Knowing Objects, An Unfinished Rumination
by Janet Koplos
The New Art Examiner, April 1996
Rob Barnard gave me a small plate. It's the sooty gray-brown that all of his wood-fired pottery was for a while. I have an enormous admiration for his teapots‹they pull themselves up high, standing as if at attention, and somehow seem both proud and diffident‹but I didn't particularly respond to that plate. It's about eight inches in diameter, and looks slightly warped. It is grooved around the rim, as if it had been made out of two thin disks, forced together. It seemed almost brutal, and made me think of mud and old army serge.
I put it on a shelf. Months went by and I never seemed to use it, then, when downsizing and trying to simplify my life, I considered getting rid of it. But it seemed too much of a piece of Rob for me to do that. I could look at it and think of his fierce character as a former seminarian, former Marine, still martial-arts practitioner, and at the same time his gentleness, supportiveness, his care-taking instincts. I kept the plate out of sentiment, not conviction.
Then one day a friend bought a couple of lychee fruit in an Asian grocery, and we came back to my place to eat them. In looking for something to put them on, I tried Rob's plate. The wooly olive-drab of the ceramic set off the coarse peel of the fruit. Isolated on the "stage" of the dark plate, the lychee seemed sculptural in form, and remarkably individual and idiosyncratic‹just like the plate.
So that was it! This plate, as stubborn as its maker, would not tolerate the softness of a piece of cake, the refined sweetness of a petit-four, the irresolution of a pudding, or even the profligacy of a pile of pasta. It demanded something of its own mettle‹something with a thick crust hiding a tender interior.
by Alice Thorson
City Paper, Washington, April 26, 1991
A potter in a gallery devoted to painters, Rob Barnard has managed to hold his own and then some during his 10 years showing at Anton. His current exhibit features a characteristically fine array of functional plates, teapots, vases, jars, and bowls formed on the wheel and wood-fired, unglazed.
Barnard studied in Japan after leaving the U.S. Marine Corps 20 years ago, and his new posts continue his ongoing dialogue with the Japanese tradition. As opposed to much recent activity in American ceramics, Barnard avoids innovation for innovation's sake, which is not to say the work does not evolve. Intrigued by the unpredictability of the Woodfiring process, he has always allowed nature ample play in his overall scheme, accepting the subtle, iridescent colors and varied surface textures that emerge in the kiln.
A key dimension of Barnard's aesthetic has been a tolerance for the slight irregularities and imperfections engendered by the wood-firing, and this new work goes a step further. The shows inclusion of a number of cracked and dented works indicates a Zen-like acceptance of all of nature's workings, not merely those that suit the preset needs of man. The results are highly poetic. For example, in eloquent counterpoint to the regular, circular tracks left by the wheel, a vertical fissure creeps down the side of a cylindrical covered jar. The lid curves ever so gently above the crack, as if to acknowledge its presence. Another piece, a handsome globe-shaped vessel, has cracked at the lip and partially collapsed under the pressure of firing. The jagged opening yawns, like a mouth convulsed in pain, in violent negation of the rounded form¹s connotations of nature and wholeness.
Amid more conventional pieces, such as a teapot with a handle of twined vine and a lovely, tapered bowl with a convex lid, are any number of vessels whose tactile personality is enhanced by the occasional dent. Barnard intends these works to be handled and used as much as looked at, and, as always, his pots' integration of tactile and visual values offers a unique experience.
by John Perreault
American Ceramics 12/1
Wood-fired stoneware is what Barnard does‹and with a sweet vengeance. He has succeeded in showing that "traditional" pottery can be out on left field.
Barnard's pottery operates in those zones where Japanese and American (particularly Southern) pottery overlap, where functional and the aesthetic are one. As a Kentucky-born Jesuit trained, ex-Marine smitten by ceramics, the then 25-year-old would-be artist studied at the Kyoto City College of Fine Arts under Kazuo Yagi, a modernist ceramist. Judging by the number of exhibitions he has had in Japan since then, Barnard's work has been well received there; here his work appeals to connoisseurs who have steered clear of or grown away from post-modern clay.
Those who have read Barnard's writings on ceramics‹he was the ceramics editor of the New Art Examiner‹or have heard him speak, know he is articulate and passionate. Yet his work, as stubborn as the man, has secrets. How else can one awkward jar control a room or one simple plate propel a meal?
Barnard has now lived for a number of years in the hilly woods of Timberville, Virginia, where he is able to wood-fire his wares with impunity. Fire, wood clay‹it is all very basic. He eschews decoration, save that provided by the fire, or‹less typically‹in a series of white pieces, overlays of glaze. No botanical notes. Not jabs of calligraphy.
Barnard is now one of the best and most aesthetically demanding potters in the country. Along with jars, bottles and bowls, he makes teapots and cups and plates that are meant to be used. In spite of this, the artist is not at all interested in Leach/Hamada matter-of-factness or what I would call the diffident utilitarian‹nor its sibling, the decorative utilitarian. There is instead a darkness and a mystery in his work, a tension that could be confused with anxiety but is conveyed by a hesitant lift, a tentative lip and, here and there, dramatic kiln flaws flaunted. These are pots about doubt. And about humility. They are irritating and oddly radiant.
by Mary McCoy
The Washington Post, September 25, 1993
For nearly two decades, Washington artist Rob Barnard has been firing pottery in a Japanese-style wood kiln. His unglazed bowls, vases and teapots are functional ceramics, but they are also thoughtful works of art, representing a balance of discipline and chance. Streaked and flecked with earthy browns left by burning wood ash, the work invites close inspection.
Barnard has kept his vocabulary simple, throwing cylinders and egg-shaped forms whose plain surfaces show off the subtle effects of wood firing. This show introduces an new element on a handful of pieces: a milky white glaze (actually a white slip covered with a clear glaze) that coats the clay like icing. When applied thickly it, it crackles‹as on a small eight-sided bottle where hairline cracks angle down one edge. In more sparing amounts its seems ghostlike: another vase dipped first on one side, then the other, seems wrapped in translucent veils.
While Barnard's unglazed work characteristically absorbs light, light bounces off each irregularity in the surface of the glazed works, making the slight ridges left from throwing the vessel and the marks of tools and fingers all the more apparent.
Just as accident invigorates abstract expressionist paintings, these imperfections imbue Barnard's austere forms with character. Evidence of the artist's hand and the effects of firing tell of the process of making and of the acceptance (rare in contemporary Western art) of the interaction with the forces involved in that making‹both on the physical level and the philosophic.
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