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Written by Monica Arora
71 and still running…that is indeed the best way to describe Ray Meeker’s ongoing show at the beautifully located Nature Morte Gallery, being held from 13 September to 11 October 2014, as the artist’s infallible energy and zest for creating art is amply evident from his myriad creations even at the ripe yet delicious age of seventy-one. Thoroughly inspired by his concerns pertaining to the gradual erosion and eventual destruction of the natural resources and landscapes, and their impact on ecosystems all over the globe, Ray Meeker’s installations are imbued with earthy hues and rustic finish, imparting a whiff of pan-Asian influences, particularly Indian and Japanese.
The repertoire on display can be broadly classified into three categories. The most powerful amongst these are the large ceramic sculptures entitled ‘The Eye of the Needle’ which look dated and antique from certain perspectives and yet are extremely forward in their philosophy conjuring visions of the remains of a civilization eroded by technological and modern influences.
Particularly enamoring are the one-liners etched across the surface of these sculptures in Hindi, English and Chinese, akin to graffiti scrawled along huge walls, along with deliberated created scars, gashes, fissures and blemishes reminding the onlooker of the ravages of time and the uncertainty of a future in a barren landscape, stripped of its original, natural glory.
In his ‘Tea Bowls’, series Meeker very effectively draws the onlooker into visions of a Japanese tea ceremony with a multitude of ceramic bowls placed neatly in individual shelves. Again, tea being the favourite brew of India, the ‘tea bowls’ act like a metaphor depicting the homecoming of a wandering Buddhist mendicant traversing through the far east and finally returning home in India.
Derived from the name of the Japanese kiln anagama, deployed to fire these stunning pots, ‘The Chinnagama’ series is the result of his collaboration with traditional potter T. Palanisamy ‘to explore the painterly potential of wood ash crust, melt and run on the surface of large water pots’. In Ray Meeker’s own words ‘71 Running’ is my fourth show with Nature Morte. This show, like the first three, presents a mix of sculpture and pottery. All is wood-fired from three different kilns. The pots draw on both Indian and Japanese traditions. The sculpture continues the environmental theme that I have worked with for many years—Kurukshetra (2001), Subject to Change Without Notice (2004) and All the Kings’ Horses… (2008).
The Eye of the Needle series. From The Bible, Matt. 19:24. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Read rich man as over-consumption and the kingdom of heaven as a healthy planet. The title suggested itself when I scaled down Passage, the 21 foot high gateway that I made for the Hyatt Hotel in Chennai, leaving a four inch slot as the way through. Monuments textured with fragments of text. Bolt heads, whipsawed scrapes and scars—fissured layers of a tentative future. Man’s ingenuity is at the crossroads of the tipping point. An ingenuity that has come to dominate what the poet Wallace Stevens has described as our “Earth …of physical hugeness and rough enormity,” a “disparate monstrosity, full of solitude and barrens and wilds … that dwarfs and terrifies and crushes.”
Despite his busy schedule, Ray Meeker took out time to answer some questions over an online interview, which best describe Ray Meeker, the artist and the man, his boundless energy and infectious sense of humour.
1. When and where were you born? Tell us something about your early childhood influences. NYC, USA, July 4, 1944. When I was ten, my Little League baseball coach was the Right Reverend Robert Allen Tourigney, minister at the Saint Francis Episcopal Church in Palos Verdes, California, where I served as an acolyte. In one of the few memorable pronouncements that I have carried through my life, the reverend said, “I would rather be lucky than good.” Another came in my third year of architecture school at the University of Southern California. Professor Ralph Knowles said, “Never be afraid to state the obvious.” Mentors both. I am not sure if or how these aphorisms meld, but I have certainly had my share of good luck and I often stumble over the obvious.
2. Which artist(s) inspired you and drew you to art in its myriad manifestations?
Peter Voulkos and early John Mason, with a touch of Clayton Bailey funk.
3. How did you choose sculpture and pottery as an art form? Is it owing to environmental and ecological concerns?
Not because of environmental concerns. The environmental concerns surfaced in 1969. Since I was working with clay I used that medium. And, where did you imbibe the various techniques of glazing, wood-firing, et al that characterize your art? BFA Ceramics, University of Southern California. But mainly self-taught by setting up the Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry, founded with Deborah Smith in 1971.
4. The tea bowls symbolise a huge Japanese and a pan-Asian influence holistically on your work. How is Asia such an important feature in your work?
There is a Far Eastern influence generally in my work. Japanese ceramics had a strong influence in American ceramics in the 50s thru the 70s. Bernard Leach in functional ceramic art and Peter Voulkos in sculpture. Voulkos was also heavily influenced by abstract expressionism. Deborah lived in Japan for two years. She apprenticed with Yamamoto Toshu of Bizen in 1968.
5. ‘The Eye of the Needle’ series of sculptures is covered with interesting graffiti-like inscriptions suggesting that ‘American lifestyle is not up for negotiation’, etc. Please shed some light on the thought behind these creations.
The lifestyle quote is from the American position at the Rio Conference on Global Warming in 1991. The phrase is translated into Hindi and Chinese because India and China emulate that lifestyle, albeit on a modest scale individually, but collectively the impact is huge. The Eye of the Needle is from the Christian Bible: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” or for over-consumption to lead to a healthy planet. 6. Please explain the technique deployed behind the unusual glazing on the pots from ‘The Chinnagama’ series.
The Chinnagama are essentially round jars that are ideal forms for ash deposit/runs. I work with T. Pazhanisamy, a traditional potter from Pudukkotai district in Tamil Nadu. He makes the jars. I fire them in the Chinnagama, which is a small anagama, or ‘cave kiln’ in Japanese. It is fired with wood for between 60 and 70 hours to 1300 degrees centigrade. Ash traveling on the flue gases is deposited on the jars which are then covered with embers that crust, melt and move on the surface of the jar, suggesting planetary landscapes and volcanic intensity.
7. The perfect blend of earthy colours depicting the many shades of mud, earth or soil, lend a distinct identity to all your pieces. Is that deliberate?
Deliberate, yes. Everything is deliberate. There are factors that are not completely under control in a wood firing. There are often surprises, and they are not always happy. In this body of work I have been fortunate. Everything worked. I attach an image where the mud, earth, soil appear quite luminous.
8. 71 and still running…any unfinished pieces/vision/passion that you would like to add to your body of work?
The fourth Eye of the Needle sets a new direction. I am moving away from the highly textured surface to a form of quiet geometric balance. I find a strange and unexpected atmosphere is generated by that piece. I want to discover what makes that work.
9. How is life with Deborah (his wife) in Pondicherry?
When we arrived in 1971, Pondicherry was characterized in the guide books as a sleepy little French town on the Coromandel Coast. It felt like you might bump into W. S. Maugham and Graham Greene reading The Hindu in the old Continental Hotel. There were two cars, a few motorbikes and North Boulevard was still unpaved. The pace was tropical. Very hot. Very humid. Everything closed from one to four in the afternoon. People walked, rode bicycles and cycle rickshaws. There were still a few hand-pulled rickshaws and some of the rickshaw wallas still spoke French. Electricity was spotty. Food was local. Today it is a different place. Now we have all the brands. Even traffic jams, though nothing like the snarls of New Delhi. Deborah preferred the early days. I prefer the more developed, though now would be a good time to stop. I think it was about five years ago, when we got our first air conditioner, that Pondicherry finally became idyllic.
10. Tell us about some of your most interesting experiences while teaching at your studio.
When I look at the nearly 40 years I have been teaching in Pondicherry, I find that there are two distinct periods. BC and AC. That is ‘Before Cell phone’ and ‘After’. Students in the 80s used to book a ‘trunk call’ home every Sunday. That was their only connection to family and friends. They were virtual captives. Generally from urban India, they found parochial Pondicherry lacking. Consequently, Deborah, myself and the GBP became a home away from home for the students. That I think is the basis of the strong GBP community that was demonstrated at the recent “Bridges” show in New Delhi. The brainchild of Bombay-based artist Anjani Khanna, who rounded up fifty former students to come together to put on a show that I think was unique, certainly in India. Quality work. Great variety. And the Stainless gallery—a marvellous setting..
In the AC period, beginning around the turn of the century, a student would be trimming a pot on the wheel with a cell phone in the crook of the neck, talking to their dog back home—a home they never had left. I stopped teaching in 2012. The course goes on, but I am not the teacher. Interestingly, the BC and AC groups have merged. Everyone has a cell phone now. The GBP community continues to grow, strengthening ceramic culture in India.
As the French aristocrat, writer and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery has expounded ‘True happiness comes from the joy of deeds well done, the zest of creating things new.’ That energy and vibrancy defines Ray Meeker’s thought-provoking, yet elegant creations and is perhaps the source for his vision and inspiration that keeps him going or in fact, running!