Larry Cohen’s new ceramic exhibition at the Zack Gallery runs until Jan. 25. (photo by Olga Livshin)
Larry Cohen’s new ceramic exhibition at the Zack Gallery is called This and That. The name is symbolic for the artist. His show consists of two entirely different types of pottery: whimsical woven sculptures and functional crockery. “I wanted to explore the relationship between pure art, like my sculptures, and functional things, like my bowls, vases and cups,” said Cohen in an interview with the Independent.
“There is a continuum that stretches from pure functional to pure art, and every object fits somewhere along that continuum,” he explained. “The closer to the artistic end, the less functionality the object has, except for people to look at it and think about it. On the other end, there is pure functionality: you can use a bowl for fruits or a mug for your coffee, but it also has a shape and a colour; something to look at, too.”
In his long artistic life, Cohen has worked in many different mediums, creating sculptures from metal and wood, but clay is his material of choice. “Clay is a wonderful thing to work with. It feels good in my hands,” he said. “And it could be found anywhere in the world. Here, in British Columbia, in Europe, in China, in Japan, in Latin America.”
In the past decade, Cohen has won a couple of month-long residencies as a clay master, one in China, another in Japan. “The clay is different everywhere. Its chemically different compositions provide different visual and textile effects in the objects made of it,” he said. “It could be the same colour when unfired and painted with the same glaze, but, if made from different types of clay, after firing, the resulting pottery would look and feel different.”
Cohen travels a lot and, everywhere he goes, he searches for the local potters and their art, trying to absorb as much as he can from the various traditions. “As clay is different everywhere, so the traditions are different, but, in most of the places I have visited, the history of pottery goes back thousands of years,” he said. “People made things of clay in ancient China and ancient Mexico. Not so much in Europe – it had to import the technique from China, but it is still very old. The only place in the world I know that didn’t have pottery is here, in British Columbia. The local clay is wonderful, but the indigenous people here didn’t use it. They made everything out of wood. Only in the past 200 years, since the Europeans settled in B.C., pottery has been on the rise.”
To a degree, Cohen is a local clay pioneer, like other local potters. It is important to him that everything he creates is unique, that no object repeats another. He is as much a craftsman as an artist, which makes even his utilitarian bowls and vases works of art. His woven sculptures are really one of a kind; they are akin to wicker baskets, but made of clay.
“Some of them look like vases, but there are holes,” he said with a smile. “You can’t pour water inside. No functionality except to look at and admire. It is a new technique for me. I always try something new, always think: what is another way to use clay?”
This particular technique looks like ceramic ribbons lying on top of one another, or interwoven. “Clay is forgiving,” Cohen said. “You can make all kinds of different shapes from it, but, even so, it took me awhile to develop this technique. I had to figure out how to overcome the softness of clay and how to combat gravity, so the upper layers wouldn’t squish the lower ones.”
He cuts clay in strips and then twists them in various ways to create the dynamic shapes. “Sometimes, I repeat the same shape multiple times, sometimes make them different,” he said. “I dry them before firing, so the whole sculpture doesn’t collapse under its own weight. Sometimes, I make two or three layers together. Other times, every layer is dried separately, and then they come together in the kiln, held to each other by the glaze. Once or twice, I made the full sculpture before firing, and you could see the lower layers sort of melting together.”
Unlike a painter, who sees the immediate result of his labours, a potter doesn’t see what he creates until it’s fired in the kiln. Cohen fires every piece twice, first without glaze, the second time with glaze.
“Once a piece goes into the kiln, you never know what will come out,” he said.
Cohen makes his pieces in bunches before firing them all together. “I have three large kilns in my studio on Cortes Island,” he said. “I fire them four or five times a year. One is electric, for lower temperatures. It is the first one I use. Whatever I’ve made by the time I fire the kilns goes in. Then everything has to cool down before I paint on the glaze and use the other two kilns – one for regular glaze, for the smooth surfaces, and another with salt for the special textures.”
This and That opened on Jan. 9 and continues until Jan 25.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].