Hank Saxe: Fragments of the Historic Zeitgeist

By: Bill Whaley
22 September, 2017

At Bareiss Gallery, Hank Saxe’s 27 ceramic sculptures form part of the show entitled “Earthly Elements.” The exhibition also includes images on paper and canvas by Brian Shields and Dora Dillistone. The show continues through Friday 29 September. You’re invited to a conversation about the art hosted by Jina Brenneman on Sunday the 24th at 4:30 pm. You can view the show from noon to five pm on Friday, Saturday, Sunday this week, Thursday and Friday next week or by appointment: phone Cynthia at 575-770-7096. Hanks work can be further explored online at hanksaxe.com.

 

La Coqueta

Who can resist “La Coqueta,” the snake, temptation, and carnal knowledge reminiscent of Adam and Eve or Freudian dreams or the way “Red Tail,” re-visits notions of earth, work and libido. Closer to home, the working class brothers, named Roper, Goldtooth, Corvus display bow-legged cowboys, who celebrate pay day at the Cantina and return to the bunkhouse drunk or with a single tooth left from a bar fight, one decapitated, the head MIA. (You can hear Philip Bareiss and Hank Saxe giggling.)

Red Tail

Smaller works depict geometric forms, accidental pyramids and cubes, set amidst drifting landforms. As Hank says, none of the forms can be duplicated but different forms have a family resemblance. Gravity operates inside the studio just as it does in the formation of geological expression.

Conversation on Process

While discussing the process, Hank Saxe’s eyes twinkle and laughter emerges intermittently, just as the sculpture takes shape spontaneously, though encouraged in this or that shapely direction by the agent-artist. He describes the raw materials of clay and glaze.

Roper

Powdered clays are dumped into a pug mill, 8 feet by 5 feet where materials blend with water. The clay mixture drops from the pugmill, into an extruder below, where the machine chops and shreds the material and sucks out the air in a vacuum chamber. Then the clay is pushed out of the end of the machine, like toothpaste out of a tube, emerging wet and heated due to the friction of the process.

 

Before the clay begins to harden and lose flexibility, he has a short window of time to manipulate the clay All the while he’s coaxing (hacking, banging, twisting) the clay into shape using his bare hands and various instruments – cutting tools, mallets, wooden paddles, pipes.

Goldtooth

Once dry, the clay forms are fired and then coated with layers of clay and glazes: sometimes multiple layers are built up over successive firings. Some combinations of clays and minerals are derived from the local surroundings. The effects the clays generate can reflect shapes outside norms of polite behavior. Successive layers of materials with different melting points, some harder, some liquid, create complex structures and surfaces, not so different than the volcanic geology of the Taos Plateau.

The Artist’s Thoughts

In a letter to a friend, Hank responds with notes that could serve as an artist’s statement re: the ceramic sculptures.

Corvus

“I don’t think there is any intention of them providing a lesson, promulgating a viewpoint or coaxing the viewer to understand things in a certain framework. I don’t intend their being fraught with meaning, didactic, or pedagogic. They are more responses to how the material behaves and continuations of a series of investigations into a line of shapes, forms, and textures that have been evolving over time. It’s a bunch of sculptures that are each supposed to be refinements of the ones that I previously made.

“It is unavoidable that some of them seem to make reference to things found in the world, both natural and man made. But, that is a side issue, I think. I’m more interested in making things that have a form that resonates with what we experience rather than a form that reflects on what we think things ought to look like, especially for those who are hung up on art needing to be representational, or worse, propagandistic.

Hank Saxe, photographed by Paul O’Connor

“The closest I could get to representation or visual cues meant to corral the viewer into seeing things a certain way is to make things that are, in a manner, cartoons, because cartoons are in a way, representations of what we imagine the essence of things to be, rather than attempts at accurately portraying things we have experienced through our senses. They work, as sketches, as shortcuts to a full immersion in a reality, because they tease out the essential outlines and cues that suggest what a more fully fashioned world would entail.”

In the letter quoted above, Hank also quotes a friend, Max Hooper Schneider: “`the artist is not the producer of the work, but the artist in interaction with materials, which are not conceived as passive matter being worked upon, but as an active agent in the productive process.’”

Background

During the course of brief stint at the UNM art program as a graduate student Hank did field work in Northern New Mexico. While inquiring about how local indigenous clayworkers obtained their materials and what they did with them, he was shoved out of academia and has remained in Taos for forty five years.”

With Cynthia Patterson he produced architectural ceramics, such as tile and lighting fixtures, for a couple of decades, and designed, produced, and installed over a dozen large scale public art installations in the Southwestern US and California. Having had enough of that he utilizes the same industrial equipment once employed for those endeavors in the service of making artwork now.

A Philosophical Conclusion

At late night solo soirees, I see in my mind how the Ceramicist answers the call of his material in the studio, armed with the instruments of his trade and a vision, unborn until he synthesizes ceramic objects in response to the forces of shape and glaze, slip and surface. Between engagements a piece or part might sit for decades until a call emanates and the artist takes clay in hand for a creative dance.

The emerging objects embody motion and repose as if the forces of geology and technology are preserved in the Heideggerian theory of “essential strife,” the midwife to object, transformed into spiritual “thing” that gathers a welter of interpretations, rounded out by ordinary table talk.

Hank in practice, like the reference to Heideggerian theory above, returns to the premodern notion of art, spirit, and primordial fusion, overcoming the aesthetic gap between subject and object. For the tragedy of modernism began with the Cartesian separation of body and mind. Kant himself claimed one could only know “representations” in the mind, not “the thing in itself.”

But Saxe embraces “the thing in itself” with the hands and mind, aided and abetted by “ready-at-hand” tools in the post-modern fusion and embodiment of a Heideggerian “thing.” A “thing” gathers or collects meanings due to historic and contemporary commentary and interpretation or pure sensual enjoyment. In effect the work represents Hank at play in response to the spirit or energy of the material and the era.

Strong poets and visionary artists bring into existence the exemplary forces of the zeitgeist, of the historic and current times. The sublime spirit of place and people emerges in the work, appearing as partly grotesque and partly cartoonish, while celebrating the beauty of textures.

(I always find myself rubbing the sensual skin on the smooth ceramic surfaces, running a finger over the tiny pockmarks of the alluvial landscapes or was it last night’s dinner?)

Call it sublime or call it art but as Hamlet says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt in your philosophy.” Some of those dreams emerge in Saxe’s sublime sculptures.

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