Thirty-five years ago, Sister Johanna Becker, OSB, of Saint Benedict’s College arranged for a graduating senior, Richard Bresnahan, to apprentice with Takashi Nakazato, a thirteenth-generation potter in Karatsu, a Japanese port city near the coast of Korea, that has been known as a ceramic center since the sixteenth century. Three years later, Bresnahan returned to Collegeville, Minnesota and built the eighty-seven-foot long “Johanna kiln,” the largest wood-fired kiln in America. And so a revered Japanese tradition took root in the upper Midwest.
But, as Bresnahan notes, though his work may seem Japanese to Americans, the Japanese say, ‘Boy, Richard, you sure make American-style pottery.” That unavoidable American-ness is what is so fascinating about this exhibition of work by Bresnahan and four of his former students, as selected by Matthew Welch, curator of Japanese and Korean Art at the Minneapolis Institute. While rooted in traditional Japanese technique and aesthetic, these Americans are chomping at the bit to express a louder, looser, more extroverted culture. The most extroverted is the youngest, Anne Meyer, who has pretty much abandoned everything about the tradition except its tools and materials, making more portraits and nude action figures than pots and tea cups. Stephen Earp has moved over to the techniques and folksy forms of early American redware, while Sam Johnson’s simple, white-toned work would qualify as contemporary minimalism. It’s Bresnahan and Kevin Flicker who most express a love of nature, and so stay closest to the Japanese tradition while also expressing the decorative taste of the upper Midwest. Which is to say, their work would look great above the hearth in a prairie-style home.
There is something so satisfying about elegant and sharply drawn work that seems like it was made by the earth itself. But nothing can be more exciting than the human figure, and so one hopes that the very talented Anne Meyer will eventually become better acquainted with how figurative traditions the world over, have controlled complex forms in space. (Chris Miller)
Through January 2 at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 South Cottage Hill Avenue, Elmhurst