Medium and Message in the Work of Charles Birnbaum

by

Thomas Piché Jr.

Director, Daum Museum of Contemporary Art

 

Charles Birnbaum’s ceramic sculptures are abstract but suggestive. The reductive monochrome of his extravagant assemblages forestalls the easy anecdote of their clearly marine inspiration. The whiplash of the tentacle, the menace of the nettle, the shadowy interior of the conch could allude to nautical dangers. But the delight of their detailed surfaces, the comfort of their scale and whimsical constructions seduce the beholder into admiration. Birnbaum evokes antiquity in many of his titled works, named after Greek gods and monsters long associated with the allures and perils of the sea and its farers: Oceanus, Tethys, and Proteus; Odysseus, Scylla and Charybdis; Polyphemus and Echidna. Their histories affect the artist’s aesthetic choices, not to illustration, but to atmosphere and insinuation: A souvenir shell held to the ear roars familiarly; we trust the cave inside is vacated, no longer a residence prematurely prized from the shore.

A white porcelain teacup by Charles Birnbaum has sat on the windowsill above my kitchen sink for the past few months. I’ve studied it several times a day during this period. It stands about three and one-half inches high and has the physical features typically associated with a vessel of its kind, including a gently swelling body, a resolute lip, and a sturdy handle curved to accept an index finger. What is atypical are the four small, tapering appendages that descend from its flat base and lift its body up, off the sill by a good three-quarters of an inch. These legs radiate around the base at regular intervals and provide a secure footing for the whole. In their descent, they echo the convex curve of the cup’s body, and call to mind the tips of the arms of a starfish. They have a markedly animate quality, physically positioned as if in concerted and purposeful advance. The rest of the components of the cup enforce this impression: the body is not centered; rather, it seems to sway back in counterpoint to its forward stride. The encircling lip of the vessel forms not a circle, but an egg-shaped oval, whose narrow end is placed to emphasize the sense of directional movement. Even the handle is adhered to the side of the cup in a way that suggests kinetic flow.

The planar surface of the teacup is as animated as is its form. A variety of embossed patterns covers the vessel completely, both inside and out. Predominant among them is a small, repeat pattern resembling cowry shells, which encompasses the exterior of the bowl. The interior of the cup and exterior of the lip bear a closely described ridge pattern. The ribbing is echoed in a reduced scale on the handle and feet. Because all the patterning is dimensional, the surface of the cup actively engages ambient light. This results in a heightened impression of movement and energy. One senses that one could command the cup to bring itself and its contents to a waiting drinker.

This untitled teacup, an example of Birnbaum’s functional ceramic ware, encapsulates many of the characteristics that are central to his ambitious and singular sculptural program. The discrete cup could easily be a small segment of one of his complex assemblages. Its organic motility (surprising and worrying), its quickened form and surface, and the prominence of its interior volume are all traits shared with his more considered sculptures.

 

The cup’s particular medium and method of fabrication also figure in this examination. It is made of porcelain, or porcelain paperclay, to be more exact. This is a porcelaneous clay body to which a mixture of water and cotton paper fiber has been added. The addition of this pulp makes the medium stronger, more flexible, and plastic. Paperclay expands the range of possibilities for working with ceramics by allowing the artist a greater control over the element of time. Rather than having to accommodate the drying rates of the typical clay body, which has a tendency to crack and shrink while drying, or lose surface detail through handling, paperclay allows for an adaptable and cumulative process. The artist can easily break apart and reassemble unfired sculptures while the clay is still wet, or he can add plastic elements to dried forms, or can combine multiple dried components through rewetting and a joining slip. During the firing, the paper pulp burns out, leaving a dynamic ceramic form that retains all the desired properties of porcelain—whiteness, thinness, strength, and translucency.

Standing at a waist-high counter in his Long Island City studio, Birnbaum prepares a section of clay with a rolling pin, as one might engage dough when forming a pie shell. Although some ceramists use paperclay on the potter’s wheel or for slip casting, Birnbaum is a hand builder. He assembles his multipart sculptures primarily with forms composed of thin slabs of clay. Once a slab is rolled out, shapes are cut from it using a sharp knife and a cardboard mailing tube as a straight edge. Cut edges are beveled and scored, and the slab is manipulated to describe the desired dimensional shape, the form secured with a smear of adhesive slip.

This is descriptive of the basic technique. The baroque complexity of the sculptures Birnbaum has created during the past few years proposes a wider range of demanding procedures. Although he strives to push his ceramic volumes and surfaces to the limits of the medium’s capabilities, the artist works for a careful balance between patting, pushing, and pulling with both his fingertips and fabricated tools. Birnbaum might employ a gentle touch to swell a form with a wooden spatula or a metal spoon. Or the myriad patterns that enliven his ceramic surfaces can be achieved by simply impressing a textured fabric into the slab while rolling it out. But Birnbaum also employs an inventive and layered repertory of hard-edged objects to create his repeat patterns, including rasps, threaded bolts, knobbed forms, wooden juicers, dowels, and scoops. By subsequently stretching and pulling the clay, he is able to vary literal patterns and make them expansive and irregular. Birnbaum strives to avoid the fussy and over-worked, and even though he employs a completely artisanal process, he is determined to eliminate any readable traces of the artist’s expressive hand.

For Birnbaum, who was trained in traditional ceramic procedures, the discovery of paperclay felt like the discovery of a new medium. He credits the material with increasing his visual vocabulary in ways that were unplanned, and sees the evolution of his work as being largely material based. Although he sets out on a general course, Birnbaum lets the clay take him where it wants to go, and he is happy to embrace the extemporaneous journey. The material has allowed him to express ideas that he feels were unbidden, to go beyond the production of mere physical objects to the expression of physical phenomena in sculptural form. It has been a freeing odyssey, and he is still exploring, expanding his knowledge and skill as a hand builder while remaining open to the happy accident as he steers among a shoal of possibilities.