's hand had caused the form to collapse in on itself. Ohr's glazes, whether matte or luminous, sometimes pool and puddle, filling dimples in the clay, while the colors speckle and bleed.

In a bowl no larger than a small cupped hand, a cobalt rim above a jet-black base melts into a canary yellow interior. Elsewhere a surface is pockmarked with craters, suggesting that the glaze boiled in the kiln's intense heat and then the burst bubbles solidified as the vessel cooled.

This is not a model of exemplary commercial production work, in which a craftsman turns out a polished set of matching cups or bowls for the dinner table. Nor is it remotely like conventional late 19th century art pottery -- the refined painted china produced by energetic society women in Cincinnati, or the organic naturalism espoused at the Rookwood and Grueby potteries.

The Arts and Crafts Movement was progressive, putting the designer's individual expression ahead of the industrialized anonymity of mass production. (The example of Japanese and Chinese ceramics also offered an idealized dose of exoticism.) But there were limits to just how personal or exotic Arts and Crafts pottery could be.

Ohr didn't care about any of that. He toyed with those aesthetic boundaries. Marshaling remarkable technical expertise, he twisted and stretched the limits of art pottery.

One characteristic of Ohr's radical work is its startling engagement of motion. Take the ruffled edging so prominent in his pots. A structural element of wheel-thrown pottery, the movement of hand against spinning clay is more often hidden, smoothed over or encased inside the effete refinement of the finished pot.

Not unprecedented in Victorian crafts, where ruffles usually served as surface decoration, ruffling is intrinsic to the gestural production of Ohr's pottery. The forms contain narrative elements that reveal the process of a vessel's manufacture.

All but two of the Pomona show's 42 works were made in the five years after fire destroyed Biloxi Art and Novelty Pottery, the company Ohr had built. Usually regarded as the liberating event in the artist's life, the devastating fire ruined more than 10,000 production works in Ohr's inventory. Seven of these so-called "burned babies" are also on view in Pomona.

Ohr was a certified eccentric, not least as indicated by the 20-inch mustache he reportedly draped over his ears to keep from getting it tangled in the spinning potter's wheel. But he was nonetheless a gifted journeyman.

The son of an Eastern European immigrant blacksmith, he was taught the potter's traditional craft by an Alsatian father-and-son team, first in Biloxi and later in New Orleans.

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