The Precision of Art
Robert C. Morgan
Art Critic, Artist, Art Historian, and Curator
Contributing Editor, Sculpture Magazine
Professor, Graduate School of Fine Arts, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY
Charles Birnbaum studied clay sculpture at the Kansas City Art Institute in the late seventies with Ken Ferguson, one of the most authoritative and inspiring teachers of ceramics in the United States. It was here that Birnbaum became interested in twelfth century Asian ceramics, which included the great celadon potters from the Goryeo Dynasty in the southern tier of Jeolanam-do, Korea. These influences had a extraordinary impact on the gifted young artist. After graduation, he continued to develop his talent, persistently searching for his own style and his own point of view. But in the process of looking for an appropriate balance between his art and the hard facts of life, Birnbaum was pulled into the family business. This eventually led to a series of creative business ventures that were highly successful. But there came a time—an existential moment—where his life took a different turn, in fact, a return to where he had begun.
Birnbaum understood the medium of clay; he knew ceramics. But he also knew that he wanted to transform his reality from what he was doing into something more inspiring and more connected to his own self-searching. And art was his first language, and he was slowly strangling from the constant effort of having to silence his true voice. His motive was clear, but his methods felt somewhat indeterminate. In other words, how does a successful entrepreneur leave his career for a passion removed from the immediate past? How does an artist find himself? Birnbaum began to sculpt again, in search of his identity as a man and as an artist—something that is rarely considered in today’s cynical postmodern world. And he has succeeded.
Birnbaum’s hand-sculpted porcelain art is unique. He is not interested in copying anyone else, but he does spend time looking at historical sources, as all real artists do. He is putting himself in relation to history. He knows that in the field of ceramic sculpture—as in painting or sculpture—there is a long history. Therefore, the artist takes a selective stance in terms of what feels right for him. “Freedom and containment have been the key dualities in my life and my art” says Birnbaum. So how does one exercise this claim for freedom, knowing that freedom without a self-induced focus and concentration may lead to futile results?
As a sculptor working in porcelain, he is fully cognizant of the possibilities of clay; indeed he uses it precisely because, as he notes, it plasticity and malleability engender spontaneity and hold patterns in ways that no other medium can. And he works neither with wheels nor molds; he wants to keep a free hand in it. But this free hand needs a purpose, a direction, and, for a better word, inspiration. As the abstract expressionist painter, Robert Motherwell, once said, “If art is without a romantic core, it is not worth doing.” Technique, of course, is essential, and Birnbaum is forever pushing the limits of his technique. This is critical for an artist because, as Vladimir Nabokov put it, “Art is precision, science is intuition.” When his interlocutor asked the writer if he had made a mistake—that perhaps he meant the opposite—Nabokov furiously repeated: “Art is precision, science is intuition.”
Birnbaum has clearly found his inspiration. I am thinking of a relatively small tabletop sculpture—the scale of most of Birnbaum’s work—in which there is a triumvirate of three shell-like forms. They are organic in structure, but are connected, fused with one another, in something like a corral or a cage configuration. I recall another piece in which tentacles balance some amorphous shape. A pattern of nodules adorns the exterior, giving this phantasmagorical organism a demure elegance like some kind of mystical octopus.
Birnbaum’s porcelains are delicately constructed: He sculpts with his fingers, small tools, and needles. They are filled with complex, marine-like creatures, serpentine lines, and congealed forms. There are both open and closed forms; some have cones that penetrate and escape; others have sinuous tentacles that snake in, around, and through them. Occasionally he employs armatures—steel wires or rods—as holding or balancing devices that give his forms the sensation of being suspended. The forms are encrusted with patterning, many with nodules that repeat like constellations. This suggests a kind of decadence from La Belle Époque in Paris at the close of the nineteenth century—the kind of dark, dream world figuration that entered into the symbolism of Redon and the poetry of Verlaine. Even his exquisite teapots and pitchers have this excessive decadent appearance, an extravagant flamboyance—a bridge to surrealism, reminiscent of the painter Yves Tanguy, or more recently, the fantastic, yet intimate sexualized forms in the sculpture and drawings of Louise Bourgeois.
Birnbaum notes that he has liberated himself from “the safety of containers” and has moved emphatically into sculpture. However, some of his most intriguing works are informed by a kind of hybrid, maybe not in the literal sense of being a vessel, but moving out from that envisioning process: opening and rending the “bellies” of teapots and elongating and twisting their undulating “spouts.” Moreover, the Jungian forms that Birnbaum alludes to in his sculpture point to a universal meaning. We know these ideas had a significant impact on the painter Jackson Pollock in the 40s. Even so, universal concepts and forms cannot be imposed—they can only be implied. The building process is ultimately both organic and structural—a point that Birnbaum clearly understands as evidenced in his supreme clarity and intriguing complexity. All of this offers the viewer a profoundly aesthetic richness as he or she engages in the process of discovering and enjoying Birnbaum’s remarkable sculpture.