Some Thoughts from Off the Beaten Path: Trax Gallery, Christa Assad & Richard Jacobs
by Richard Whittaker,
What draws one to wander off the beaten path? That neglected territory is often neither far away nor hard to get to. But since mostly we're either on the way somewhere or preoccupied with what the next destination is, we tend not to really be where we are. My here is drained by the there of my preoccupations. And when I am in transit, the territory I pass through exists more in the guise of distance to be traversed at the cost of time rather than being a place imbued with other possibilities.
But sometimes the sway of destination evaporates and suddenly I'm actually wherever I am. At such moments, one really can look around. Maybe that helps explain why really being present in a place sometimes brings a feeling that something miraculous might be hidden nearby. It was during such a moment that I first discovered Trax Gallery.
DISCOVERING TRAX GALLERY
Driving along in no hurry in West Berkeley and slowing at a rail crossing, I noticed industrial buildings stretching north along the tracks. The funky old buildings looked interesting. What hidden spaces might be tucked away among them? At first, I didn't see how I might get a closer look. But then I noticed a narrow, rutted dirt road along the tracks. It was one of those small moments of decision that balance the momentum of our habitual ways against the small possibility of encountering something new. Such moments are not so unusual and more often than not, habit prevails. The spark is met with the thought "but what are the chances?" And there are always some little costs-in this case, the uneasiness of embarking along that road. Was it private? Was it okay? Were there sharp little metal thingies that would puncture my tires?
I took a chance. Bumping along beside the railroad tracks, I soon came to a little hand-painted sign on a door: Trax Gallery. No sharp little metal thingies so far. Instead, here was an art gallery tucked away. Anybody's guess what was inside. From prior experiences with such, I didn't expect much. Probably an artist calling his studio a gallery. Okay. One had to be sympathetic to that. But in regard to the art, well, exciting work is hard to come by.
I did stop and go inside. And the first things I saw were several Roy DeForest prints on the walls, a real surprise.
MEETING SANDY SIMON AND ROBERT BRADY
As I was looking at the prints, a woman came over in a low key, but friendly way. At the time, I hadn't heard of Sandy Simon. As we talked, I could look into a larger space toward the rear of the building, a studio full of sculptures. A man was working back there. A couple of pieces caught my eye, hand-carved wooden planes with a slender, glider-like appearance. Emboldened both by Simon's friendliness and by such promising results from this little venture off the beaten track, I asked if it would be okay to go back into the studio space. And soon I was in a conversation with artist Robert Brady who, it turned out, was also willing to indulge a stranger. [see issue #13 for my interview with Brady]
It must have been ten or twelve years ago and that afternoon I left my detour off the beaten path with a little extra spring in my step.
THE ANCIENT TRADITION OF POTTERY
I learned that Sandy Simon has been a respected potter for a long time. She studied under Warren McKenzie in the 1960s and has retained a focus on utilitarian ceramic ware. I have the impression that she knows all the potters in the entire country.
A year or two after my chance discovery of Sandy and Robert, Trax Gallery moved to a decidedly not funky new space on 5th Street in Berkeley. The gallery continues to reflect Simon's commitment to honoring the ancient tradition of handmade pottery and has become a bit of a mecca for topflight potters who continue to focus on utilitarian ware.
CHRISTA ASSAD STANDS ON A CHAIR AND READS ALOUD
All the foregoing is meant to give some context for another moment of surprise. It happened one Saturday evening in February when I found myself at the opening of a group show at Trax. [Even though I publish an art magazine, I don't go to many art openings. So my being there was, for me, a little off the beaten path. It's all relative, isn't it?] I didn't know any of the potters there, although I had met Allegheny Meadows briefly years earlier when, at an NCECA conference, I spotted Artstream, his rolling ceramics gallery housed in a classic Airstream trailer.
The place was packed. It was actually difficult to squeeze through people in order to move at all. I'd arrived just moments before Sandy raised her voice to get people's attention.
"Listen up everyone!" It took awhile for the room to quiet down. "I'm going to ask each potter here who has pieces in the show to come up here and say a few things. You can stand on this chair here."
As luck had it, I happened to be only a few feet away from the chair.
Christa was fourth in turn and, unlike two potters who had opted to remain standing on the floor, she stepped up on the chair with noticeable alacrity. She was holding a book in her hands. It seemed I'd seen her somewhere before. Yes, I'd met her briefly at John Toki's studio one afternoon. The same spirited quality she exuded had made an impression then, too.
"This is a book written by Richard Jacobs. It's composed of letters he wrote to me."
Is that what she said?
"It's not that I'm trying to promote the book. I just want to read this page to you."
And standing on the chair, she began to read from the book. Something about ceramic artists rebelling against traditions. Arneson and his followers. Humorous and vulgar expressions. Cultural revolutions. Confrontations. Outsider renegades discovering clay a suitable medium for incendiary statements.
As I listened, I was irritated to be subjected to yet another round of the artworld's endless rhetoric about the importance of shaking up the bourgeoisie: Judy Chicago. Landscapes of the vulva. Feminist manifesto. Militant use of clay. Blah blah.
I had just about written Assad and her admirer's book off when suddenly I was hearing, "Christa, wouldn't it be more fun to be a bohemian eccentric? Are you cleaving to ceramic tradition out of conscious conviction or a natural conformity?"
Was this Jacobs guy now about to level Assad with a nasty critique? I wasn't sure what was coming next. Now she had my full attention. And what followed truly did catch me off guard. It was an impassioned defense of how "pottery contributes to the ceremonial and practical rituals of family life-the communion of people around the dining table." This, Jacobs writes, "impacts the very quality of life in the most intimate world possible for people."
I recall how over thirty years ago at a get- together at Richard Misrach's home, Van Deren Coke, SFMOMA's curator of photography at the time, was holding forth: "I'll say one thing. If it doesn't disturb, it's not art." Even then, it seemed like an old saw. But perhaps there's something in it. The problem is that it's always interpreted in such a narrow way. I'd just received a shock, but not the kind of shock this notion always seems to invoke.
Potter Mark Hewitt quotes Jacobs-I want beauty to remain ordinary for me, as ordinary as daily engagements with familiar sights that form my common habits-and observes that "such tender domestic sentiments are rare in this age of bombastic electronic narcissism." On the spot, I decided to learn more about Christa Assad's work and Jacob's book of letters to a potter. -rw
Quotes from Richard Jacobs: The Search for Beauty-
We do not need to choose between conformity or chaos in our art...between skill or expression. Perhaps moderation is that state of grace most difficult to attain and yet most despised by those on the extreme margins that seek to recruit and convert the center. Ego and ideology are not the only sources that could guide our individual and common behavior. (p. 281)
I appreciate the sacrifice that potters make every day in order to pursue their craft. The struggle to create the excellent pot, to hone the skills necessary for that pursuit, and to face an often indifferent world; all testify to an integrity that cannot be compromised or tempted by the ease of indifferent work or the pleasures of an affluent society. (p. 303)
Would it really be unprofessional for some expert to declare and express their love for something beautiful? Is the mark of a mature expert really the full and complete suppression of the youthful delight and joy that once heralded their experience of a sublime aesthetic moment? (p. 309)
And here (p. 282) Jacobs quotes Peter Dormer [The Culture of Craft]-The craftsperson cannot very easily explain the rightness of what she or he has achieved; other people have to recognize it. And because craftspeople cannot explain the reasons behind their work they are in an unhappy position. Unless a person can explain the principles of his or her activity-unless there's a theory about it-then he or she may be credited with having skill, but not understanding. And then we look elsewhere for explanations and in so doing miss the integrity of a whole other world of knowledge-that of the craftsperson.
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