I had not previously been aware of Brian Ransom’s ceramic works until I came upon a recent series yesterday at Couturier Gallery. More’s the pity. I have missed out. The artist—and, not incidentally, musician—has been exhibiting widely for more than three decades, though not in Southern California since his last exhibit with Couturier in 1999. I found his “Whistling Water Vessels” to be utterly enchanting—and I use that word advisedly: they have a magical, ritualistic, even elemental quality that transcends their purely visual aesthetic satisfactions.
Ceramics, of course, are elemental by nature: the act of their creation combines earth, air, water, and fire. They require the action of the human hand, whose touch is evident both on their surface and within. At their simplest level they are vessels, as we are, fundamentally, ourselves, with resonant spaces contained within their walls. Their art and technology both are ancient, an essential to the evolution of our species, a profoundly necessary accompaniment to our human history. All of which is relevant to Ransom, whose research has taken him to Asia and Europe as well as to the pre-Columbian Americas, and whose current series is inspired by the jarros silvantes, the whistling jars that were created and used by ancient cultures on this continent.
Ransom, Brian, Snake Women, 2014
15" x 10" x 6", soda vapor fired stoneware
(all images courtesy of Couturier Gallery, Los Angeles)
The works in Ransom’s current series are composed of a pair, sometimes a triad of vessels, elegantly formed to echo—though without duplicating—each other’s shape, and conjoined at the base by a hollow passage between them. They are designed to hold water so that, when lifted and tilted, the expulsion of air from one chamber to the next creates the “whistle”—hardly a whistle, but a deeply resonant tone that speaks to us in a voice that seems to emanate from some ancient spirit contained within. Each work is embellished around the top with tiny, naked figures engaged in playful, explicitly erotic acts—the most primitive, essential and instinctual of all human activities. The female figures, “muses” as the artist calls them, are represented in natural human form…
The males, for the most part unabashedly priapic…
... are represented with a
row of horns that reach from the back of the head to the base of the spine,
giving them an alien, slightly satanic appearance.
Detaill, Spurge, 2014
15" x 9" x 5", soda vapor fired stoneware
Detail, Serenade, 2015
30" x 10" diam, soda vapor fired stoneware
Ransom, Brian, Pandora's Box, 2015
22" x 11" x 6", soda vapor fired stoneware
What these figures add is not only a contemporaneity, but also an element of sheer, exuberant joy to the otherwise profound and resonant experience of Ransom’s creations, whose glazes are as earthy as the acts in which the figures are engaged, and indeed as the medium in which they are created. It should be noted that this current series of musical vessels joins an existing veritable orchestra of ceramic instruments made earlier by Ransom—strings, horns, percussions—with which the artist creates hauntingly strange and beautiful musical compositions that evoke the primeval landscape of early human life. (I heard only a part of one such composition at the gallery; other samples can be heard online at the artist’s website). The experience, as I said before, both visual and aural, is utterly enchanting. And not to be missed.