One should never underestimate the power of pure chance in determining history. Improbable encounters, unlikely coincidences, farfetched episodes can alter the course of a life. When JB Blunk (1926-2002) was discharged from the US Army in 1951, having served for two years during the Korean war, he managed to get himself sent to Japan rather than home to California. Blunk had studied ceramics at UCLA before being drafted, and was intent on finding the Japanese pottery that he had seen as a student.
In a folk craft shop he happened to meet the renowned sculptor Isamu Noguchi who, sympathetic to the young American’s passion, arranged for him to become apprenticed to two great master ceramicists: first for six months with Rosanjin Kitaoji, and then for a year and a half with Toyo Kaneshige in Bizen. From these masters of Japanese studio ceramic art, as well as through his friendship with Noguchi, Blunk imbibed principles of both aesthetics and technique. The die was cast.
Returning to California in 1954, Blunk was given a plot of land in rural and remote Inverness by the Surrealist painter Gordon Onslow Ford (also an introduction through Noguchi) and set about building his own house. Developing quite naturally from the daily need to cut fire wood, Blunk’s practice quickly expanded to wood carving – first with a chainsaw, in a vernacular tradition, before evolving into a sculptural language that clearly evidenced the influence of Noguchi’s organic abstract forms.
Over subsequent years, as he married and had a family, the house in the woods grew around them. Blunk’s practice developed further to incorporate stone carving, weaving and jewellery making. Blunk’s life and art were inseparable, evolving quite naturally from his environment, a sensory response to the materials he found there and to the needs of his growing family.
The Japanese principle of wabi-sabi – which celebrates the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete – complemented Blunk’s reverence for natural materials and informed his incorporating their inherent irregularities into his work. He built a kiln in the grounds of the house and took clay directly from the ground, using it unrefined to create his stoneware. Whether it was tableware that the family used every day, or objects more apt to be simply looked at, Blunk admitted no distinctions between life, art and craft.
The ceramics in the current exhibition at Kate MacGarry date from between 1975 and 1995 and have been selected with Blunk’s daughter Mariah Nielson from a small number still remaining. In Bizen, where Blunk was apprenticed to the Living National Treasure Toyo Kaneshige, the pottery is characterised by the red earth of the locale with a tendency to shrinkage during firing that makes glazing difficult. Aesthetically, Bizen-ware has a certain rustic quality that incorporates the irregularities of the clay and these qualities read through into many of Blunk’s own ceramic pieces.
The works in the current exhibition, all modest in scale, were made exclusively in Inverness, California. A number of them exhibit cracks developed in the firing, but a pair of rectangular wall-based works bear incisions clearly made by the hand of the artist and call to mind the signature gesture of a contemporary, Lucio Fontana. Arranged in small groupings, the contrast between glazed pieces featuring loose, gestural blue motifs against white, or with accents of gold and the rough texture of unglazed iron-red clay is seductive. The overall experience is dynamic, direct and makes a powerful tactile address to the viewer.
In the introduction to the new volume of Documents of Contemporary Art dedicated to craft Tanya Harrod writes, perhaps provocatively: “On the whole, counter-intuitively, the body of knowledge amassed over the past hundred years by the studio crafts has been assiduously bypassed by artists in favour of re-inventing the wheel or turning to the skills of industrially trained artisans.” In J B Blunk we find an artist who does not fit this statement, but instead synthesised ancient craft skill, an embodied knowledge, with contemporary artistic concerns and an acute sensitivity to the environment that makes the work feel utterly timely today.
Kate MacGarry, 27 Old Nichol Street, London E2 7HR. Open Wednesday – Saturday, 12.00 – 18.00. Exhibition continues until 20 October 2018. www.katemacgarry.com