An Orgy of Form: Charles Birnbaum’s Porcelain Sculpture
Art Critic, Art Historian, Curator, and Author
Editor, Metalsmith Magazine
Associate Editor, American Ceramics
Art thrives on tension, on the fine balance of opposites. Without this counterpoise, forms become lax and engagement is lost. Such a bountiful struggle lies at the core of Charles Birnbaum’s sculpture. His work embodies a number of dualities, both formal and personal, that boost its vitality and insure viewer interest. In Birnbaum’s recent work, especially, we find a compelling showdown between his desire for abandon and for control.
Birnbaum’s creative evolution has been swift, fueled by his quest for wholeness and a professed aim “to reclaim my own identity as an artist and a man.” Although he studied ceramics at the Kansas City Art Institute in the mid-1970s, and pursued clay in his spare time for two decades, Birnbaum did not fully devote himself to the medium until 2004. Prior to this, he continued discovering and developing his own unique style while working full-time in a variety of jobs. But his most recent job as municipal and corporate bond trader was so all-consuming that he had to sublimate his drive to create art totally. In 2002, he met his current wife who recognized that art was his first language and that he was slowly strangling from the constant effort of having to silence his voice. Through her support, he found the means and courage to become a full-time artist. Two years later, he moved to New York City, bought a kiln, opened a studio, and began working with clay fulltime, creating as he put it, “all the art I’d been sculpting in my mind for the past decade.”
Newly ensconced in his studio, Birnbaum started to produce functional ware: cups, pitchers, teapots. While his pots and cups were accomplished and well-received, he soon bridled against the dictates of function. Fussing over the fit of a lid or the pour of a lip was not his cup of tea. He defied the demands of such utilitarian forms by making irregular sets with mismatched cups. Avoiding repetition, each piece became an adventure in expressive form. Along with the varied stance and anatomy of the vessels, Birnbaum allowed himself total indulgence in surface texture and pattern.
It was not long before these porcelain vessels grew more abstract, with formal embellishment usurping utility. In 2005 Birnbaum resolved to create totally abstract sculptures without the mandates of use. It was also then that he began working in paper-based clay and incorporating other media into his structures. Paper pulp porcelain proved to be the ideal medium for his ambitious sculpture, allowing Birnbaum to work wet on dry, as well as providing for greater strength and flexibility upon firing.
Associations aside, Birnbaum thinks foremost as a sculptor, declaring, “I am interested in forms.” This commitment to sculptural values is borne out by the absence of color in his work. Birnbaum has never made colorful ceramics. Indeed he has even renounced clear glazes in his most recent pieces because he believes that an unglazed surface allows the clay to breathe and absorb light in an entirely natural way. While he controls the hue and reflectivity of his works, he is uninhibited when it comes to surface pattern, which has become his artistic signature. Starting with wet clay slabs, he presses them against various rough fabrics or objects. No area is left smooth; every surface is inflected. These highly textured parts are then enlisted to construct his complex compositions.
Birnbaum’s earliest abstract works are marked by undulating and entwined elements engaged in formal intercourse. Pod-like vessels with nibbed or rippling walls are stacked and layered. Volumes alternately spew and engulf, with some protruding while others buckle in. Tendrils and tentacles snake about, tickling or penetrating the gaping holes. These tapered appendages add movement to the assembly, a motility that is essential to Birnbaum’s aesthetic. The interplay of monochrome forms stages a drama of hide and seek, conceal and reveal, a recurring theme throughout Birnbaum’s art.
These works are also marked by an androgynous nature, as they are both assertive and yielding, aggressive and pliant. Birnbaum openly acknowledges his feminine side and feels the strongest affinity to women sculptors, foremost Lee Bontecou, whose assemblages partake of similar features. When referencing the “female” in him, Birnbaum cites Carl Jung’s theories of archetypes and the balance of opposing character traits. In Jungian terms, Birnbaum has embraced the anima, or complementary female archetype in men, and has fostered androgyny in his being and his art.
With enticing volumes and commingling forms, these sculptures have a decidedly erotic air. The sexual dimension remains implicit, however, and there is no overt reference to human anatomy. Nonetheless, issues of sexuality inform Birnbaum’s work and his formal explorations parallel his personal imperatives. As his sculptures play out a tango of give and take, exposure and secrecy, they also address his views about sexual identity and intimacy as the “intersection between public and private, between concealed and revealed.” In the end, Birnbaum’s licentious forms strive for the physical and imaginative arousal of the viewer. Through sculptural double entendres, Birnbaum seeks to “seduce viewers into a subconscious engagement with the works,” and ultimately with themselves.
In Birnbaum’s most recent sculptures, the dynamism and play of forms has grown more operatic. Using fewer hollow vessels, he assembles dense groupings from textured slabs that teem and writhe in unison. Like a fire with flames licking the air, the pieces seem to flick up and subside before our eyes. Although the separate clay elements are each endowed with a life of their own, they still cohere into unified wholes with strong directional thrust. These latest works are composed to be savored in the round, and Birnbaum has insured such inclusive viewing by setting them on rotating bases. From any vantage point, they present an impressive choreography of disparate parts, a study in tangible motion.
The tactile tangle of porcelain forms calls to mind a Bacchic revelry or orgy. Deriving from ancient Greek and Roman rites, orgies are occasions of unrestrained indulgence, designed to satisfy extravagant cravings. Indeed, Birnbaum’s creative appetite, stoked by years of containment and patience, has finally emerged to demand its fulfillment. To our delight, he has found an engaging form to express his irrepressible passion for animate clay.