George McCauley: Neo-Byzantine Redneck

Article excerpt

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GEORGE McCAULEY PROUDLY REFERS TO HIMSELF AS an iconoclast. He likes fine art and old country music. Upon entering his home, he removes his cowboy boots and replaces them with embroidered Chinese slippers. It was fitting that an exhibition of his work, titled Neo-Byzantine Redneck, included displays of plastic kitsch alongside a DNA sample in a reliquary constructed of wood and copper, with a glass vial holding unspecified bodily fluid. There were also mixed media collages and funky but finely crafted furniture. Despite his widely varied choices of media, though, the heart of the show was the clay.

McCauley's career in clay spans nearly 40 years, and his new body of work represents a playful exploration of this American artist's Greek heritage. Here he has found a novel approach to some of the themes he has worked with for many years, including a joyful sensuality, often portrayed by female figures cavorting with unusual animals. As he approaches 60, McCauley's personality and work retain a youthful energy.

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For many of the pieces, he has mined his richly aesthetic religious tradition, the Greek Orthodox Church. Using traditional Orthodox ornamental forms while refuting the Church's dualism between spirit and matter, he celebrates the divine within the earthly. The one-dimensional religious figures that characterise Byzantine art appear flat and stiff, with sombre expressions. Usually in the form of paintings, the figures are delineated without any lifelike appearance; their purpose is to inspire spiritual contemplation in the viewer. McCauley turns the style inside out with his offbeat, three-dimensional figures of clay that exude animation and sensuality. While not depicting the Greek god Eros, McCauley definitely invokes him with this work.

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In most cases, these figures inhabit large shrines that hang on the wall. The meticulously crafted wood and metal shrines frame, in pleasant contrast, casual, free-spirited sculptural forms made of soda-fired earthenware. Naked human figures embrace each other as well as a variety of non-human figures and miniature vessels. (Even in these purely decorative pieces, McCauley is compelled to include a large number of thrown pots. "I love making them in this miniature size," he says, adding that years of doing this has helped him to improve his "real" pots.) Snakes figure prominently, as do some creatures that look as if they've just crawled from the primordial ooze. Turning on its head the biblical symbolism of the snake as evil, McCauley has made large fat squirming snakes that are undeniably sexual, in a lighthearted way. The pieces are a literal embrace of life's messiness, affirming even some of its creepier elements.

The sculptures' surfaces are as casual as their forms. The artist's process of using washes and slips, either with or without a glaze, yields a skin rather than a coating. The use of natural-looking clay with a reddish brown finish in several pieces evokes the biblical notion of humans made from the earth. A couple of others have striking blue-green finishes resulting from a stoneware glaze that achieves a unique appearance when soda-fired at earthenware temperatures. Like much of McCauley's earlier work, these pieces are reminiscent of the folk arts. As his friend the late Rudy Autio put it, "George's admirable handling of the material has a spontaneity, and the rich loose glaze adds to the work's fresh look." McCauley met Autio at the Archie Bray Foundation, in Helena, Montana, where he spent two years (1993-95) as a resident artist. Like many former Bray residents, McCauley decided to make his permanent home in Helena.

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Autio's co-founder of the Bray, Peter Voulkos, also influenced McCauley. The two Greek American potters hit it off when Voulkos taught a workshop at the University of Georgia, where McCauley was a graduate student during the 1970s, and they maintained a friendship until Voulkos's death. …