Los Angeles

John Mason

The sixteen large clay sculptures by John Mason, executed in 1963–1966 and currently exhibited outdoors at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art appear independent of previous sculptural modes. The use of the potter’s medium, fired clay, for large sculptures is an innovation of John Mason and Peter Voulkos over the past decade. Now that Voulkos is working in metal, Mason alone continues to explore and use clay as his sole material, and the clay plays an integral and formative role in his total expression. The sculptures are bold and impressive; the surface texture has an organic quality, the monumental forms are like totemic presences, looming and votive, but without specific symbolic referent or intent. The works, all untitled, are to be viewed as a series—the progression from #1 to #16 is powerful.

Mason’s sculptures move from interaction with the surrounding space in the three fossil-like columnar forms of 1963, with their subtle even lyric projected parts, to a cutting into space in the cruciforms: crosses, spearhead, and the double crosses which seem almost humanoid (like bodies flung from a height into cement leaving their impression imbedded). Then the sculptures grow massive, the spaces between the arms of the cross fill roughly and evolve into a primeval visage (#7, 1964) on which three slabs of clay are collaged like indeterminate features. Similar in effect is the tenth in the series, which is like a primordial wheel with a perspective niche harrowed out in its core.

There are two monumental ceramic walls (7' x 14'). In both, their size and the expressive power which resides in the form and texture of the surface bring to mind the monumental Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1950s. The X-shaped cross of the second wall (1966) is divided into panels; within each segment grey slabs of the cross jet downward, are stopped by the incised lines, and then plunge on into the next panel.

The drama ensues between the cross and its ground—the speed of the flat cross against the static rough terrain of the ground. The fired clay gives an organic substructure to the geometric form. One is struck by the precarious balancing of massive blocks, the harnessing of energies.

The monoliths, of which there are four, do not “contact” the surrounding space they are complete self-inclosures, stark solid geometric structures. For example, #14, 1966, is a 64-inch cube articulated into a heavy square cross—an impenetrable geometric totem bathed in a reticulated green glaze which recedes into yellow. The epoxy coating minimizes the organic effect of the fired clay. The final monolith, #16, exhibits the ultimate compression of the grey clay matter which progressed from the tendril columns of earlier works. The surface is simplified, barely modeled, except by the unpredictable transforming effect of firing. (Mason applied color to some of the previous works but here it is not evident.) With the second work in the series, a skeleton-like column coated in bright orange, he is least successful with color; perhaps it is the attempt to create a contradiction to the organic clay and the organic form, for in this work the color bears no integral or enhancing relation to the form. In the ceramic walls bronze and silver tones appear in the craters of the ground, which vary subtly with the changing outdoor light. He bathes his large cube structures in bright glazes and they become shining, mysterious votive objects of the future. When he returns to the rectangular block in #16, the color is no longer deemed necessary. The quality of organic shape and growth in the earlier works develops into a state of almost inorganic compression in the final glazed blocks. But with this last monolith, returning to the surface of bare clay, he unites the organic, almost primordial texture with a solidified new form. Just as Mason amazes us with his agile and almost lyrical use of a medium rarely employed for such monumental sculpture, so also does he employ a form-theme which seems paradoxical in theory: he achieves a simplification of surface and form through expansion and simultaneous compression of his material.

Judith Wechsler