Los Angeles

John Mason

Known as one of the Los Angeles artists who, in the ’50s, pushed clay beyond crafts and into the Abstract Expressionist arena, John Mason set clay aside in the mid ’70s and soon began stacking firebricks on museum floors (the “Hudson River Series,” 1978) and installing site-specific environmental sculptures. Now, for the first time in over ten years, Mason has returned to ceramic objects.

The new works are of three modular types: vessels, plates, and freestanding forms such as triangles, squares, and rectangles. Most are glazed in geometric patterns that both reinforce and contradict their shapes, and all are set in relation to each other in such a manner that one begins to see them as elements in an ensemble. From various positions and elevations, the works seem to exchange edges, patterns, glazed and gritty surfaces, gestures, and symmetries, in what amounts to a kind of blocky bam dance. This modularity is characteristic of Mason’s style. Whereas it could once be seen as the defining press of mass against form, it has since developed into a kind of geometric contrapposto, or torque, that both opens and closes a sculpture. Its root is a twist, an elegant gesture by which mass and space are rotated according to their shared basis in geometry—that is, in a flat, notational field.

Since the late ’60s, all of Mason’s sculptures, whether monolithic or site-specific, have emerged from an investigation of geometric form. Mason’s twist is like the vertical rotation of an object as it rises out of a drawing. The planes of drawing become the surfaces of sculpture, which in turn contract the object-as-image back toward drawing. It’s a kind of conceptual sculpting, pertaining equally to the object and to the idea behind it. In the new works, this twist can be seen as a quirky misalignment of shape and surface pattern, despite their common geometric ground. For instance, a glazed pattern spreads centrifugally from a vessel’s neck and follows its own trajectory until, at a certain edge, it slips out of alignment with the object’s actual shape. It’s as if we’ve blinked and missed something.

This slippage occurs at the moment a flat idea crosses into three-dimensional space, and it gives rise to a fleeting but fundamental eccentricity that is something like a crack in the absolute logic of a system. This fissure is the heart of Mason’s work, both old and new––a twist that represents not just the extensions of logic but the threshold at which a system somehow outwits and contradicts itself. The pattern tries to hold the surface, and when the surface suddenly veers in space the pattern can only follow by abandoning its logic. At such a point, mass begins to seem transparent and geometry decorative.

Some will see these works as a retreat from issues of site and situation to those of gallery and commodity. But cynicism is never criticism. If anything, these new works represent a synthesis of the qualities of the object and the field within the appropriately extensible medium of clay. This is what Mason has always done, though he has not always done it with clay. Having been out in what Rosalind Krauss has called the “expanded field,” Mason can never return to the ceramics tradition in its most provincial sense. He can, however, make objects loaded with the memory of having been “out there.”

Jeff Kelley