Mortar Bowls by Adrian Saxe
When visitors walk into the gallery’s current show, Small is Beautiful, they are immediately greeted by an exquisite display of mortar bowls by Adrian Saxe. This series, dating to the 1980s, was based on the utilitarian mortar and pestle form, although the artist quickly eliminated the pestle. The works function primarily as a dialogue between base and vessel, furthering Saxe’s exploration of traditional modes of presentation.
Martha Drexler Lynn, in her essay “Adrian Saxe and the Cultured Pot,” described the beaker format of this series:
“Derived from Chinese court porcelains, the early bowls and stands are small and jewel-like…The beaker-shaped bowl has a serrated edge and sits on top of a base reminiscent of teak display stands. Two curved scrolls stand out from the base to function visually as handles. The clear frontality and richness of the glaze texture declare the importance of this tiny, precious vessel.” 1
The stands that Lynn referred to immediately declare the preciousness of the objects they support. Chinese court porcelains were often similarly presented, on elaborately carved bases that enhanced the prestige of their ceramic vessels. However, instead of displaying a traditionally styled vessel, Saxe produced beakers with hand-cut gear edges and highly lustrous surfaces. By presenting his untraditional vessels in a historical mode, Saxe subverts the viewer’s expectations.
Saxe pushed the juxtaposition between base and vessel further in the rounded bowl format of the same series. Jim Collins characterized these works as “beautifully rendered clay vessels positioned on raku or stoneware bases that resemble molten lava or rough-cut stone.”2 These vessels feature the same serrated edges as the beakers, and make contact with their bases through a delicately balanced touch point. The contrast of material and style between the vessel and the base is mediated through this juncture.
The traditional relationship between base and vessel is also challenged in these works, as the base gains a prominence not usually associated with its format. Collins described this process, writing that “As Saxe varies the relative size, shape, and material of the base vis-à-vis the vessel, the function of the former necessarily changes as it is transformed from an unobtrusive, relatively transparent support to an explicitly forefronted device that presents the latter.”3 The base, rather than functioning as an anonymous system of support, gains its own powerful identity.
Saxe’s culturally pluralistic, hybrid works are defined by their “odd, aggressive combinations that challenge the sanctity of any and all aesthetic categories.”4 Vessels and bases are brought into opposition, and their traditional relationships subverted, in order to undermine the viewer’s expectations. The mortar bowl series represents an amalgamation of styles in which the component pieces maintain their distinct identities, creating layered works of technical and cultural complexity.
1 Lynn, Martha Drexler, “Adrian Saxe and the Cultured Pot,” in The Clay Art of Adrian Saxe. (Los Angeles: Thames and Hudson and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1993) 31.
2 Collins, Jim, “Adrian Saxe and the Postmodern Vessel,” in The Clay Art of Adrian Saxe. (Los Angeles: Thames and Hudson and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1993) 125.
3 Ibid., 128.
4 Ibid., 124.