Excerpt from an article by Charles Ray
For The New York Times, 7 October, 2001
One day I picked up an interview with Giacometti in which he was asked about an existential reading of his work. He replied, no, actually he was trying to make his figures as realistic as possible. What? To me, these figures were walking out of Dresden or Hiroshima.
He went on to explain that when he looks at you he can’t see all of you. He scans you, looking at your nose, then your lips, over your shoulder, then at your breast, belly and your knees, all the way down the leg past your foot to the toes. As I recall, he said something like this: “We see parts of each other and we put them together. But if I want to see you in totality, you need to move away; we need space between us. Across the street I can see all of you at once, but then I also see this huge vista of space surrounding you, coming in and compressing you.”
This thought has never left me. And through it I began to see that rather than thinking about sculpture, one might be able to learn to think sculpturally.
A Language with Few Adjectives
Michael Lamar, 1987
We approach works of art armed with expectations; acclimated towards a way of seeing, judgment comes in a flash. The austere, sublime, character of James Watkins’ sculpture challenges many expectations, particularly those that are endemic to his medium. Hardly primed for assimilation, his pieces in glass are void of color, cool and denuded, and emphasize the properties of density and translucency.
Watkins displays a modesty of technique through a casual handling of materials. The host of forms are primordial, with the alliance of parts considered but not overemphasized. These pieces refrain from literal descriptiveness. Additions of wood and tin alter the sentiment of the glass and an oblique narrative of bottles, figures and architecture comes forth. The dead weight is trimmed and the economical forms remain.
Of earlier work, some of the first memorable pieces were a series of still-lifes involving the bottle, glass and plate. All blown and deftly cut with clean, articulate edges, they were then fabricated into composition. Still-life on Plate is a tall, slender bottle with a disk plate and companion cup. The cup is blackened for contrast, and all objects are postured elegantly. This could easily be a rendering of the quintessential waiter’s trophy: the essential objects, with café society romanticism. Work from this series relies upon the vessels that are common to the history of glass making. With a white-washed beauty, the glass is either frosted or painted.
Evoking the picturesque, this series confirms a belief in the prescribed serenity of the perfect composition, the composition that most artists want to make at least once. It is their completeness and tidiness that make them the most approachable of his works. Although other pieces in this series display varying degrees of animation, they all focus on the tabletop iconography of still-life painting with the specter of Morandi at the helm. Artists who choose the bottle as subject invariably have to contend with this Italian painter-demigod since his exploration of the bottle was so alluring and exhaustive. Watkins’ work alludes to Morandi without duplicating it: his glass sculptures breathe easily and are not as psychologically detached. Watkins’ later pate de verre versions of this theme have the tactility achieved by Morandi in paint.
At the same time, 1983 to 1985, he augmented the three-dimensional pieces with two-dimensional works in wood and plate glass. The aim was to “reduce the pieces to a silhouette, as in the photographic image, and to create implications of volume rather than actual volume.” These became the glass version of a paper cut-out and rested on a ground of painted wood. In Still-life IV shoe polish opacifies the surface as opposed to sandblasting. With white shoe polish, or the marking of ink or paint, surface gesture came easily, and the hand-on format was one that Watkins continues to employ with mixed results. It is not that the painted wood and glass combinations lack interest but rather that it is difficult to enunciate the illusion of volume in this format. The application is heavy-handed and imprecise. The most successful pieces tend to be those whose image is graphically potent, such as the white and black Head and Bottle. Here the image and cut out reflect a striking mix of shapes, bobbing and dancing like a child’s building blocks in an active state of construction and destruction.
Both the still-lifes and flat works originate from pieces done at the Rhode Island School of Design where Watkins was a graduate student. Once out of school and taking route in a studio across town, the occasion was ripe for a more expansive body of work that put the dogmas and strictures of academics in proper perspective.
As a native of New Iberia, Louisiana Watkins learned early that problem solving through pragmatic and uncomplicated means was a virtue, if not an art. Ingenuity and resourcefulness was something to be respected (frugality fit in nicely too). The furnace he built with his partner, Elizabeth Pannell, resembles a back-woods still. The sandblaster looks like a plywood terrarium and the annealer is constructed from a top loading dime store refrigerator. This anecdote is pertinent because the schism between life and art can be a fine one, but in Watkins’ case it’s non-existent. His gravitation towards other materials to combine with glass is a direct out-growth of setting up his shop. Sensing that glass- the preeminent seducer – unaltered, can dilute the integrity of the image, he believed lesser materials could restore it. Thus enter the “tool shed” materials: wood, shoe polish, paint, tin and auto body putty. It was the tin that initially replaced some of the glass: “the textural value of etched glass and galvanized metal are very similar and the structural nature of sheet metal duct work complemented the glass constructions in progress at the time.” Construction SB and Construction FH chronicle this kind of thought. Here tin and glass are equal partners, with the objects flirting playfully. Many of his later compositions would express such exchanges of modified tension and grace.
During a stay in Europe in the spring of 1984, Watkins filled a sketchbook with renderings of the bottle and for the first time included representational images of heads, figures and architecture. Returning to Providence, the figure and architecture achieved primacy over the bottle format. Some of the pieces continued to be blown, but he began working with the pate de verre technique, allowing for the density in the glass to be more substantial. This more involved and indirect process originated with manipulating clay (or in some cases wax) so that the final product in glass carried all the information recorded by a very expressive hand. The clay allowed the action of finger-tip and thumbs to be heard in the glass.
A few of the early bottle-head pieces from 1985 sport a whimsical propensity. There is an easygoing humor to even the most macabre of the bunch. Mr. the Bottle is the dark side of Mr. Potato Head-it’s a man trapped in the body of a bottle. A protruding head greets us off the bottom end of a generic bottle form. This is such a kooky rendition because the head springs from the “wrong” end of the bottle form. Inscribed with remedial facial features, it’s too dark in its expression of entrapment to be a totally endearing object. But at a foot long, it’s the perfect hand-held object. Mr. the Bottle has a haunting presence that alludes to both Arcadia and the gothic South. Well suited for Boo Radley’s hollowed out tree trunk, it wants to be liked.
St. Sebastian and the Bottle is another pate de verre piece in relief and has a more dispersed emotional impact. A body and a bottle are side-by-side, lacking any specific detail, looking as if they’ve been keeping company for quite some time. They share the features of body, neck and shoulders. And they share a metaphor: bottle as vessel, body as earthen vessel. St. Sebastian is presented in the form of a classical statue from antiquity with the absence of piercing arrows and corporeal affliction. The irony of this St. Sebastian is that he is rendered inexpressive-being headless and armless-his ecstasy not recorded.
St. Sebastian and the Bottle is a good example of a titled work in which Watkins provides a needed narrative device for entry into a piece. In this case the words assigned to this sculpture have the sweet cadence of a title from a fable, and by nudging an interpretation, he avoids the category of complete abstraction.
In a recent series of strong compositions, the torso, head and body remain as the most charged pivotal forms and reflect an energetic response to the figure in architecture. Watkins’ concern with architecture-the spires, facades, posts and lintels-is more of a psychological one as the elements suggest enclosure, restraint and order. Besides their shared architectural references, City Man, The Bishop, and The Madonna also wear palatial “crowns”. Headdresses, in general, are pieces of apparel that denote rank and status and it is only appropriate that these figures are adorned as such.
City Man is a glass and wood composition from 1985 whose back panel is a partially lit section of a skyscraper. The glass figure in the foreground is all head, shoulder and spire. The spire resembles a dunce cap but is worn stiffly, possibly as an emblem of the alliance between man and his cathedrals of commerce. The membrane between man and building is permeable; a vertical osmosis. The Bishop, resembling a detail of a gothic period tableau, also has an elongated head that melds into a spire. This piece has an inherent weighted ness but dreamlike stillness. It’s like the effect created by humidity on vision; the atmosphere converts distant white marble into an ethereal mass.
Both these pieces and The Madonna are executed in a full Mannerist spirit. The Madonna recalls Parmigianino’s Madonna with Long Neck with the heightened emotional state through the exaggeration of physical properties being the objective of both. With The Madonna there is an expressed state of regality, of heroism as her elliptical face is postured against the overwhelming headdress (or veil). The black auto body putty that rides the form upwards to the apex produces a sharp division, making the viewer more conscious of the geometric planes against the soft, feminine face.
What is so compelling about these three pieces is that they describe both Christian and secular archetypes with a broad stroke. As moody testaments to obligation and position, Watkins evokes a contemplative but ambivalent state achieved by a reduction of details and a generalizing of common features. The human face has always been used to project the inner self. But these pieces are void of any facial expression and our acquaintance with the “psyche” of the figures is through the heavily manipulated terrain of the glass surface.
James Watkins does not concern himself with technical virtuosity of the easy-access narrative: the conundrums are in abundance. His sculptures, whose images are both sacred and profane, do not proclaim their existence loudly; what is whispered is a language of restraint, a language with few adjectives.
A Pattern Language: The Sculpture of James Watkins
Ronald J. Onorato
“…can we really create nature or does it require that we do someother other?”
A leaf, a boat, a mask, a spoon, a jug – these are some of the nominal references in the art of James Watkins. At first glance he employs a seemingly laconic vocabulary with a few key forms and textures drawn from a fusion of nature and culture. Look longer at one or more of his sculptures however and they metamorphosis before our eyes from a general shape to a complex set of relationships between convex volumes and concave voids, surface and mass, translucence and opacity. If at first a specific object is defined, soon others are suggested, then a range of different interpretations occurs, all the while hinting at the universal forms of multiple things in the world at large.
Sculpture has always had this set of transformative possibilities as it is closely connected to the traditions of artisan object making. The morphology of ancient vessels, aboriginal arrowheads, clay pipes or silverware (to name only a few object types) comes out of the need to refine, reshape and clarify forms through a range of function and taste. Normally, this is a process which unfolds over long periods of time, adopting form to shifts in materials, uses or aesthetic value.
For twentieth century sculptors like Constantin Brancusi or Isamu Noguchi, the sense of this natural and dynamic process of change became intentional, condensed into the work of a single maker and often recaptures by turning to familiar forms from their indigenous cultures. Quotidienne objects from their respective ethnic backgrounds – benches, funerary markers, architectural details and domestic objects – are often the starting point for their rough wood, textured stone or metal sculptures. Nature was a second trove of inspirations in the forms of birds, geological formations and anthropomorphic forms.
Likewise, Watkins makes much out of a coherent and consistent core of references and materials. Work from the early eighties like Construction SB and FH, 1983, while using more metallo-mechanical forms, shares much with a newer piece like Crystal Ming and Fiddlehead, 1994 with it’s more bulbous swelling curves as if they are different t points on the evolutionary chain. This slowly evolving “consistency” is at the heart of Watkins art, with most of his pieces created a few at a time from a relatively small range of materials, with a similar handling of surfaces and shapes. Yet because of, or perhaps despite such self-imposed boundaries, he finds myriad variety in the reductivist arena within which he chooses to work.
One way he does this is by retaining the freshness of the hand worked black-brown surface of his studio waxes in his finished products. One might expect the bronze form in Overlay, 1977 to provide an equivalent tone and weight to the wax, but Watkins achieves the same vitality in his pate de verre works like Ewer with Leaf from the same year. The shards and cut off scraps of wax around his studio underscore the importance of the initial, hepatic, hand-wrought effort in every work be they finished in bronze of glass.
In one set of works, the small, hand-sized pieces from the Vocabulary series, 1994 Watkins declares his intentions most clearly. Here the series of tactile forms can be grasper both literally in the hand and figuratively in their meaning. Each gives breadth and depth to the other in a non-fixed sequence of elements that is as much like the periodic table in its potential for mutation and combination as in alphabet that can be shaped into an unending possibility of words and ideas.
Ultimately, his work is about contemplation as much as it is about the action of making. His work slows down our perceptual process so we can consider the possibilities of interpretation rather than having the obvious and literal shapes name themselves.
The universality of his forms reflects whole worlds of fauna, flora and artifactual antecedents. We soon find ourselves asking questions,
Does the translucency of a glass form complicate its exterior shape or help us perceive its major volumes? Does a shaped outline in a relief derive from a three dimensional work or visa versa? Are the other elements which give context to his pieces like wall plaques, boxes or horizontal bases integral to his objects or apart from them?
Unlike most objects in our modern world, the things that Watkins makes afford his viewers the chance to think, to consider the possibilities, to contemplate, and thus to imagine. He has done this by focusing on what the architect Christopher Alexander called a pattern language-a timeless set of forms. Alexander explains the power of his primary forms as:
Architectural – so deep, so deeply rooted in the nature of things, that it seems likely that they will be a part of human nature, and human action, as much in five hundred years, as they are today. (Alexander, A Pattern Language, pp.XIII, 1997).
So it is with the kinds of related forms found in Watkins Mr. The Bottle, 1985 or Vocabulary #3, 1994 or Still Life with Carambola, 1997, which like the elemental parts of a spoken language depend in part on each other for their potency and meaning.
Watkins art is as enduring and infinite as evolutionary biology, as a walk through a Japanese garden, and as a hint at all the wondrous things that make up our material culture. His sculpture is the epitome of a very human, thought-provoking, venerable and vital language.