Eberle ceramic exhibit shows visual language at Society for Contemporary Craft
Edward Eberle is a potter's potter. How else would one explain the expansive retrospective exhibit on display at Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District?
The work of four other ceramic artists — Ian Thomas, Erica Nickol, Jonathan Schwarz and Jeff Schwarz — are on display at the society's Satellite Gallery in the lobby of the Steel Plaza T-Station at One Mellon Center, Downtown, and their works are represented in one of the display cases in the main exhibit.
But make no mistake. Eberle, who at 72 is something of a local legend, and his 40-plus year career are what the show is about, and rightly so. Not only is his work in the permanent collection of Carnegie Museum of Art, among many other institutions, but it also is included in the collection of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum — our nation's showcase of contemporary American craft in Washington, D.C.
A native of Western Pennsylvania (he was born in Tarentum in 1944), Eberle started his art career intending to be a high-school art teacher but realized that he wanted to be a full-time ceramic artist while pursuing a graduate degree in ceramics at Alfred University.
After receiving his masters of fine art in 1972, Eberle taught ceramics at the Philadelphia College of Art and at Carnegie Mellon University for a total of 14 years. In 1985, he opened his first studio in Millvale, just outside Pittsburgh, where he worked as a studio artist in ceramics and drawing for 26 years. His current studio is in Homestead.
It is there that he works in his trademark style, which consists of porcelain pots painted with terra sigillata, a clay-based black slip glaze, which he slings on the pots in quick gestural strokes, defining people, animals, plants and geometric shapes.
This exhibit begins with works from the mid-1980s and follows through to as recently as those completed this year. More than 40 works in all flesh out a stellar career in the most palpable of ways, from the evolution of Eberle's exquisite forms — be they cup, bowl, plate or deconstructed vessel forms — to the fragmented, dreamlike imagery that not only covers his trademark porcelain works, but also a series of works on paper that are equally compelling.
The early works are mostly smaller cups and other vessel forms, with “Chest” from 1993 being one of the first larger pieces.
Here the visitor is afforded the elan of the artist's visual language in the form of a cavalcade of romantic and classical figures that seemingly walk a promenade around the circumference of the piece.
It's worth noting that, when throwing a pot, Eberle does not have a specific idea in mind as to how he will paint it. Instead, he allows the form of the pot and his own freewheeling thoughts to guide him.
“The drawing/painting is not pre-planned; they just ‘happen,' ” Eberle says. “One thing leads to another, as in jazz or free-form dance.”
Though the early pots are a harmonious blend of gestural painting on exquisite forms, the early 1990s brought a decidedly disjointed turn, as evidenced by “Moonrise — a Study of Texture and Form” from 1991 in which Eberle literally deconstructs classical forms in an effort to break through to something completely new.
“Whiplash II Revised” (2005) is one of the last deconstructed works. “The fun of these was the change in form that the fire would bring — the porcelain does get soft in the high fire, so what went into the kiln was not necessarily what came out,” Eberle says.
Later works are equally innovative. “Catching Water, Fetching Breath” (2007) is a bowl form where you can see what Eberle has painted on the inside, as well as the outside, at the same time, from 360 degrees. Something that is very unusual in the history of ceramics.
The exhibit culminates with examples of the artist's most recent mixed-media sculptures, such as the monolithic piece “Time” from 2013, and large paper-thin cylinders, as in “Under the Influence of the Moon” from that same year.
With “Time,” Eberle has produced a work of timeless beauty, which alludes to classical Greek pottery, funerary forms and his own unmistakably classical imagery. Yet, the piece also is decidedly contemporary. Here, as in much of his mid-career work, Eberle's often chaotic scenes are accented with geometric-motif banding. Something that alludes to why this artist is sometimes identified as a postmodern ceramicist.
Curiously, with its crinkled yet columnar shape, Eberle says “Under the Influence of the Moon” “is a return to the first form that any new student in ceramics makes — the cylinder.”
Five more pieces, all cylindrical, tall and paper-thin, bring the exhibit, and the artist, full circle, making for a complete picture of the accomplished career of this contemporary master.
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.