2003, Breaking the traditional mold. Line Ulekleiv. Katalog Bomuldsfabriken

Breaking the traditional mould

With an uncompromising renunciation of giving a semblance of conciliation, art holds onto conciliation in the midst of the unreconciled, as a true perception of an epoch in which the real potential for utopia – that the earth, in line with the development of productive forces, could be a paradise here and now – in its most incisive form is united with the potential for total disaster.[1]


Torbjørn Kvasbø (b. 1953) has become well known for his plastic and monumental ceramic works, which, with their abstract idiom, come close to breaking out of the connotative sphere of more tradition-bound ceramics. The artist’s point of departure is expressive art that emphasises emotions through formal deformation.

Spontaneity and physical action were two key terms in American abstract expressionism from approximately 1945-1960. Jackson Pollock’s drip-paintings, for example, signal a dynamic chaos with traces of human presence, among other things in the form of the artist’s own handprints. The situational element in Jackson ’s painting process – he stood in the middle of or circled around his own paintings while the canvas was flat on the floor – united gestural layers, dripping paint and opaque overpainting into a rhythmic whole covering a large surface. The virile cowboy – with a penchant for metaphysics – could occupy the vast deserted prairie like no one else. This artistic vocabulary has often been linked with ideological concepts subject to the economic laws of capitalism. But abstract expressionism can also be seen as an attempt to salvage the singular – an attempt to give the works of art an essentially unique rather than a replaceable integrity. Purely sensory paintings were given an autonomous and utopian dimension in which abstraction was a decisive element. The figurative element was to be removed from the painting to ensure that it would not contribute to the rest of society’s conceptological assault on the figure. [2] In the words of Mark Rothko:  ”With us the disguise must be total. The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.”[3]

This reaction to an undesired pattern may also apply to Kvasbø’s practice. The chronological contact with abstract expressionism is chronologically maintained through the American ceramic artist Peter Voulkos (1924-2002), an important pioneering figure who was greatly inspired by this school of art. In the 1950s Voulkos created a clear ceramic-art parallel to the gestural and energetic practice of the painters, without focusing on essence. He crossed boundaries, working with unpredictable ceramic sculptures whose composite forms displayed both the inside and the outside at the same time.[4] Voulkos’ distinctive and disharmonious visuality is reflected in Kvasbø – who uses a similarly jagged idiom based on the accentuation of surfaces, plastic treatment and traces left in the clay by firing.

Many people automatically link ceramic expression to the antiauthoritarian, alternative culture concepts prevailing in the applied arts of the 1970s, in which Kvasbø played a pivotal role in the Norwegian context. In one sense the art of that period represented a time-consuming protest against industrial design, depersonalisation and mechanisation. Closeness to the material was to be safeguarded by producing utility articles in which the human hand had not been erased from the clay, but bore witness to their authenticity. This strategy was an attack on the prevailing market logic, which was seen as sidelining beauty, aesthetic value and transcendence. This radical ideology also emphasised the importance of international orientation, and the work of Kvasbø and his circle was characterised by an orientation in style and to some extent content towards the Far East, especially Japan, China and Korea. This was the inspiration behind Kvasbø’s large, wood-fired anagama kiln in Venabygd, based on ancient Asian traditions. A broad global orientation has permeated all his work, both his own creative production and his teaching.

Kvasbø’s production has changed in character since the 1970s, progressing from functional utility articles to objects disassociated from their use, in which reminders of their utility function have become increasingly faint. His production technique has shifted from throwing via turning/building to pure building.[5] For a period his work was inspired by old utility articles such as troughs, chests and traditional wooden food boxes (“tine”). Ambivalent transitions between open and closed forms paved the way for the more explicitly abstract and expressive objects of the 1990s, in which the process and concrete action were stressed. The formats have gradually increased to reach the monumental proportions of some of his current works, a number of which are more than two metres high. A liberated relationship to clay displayed through giving life and movement to the material is typical of his work.

Today’s general cultural situation has a less clear-cut polarity, making it harder to grasp than in the 1970s. Can we still talk about an alternative culture strategy in connection with Kvasbø’s recent, more monumental and more indeterminate works?

Fragmentation and the aesthetics of presence

These new, monumental objects seem imbued with traumatised corporality, aggression and fragmentation. Torso-like figures are more likely to connote pain and mutilation than the classical and heroic sculptural tradition. Fragmented forms, cracks and irregularities are intensified in the firing process. Penetrations and ambiguous surfaces often imply a damaged condition. Forms bend and twist organically, as if taken straight from Nature.

Their dimensions and their proximity to the observer make the forms pulsate, which may be perceived as sinister – both familiar and fundamentally alien. Transitions between something conciliatory and something brutally fragmented constitute a recurring theme. Kvasbø wants these objects to communicate, to act as catalysts, triggering a situation in which we are both present and on our way to another, possibly more diffuse place.

First and foremost Kvasbø’s objects are physically present. The material conditions for abstraction are more obvious in ceramic art than in painting, and it is governed by more rules resulting from by technical barriers. Challenging these rules creates tension. The ceramic process is long and sometimes offers resistance: What happens to the expressive touch when the moment is drawn out? The end result can only be seen when the work is finished, after long periods of waiting. The relative unpredictability of the process is accentuated by tight control.

With the help of the clay I can say what I want. I can be completely private and yet the result will still be universal. I am an aggressive person, aggressive towards everything – not least the system we live in. By nature I am at odds with things. (…) The clay in itself is dumb, but it is capable of receiving any message whatsoever and thus helps me to speak.[6]

The underlying romanticising of the artist as a necessary counterweight to the system may well reflect both the iconic abstract-expressionist type of artist and the politically committed artists of the 1970s. Stereotypical ideas about artists tend unfortunately to tell us nothing about their artistic production. The linguistic nature of a work of art and its expressive visuality may well be a more relevant approach to take.

A plastic method

Kvasbø’s objects are naked, raw and jagged, and they are, in a sense, a kind of pure materiality. Swelling and eruptive, they hover around a violent bursting point. This underlying violent thread running through the alternating passages of strong horror and sensitivity in the material is indispensable if we view Kvasbø’s production as making something despite the possible impoverishment of aesthetic and meaningful expression. The world is overflowing with things we do not need. Kvasbø’s deliberate ”ugliness” is an attempt to formulate a different kind of object that relates directly to the expressive tradition, in which form and psychological content are merged.

Metaphorical deposits make possible an action in each object. Disharmonious forces and antitheses debate their own standpoints as problematic and contradictory expressions. Nevertheless, it is primarily emotional discharges that prevail; according to Kvasbø every piece is an embodiment of feelings. The expressive approach reformulates the ritual utility tradition for ceramics, instilling it with greater friction and complexity. The material becomes a tool for achieving an expression which, despite its formal abstraction, seems pregnant with meaning.

This abstraction builds on previous phases, incorporating them rather than leaving them behind. The continuity in Kvasbø’s production may indicate the necessity of the ongoing abstraction. The works become actual experiences in themselves. The objects are not necessarily descriptive pictures of Nature, but are in themselves Nature, through the elastic, tactile and down-to-earth idiom of the clay, created by the wearing down of the bedrock. In a way, therefore, abstraction is always relative. It becomes a way of safeguarding potential openings for the observer. Abstraction allows for ambiguity, without exercising violence or being reactionary. These artistic statements address conflicts between Nature and civilisation, destruction and construction. Decay and chaos are incorporated into the creative process, in which a critical and volcanic struggle between growth and decay is fixed at different stages. Kvasbø’s objects are freer than his applied ceramics of thirty years ago. They can increasingly be understood in terms of the discourse of visual art. Despite, or even because of this, we can argue that in intention and attitude they perform a continuous problematising function of meaning that reflects opposing forces – of a human or political nature.

The exhibition at Bomuldsfabriken Kunsthall includes a number of completely new works – that are immediately striking as something new in Kvasbø’s work. With their glossy and strongly coloured glazes, they seem almost baroque, Venetian and seductive. Formally, many of the objects remain within a kind of torso tradition, but they also conjure up associations with cocoons and masks. At times the thin, rolled-out layers of porcelain that shrink during firing give the impression of a protective yet brittle layer of skin covering an underlying pillow-like mass. This cover is, however, worn away in parts; pieces of the stuffing stick out as from a wound, revealing gloomier underlying structures. Kvasbø emphasises the composite interplay between internal and external forces; those which conceal and those which reveal. The disguise is thus both open and complete.

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Estetisk teori, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, Oslo, 1998, p. 66.

[2] Lars Fr. H. Svendsen, Kunst – En begrepsavvikling, Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, 2000, p. 59.

[3] Loc.cit.

[4] See for example: Rose Slivka, Karen Tsujimoto, The Art of Peter Voulkos, Kodansha International/The Oakland Museum, 1995.

[5] Mai Lahn-Johannessen, ”Mellom kunsthåndverk og billedkunst – Keramikeren Torbjørn Kvasbøs kunstneriske virke”, Kunsthåndverk, no. 2 2002, Oslo, p. 29.

[6] Lotta Jonson, ”Lerans universum”, interview with T. Kvasbø in Form, no. 4 2001, Stockholm , p. 64.