There’s cold comfort in posthumous recognition. No one should know that better than George Ohr, a virtuoso ceramicist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whose radical work was so ahead of its time that he never lived to reap its benefits.
An eccentric genius who likened himself to Shakespeare, he famously said, “When I am gone, my work will be praised, honored and cherished.” He was right: It wasn’t until 1969, more than 50 years after his death, that a cache of his vessels was discovered, reappraised and, eventually, canonized. Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns became collectors, and architect Frank Gehry became one of his many champions.
If you’re unfamiliar with Ohr—which I admittedly cop to being before my recent visit to the Boca Raton Museum of Art—the museum’s “Regarding George Ohr” exhibition is both a succinct primer and a survey of his vast and variegated influence on pottery and sculpture. It is easily the most thoughtful and provocative ceramics exhibition I’ve encountered.
“Regarding George Ohr” opens, as it should, with a roomful of Ohr’s vases and a description of their creator. This so-named “mad potter of Biloxi” cultivated the sort of image that, today, would inspire profiles in every magazine of renown. His gravity-defying moustache rivaled Dali’s, and he took a hell of a publicity photo: In the Boca Museum’s only mounted still of Ohr, he’s standing on his head, in holey jeans, balancing one of his vases on one foot.
The museum’s limited, single-gallery collection of Ohr works is shapely and well curated, encapsulating his contradictions: Ohr’s vases were delicate and rambunctious, beautiful and almost obscene. The twisting vines and bulging grapes of his filigreed pottery have an epicurean decadence, while his double-handled vessels conjure sinuous serpents.
The deeper you dive into Ohr, the less functional his works become, and the more they chart aesthetically driven frontiers. They adopt personalities not unlike Picasso’s cubist portraits, with their disordered visages. The straightforwardly titled “Two Handed Irregular Top Vase” is remarkable for its rebellious absence of symmetry, and “Two Handled Twist Body Vase” bunches up in the middle, indeed capturing a twisting form in motion. Most radical of all is “Double Trumpet Vase,” a queenly centerpiece with a gaping vaginal maw in its base.
This subtext of reproductive anatomy has not been lost in the generations of sculptors and ceramicists following in Ohr’s wake—nor was Ohr’s prizing of form over function an inimitable fluke. This is more than evident across the rest of “Regarding George Ohr,” which features more-contemporary artists riffing and expanding on his themes.
Sexual undertones are perhaps most explicit in the three variations of “Father Vase,” the deceptively whimsical selections from subversive designers the Haas Brothers. They feature phallic golden necks extended like elephant trunks from anemone-like bases. The pieces are almost Pixar-cute on the surface, but their naughtiness accrues on close inspection. Likewise, Jesse Wine’s small-scale sculptures “All Blacks” and “Virgins” have enough penile protrusions to make Freud blush.
But if these artists have an overarching point of reverence for Ohr’s work, it’s in the deliberate nonfunctionality of their pieces—large and small, vase-shaped and bloblike, towering and flattened. These are vessels defiantly made for an art museum, not curio cabinets or foyers. I loved Nicole Cherubini’s carefully gaudy shrines, in which vase and pedestal, art and display, and form and content merge into singular drippy installations. (As an aside, hats off to whoever wrote the wall text for this show, which has a blunt wit to it. Of Cherubini, the text reads, “The work has all the brazenness and vulgarity of a street corner hooker.” Of the Haas Brothers, we learn, “They take so many risks, one could accuse them of having brass balls, not unreasonable as they hide molded metal testes in the fur of their larger sofas and chairs.”)
From Takuro Kuwata, we get sizable vessels that could easily pass for witches’ cauldrons; one such ominous work is gleefully undercut by a pink hue the color of bubblegum or a Barbie Dreamhouse. For works that will haunt your nightmares, linger over King Houndekpinkou’s “Sacred Voodoo,” which resembles a one-eyed fish head, melting and dying under plexiglass; and “The Black Widow,” a bloody, drippy, violent-looking urn from the kiln of Hell.
On the other side of the emotional spectrum is Gustavo Perez’s “Sequencia de Compresion,” a series of 10 pieces documenting the creation of a monochrome vase, presented like an evolutionary timeline. The end product is boring, but that’s the point: The partially molded works in progress are most exciting, and most recall Ohr’s work. So do Gareth Mason’s chaotic containers nearby, with their bulbous gold chunks sprouting from dissonant places, and their asymmetrical designs with “mistakes” intact.
The most ambitious work of all is Betty Woodman’s “A Single Joy of Song.” It’s the show’s flattest variation on sculpture; consuming an entire wall, it barely qualifies as three-dimensional. Yet it primitively and powerfully evokes the creation of a 3D ceramic, in which seemingly thrown, squiggly planks of painted and unpainted earthenware splinter from a vessel. In its rules-be-damned, mad potter-ish kind of way, it may be the exhibition’s weirdest heir to Ohr.
“Regarding George Ohr” runs through April 8, 2018 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Admission costs $10-$12. Call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.