Jeff Shapiro and Don Reitz

Although the exhibition at the Thomas J. Funké Gallery is named “2 Artists/2 Perspectives: Jeff Shapiro and Don Reitz,” the “perspectives” of these two ceramic artists seem more aligned than not.

Visually Reitz’s and Shapiro’s work shares a roughness that borders on crude. It rudely slaps the refinement of much of traditional ceramics in the face. Their vessels are awkward and their surface patterns haphazard, but when successful close to transcendent.

Their sculptures are less engaging, especially Shapiro’s that look like gobs of clay smushed together, almost like a child with Play Dough, or are slab-built architectonic forms that are a “canvas” for the colors and textures produced by a wood-fired kiln.

Reitz (born 1929) is the older and better-known artist, part of the vanguard of the studio clay movement that took the material from the strictly commercial—functional and decorative–to being a bona fide medium for art.

Reitz’s Avalanche (2006, wood-fired stoneware) greets you when you enter the airy, light-filled—even on a gray day–gallery. The 19” x 19” x 5” plate form has been disfigured with gouges and ungainly additions, and clearly acknowledges its artistic source—Peter Voulkos.*

Twenty years younger than Reitz, Shapiro’s work has been informed by the experience of living in Japan from 1973 to 1980. He received his ceramic training in Imbe in the Bizen province. There he learned the wood-firing method used for Japan’s oldest pottery style, Bizen ware, which dates to the Heian period (794 to 1185). The local clay has a high iron content and organic material inclusions that resist glazing. Its surface patterning comes from organic materials, such as rice straw, that are consumed during the firing process and turned into ash, which colors the surface. Placement in the kiln also plays a significant role.

As Shapiro explains in “Finding One’s Own Voice,” published in the March 2003 issue of Ceramics Monthly, “…the wood firing creates the colors and textures, but loading creates textures and patterns.”

While Shapiro turned toward the East, Reitz looked to Europe, adopting the wood-fired salt-glazing technique, which originated in the Rhineland of Germany around 1350. Common salt thrown into the kiln at its hottest, gives the ceramic pieces a glossy, translucent glaze with an “orange-peel” surface.

But Reitz’s work also displays an Eastern influence as noted by Elaine Levin in The History of American Ceramics: 1607 to the Present. She pointed out that his “subtle textures and gestural, linear marks [were] inspired by Japanese pottery (14th and 15th century Shigaraki and Bizen, and 2000 BC Jomon).”

After a quick survey of the exhibition of about 30 pieces, most of them by Shapiro, I gravitated to his quiet and unassuming tea bowls, roughly 5” in diameter. The irregularities of these loosely thrown squat forms and their surface design are qualities that are prized in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony but far from the felicity of Western teacups.

These imperfect tea bowls on crude ­­feet embody the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi. Wabi” refers to the spiritual and is marked by humility, restraint, and naturalism. “Sabi” describes the material world that is worn, weathered, or decayed.

In an artist’s statement, Shapiro wrote that

I respond to the beauty that exists in the imperfections of Nature; a sense that perfection as we know it does not necessarily equate with beauty, that in actuality, beauty exists. It is for us to behold, discover, and expand our vision to appreciate a beauty that exists outside of the predetermined western perceptions.

Reitz is represented by several sculptures, including two figural pieces: Matriarch (2005, wood-fired stoneware, 41” x 19” x 47”) and Totem (2006, wood-fired stoneware, 35” x 14” x 35”). The former is a headless and armless figure that stands like a Greek kore, recalling those stolid women of the Athenian Acropolis, c. 510 BC, or a wingless Nike of Samothrace, c. 190 BC. Totem is a stylized figure with a bell-shaped skirt. Two slabs define the waist and a cylindrical form serves as torso and head, which is topped by a jaunty, upward curving “hat.” Unfortunately neither is large enough nor has enough presence to command much attention or dominate the gallery.

Perhaps it was my mood and attraction to Shapiro’s eloquent tea bowls, the Reitz work I wanted to spend the most time with was his Shigaraki Jar (2002, wood-fired stoneware, 21” x 20” x 22”). Its form is like a curvaceous butternut squash with vestigial handles and a tiny lid. It was more monumental than his standing sculptures despite being smaller.

I viewed the exhibition on an early May day when the weather gods continued to deny us spring with rain (April having been the wettest on record) and cool temperatures. Like everyone else I was longing for a “perfect” day of sun and warmth. But seeing this exhibition made me realize that sometimes the imperfect can be beautiful, too.

– Karen S. Chambers

*Voulkos is undoubtedly the most influential American in this movement to wrench clay away from the domestic realm. His tortured plates were an affront to more delicate sensibilities and asserted that even a commonplace form could carry meaning beyond its purpose. Utility was sacrificed for art.

2 Artists/2 Perspectives: Jeff Shapiro and Don Reitz on view through June 3rd at Thomas J. Funké Gallery, Funké Fired Arts, 3130 Wasson Rd., Cincinnati, OH  45209. 513-871-2529.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *