Raucous Zen: The Ceramics of Ted Saupe

By Haviland, Many | Ceramics Art & Perception, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Raucous Zen: The Ceramics of Ted Saupe


Haviland, Many, Ceramics Art & Perception


TED SAUPE IS A MODERN ARCHITECT OF THE ARCHAIC VESSEL. His earthenware and stoneware pots are neither Doric nor Ionic and are certainly not in the vein of Frank Gehry's deconstructionist form, yet they imbue a strong primitive sense of the weathered, raw and ancient. Their energetic roughness harkens back to a prehistoric time of unrefined and utilitarian wheel throwing and hand building, yet with a modern sensibility for raucous graffiti surface decoration.

Saupe's inspiration stretches across three millennia. He has been a professional ceramics consultant on ancient Minoan excavation projects on the Mediterranean island of Crete. His early work distinctly reflects this interest in archaeology. He explains that phase as directly inspired by Minoan sea culture, with drawings on the surface which evolve into sculpture on the vessel. "I treat the surface of the pot as I would a primed canvas--a kind of three dimensional drawing with both high and low relief sculptural additions." His large pots reflect this idea of relief work on the clay (Tangled Up In ... and Seeing Double).

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The Minoans were famous for their carefree lifestyle, which is clearly reflected in their art. Although their jars and figurative faience objects were contemporary with Egyptian sculpture's rigid hierarchical form and huge scale, the Minoans around 1800-1500 BCE created freer flowing organic designs on their pottery which were often motifs for their maritime activities. One famous example of this Cretan style is the Octopus Vase from Palaikastro, c. 1500 BCE, in the Archaeological Museum in Herakleion. It boldly depicts a bulbous smiling octopus with waving tentacles sucking the roundness of the vessel. Saupe cites this masterwork as a specific influence upon his own vibrant style. His surface drawing always dominates and is distinctly integrated into the form. It is so spontaneous and subliminal that our eyes are immediately drawn to each mark and can not rest until we scan the entire vessel, wondering how to solve the enigma of such contrasting images. To say that they are surrealistic would be going too far. They are juxtapositions of variants, of adaptations of ideas from a creative mind.

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Sometimes his drawings can turn into porcelain bars or lines of architectural structure, skeletal remains of an ancient dwelling (Deliverer). The delicate framework seems to be all that is left of a time-worn site of ritual or domestic activity. Although Saupe has lately moved away from this dwelling or palace deconstruction, these are his private excavations from the past. These conglomerates of clay remind one of how Jericho or other Neolithic towns may have looked, with tiny windows and lookout terraces connected by rooftops, all clustered together behind high walls. When we view Saupe's vessel architecture, we are reminded that the Minoans built the labyrinthine foundation for the palace of King Minos, making us conjure up thoughts of ancient games and rituals, such as those of Ariadne and Theseus. Saupe's oval and circular 'outside walls' are covered with refreshing and playful drawings, brushed, etched or penned onto remnants of deteriorating form.

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Saupe describes his surface drawings as "autobiographical graffiti dredged from my subconscious'. But this graffiti is not as easily readable as Banksy on a brick wall or Basquiat's urban imagery on canvas. Saupe's cartoons become iconic sign language. Just as Linear A, the most ancient script and language of the Minoans, has never been deciphered (Linear B was deciphered in 1952), one wonders if Saupe's signs can ever really be understood. They are so fascinating that the viewer feels compelled to formulate something from it, so let's attempt it.

Saupe's illustrations are literally time on a jar--a surface story of lines and scratches which preserve the bountiful ripe fruits of memory, both long past and spur of the moment. …

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