Earth, Water and Metaphor
John Toki, Daniela Pulido: Memories of the Land
By Paul Dorn, Davis Enterprise art critic
"Here is another message to Jeremiah from the Lord: Go down to the shop where clay pots and jars are made and I will talk to you there. I did as he told me, and found the potter working at his wheel. But the jar that he was forming didn't turn out as he wished, so he kneaded it into a lump and started again. Then the Lord said: Can't I do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter's hand so are you in my hand."--Jeremiah 18:1-7, The Living Bible
Clay is an artistic material just bursting with metaphorical possibilities.
A mixture of earth and water, clay has an elemental relationship to life. Indeed, our bodies are merely animated clay organisms, according to both science and biblical legend. Civilization would be impossible to imagine without clay, as early pottery allowed for food storage and transport, facilitating the development of agriculture and non-nomadic existence.
Among the first materials of human handicraft, clay led our ancestors to contemplate metaphysics, as it was only as mankind became creative that we could conceive of a Creator. Yet clay is also about science, with millennia of research efforts dedicated to the more effective use of it for human need. And long before the Internet, people shared ideas using cuneiform clay tablets.
Simultaneously ancient and modern, malleable and brittle, delicate and durable, clay is a simple, archetypal material than can be manipulated into complex forms abundant with beauty, functionality, sensuality and meaning.
This is the philosophical base underpinning Davis' month-long pre-occupation with ceramic art, launched two weeks ago with the California Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Art, hosted by the Natsoulas Gallery. Several exhibits in town continue the examination of clay as an artistic medium through May.
However, no exhibition currently on view mines the metaphorical content of clay as masterfully as Memories of the Land, the collaborative site-specific installation by Bay Area artists John Toki and Daniela Pulido, which continues through June 15 at the Davis Art Center.
The two artists first encountered each other at Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC), where Toki has been an instructor in the school's influential ceramics program for many years. Pulido received an MFA last year from CCAC, and served as a teaching assistant for both Toki and his CCAC colleague Arthur Gonzalez. Memories of the Land is the first joint project by Toki and Pulido.
The Art Center's halls feature several drawings from each artist's sketch books, revealing something about how they conceptualized Memories of the Land before proceeding to fabricate their respective works. Pulido's preliminary renderings include blood-like drops of red color, with lines emanating from them, hinting at the metaphors she explores in her piece. Toki's illustrations are studies in color and form, and just barely hint at the spatial presence of his finished works.
The installation doesn't initially convey a sense of "landscape." Pulido uses a network of red lines to connect nine heavy clay orbs scattered across the floor. Above these hang an equal number of glowing translucent resin orbs suspended from the ceiling, attached to the clay spheres with electric cords. The bright floating bubbles seem to be extracting energy and life from the grounded clay forms, creating an abstracted atmospheric metaphor for humanity's relationship with the land.
"I look at the ground as the source from which mankind feeds off," explains Pulido, a native of Chile. "But humanity does not plant back seeds of life, it depletes the land of its life. The land is exhausted. And that is the result of an unequal exchange. I look at the body as the ground for the mind. And I also see how we live at a pace that doesn't allow the mind to come back to the body. We only notice it when it collapses."
Grounding Pulido's airy assemblages, Toki offers two massive totemic columns, giving the installation a strong presence and a tangible foundation. With a base brown color of native clay, Toki's four-sided 10-foot tall columns are textured with grooves and fissures, flowing up and around and through the piece, paralleling the upward sweep of Pulido's light cords. One side of each column features a greater variety of texture, color and shape: blue bulbs, contour lines, variegated pastels. Toki's structures might be seen as core samples elevated from the ground, revealing an historical view of the landscape's evolution, erosion and extraction.
You might say that clay is in Toki's blood. His family business, Leslie Ceramic Supply in Berkeley, has been the main supplier of sculptural clay in Northern California for more than 40 years, and he is the co-author of several influential books on art-making with clay. Pulido, on the other hand, is a conceptual artist who selects her medium based on the needs of her creative vision.
"Memories of the Land brings together two artists with distinctly different relationships to the ceramic medium," says Stuart Allen, gallery director of the Davis Art Center. "Toki is a ceramic sculptor; Pulido works in many media. The strength of their collaboration is based on this difference. Toki is clearly energized by Pulido's dynamic visual experiments, while Pulido has profited greatly, aesthetically and technically, from her work with Toki. After all, new ideas are never born in a vacuum."
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