Everley Austin’s outstanding contemporary ceramics
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When anyone walks into this exhibition of contemporary ceramics titled, ‘Clay And Color’, on display until the 18th  September at Castellani House, Guyana’s National Gallery Of Art, they can either relate to the 101 objects on display as proof of an artist’s skill at shaping and coloring clay into items to admire and use, or also realize one is looking at and participating in the continuity of a very broad ancient and basic creative urge to collect, contain, store, and consume the very genesis of nature’s fertility, and its celebration via human creativity. In the history of this kind of utilitarian art an artist’s racial and cultural heritage can play a large part in both the overall structure and design. However, the practical human nature of Austin’s ceramic works absorb their ethnic roots gracefully, and this is one of the admirable qualities of his exhibition. Though Everly Austin is a Guyanese descendant of Native Indian Warrau ( a major Indigenous player in original South American culture, stretching around the top of the continent from the Guianas, to Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay), and transplanted African culture, neither of these cultures’ original qualities are used in that shrill, tacky imitative decorative manner which often comes with many local exhibitions of utilitarian ceramics and painting, bent on distinctly proclaiming some specific proof of ethnic culture. Austin’s works avoid this over-dependent approach to art’s identity, so that whatever ethnic strains inhabit these works, and they do, they remain embedded, while the artist’s individual skill, intelligence, and creative exploration steps forward, embodying the originality of his exhibition. The expression of this individuality also involves what the artist may have picked up by an eclectic appetite and view to learning, and Austin’s ceramics certainly show traces of absorbed ancient Chinese and Art Nouveau –Tiffany- luxuriance. When such a commonsense eclecticism occurs,  an artist’s works can exist in unity with the present, helping to root each viewer in the reality before them as a manifestation of such a present, rather than asking them to identify with any dominant canonized historical style of art. In this manner each viewer needs no specific knowledge of an artistic style in order to absorb and appreciate the works of art before them.
Nevertheless, Austin’s ceramic floor and table vases, goblets, fruit, soup, and mixing bowls, platters, storage containers, mugs etc, do have roots in the history of ceramic art, or pottery, especially pertaining to the Americas, and Africa where the artist spent two years teaching. However, in both cases these historical connections reach far back into pre-historical time on these two continents, and it is that amazing pool of inspiration and influence, before those continental cultures began to develop specific stylized painted and molded shapes, symbols, designs to illustrate specific cults, anthropomorphic figures, supernatural beliefs of their diverse communities, which Austin’s works connect with, bringing them parallel with the concerns of contemporary plastic art, including painting and sculpture. Much of today’s leading contemporary abstract painting, sculpture and ceramics are rooted in the ancient pre-historic era of the Americas. The prehistoric culture of man and the contemporary visual arts have built a bridge to each-other over the build-up of historical ethnicity which has often led man down the road to conflicting and self-centered world-views. What is this creative quality which makes these pre-historic cultures across the world share similarities with some of the most modern of contemporary artists? Both periods of artists,  separated by thousands of years, rely upon their primal manual dexterity, their optical perception, and may also go right back in time to the diverse surface details first seen on the planet’s natural make-up –botanical, biological, and mineral – rather than later figurative or symbolic designs used to convey cultural beliefs. Austin’s clay bowls , plates and goblets bear reference to the ancient African artist’s direct practical shaping of matter to contain, use, and offer the earth’s elements and nature’s edibles, whether raw or cooked. Similarly, they bear resemblance and use to very ancient utensils among the pre-historic North American indigenous people, like the Basketmaker, Zuni, Anasazi, Iroquois, etc, all of whose pottery incisions, pinching, coiling, slabbing and staining techniques bear stylistic suggestions which can be found on a dizzy variety of nature’s fauna, flora, and mineral deposits. Whatever formations such natural phenomena show us, we often fail to recognize their abstract nature because they are seen on real flowers, leaves, rocks, animal skin, etc. However when a ceramic artist like Austin uses them in creating utilitarian objects he allows them to retain much of their abstract nature, and this aspect is what lifts his work beyond utilitarian decorative illustration into the realm of abstract contemporary plastic art. In one floor vase he allows spots of paint (called Tachism in modern painting) to drip on the vessel’s surface, but the effect is not decorative, but rather elemental, because vases can be exposed to the elements and can be naturally affected by raindrops, botanical droppings, blowing sand, bleaching by sunlight, etc, so that after a period of time such surfaces can very well retain stained drippings without the help of man. Another surprise of his ceramics is that several of the large floor vases reveal large cracks and fissures as though the result of age, which the assistant curator assured me was intentional; if so then here is the blatant proof that Austin has actually made contemporary works which bridge the antique origin of his style and the contemporary, since we are led to believe that his cracked art objects are really dug- up archaeological antiques, not recent contemporary works.  In art this is intellectually exciting. One of the errors of those who think clothes and utilitarian objects covered with non-representational patterns and designs create a more realistic use of abstract qualities by being worn, or drunk from etc,  is that they do not understand that the flatness of a painting’s surface is essential to the separate and distinct value of immobile contemplation. Austin’s pieces do not turn for us, but we can contemplate them from one perspective, or walk around and inspect their secrets, like the cracks in their volume.
What does occur is that this entire exhibition is haunted by the ghosts of reality; of missing fruits, vegetables, liquids, meat, etc, whether raw or cooked; all those vases, goblets, bowls, platters, mugs etc, evoke the exhibition’s and earth’s missing but needed bounty. And it is on this level that this exhibition reminds us of Guyana’s and the earth’s fecund possibilities and necessity, like an unchanging value the most ancient first peoples of the Americas surely knew, leaving for contemporary instruction their buried, cracked artifacts that fed the survival of the human species, and remains the contemporary heartbeat of an organic artistic quest spanning eons of time into the present technological age.

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