BROCKTON — When potter Chris Gustin was in graduate school in the mid-1970s, he had a teacher, the Finnish ceramist Kyllikki Salmenhaara, who critiqued his pots with pantomime. She moved like a dancer, mimicking the lines of his work, to convey the mechanics of form.
That visceral and age-old connection between clay and the body propels Gustin's ceramics, on view at the Fuller Craft Museum in a moving and sensual exhibition, “Chris Gustin: Masterworks in Clay.”
The artist, who lives in South Dartmouth, has become a force in the ceramics world. He makes pots, not sculptures, although they are certainly sculptural. In the last 10 or 12 years, his vessels have grown to an ample dimension.
CHRIS GUSTIN: Masterworks in Clay
At the size of a cup, you might admire the smoky glisten of the glaze, enjoy the curves against the palm of your hand — several of Gustin's smaller works are on view in a case at the front of the gallery. At the size of a Rubenesque human torso, though, they confront a viewer with their fleshiness — their imperfections, their dimples and folds, their flirtatious stances. They're not something to use. They're something, well, to dance with.
The show, organized by independent curator Sherry Leedy, traces Gustin’s evolution as a cunning and restless ceramist. The early pieces, such as a brown stoneware teapot he made in 1975, are functional, a bit lead-footed, but attuned to form and negative space. The calligraphic, finger-swiped “O” in the center of a rust-and-cream platter he threw around 1980 is an early suggestion of the fluid gesture, and indeed caress, that flowers in his work later on.
By the mid 1980s, form began to trump function. Gustin’s vision grew quirky, and he challenged himself with the mechanics of gravity and balance. A russet-toned ewer from that time, a tall vessel with a rippling handle, has the posture of a duchess. Lines incised into the clay suggest a haunch, an eye. The work sways toward figuration, but in the shuffled-up manner of Cubism. The scored lines activate the form and the viewer’s gaze. Clay swells out around them, impertinent, as if Gustin has pitted 2-D against 3-D in a tense struggle.
Even more daring are the vessels from the early 1990s. Works such as “Teapot #9035” reach precariously off their bases, leaping, vaulting, yet the forms are so like flesh — sausages come to mind, and sphincters — that anyone might hesitate to drink something poured from them. These are saucy and fun.
From there, not surprisingly, the pots grow in scale and take on architectural implications. Gustin started working big after he walked inside a volcano during a trip to the Azores in 1995, reports arts writer Edward Lebow in his thoroughgoing essay in the handsome catalog. He began to fashion pots that moved you to peer inside them, and imagine being within their walls.
Look at Gustin’s “Vessel #9932,” made in 1999. It’s ivory, streaked like a stone beneath a waterfall. Here, the sharp lines drawn into clay in the 1980s emerge as part of the 3-D form — it’s all a wrestling of hard, linear edge, and soft curve. A thrust of sharp knuckles, a recession of doughy palm. There’s a hint of the oval of a head, the suggestion of arms embracing, yet this pot is as much like a rock formation as anything figural: dynamic, jutting, unpredictable, tight.
In 1995, Gustin built a wood-fired kiln on his property in South Dartmouth. Before that, he’d gas-fired his clay. The wood-fired kiln has its own rituals and complexities. Every few months, the artist fires it up and bakes pots for a week straight. It’s a community effort — several ceramists gather to chop wood, stoke the fire, and keep it burning for seven days.
Ashes blow through, settle, and melt onto the clay. Gustin adds in glazes along with the fevered, vaporous dynamics of the kiln. The results, especially on the pots of the last decade or so, are luminous.
During this time, his vessels have also become simpler. Gone is the Modernist tussle between hard and soft, edge and curve, the sense of fragments fighting for unity. These newest works are more organic, and they feel like a 21st-century extension of a lineage that began with earthy, wood-fired pots made in Korea and Japan, such as the Shigaraki ware used in Japanese tea ceremonies beginning in the 16th century.
The tall, round “Vessel With Neck #0801,” made in 2008, is a warm, glossy brown green with hints of copper and gold. Pale golden and green streaks have the velocity of windblown ash, and they puddle in the pot’s crevices. The neck has a scooped mouth and a jaunty, asymmetrical shape. Below, the pot opens downward into a full belly then buckles in, as if a belt has been tightened, before it spreads again at the base. There is a single edge, like a crease in fabric, along the shoulder, and a dimple like a navel above the center, which seems, with its small, inward spiral, to be the source from which the whole thing has sprung.
It’s not enough to say these newest works, which Gustin builds from within and from without, smoothing and shaping coils of clay, are like flesh — although they are, and to look is, in a way, to touch. But they’re more than that. They beckon in a way that the earlier, architectural pots, which were more fractious, more tense and argumentative, don’t. There’s an opening here. Walk right in.