Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
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Rob Barnard and Julian Stair: Inner Lives/Cinerary Jars
The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design
Exhibited March 3–27, 2020

Inner Lives: Cinerary Jars is an exhibition of the work of two contemporary ceramic artists from different backgrounds. Rob Barnard is from the State of Kentucky in the US where he began his study of ceramics; he eventually went on to study at Kyoto University with Yagi Kazuo, Japan’s most celebrated postwar ceramic artist. Julian Stair, on the other hand, is from the UK where he studied ceramics at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal College of Art in London; in 2002 he earned a PhD from the Royal College, writing a dissertation on the genesis of English studio pottery. What Rob Barnard and Julian Stair represent are two very ancient ceramic traditions from two distant and different cultures, one East and one West.1

Since these two artists, who have written extensively about ceramics, come from such diverse backgrounds and ceramic traditions, the question arises concerning what unites the works in this exhibition. Is it enough that both traditions focus on technical skill and knowledge in the production of functional ceramics, or is there more involved?

The answer seems to be that both artists, in their own subtle way, pose the same question to the viewer. What, they ask, is the role of traditional ceramic art in our inner life? Clearly by raising the idea of “inner life,” they not only have something serious in mind but also want to point the viewer in the same direction. It is as if they are saying, “look here, not there.” By doing this, they focus attention so as to suggest something more than the ordinary, everyday idea of function as some thing useful that can be easily dismissed or discarded. So, while on the face of it the question they pose may seem quite straightforward and simple, upon reflection one realizes it is anything but.

1 While Bernard Leach, who had a keen interest in Asian ceramics, did a workshop with Japanese potter Shoji Hamada at Camberwell College in the late 1950s, it was Lucie Rie and Hans Coper who had the greater influence. Rie, who was from Vienna and admired Bauhaus-inspired design, taught at Camberwell and the Royal College of Art from 1960–1971, and Hans Coper, her friend and protégé, taught at both institutions from 1966–1975.


Being a serious artist in today’s world is an especially daunting task. And being a traditional craft artist, that is to say, an artist whose focus is functional objects based on tradition is even more difficult. For one thing, unlike the premodern Western art world when content was inherent in the common subject matter of the time—for example portraiture (royal and otherwise) or religious themes about the gods (pagan or Christian)—today there is little consensus about subject matter and its relationship to content and meaning in art. Instead, something prevalent in the contemporary modern world in general is the idea that content/value is inherent in and expressed through the new, especially as seen in formal innovation and invention. This idea of the new has become so ingrained in the modern mind that it has been uncritically accepted over the years, so much so that, in a sense, modernity itself can be defined as the “revolt against the authority of tradition.”

Because this idea of “the new” has also become a maxim in modern and contemporary art, it has had a significant impact on the field of craft. For in the world of craft, functional ceramics represent tradition. And while tradition in ceramics has its advocates in artists like Barnard and Stair, the result of this widespread emphasis on “the new” is a degree of isolation from the larger art world for tradition-oriented craft artists. Those craft artists who have been accepted into the wider realm of art are mainly ones who have continued using craft materials and techniques but have largely abandoned the idea/concept of function.2

Ironically, since this “revolt against the authority of tradition” can be dated to sometime around the mid-to-late nineteenth century, it is now well over a hundred years old and has, in a very real sense, become a tradition unto itself.3 And while in recent years there has been a pretense in the world of architecture and visual art via postmodernism of rejecting the concept, it lives on still dictating much of how art is recognized and evaluated. In short, the “Concept of the New” still commands much attention not only in art and design, but in the larger non-art world as well, especially in the current world of social media and the economics of consumption.4

2 See, for example, Glenn Adamson, “Why the Art World is Embracing Craft” (13 January 2020). In this regard, it is worth noting that craft has been under attack in other ways as well. In 1989, Camberwell was renamed Camberwell College of Arts, deleting any reference to crafts from its name. The same thing happened to the California College of Arts and Crafts; founded in Berkeley in 1907, in 2003 it also deleted the word craft from its name, becoming the California College of the Arts.
3 This revolt can be identified in its earliest phases with Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio of 1855, Manet’s Olympia of 1863, and Cézanne’s Large Bathers of 1898–1905 and certainly with Fauvism and Cubism of the early years of the twentieth century. As to “the new” being a tradition in and of itself, the title of avant-garde critic Harold Rosenberg’s book The Tradition of the New (Horizon Press, 1959) suggests as much.
4 Of particular relevance in this regard is the word-art of Barbara Kruger, especially her Untitled (I shop therefore I am), a large screen print on vinyl from 1987.

Cinerary Jars, gallery view from overhead

This presents a dilemma for artists in general, but especially for artists like Rob Barnard and Julian Stair who are not seduced by such fashions. Their work is centered on tradition, on the mastery of technical and artistic excellence, not solely for its own sake but also in an effort to communicate something to the viewer that is deep and profound, not superficial and passing. However, such work, like all serious work, falls on “deaf ears” if it doesn’t have an audience—that is to say, people who are not only willing to look, but willing to take the time to actually see. In short, art needs people who are open to the attentive and thoughtful contemplation necessary to engage the work in question and make critical value judgments. This applies to all types of art, including literary, musical, visual, dance, etc.

Unfortunately, this is another problem of our age; it is not necessarily an age that encourages serious contemplation and serious thought. Social media may be to blame for much of this, but it is not alone. In universities, the liberal arts and humanities—the main focuses for developing critical awareness and understanding—are in decline; students are encouraged to put economic interests first and pursue courses that lead to “good” jobs and money. This is not only an issue in the US but also the UK.5 Today, the belief that disciplined critical engagement with the world is fundamental to ethical and moral behavior, something gained through the liberal arts and humanities, seems passé.6

This trend is not totally new. It is something that art critic Clement Greenberg warned about already in 1939 in a prescient article titled “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” This article helps explain why the decline of the humanities and liberal arts is so disappointing. Greenberg argued that lack of critical awareness is exploited by commerce through the production of a new commodity, what he called “ersatz culture, kitsch.” This kind of culture, he argued, has replaced genuine culture for those who are insensible to the values of genuine culture. He goes on to write that:

Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time.7

Now, instead of seriously engaging the important issues facing our world, we seem preoccupied with the latest fashions and the newest electronic gadgets as we fantasize over Hollywood-movie “superheroes”—as if such fictional characters will save us from the perils facing the real world. Symptomatic of this is the fact that we are continually inundated through social media and its so-called influencers about news of the latest styles and the “hottest” and “hippest” devices and new artists—this is tantamount to the art world’s “flavor-of-the-month” club. Unfortunately, to many, its allure seems irresistible. Why else would people line up outside stores in the middle of the night to be first in line to spend large sums of money on the latest electronic devices? Such devices seem to be a way to avoid being alone with one’s thoughts; they are a source of constant “entertainment,” which thereby provides a diversion from any form of serious contemplation, so much so that they seem to be cherished more than actual human contact.8

It seems to me that Rob Barnard and Julian Stair are well aware of these difficulties. But rather than surrendering to this contemporary version of the consumer world of late-Greenbergian kitsch, they have decided to confront the issue “head on.” Not by changing their work, by giving in to the pressures surrounding them, but by posing a fundamental question to the viewer: “What does it mean to be human?” This question, which encompasses the idea of an “outer life” and springs directly from the idea of an “inner life” (one presupposes the other), crosses all boundaries—social, political, religious, and otherwise. Ironically, however, any engagement with the issue can only happen through a sense of contemplation, something many viewers seem generally disinclined to do.

Barnard and Stair attempt to solve this problem by pointing the viewer towards the second part of the exhibition title, Cinerary Jars, which they have chosen because it conjures a sense of gravitas, of seriousness as it identifies the works in question not as mere containers but as containers intended to house the ashes of deceased human beings. Once this connection to the human is made, hopefully related ideas will begin to coalesce in the mind of the viewer, especially the realization that their fate is inevitably ours as well.

5 For the US version, see Donovan Hohn, “Fierce Convictions,” a review of Marilynne Robinson’s book What Are We Doing?: Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018); this article was published in The New York Times Book Review, March 11, 2018, see esp. p.11, 2nd column. For the UK version of the issue, see Richard Noble, “Art is an academic subject: so why does Britain persist in this false dichotomy?” The Art Newspaper, No. 305, October 2018, p. 5.
6 Despite the preaching of many economists to the contrary, ethical and moral sensibilities also seem fundamental even to economic success. One wonders, for example, if a greater sense of ethical and moral responsibility and duty would have prevented the recent economic disaster (not to mention loss of life) at Boeing Airlines over the 737 MAX Jetliner.
7 Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Beacon Press, 1961), p.10.
8 This may help explain why something like texting and sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, have become so popular; they are another step removed from actual physical human contact. They also encourage people to write things they would never say directly to another human being.

Three cinerary jars on display columns

With these thoughts in mind, it becomes apparent upon looking that these works are made with special care and thought as befitting their title and intention. They are done in a range of shapes and sizes that seem intended to echo the variety of shapes and forms of the human body—tall and slender, plump and round, angular and curved. Stair, whose works are all lidded in a similar fashion and topped with a kind of twisted shape, creates forms that are very geometric (oval, circular, rectangular, even triangular) with consistent and fairly plain, smooth surfaces. However, to dispel any connection to the apparent perfection of mechanical production typical of modernity, he somehow manages to leave slight burrs of clay along the rather coarse seams that articulate different sections of his jars. He also uses different firing methods and clay bodies to produce jars in a wide range of colors from reds, whites, grays, and even blacks. The result of his geometric shapes with their firm edges and range of colors, one could argue, seems intended to echo the psychological variety of human natures and also the variety of ethnic and racial skin colors—all given the same careful attention and care as befitting their intended purpose.

Barnard, for his part, takes a somewhat different approach that reflects his study of ancient Japanese traditions in Kyoto. While his forms also echo the variety of human body types and hence, human psychological mindsets, they are much more organic in shape. Like Stair, Barnard is at pains to dispel any sense of repetition, of making the same thing over and over again like a machine. To distance himself from such features so characteristic of modern design production methods, he makes a point of capping each jar with a different lid; each lid is shaped to fit the specific form of its jar body. By doing this, Barnard also makes sure to communicate to the viewer that these containers are all individually made, one at a time, by the human hand, and are intended to stand as metaphors for the human.

Throw marks created by his fingers during the making process are intentionally left visible on his jars (sometimes prominently so). And by using white slip and limestone glazes that are thick and runny and somewhat hard to predict in terms of final outcome upon firing, he creates surfaces that are likewise organic with no hint of the mechanical and, in their unpredictability, echo the complexity of human development and growth. Barnard’s surface treatment and glazing imparts a ghostly appearance to his jars, something that connects them to their function as cinerary jars, as containers for the remains of the once living.

The point of the works that comprise Inner Lives: Cinerary Jars, something Rob Barnard and Julian Stair are at pains to emphasize beginning with the exhibition title they have chosen, is that being human means caring for someone and something other than oneself or overt material prosperity. Saving the ashes of a deceased, as Cinerary Jars symbolizes, is a sign of such caring and also the sorrow of missing another. Ultimately, it is a kind of reckoning with our own sense of frailty and future departing from this world.  end of text

Rob Barnard has work in the collections of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery and the American Craft Museum, the Everson Museum, and the Mint Museum. He has written on the crafts for publications like The Studio PotterAmerican Craft, Ceramics MonthlyCeramics—Art & PerceptionKeramick and The New Art Examiner. Barnard exhibits widely in Japan, the United States, and Great Britain. He is currently a lecturer in ceramics at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Julian Stair has work in thirty public collections including the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art, and Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Netherlands. Recent exhibitions include Inner Lives: Cinerary Jars (Branch Museum, 2020), Equivalenze (ICA Milano, 2019), Gefäßerweiterung (Galerie Metzger, 2019), Oxford Pioneers (Oxford Ceramics Gallery, 2018), Termini (Cross MacKenzie Gallery, 2017). His essays have been published by The Courtauld Institute of Art, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Tate, and the Yale Center for British Art. 

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