In 1951, the poet Charles Olson returned to Black Mountain College after a period of declining resources and divisive faculty relations. Succeeding Joseph Albers as the primary visionary at the school. Over the previous several years, Olson had immersed himself in research of early Mayan ruins of the Yucatan peninsula. Intrigued with pictorial writing systems on building surfaces and objects, he was determined that a poet could just as well be an archaeologist. Olson’s physical stature (taller than 6′ 5″ in height with large frame) and freewheeling interdisciplinary intelligence, made him uncomfortable with professional mantles like poet or writer. “If there are no walls there are no names. This is the morning, after the dispersion, and the work of the morning is methodology: how to use oneself, and on what. That is my profession. I am an archaeologist of morning.” (Olson, Present is Prologue). Credited by some with preserving the clay studio at Black Mountain in part because his immersion in the ruins of the Yukatan convinced him of an authentic connection between physical form and poetics, much of Olson’s subsequent theoretical writing on poetry including his influential essay, Projective Verse, shed profound insights into the ways that poems function as energy in relationship to the breath, the eye, the mind, and the body.
“Edward Eberle in retrospect,” a 2017 touring exhibition originated by Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh revealed an artist working primarily in clay while hewing to a no-walls approach not unlike Olson’s relationship to archaeology and poetics. Eberle’s wide ranging intelligence, sourcing of diverse historical traditions, continual experimentation in form and imagery, resonate with Olson’s inventive reconciliation of divergent interests and sources. Like an archaeologist of morning, Eberle too has sustained a deep refinement of methodology, employing it to dig into and reimagine shards of history, memory, and reverie as raw material for art. Rather than isolating these fragments with prescriptive labels, Eberle uses the forms of sculpture, pottery, drawing, painting to generate concretized experiences that reassemble familiar bits and parts into entirely new yet seemingly inevitable realizations. The working methodology resembles a kind of collage that blends the tactile and technical finesse of a highly skilled potter with the fluency of the jazz musician. Freedom of expression evolves out of deeply focused mastery of fundamental skills and scales, establishing a platform for improvisation without self-conscious intervention of thought.
Edward Eberle, Air
Beginning with European Dadaism at the end of World War I, collage became a central methodology of creative experiment and production. It opens doors to use of pre-existing materials permitting artists to reflect on, alter, and shift perceived hierarchies and cultural disparities to generate new relationships and messages. Its central mission is to create invented continuities out of discontinuity and disrupt fundamental concepts of artistic production. In modernity, collage also reflects the significant social transformation and violent change that runs throughout the twentieth century. In his iconic ceramic works, Eberle explores porcelain’s plasticity and material properties. Working with wheel thrown and hand-built elements, he interweaves vivid intricacies of imagery. Inspired by daydreams or reveries, these mash ups carry the freight of historic decorative and ethnographic objects. Committed to the notion that meaning is embedded in the making, qualities of touch play a central role in Eberle’s work–the ways that clay is handled, the layering of complexly drawn patterns and figures, and the energetic abstraction of gestural marks. This affinity to touch is embodied in both form and surface. Small works are often thrown so thin as to be translucent. Both larger and modestly scaled forms made on the potters wheel are manipulated, torn, broken and reconstructed.
Eberle’s vessels, sculptures, and paintings on paper convey varieties of touch as a primary experience. Through the marriage of vivid images that traverse the surfaces of his forms, a veil that separates states of daydream and cognitive observation of the world grows more transparent. The painterly drawings within a single object sometimes encompass a wide range of qualities from all-over abstraction, to precisely hand-rendered geometries, and lyrical figurative compositions. The nuanced detail of certain of Eberle’s figurative drawings sometimes entails line so fine as to be inscribed by brushes composed of a single strand of hair. On larger works, figures are painted in crowded compositions of interaction–with one another, with mysterious tools and objects, and within what can be described as architectural atmosphere. During the mid-1990’s Eberle’s vessel works take a marked turn to these architectonic renderings.
Edward Eberle, Cylinder
Over the next decade, this merger of architectural and pottery form evolves through a series of large porcelain lidded jars elevated on legs of thrown or hand-built construction. The elevation of these forms from the table surface separates them from the reality of their surrounding environments. This subtle lifting, a kind of levitation, results in a space of mystical or theatrical quality, linked to its surroundings, but just barely. While these objects remain jars and vases, they are decidedly less connected to pottery’s functional realm. One intriguing work, Double Take Revised (1998-2014) is particularly compelling for the way that it reveals a history of the drawing’s changes and accretion over time. The span of creation extends beyond the duration we typically associate with that of a ceramic object, which unlike a painting or sculpture, is subject to changes of state related to drying and firing cycles. The lidded form is perhaps vaguely influenced by the formal language of Robert Turner, one of Eberle’s mentors at Alfred University. (Turner’s jars and vases of the 1970s and ’80s evolved following visits with the Ashanti, Ife, Oshogbo, and Akan people of West Africa where he was deeply moved by the integration of art with daily experience, particularly through traditional forms of architecture, pottery, ceremonial objects, and decoration.)
The manner in which Eberle renders and sets his compositions into the built environment whether via graphic imagery or the form of the vessel itself suggests an interest in architectural phenomenology, a movement whose origins date to the 1950s. The publication of Gaston Bachelard’s the Poetics of Space in 1958 was particularly influential to artists working in the abstract expressionist framework. Its emphasis on architecture as a human experience that is historically contingent, stood in sharp contrast to the anti-historicism of postwar modernism, which was preoccupied with the invention of entirely new forms built with innovative technologies and materials. Bachelard captured this tension between modernity’s need to innovate with humanity’s need for interior reflection. “Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home…. Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts—serious, sad thoughts—and not to dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.” (Gaston Bachelard, the Poetics of Space)
The works, Extramural and Four Fires (both produced in 2000), take the form of the house even more literally, further connecting to Bachelard’s idea of domestic space as a built manifestation of the soul, a phenomenological object in which personal experience reaches a highly attuned state of consciousness. With its exterior covered in white and gray figures over a black ground, one of the walls of Extramural is torn vertically. The form gently collapses and opens through force of gravity and heat to reveal a white interior into which a sphere inscribed with complex patterning is safely nested—a veritable metaphor of Bachelard’s conception that “imagination augments the values of reality.” Working only with black pigment on white clay, Eberle generates senses of movement and light that reference direct observation of life even as his image intensive surfaces bear witness to reveries of the imagination. One has to make decisions when looking at Eberle’s most visually complex pieces, alternating between enthrallment to the mastery of the work’s execution, or surrender one’s attention into the dream state with abandon. One can imagine the artist himself continually traversing the spaces between these points in the work’s creation.
Edward Eberle, Under the Influence of the Moon
In a 2010 oral history interview with Mija Riedel for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Eberle discusses his ideas about art, describing a tension between the visual and haptic. In the age of handheld digital devices, haptic response has become a term that scientists apply to understanding varieties of awareness experienced through touch and physical sensations of the body. Eberle’s conception of the haptic represents a multi-directional feedback loop that passes from mind to hand to material. The hand’s agency lies in its role as the intermediary of the mind as expressed through material, form, and image. For Eberle, the haptic encompasses varieties of expression emoted through the body and mind into the enduring world as objects. The hand is also a receptor of information from the material on which it is working. The continual interplay between material and maker is a kind of system that circulates through art-making across cultures and timespans as divergent as Mamoyama era in Japan (1470-1500) to the action painting school centered in New York (1940s-1960s). Another of Eberle’s mentors during his years of graduate study at Alfred University was department chair Ted Randall. Artist, businessman, and intellectual, Randall is also recognized as the founder of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, which was in its nascent years when Eberle was a student. In the essay Being and Meaning, Randall wrote, “I have stopped trying for the pot that has never been seen before and continue to try for the pot that recalls all pottery. I keep looking for that degree of innovation that refurbishes, renews, connects to old meanings, allows the fun of invention, but looks back at the past with respect, understanding and affection, opening the way for a continuous recreation of forms.” (Ted Randall, Ceramics Monthly 32, November 1984)
Edward Eberle, Catching Water Fetching Breath
Working with porcelain, the most unrelenting of clays, Eberle’s image-rich urgencies offer depictions of the human condition. Reducing his palette to black terra sigillata and black stain on white clay, the accumulations of abstract marks, geometric pattern, and figuration, link clay’s rich histories to a vivid stream of consciousness of imagery. In addition to his better-known vessel works, “Edward Eberle in retrospect” also featured the artist’s decades-long commitment to experimentation with other media. Departures from his focus on the vessel include abstract constructions, large and small works on paper, and a portfolio of small ceramic paintings on clay and paper dedicated to the form of the teapot. Over time, the works reveal more varied and deeper explorations of symbolism and abstraction than even those familiar with Eberle’s work might be aware of. Beyond the consummate commitment to craftsmanship and imagination, Eberle’s works reward viewers with a unique opportunity to explore the artist’s underlying interest in poetic imagism that has sustained his continued evolution. As a literary movement of the early 20th century, a key idea of imagism was to isolate a single image to reveal its essence. Much of the avant-garde art of this era manifested this concept through the development of Surrealism and Cubism. Eberle’s artistic evolution tethers to this spirit of experimentation. Some of his works from 2013-2014 propel the vessel more overtly into abstraction through the spatial explorations of Cubist logic. Other works evolve out of archetypal forms—vases, cups, bowls, boxes, houses.
Edward Eberle, Whiplash II
Poetry provides a continuous thread as both literary and imaginative vehicle. Several works incorporate free-form verse in handwritten texts. Hand lettering and sign painting played a role in Eberle’s early art experiences growing up in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, a small ex-urban community bordering the Allegheny River about 22-miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The town’s modest population (under a few thousand inhabitants during the time of Eberle’s youth) was immersed in the rustbelt industries of the region—plate glass and bottles, bricks, lumber, steel and iron novelties, sack and wrapping paper were all produced there. Among the local landmarks is a sculpture of the Greek goddess Hebe, cup bearer of the Olympian gods. The neoclassical resonance of this cultural feature of Eberle’s childhood reappears throughout his mature artistic output. Given that his early environs were filled with mechanization and manufacturing, it’s perhaps surprising that evidence of the modern machine world is mostly absent from the artist’s imagery. We find myriad figures, birds, insects, instruments of craft, crafted objects, and boats among others, but nothing overtly alludes to the massive shifts in human consciousness and condition wrought by the industrial revolution. The primary connections in the imagery are tied to the natural world, the handmade, and the mythic. With forms and imagery borrowed from and riffing on historic details of pottery’s ancient past and multi-cultural traditions, Eberle forges visual allusions to Islamic, Greek, and Native American artifacts to invent new and alternate realities. A figure appears in Pharaonic attire with a bird, perhaps inspired by a pre-Columbian glyph … a bumblebee hovers over the head of an angel. Eberle’s paintings on vessels, and paper present familiar though entirely unprecedented apparitions. He melds elements crossing boundaries of style, time, and culture with such fluency as to fee inevitable.
Molecule (2008), one of Eberle’s more purely abstract works, consists of large, loosely thrown disc surrounded by seven smaller dish-scaled porcelains positioned at various distances from the central (nuclear) element. The large central element’s black pigment washes out to blue, as it flows in undulating rivulets downward over its surface. The smaller surrounding discs bear variations of surface process, one bereft of stain. Held directly to the wall through tear holes that pierce the porcelain skins, the overall composition invites us to renegotiate our physical proximity to the object. Our distance influences our perception of the piece—choosing whether to take it wholely in our field of vision, or to move into more intimate contact to examine details and interrelationship of forms. Within this purely abstract treatment of clay and surface, it’s somehow inevitable that we experience the body. Even without trace of Eberle’s masterful figurative drawing, the pierced and torn porcelain of Molecule is evocative of our mortal vulnerability.
Perhaps the best-known imagistic writer of essential consequences coursing through the veins of pottery’s embodied nature is MC Richards, who along with Charles Olson, was a key figure of Black Mountain’s literary culture. Her book Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person has encouraged us to view the potter’s craft as a process of self-realization rather than a series of physical and technical skills. She wrote, “One is supposed to be either an artist or a homemaker, by one popular superstition. Either a teacher or a poet, by a theory that says poetry must not sermonize. Either a craftsman or an intellectual, by a snobbism which claims either hand or head as the seat of power.” More than pottery or poetry, the subject of Edward Eberle’s lifetime of work is the power of the imagination. Like Bachelard’s exploration of the ways that intimate places hold memories and habitations of our childhoods, Edward Eberle’s work investigates how the images we retain from our most essential experiences and dwellings play upon our daydreams to construct our sense of self and well-being. The beautiful gift of this work is that it empowers form, touch, language and imagery to reveal things that do not exist at all. The imagination as manifested through Edward Eberle’s decades-long dialogue with clay, pigments, and paper, enable us to move from the world of common day into a realm of wonder.
Edward Eberle, Time
A visit to Edward Eberle’s studio in Homestead, Pennsylvania is an included stop on the Southeast Gallery Tour taking place on Wednesday, March 14 during the 2018 NCECA conference in Pittsburgh. To reserve your seat, visit the Lew White Tours ticket sales booth in the registration conference area of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh beginning at noon on Tuesday, March 13, or go to https://lewwhitetours.eventsmart.com/events/nceca-2018/. Additional exhibition visits on this route include those in Braddock, the South Side, Oakland, Uptown and Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
Edward Eberle will receive the NCECA Honors Award for significant contributions to the field of ceramic art during a ceremony taking place on Friday, March 16, 4:00pm-5:30pm in Spirit of Pittsburgh Ballroom A of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. His accomplishments will be discussed by journalist, critic, collector and gallerist, Graham Shearing, a longtime friend and collaborator. Others receiving the NCECA Honors award in 2018 include artist Clayton Bailey, curator Jo Lauria, and potter and visionary arts leader Bill Strickland. Through this award, their creative work, critical thinking, and exemplary accomplishments are recognized as essential to ceramic art’s cultural impact and continual evolution.