Archive: Issue No. 126, February 2008

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John Bauer

John Bauer

John Bauer at art b.
by Lloyd Pollack

When I heard that Anthropology, an American craft chain store with 100 outlets throughout the USA, had placed an order for over R100 000 with ceramic artist John Bauer, I called him up and went to meet him at his home.

Ambling down the tree-lined streets of lower Claremont, I was struck by the spruce front gardens, flower beds and shrubs. But this spick and span fizzled out abruptly outside John's front gate where trim lawn yielded to unruly thickets of weed. In this quiet haven, the hullabaloo of green, lavender and ochre adorning John's house, seemed like an eructation at a tea party. The brood of boisterous, terracotta troglodytes whooping it up on the garden wall, could certainly face charges of disturbing the peace.

A lanky, long-haired young man, attired as if roused by a fire alarm, answered the bell, and conducted me into a lounge where bowls crowded every available surface, swamping tabletops, swarming over sofas and cascading over the floor. Everywhere there were choked ashtrays, dishes scummed with the remnants of the day before yesterday's lunch, socks, toast, underpants and apple cores. Like a bag lady, I sank cheerfully into the squalor, turned on my tape recorder and started the interview.

I soon realised that John possessed no protective social armour. He replied to my every question with breath-taking candour, but it was only when I heard him declare that only future generations would be capable of understanding his work, that it would grace the world's greatest museums, command stupendous prices, and inspire intense scholarly endeavour, that I asked myself whether he could be that rare phenomenon, the genuine Outsider artist.

Like all Outsiders, John remains incarcerated within his psyche, the prisoner of his own fantasies and obsessions. His art unleashes purely private urges and instincts which expend themselves elaborating a personal mythology. Over the past six years he has distilled this subjective inner vision, this saga of the self, in over 4,250 porcelain bowls in which intricate figurative designs are executed in a crisp low relief technique. Each bowl is numbered, and the entirety form an enormous cycle in which the same themes and motifs recur. Each bowl comments on every other bowl, and collectively the suite forms an immense, interlocking apparatus of visual reference and cross-reference. What John has created is an entire cosmology, a parallel universe.

John MacGregor, an authority on outsider art, maintains that the creation of a 'vast and encyclopaedically rich alternate world which can provide a place to live in over the course of a lifetime' is typical of this kind of artist. Some of John's motifs epitomise this desire for self-sufficiency: windows, doors, staircases and roofs are tattoed on his figures' flesh, and their skin becomes their sanctuary. Immured within a solipsistic universe of his own fabrication, the outsider cannot address socio-political issues, or reflect on the world around him. His art is perforce baffling and obscure, for its visual language is self-referential, and inimical to conventional themes, genres and idioms.

The potter projects all his ecstasy and despair into a fantasy domain where biographical fact is transfigured into symbol, metaphor, parable and fable. John constantly reappears in the guise of multiple döppelgangers - a classical, Graeco-Roman God; a winged ephebe flying a kite, and an amply bosomed angel with male genitalia. Messianism is rampant. Many alter-ego's present as Christ-like figures, and John hopes that all he has learned about overcoming adversity is embedded in his bowls which should heal their viewers, just as they healed their maker.

All his sweethearts, Renata, Olga, Ida, Anne and Isabelle appear as intrepid Amazons, Circe's and Lorelei or comely, naked lepidopterists netting comets instead of butterflies. Inscrutable forces that could be supernatural powers or subconscious drives, breeze in as perambulating fish or seraphim shorn of limbs.

These scenarios enact themselves in the firmament, and they form a fête galante, for the cast's sole aspiration is to love and be loved in return. This quest for love is the pole around which this fictive world revolves, and it is also rooted in the artist's own harrowing experience of abandonment and loss.

Love vanished from John's life with abrupt and brutal finality when he was six, when his mother and grandmother were run down and killed by a drunken driver. He sites the pursuit of love in the blue yonder, for, when a child loses a loved one, he is told that she has gone to heaven, and the sky is where he imagines that heaven to be. Yearning for a lost parent and a lost childhood paradise also runs through John's recent production, in which doilies serve as backdrop to the figures, introducing nurturing overtones of devoted, maternal house-keeping and needlecraft.

Love is still the leitmotif, but here the accent falls on spiritual, rather than romantic love. The doily's radiating lines, concentric circles and sunburst patterns evoke rose-windows, mandalas and the explosion of rays that accompany divine apparitions in religious painting. The artist intensifies these hints of the miraculous by exploiting both porcelain's ability to reflect light, and the age-old symbolism of light as an outward sign of divinity. The bowls' centres are far paler than their perimeters. The white porcelain peeps through, bouncing back the light, and creating a glowing effect of revelation. In this context, the doily patterns become akin to the veil of Maya, Oriental religion's metaphor for the earthly appetites and attachments that distort our perceptions, blinding us to divine truth. On the bowls we dimly glimpse the figures through this veil as they struggle to overcome temptation and attain mystic insight.

After the tragedy, the family quit Port Elizabeth for Cape Town where John became a latchkey child. No one provided affection, and when his miseries were exacerbated by dyslexia, the void of absence was internalised, and all feeling atrophied.

'I lived so long in utter loneliness, that I forgot what love was,' says John, 'and it was only when I started meeting girls as a teenager, that I rediscovered it.' John's notion of love was shaped by his babyhood experience of a primal union so intense it dissolved all ego boundaries, and his search for love became a search for some surrogate for that envelopment in the mother.

The surrogate became ceramics which John made from the age of 12, partly because this was the only activity at which he felt he excelled, and partly to adorn the stark, new Newlands house in a way associated with his mother and her flair for home-making.

The bowls not only filled the empty house, they also filled the yawning void that opened up around John on his mother's demise, and the voracious urge to fill the vacuum, the empty space where feeling should be, explains the obsessive character of John's enterprise. The artist's self-belief is fanatic, and his commitment to the dream of ceramic perfection is absolute. He spends most days alone in his studio, and his rate of production is frenzied. Work is a compulsion, an obsessive rite of remembrance and commemoration as well as a mechanism of self-affirmation that vanquishes feelings of singularity and rejection, obviating the need to solicit society's approval.

The inspiration issues from somewhere beneath the conscious mind, and wells forth in a jet of vivid and startling images. The physical action of manipulating the clay fills the artist with euphoria, and the bowls perpetuate this fever and exaltation. John's designs are neither prettification nor embellishment, they are art, art as redemption and transcendence; art as revolt against the mainstream; art as the toppling of conventional notions of beauty. Every canon of taste is systematically violated, for there is a flagrancy to John's imagery, a rawness and immediacy that makes it brazenly other.

Dyslexia, an outright refusal to read and write, and an unswerving determination to have no truck with tertiary institution, insulated the artist from cultural indoctrination, enabling him to achieve blazing originality by blurring gender: shuffling the human, the bestial and the divine, and blending distant echoes of old master sacred painting, with vague reminiscences of movies, cartoons, comics and children's books. The result is a stream of passionate and uncouth images that remains untainted by training, tradition or outside influence.

Each bowl is a page in a many-volumed ongoing diary that evaluates the artist's life, records his thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams, and fantasies, and defines what made him the person he is. This is a form of moral accounting, a weighing up of the past and the present, uncovering why what went wrong, went wrong, and why what went right, went right. To my knowledge no other ceramist has used the medium for such ruthless self-scrutiny, and it is this intimate, personal dimension that suffuses John's anarchic creations with an unflinching rigour and truth.

Opens: January 23
Closes: February 7

Vestible Gallery art b.
Bellville Library Centre, Carel van Aswegen Street, Bellville
Tel: (021) 9182301
Fax: (021) 9182083
Hours: Mon - Fri 9am - 8pm, Sat 9am - 5pm