If By Chance: The Ceramic Art of Randy Johnston

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This past Wednesday marked a changing of the guard at Augustana College’s Eide/Dalrymple Gallery.  Newly arrived for a month-long exhibition are the peculiar and entrancing ceramic vessels of Randy Johnston.

Based in River Falls, Wisconsin (where he has his studio and teaches at a local university), Johnston brings a rather unique perspective to his chosen medium. Indeed, ceramics is conventionally thought of in terms of “function”– more as a “craft” than an “art.” And it is too often neglected by modern and contemporary criticsDSC_0590

But thankfully, Johnston pays no mind to the conventional wisdom. This is partly the result of his art school education; Warren MacKenzie, his ceramics teacher at the University of Minnesota during the late ’60s and early ’70s, had once been “a bad painter in the style of (Piet) Mondrian” and frequently incorporated discussions about great modernist painters and sculptors into his lessons.

As a result, Johnston’s work is as much a the product of artistic expression as it is artisanal craftsmanship. Some of his glazes resemble Jackson Pollock paint drips, and he appears to mold his various pots, plates and vases with a level of formal precision equal to that of Alberto Giacometti.

“All those ideas about art were planted in my brain at a young age,” Johnston said during a talk at the exhibition’s opening ceremony. “I pursued ceramics and loved the idea of working with function, but partly to extend the ideas of function beyond a simple cup, plate or bowl and try to bring some of the ideas of sculpture into my process.”

Johnston is also intimately acquainted with the long and storied tradition of Japanese pottery. In the early seventies, he journeyed to Japan in order to study under the renowned potter Shimaoka Tatsuzo.  Tatsuzo was a major exponent of mingei: a Japanese folk art movement that originated in the ’20s and placed the utmost value on the “hand-crafted art of ordinary people.”

As a result, Johnston, who had grown up steeped in the anti-Japanese prejudices of his parents’ generation, gained a new appreciation of the country’s rich artistic heritage.

“I began to understand the deep traditions associated with these pieces,” he wrote in 1975, “that they were more than simple vessels, that in Japanese culture there are ceremonial aspects to the simplest containers and strong associations with social activity. The vessels were expressions of function and tradition, aesthetics and history.”


In addition to Johnston’s various ceramic vessels, the Eide/Dalrymple exhibition includes a series of the artist’s “gunpowder drawings,” which are, as one might guess, essentially art produced by gunpowder explosions (this technique has been employed most extensively by the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang).

To some, this might seem like an odd side project. However, what unites Johnston’s entire body of work is the element of chance. After placing one his pieces in the kiln or igniting the gunpowder, he has little control over how the finished product will turn out.

The process can be nerve-racking, he said, but “I must like it, because I keep doing it.” []

Matt Housiaux, an intern at JAM Art & Supplies and a junior at Augustana College majoring in Journalism.

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