2003 Essay | Richard DeVore: Bodylandscapes

2003 Essay | Richard DeVore: Bodylandscapes

Richard DeVore: Bodylandscapes

By Janet Koplos


#1052 (inside)
2002, stoneware
13 x 12.75

In Colorado State University’s art department, where Richard DeVore has taught since 1978, students of a philosophical bent gravitate toward his classes. That may seem a little odd for a ceramics course. Clay, a material rich in history and meaning, has been variously associated with such diverse contexts as traditions, alternative lifestyles, design and popular culture, to name just a few, but rarely with philosophical rumination. This attraction begins to suggest DeVore’s distinctiveness as an artist.

His long-term exploration of a chosen form and surface is also striking. Clearly, he doesn’t embrace the art-world pursuit of the new, in which some radical change must be trotted out every few years. His mature work, since the early ’70s, has engaged vessel form and vessel scale. It could be asserted that he, like a potter, has developed a style and stuck with it, yet he seeks metaphor rather than function. He focuses on two of the age-old references of clay as a material: earth and flesh. Since environmentalism and the body were two of the great themes of late 20th-century art, DeVore now seems to have been astonishingly prescient—as if, when he took up these ideas, he had his finger on the pulse of his time.

#742, 1994
10 x 17

To address these themes, he has neither produced jeremiads nor used text or images to tell a story. Instead, he has relied on the allusions that can be carried by highly abstracted forms and surfaces. The human capacity to understand through intuition, through feeling as much as thinking in response to formalist qualities, allows these intimations to be understood. This process is surely the essence of visual art as opposed to language, which is so often employed in art today (sometimes as an enrichment, sometimes as a crutch.) DeVore has staked his career on viewers’ ability to extract an unspoken message of sensation from line, plane, contour, color, texture, mass and volume.

Within the boundaries he has set for himself, his work is much more varied than common wisdom has it—and that”s true even without considering his first 15 years of works, which would not be recognized by anyone as “a DeVore.” He went to graduate school at Cranbrook in 1956 as a painter of abstractions with subtle color relationships. Under the influence of Maija Grotell, a minor in pottery eventually became a concentration on clay. When he began teaching in the early ’60s, his work ranged from conventional tight weed pots to partial figures, life-size and very funky, with occasional two-dimensional works leavening the mix (then and now). By 1971, however, he had found the forms and themes that have held his attention to this day.

His signature form is a vessel with an undulating rim, a flat or rounded base, and sometimes with a doubled or trebled interior floor into which one can peer through amoeba-shaped excisions. These features describe an archetype but still leave DeVore with a vast range of choices within the traditional vessel scale of modest, holdable objects. His works can be compared to a crowd of people, recognizable as a species but amazing in their variety. DeVore has made his population of ceramic forms tall and squat, wide and narrow, sloped and straight, ragged and smooth, deep and shallow. They range from tall vases to low bowls and include flaring conical shapes. But all conform to the limits of an austere purity of profile with subtle distortions such as pinched crevices, pushed bulges and slits. His color shows the same richness within restrictions. His preferred hues may be characterized as earth tones, but they have in fact ranged from black to white, encompassing all the warm shades in between.


#742, 1994
10 x 17

DeVore’s works are perfectly poised between suggesting body and suggesting landscape. They are so persuasive in both those directions that it’s impossible to conclude that he means one or the other. Rim or wall or interior may seem to describe topography, particularly winderoded stone and parched clay. But just as much, these features evoke the irregular contours of real bodies, with sags and creases and dimples as well as more erotically suggestive clefts, holes and swells, generally more female than male but not exclusively so. His surfaces are usually dry, often crackled, like the Western landscape with its evaporated lakes and scarred hills (remember, he lives in the high desert). But still the body is simultaneously present: calluses and scars and weathered skin have a similar appearance when examined close-up, and coming close fits the intimacy of his forms. Color usually has the same doubleness as the substance: earth tones are by and large also skin tones.

So what is the point of this devotion to land and body? DeVore doesn’t specify through titles or statements, and he has the reputation (in New York, at least) of evading public contact when he can—although he can also be strikingly open about himself, even voluble. At any rate, he chooses not to speak for the work. It rests in its dual identity, allowing times and events to suggest implications.

Let’s say that the worries of recent years have been drought, development, overgrazing and pollution on the environmental side of his equation, and sexual aggressiveness, disease, racial identity and abuse on the human side. These negative or at least troublesome associations are relevant, for DeVore approaches his work with serious intent and high expectations: he is not making decoration or entertainment. The positive experiences linked with both body and landscape include beauty, comfort, nurturing and pleasure. The positives are just as relevant, because DeVore is not a cynic. He captures both sides of existence in his beautiful forms with their less-than-beautiful associations.

Flesh and earth are our internal and external natural environments and are so crucial to life that mere reference to them makes a statement of basic issues, basic values. By making this choice, DeVore declares his concrete concerns, withholding only the specific interpretations.

His conflation of these essentials makes a point about the inseparability of humanity and the natural world. That belief, which goes against Western civilization’s idea that mankind has dominion over nature, is more in tune with the Asian notion of seamless continuity. What we do affects nature, and what nature does affects us. We are not hermetically sealed off.

#959, 2001
16.75 x 13.5

That’s the general picture. In the specifics, DeVore’s works are as powerful as his theme. Let’s consider a few of them individually.

The low, wide bowl numbered 363 (1982) is of a color somewhere between gray, pink, tan and white. It is slightly darker around its subtly irregular horizontal rim, which has a single tiny notch cut into it. Attention is concentrated on the inside of the bowl, which is open for display and available for study. Toward the center depths, the bowl darkens along lines that could be patterns of rivers if this were a national map. A single opening in the bottom has two squared corners, with the remainder raggedly oval. Below it, a darker mottled surface can be seen. The piece evokes a desiccated landscape in which someone has dug into a vanished water hole to find some residual dampness.

A deeper bowl, 10 by 17 inches, numbered 742 (1994) is so intimately human it is almost embarrassing to look at. The exterior of the bowl is a creamy white, while the inside blushes pink along a deep, buttocks-like contour, slightly freckled and darkening toward the bottom of the bowl, where there is a light streak and a dark “stain” that partly rings a single round hole. One thinks “rectum,” although the physical relationships are mixed: if this is a rectum, we are on the inside of the body looking down through its volume to the opening, but the contour of the buttocks would in that case be inside out (we seem to see them from the back side, although they’re within the bowl). In other words, this “feels” more than actually looks like that particular part of human anatomy.

A tall vessel numbered 959 (2001) is familiar in contour, a lumpy and irregular conical form. The emphasis here is on the satiny exterior, which darkens to almost black near the top. As usual, one’s vision is pulled inside the vessel, where a lava-like crust pouring down one side is both beautiful and horrible in its implications. It might not be lava but rather something destroyed by burning. (The unsettling implication becomes ironic with knowledge that DeVore was one of the unfortunate travelers stranded in New York City by the 9/11 terrorism; the irony is that this work, which was motivated by private experiences, was on view in his gallery show in those painful days, like some kind of premonition.)

Number 1052 (2002) is a vase form of a modest 13-inch height, its verticality given a boost by its taper to a narrow, rounded foot. The outside is a warm, earthy tan, verging on ocher. The inside, however, is much lighter, a creamy white. It has a small pinch high on the wall that recalls body folds in general but is too abbreviated to suggest anything as specific as breasts, buttocks or rolls of fat flesh. Deeper within the nearluminous interior, a membrane seamlessly integrated into the wall stretches most of the way across the opening, ending in a straight edge that contrasts with the continuing curve of the outside wall. It throws the bottom interior of the pot into a gentle shadow.

The slightly shallower vessel numbered 1056 (also 2002) has a fuller profile—a more rounded hip—and a pinker coloration, especially toward the interior bottom. There one finds a single tiny hole, bellybutton-like, that matches in finesse the single small pinch high on the interior wall. The outside surface seems relatively impersonal, recalling sand dunes. The interior sends two messages: a dark crackle in the pale ground looks almost hairy, almost coarse, while the deep interior conveys a kind of tenderness.

All these works fall within the “typical” character of a DeVore vessel, but they differ formally and in emotional nuance, eliciting a range of feelings from deprivation to near arousal to incipient horror to euphoria. And this is not to mention some of DeVore’s greater deviations. Surely one of his most elegant exceptions is Requiem (1980), a dark green vessel set in the center of a matching cloth that was created at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop. The rim is smooth and even, and a white line makes a border less than a quarter of the way down from the top; the square fabric also has a border defined by a white line. Both materials show crackle patterns, which suggest fragility and the potential for change— perhaps birth, perhaps ruin. Yet the figure and ground in this composition are both soothing. A square is stable rather than dynamic, and the regularity of this vessel plus its perfect centering on the cloth make it seem to settle into some state of deeply inward concentration and quiet.

These works reveal DeVore as a master of intensity and control in concatenations of intelligence and sensuality. His vessels employ hand-made reductiveness, like Agnes Martin’s paintings; they communicate bodily sensations, like Kiki Smith’s sculptures; they define a range of forms and works it obsessively, as Giorgio Morandi did. There’s nothing spontaneous about DeVore’s works. That contrasts with the instinctive processes that have propelled abstract ceramics by artists as different as Peter Voulkos and Robert Turner. On the other hand, the powerful emotions compressed in these works are quite unlike the plotted, plodding diagrams of artists (too often teachers) who work out of their heads rather than their hearts. DeVore’s works are distinguished by their very human blend of passion and self-consciousness.

Janet Koplos, a senior editor at Art in America magazine, has been writing about ceramics and other arts since the mid ’70s.

Richard DeVore is represented at SOFA CHICAGO 2003 by Bellas Artes/Thea Burger and is a speaker in this year’s lecture series.

All images courtesy of Bellas Artes/Thea Burger

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