Bonnie Lynch: Vessels
Bonnie Lynch’s vessels have fascinated me for more than ten years. I first saw them in Donald Judd’s house in Marfa, Texas, where he had collected and beautifully installed about half a dozen pieces in a room flooded with light. The austere shapes and stark colors had a compelling beauty—an equilibrium of quiet restfulness and a slightly precarious balance. Their matte and smooth surfaces were white or light brown, usually with an irregular dark grey coloration, as if sooty. Lynch began to work with clay more than 15 years ago, using the ancient method of pit firing, a process that she continues to use today.
She grew up on a ranch east of El Paso, and concedes that the wide-open land of the West Texas landscape was a source of her desire to create forms of great clarity and scale. Lynch affirms that “the forms are references to the landscape—to the surface of the dirt, to the stones and boulders, to the spaciousness and variation in the day and night sky, to the intense silence, and to the temperature variations of icy cold, clear, crisp winter mornings, and hot, hot, dry June days. The vessels also make reference to the meditative state of the desert.”
The vessels that Lynch creates are tactile; their surfaces have a seductive texture. The physical labor required to work with clay and firing kilns helps Lynch generate an intense focus based on the synergy of mind and body. She creates her vessels using hand-formed coils, which she layers and subsequently smoothes and thins with a wooden paddle and anvil. A slow, controlled drying period is followed by two firings, during which organic materials such as manure and straw are built up around the vessel and allowed to burn slowly. Much of the firing process is left to chance and the elements. The firings will take different turns, producing unique marks, so that the smoky finishes of her pieces depend entirely on the interaction of clay and fire and the environmental vagaries of wind, temperature and humidity.
Lynch views the lack of predictability in the firing process as a facilitating factor in her work and welcomes the fortuitous effect chance plays. She suggests that she is open to the nuances that occur naturally. “I take notice of them, not actually creating them, but letting them happen. They are an opportunity to go in another direction.” The carbon from the manure and straw leaves large areas of intense, opaque dark grey or black and thin, veil-like touches of lighter shades. Some vessels emerge from the firing entirely white, others all black. These black ones have a particularly seductive quality, with a soft shimmer that is also present in lead or graphite.
The vessels have a distinct, elegant line that can be called handmade perfection. Indeed, Lynch handles shapes and volumes masterfully and achieves that specific quality of uneven evenness and irregular regularity characteristic of the hand. The surfaces are variously smooth or a bit rough, marked by fine hatchings or unsmoothed areas of coils. In a few cases, the surfaces have been deeply scratched. They are never glazed, however. Lynch says, “the glaze completely covers the texture and feel of the actual clay, which I don’t want to lose.”
The vessel form is a constant in her work. Despite the standard functionality of the form, her vessels eschew function and stand clearly as sculptural objects. “My works are always non-functional. I like the emptiness—it equates to negative space as in a drawing,” she explains. “The interior form, almost accidentally created, is as important as the exterior, which I’m more focused on when building these pieces. The interiors are more prominent after the firing than before. Very often they will be completely black, and suddenly there’s this infinite empty, negative space.” This negative space is like a rest beat in music—a pregnant pause that serves to enhance the tones surrounding it.
The vessel openings are never abrupt, but are integral to the overall form. The rims are sometimes as thin and fragile as ripped paper, and are often articulated with a small border. They permit views into the dark interiors, impressive volumes, calm and enigmatic. Lynch has continued to refine her vessels by sharpening the edges, altering openings, increasing the sizes or reducing the bases—only slowly adding new shapes to her vocabulary.
Major sources of inspiration and intrigue for Lynch are objects from ancient, foreign cultures. In particular, she admires African ceremonial objects, especially those objects made of clay and wood and covered with resins, mud and “sacrificial” materials. Small Egyptian pots made of marble and holding traces of pigments and other remnants also interest her. Forms in nature, such as beetle shells, cocoons, seed pods, stones and bones, further provoke her imagination.
One of the most beautiful objects Lynch recalls ever seeing was a small, spherical clay pot with a fragile disc as its lid, that had been found in Mexico, just south of Marfa. The exterior was the color of dry, pale dirt, and it looked as if it would crumble if touched. Inside, the pot held charred bone shards and turquoise beads. Another vessel embedded in her memory is a large, plump, black ovoid pot, also with a disc-shaped lid, that had been found filled with dried corn kernels and, at the very bottom, two smooth, small black stones from the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Both of these pieces were functional vessels that “had purpose, but held mysteries” for Lynch.
Not surprisingly, Lynch appreciates all types of creative works that generate an altered state of awareness, and especially those that evoke a reminder that life is a synthesis of the duality of the physical and the spiritual. Of contemporary art, she admires Richard Serra’s work for its sublime physical presence and scale, and Louise Bourgeois’s for its use of “raw” materials that possess a strong purpose but retain a great sense of mystery. She is also drawn to the ethereal light and spaciousness of James Turrell’s work, which is suggestive to her of the space in West Texas.
Lynch’s own work follows the great tradition of an ancient craft; she feels affinities with classically-based American potters such as Richard DeVore, as well as with early Korean stoneware and Japanese ceramics. While her pieces allude to the concept of a vessel, she emphasizes their aesthetic value rather than their functional purpose. The shapes result from her intuition for beauty, wonderfully realized in my eyes. They possess grandeur and grace. Lynch’s work has found a natural place in the context of Donald Judd’s collection, complementing exquisite objects such as Navajo blankets, African woven baskets, and early Indian pottery through an accomplished simplicity that is timeless.
Stockebrand, Marianne. "Bonnie Lynch--Vessels." Bonnie Lynch. New York, NY: Fifth Floor Foundation, 1999. © 1999 Marianne Stockebrand