PRINT December 1985


Jack Earl: The Genesis and Triumphant Survival of an Underground Ohio Artist.

By Lee Nordness, Chicago: Perimeter Press Ltd., 1985, 227 pp., 50 black and white and 51 color illustrations

THE ENIGMATIC JACK EARL has been portrayed as a humorist, corn pone surrealist, and naive provincial by both the ceramic and fine art communities. Earl, the self-indulgent, apathetic, inimical, “underground” artist, remains content in the friendly confines of intellectual and cultural isolation of his home town—Uniopolis, Ohio, muck capital of the world and locus of Lee Nordness’ biographical archaeology.

Earl’s Luca della Robbia-like painted ceramic bas-reliefs and Meissen–like figurines of contemporary rural stereotypes are cast in the light of his personal iconography, which is prosaic and of a vernacular realism akin to the fictional Winesburg, Ohio, of Sherwood Anderson. Infused with ingenuous emotion and a sense of mockery and wit, Earl’s work straddles the fine line between hermetic genius and local yokel.

Earl’s ceramic vignettes of Middle America have ornate narrative titles—for example, Not to worry, by the father held safe. The calendar says it’s spring. We’ve had a couple rains. There is still snow against the woods and where it’s drifted deep along the fence rows—and in the creek where the water hasn’t washed it away. The ground is wet—too wet for the farmers to work in the fields, 1984. The works are rescued from being merely local genre scenes by the strength of their compositions, which show a profound empathy and respect for their menagerie of characters, and a passive receptivity to the process of life enacted in social metaphor.

Nordness’ evocative descriptions of the landscape and the work, intertwined with Earl’s colloquial narrative, combines with the designer Walter Hamady’s animated page layout to produce more of a screenplay than a biography. The carefully edited asides, capsulating relevant ceramic history, inform but do not intrude. We get a disjunctive collage of personal and professional influences that circumscribe the artist’s discrete creative mind.

Earl’s most ambitious work to date, his “dos-a-dos” (back-to-back) sculptures, present unrelated scenes on each side. In the same manner, this biography reverberates with internal paradox and external ambiguity. Nordness’ Jack Earl is an exemplary portrayal of a difficult subject and, more importantly does not retreat from an insistent dilemma of art and of biography, the dilemma echoed in the words of Edgar Degas: “Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter produce valuable work.”

Sarah Bodine