We humans, as a species, crave protection and adornment. These tenets of the human condition manifest themselves in various ways, be they absolutely necessary or purely superficial. For instance, the panels of our automobiles and the multiple materials used in home construction both protect and adorn our vehicles and living spaces. These coverings are necessary for our protection from elements both natural and man made, and are vital for the continued functioning of the structures that they enclose. This necessity is contrasted by the powerful desire to accumulate status by acquiring objects of status, such as the right clothes by the right designer and the newest technology possible. But what happens when these protective measures and superficialities are impinged upon? What happens when the objects we use, live in, and rely upon for a comfortable and efficient lifestyle have their various exoskeletons peeled away and their inner structures revealed? Disorder, ineffectiveness, danger, and disconcertion; in short, a severe interruption of our way of life. But a beautiful process can also occur. When the inner structures of objects that we all know and understand are exposed, the objects themselves are recontextualized and begin to serve a different purpose than their original function. They become signifiers of our existences and thought processes. An example of this recontextualization is when de-commissioned military watercraft are purposefully sunk to become reefs for ocean life. The ships are overtaken by coral, anemones, and fish of all kinds. An object created to take life if necessary becomes an object that facilitates the creation of new life.
The sculpture of Brandon Reese operates in a similar way. By stripping away any pretext of physical covering, Reese exposes the structure of things, drawing attention to the individual complexities, frailties, and idiosyncrasies that comprise his sculpture, the human species, and our tenuous grasp on life. We are asked to examine these traits in ourselves and others in order to better understand the world around us. The works make us aware of the precariousness of our existence and the wisdom and strength life builds within us if we are paying attention. The sculptures themselves are non-representational in nature, and rely not on the recognition of any specific cultural signifiers, but on form in its purest sense, form with the absence of physical coverings. Solid masses do exist in the work, but they function as capstones or bases, not as focal points of physical or conceptual primacy.
When confronted with one of Reese’s monolithic structures, it is impossible to avoid the architectural associations that the almost skeletal forms bring about. “My father used to build houses,” says Reese, “and I remember going through them when I was young, during the beginning of the building process. It was like being in two places at once. You were inside and outside simultaneously.” These interests and understandings have fed Reese’s work to this day. “Noticing topographical maps, buildings, cities, and crop arrangements, I sensed societies’ need to organize a grid-like geometry in order to navigate through the organic world we live in.” The pieces are imposing structures of human scale. “I enjoy the one-on-one scale relationship between myself and what I am making. This way I’m not overpowering the piece. It’s not a giant versus a miniature situation.”
The seemingly precarious nature of their construction, the stacked grid-like sections and multiple connection points are intentionally disjointed and weathered in appearance. Clay seems to be, at once, both a well suited and poorly suited material for Reese’s constructions. Clay’s responsiveness to the touch and marks of the artist aid in the empathy for and understanding of the structures. But clay’s lack of unfired tensile strength presents its own obstacles. “Just as skyscrapers test the limits of steel and concrete, I enjoy the challenge of testing the limits of clay as a material by making it do things I haven’t seen it do before. Not letting technical parameters dictate what I make, and pushing beyond those parameters, is important.”
There are two concurrent stylistic and conceptual choices that Reese focuses on. The first is a hard-edged construction technique, evocative of old weathered barns and rustic antique tools. There is a freshness to this work, an immediacy that implies functionality and practicality. They seem unlike the work of a master artisan and more like that of a 20th century farmer who needs something sturdy but doesn’t have the time to waste on elegance of construction. This “rough” workmanship, a concept addressed by noted craftsman, artist, and author David Pye in his book The Nature and Art of Workmanship, intentionally shows the presence of the artist’s touch and his sculptural process (Pye, p. 30). Not all of the sculptures are built with this rough workmanship. Various soft-edged sculptures appear. These works tend to evoke a weathered quality through a seemingly natural process such as erosion. The sculptures contain the same aged quality but tend more towards a softness that creates a dichotomy with clay’s fired hardness. They exist at once as both soft and hard, a common theme for sculptors who work in clay.
Conceptually, Reese’s sculptures are rooted in his own personal experiences and perceptions. “When I begin a piece, the idea is not totally realized, and is basically a small thumbnail sketch at that point. I just have a general idea of where I’m going. This way, it’s not just fabrication. I can be much more intuitive.” Again we look to Pye, who proposes that there are two types of workmanship: The workmanship of certainty, and the workmanship of risk (Pye, p. 20). Reese employs the latter, where each decision the artist makes, each move of the hand, and the vagaries of the firing process have the potential to drastically alter the finished product. It is an instinctive method, fraught with perils and infinite possibilities.
The structures draw upon our preconceived notions concerning strength. Does weathered mean weak, or does agedness imply wisdom and the ability to survive? Are the sculptures empty cages, discarded machinery of a long-ago time, or the beginnings of habitats? When working in the world of abstractions, personal mythologies, and personal discoveries, it is inevitable that questions such as these will arise. For Reese, these are not the crucial questions. Of utmost concern is not what object this sculpture reminds me of, but what perceptions and emotions this accumulation of structure, texture, and color evokes for me.
Ceramic sculptors throughout the last 50 years have aligned themselves to current art trends of the times, in order to give their work a conceptual context or relevancy within a larger art world. Peter Voulkos and Abstract Expressionism, Robert Arneson and Pop Art, Jun Kaneko and Minimalism, and Marilyn Levine and Photo-Realism. For Reese it becomes Post-Minimalism, whose umbrella covers artists such as Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, and Martin Puryear. Reese’s works are too structurally complex, highly textured, and of a vacillating color scheme for pure Minimalism. The works tend toward a monochromatic palette that varies somewhat due to the atmospheric firing processes of salt and soda, as well as thickly applied flux-laden glazes that melt and run over the surface of the sculpture to pool in valleys and thin out over peaks. The glazes emphasize the organic qualities of the works by their sense of movement and fluidity. The Minimalists would not approve.
Reese’s sculptures afford us the luxury of viewing objects of power and beauty that force us to confront our own weaknesses and biases. While this is not uncharted territory for artists, Reese manages to lead us down this path of awareness without lecturing or preaching-not even a little.
Brandon Reese is an associate professor of ceramics at Oklahoma State University.
the author John Zimmerman is a ceramic sculptor and an assistant professor of fine art at the University of New Mexico-Gallup.