Artist Chuck Johnson talks with Robert Booth, distinguished teaching professor and chairman of the Department of Visual Arts and New Media, during the opening reception for “Ceramic Sculptures by Chuck Johnson”
When walking through the collection of totem pole-style sculptures that comprise the current exhibition in the Cathy and Jesse Marion Art Gallery at SUNY Fredonia, one is bombarded by a variety of interesting images.
Towering buildings balance on the backs of rhinos. Infant-like dolls carry cash registers on their backs. Oil company logos adorn ancient-looking pillars.
While each image is interesting in its own right, in combination they create sculptures that tell a story about the world around us according to the artist who created them.
The ceramic sculptures are the work of Chuck Johnson, by a ceramics professor at the Edinboro University in Edinboro, Pa. His exhibition, “Ceramic Sculptures by Chuck Johnson,” opened Jan. 31.
“It is really more about narrative than totem,” Johnson said of his sculptures. “Stacking allows me to employ multiple recognizable forms that can be used to create a story. My interest in metaphors and exploring contemporary issues has been with me since my undergraduate studies in the late ’70s.”
The works in the SUNY Fredonia exhibition focus on endangered animals, childlike doll forms and references to petroleum and the oil-burning world. Johnson explained that a typical piece might use an animal to represent the natural world, with a building representing development or human impact imposed upon it.
“Images of apples may be used to refer to original sin and biodiversity under assault,” Johnson said. “I also like to use corn, which is one of the most genetically altered and corporately controlled foods grown. The apples and corn often have stamped numbers on them like monoculture fruits and vegetables in the supermarket. Of course, the ideas and narrative elements vary from piece to piece.”
While Johnson tells a specific story through the images he selects for each sculpture, he prefers to not to explained the message in too great a detail.
“The viewer usually gets a different story and my take on the narrative can spoil the work for them,” he said. “It can be a little like talking about politics or religion at Thanksgiving dinner. I also like the idea of the work standing on its own without my opinions being the first thing someone sees. I guess my goal is for the work to be a little like poetry, with open metaphors and a bit of mystery.”
However, the artist hopes the imagery carries his intended message all on its own.
“I would like the viewer who can decipher the metaphors to see my concerns about our world,” Johnson said.
If the message in each work is a bit complex, so is the process by which the sculpture is created. Johnson said each sculpture may take from two weeks to several months to complete.
“Parts are constructed and applied to a slowly growing stacked form,” he explained. “The entire sculpture must be kept moist until completed so that changes can be made. Two or three sculptures may be under construction at the same time in my studio. Once a form is completed the surface work begins. Carving, smoothing, and applying texture must all be completed before the clay dries completely.”
Once dried, the sculpture is loaded into a gas kiln. The kiln is fired slowly over a two-day period to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. During the final hours of the firing the atmosphere in the kiln is starved of oxygen.
Johnson said this “reduction” of oxygen brings iron to the surface of the unglazed sculpture and creates warm colors varying from deep browns and grays to light oranges and tans.
“Ceramic Sculptures by Chuck Johnson” runs through Feb. 22 in the gallery, which is located on the main level of the Michael C. Rockefeller Arts Center. The exhibition is free and open to the public.
Gallery hours are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, noon to 4 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.
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