Betty Woodman – 1999

betty-woodman-essayTHE OLSON GALLERY | Bethel College
BETTY WOODMAN | Recent Work of Prints and Vases | January 7 – March 3, 1999

Betty Woodman and the Vase Extended

When asked for the meaning of her apparently absurd poetic line, rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude Stein responded:

When the language was new, the poet could use the name of a thing and the thing was really there.  But after hundreds of years and thousands of poems, these words became just worn-out literary words.  You have seen hundreds of poems about roses and you know in your bones that the rose is no longer there.  To put some strangeness in the structure of the lines brings back the vitality of the noun.  I’m no fool, but in that line the rose is red again, for the first time in a hundred years.

As a poet, Stein sought to deliver the rose from cliché and to keep it vivid, both as a thing and as a metaphor.  She did so by tripling the rose’s name, thrice nesting its image inside of its image in a poetic structure akin to the concentric nesting of petal rings within petal rings.  She kept the rose in full bloom for the Twentieth Century.  Betty Woodman, in her own way, has likewise kept the centuries old form of the clay vase in full bloom well into the Twentieth Century.  Woodman, too, has nested the vase form (and all its parts) inside of the vase form.  Even more, she has multiplied its form not only by nesting, but also by overlapping, intersecting, folding back into, and dismembering.  Further, she has embedded it into—or evoked out of it—the vases’ relationship to the human figure, architecture, still life and, subtly, landscape.  In these jubilant, swimming collisions Woodman takes into account the whole tradition of ceramic vessels, paying her respect, only to then playfully stand that tradition on its head, reinventing its grammar into her own personal syntax.  In doing so, she pays the great tradition the highest compliment; that is, she extends it, makes it new, and keeps it in deep bloom.

One of the primary ways that Woodman extends the ceramic tradition is in her exploration of the clay vessel itself.  In the past, when the vase “was new” and “really there”, it stood as a singular form, concentrated and isolated in space.  Expressive problems and solutions had to do with the potter’s refinement of that form inside of its self-contained boundaries.  In what ways, for example, could the artist vary the proportions or emphasize contours, weight, life, and silhouette?  What sense of grace and silent presence of being could be achieved by varying height, volume, surface texture, the subtle articulation of the foot in relation to the shoulder and belly and handles, or by honing the neck and reverse curves of the crowning lip in relation to the whole?  And how could the evocative duet of vessel form and patterned color-glazed surface best be sung as point-counterpoint between the three dimensional arabesque body in space and the brilliant skin of its color?  The history of ceramics is an astonishingly rich and variegated concert of possibilities.

Woodman’s art participates and honors the gorgeous achievements of the past, nourishing its roots there.  Her works admit their debt to history even as they subvert history’s power to reduce forms to cliché.  For those aware of art’s history, there is visible here a long dialectic of ceramic ideas jumping in a kind of celebratory near-riot.  References are evident from the clay traditions of Chinese, Japanese, Persian, Minoan, Etruscan, Italian, Mexican, and Modernist ceramics.  But in addition to this diversity of cultures is also a cross-section in time, from ancient to contemporary, and of bias, from folk to functional to purist aesthetics.  But not only these.  Woodman moves fluidly between functional craft and the so-called pure art forms of painting, prints, sculpture, and architecture.  That is, these works also carry on a conversation with ornamental architecture and sculptural forms, with the fresco paintings of ancient Minoan, Etruscan Roman, and early Italian Renaissance culture, the aesthetic of Japanese woodblock prints, the modern collage and monotype.  These works belong to that company of twentieth century artists who have explored what painter Stuart Davis called the “Color-Space Nature of Reality,” artists such as Matisse, Picasso, Davis himself, and more recently Frank Stella, Jennifer Bartlett, and Elizabeth Murray.

Carrying all this historical baggage as if it were weightless, fresh and buoyant, Woodman now extends the possibilities of the vase.  The vase as singular form standing static, as an isolated vessel in space, is literally opened up wide by Woodman.  That is, her vases reach into open space, making the surrounding air become articulate forms in themselves.  Negative form interacts with positive; handles extend and even separate, creating ghost vases between solid ones.  One vase rhymes in theme and variation with another, in a triptych of vessels, such that in addition to three distinct bodies, the empty spaces between them (as well as those formed by their quirky handle holes) become “vases.”  Art is an expressiveness through materials that makes visible the meaningful relationships between things and beings.  It is these relationships—these supposedly immaterial passages and connections—that make meaning and experience coherent.  It is these immaterial, but all-important, relationships between the forms of being that allude to spirit and meaning, making spirit nearly palpable.

With Woodman’s vases, of course, it is more than just vessel next to vessel.  Swimming over their surfaces in ways that both articulate and dissolve the tradition of the vase body, are a myriad of coalescing patterns and colors.  Here is a second kind of visual cacophony, of meetings and intercourses: geometry encounters the organic; static moments play against fluid movement; order weaves into chaos and back again into order; primary colors pulse against secondaries; color compliments delicately (and not so delicately) vibrate or shout, until a soothing passage of stable earth tones calms them down.  These dynamics are magnified because such surface life radically alters our reading of two- and three-dimensional forms, which are themselves already popping.

Such a fecund bacchanal of texture, pattern, serpentine and arabesque, of grids, checkers, splatters, drips, stripes of all orientations, references to the bovine, to fish, camouflage, flesh, fabric, and floral all constitute a critical mass that in turn suggests levels beyond themselves.  Hence multiple other associations spring up.  Allusions to the human figure, landscape, still life, interior scenes, and pure abstract formal compositions soon cavort together in the eye.

Ultimately, I would argue that the central “content” of Woodman’s work is something other than—though not independent of—these many elements.  The “content” of her work, in my view, is really the celebratory act of making.  It is the creative process—so lavishly visible here—by which the human eye, hand, body, mind, and spirit discover in concert a satisfaction in reality.  A matter handled purely in the terms of the medium and the processes of the making.  In the end, clay is only mud, the dust of the ground.  But in Woodman’s art, it is given life.  She makes us feel the astonishing variety but also the deep continuity between things, between tradition and other cultures, between vessels and figures, landscape and architectural space, between inner forms and outer surfaces, between work and play, and between things created and the processes by which they are created.  Woodman’s work strikes me as a great example of that huge aesthetic idea defined by the painter Stuart Davis.  Davis spoke, near the end of his life, of what he called, “The Amazing Continuity.”  This was a view achieved only after decades of getting inside the work, the medium, the process, the ideas, and the rich history.  Woodman’s art, as is evident in this show in the Olson Gallery, partakes in that “Amazing Continuity.”

Wayne L. Roosa, Ph.D.
Art Historian, Bethel College