Robert Raphael (b. 1978) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Recent exhibitions of note include: Depth of Surface, Honey Ramka, NY; When the Conkers Arrive, Norte Maar, NY; Symposium, Bronx Museum of the Arts; Ceramics: A Concept of Function, LMAK Gallery, NY; and Torn and Fired, Outlet, NY. Selected residencies include: Zentrum Für Keramik, Berlin; The Shigaraki Ceramic Sculpture Park, Japan; and the Illinois State University Visiting Artist Program, IL. He has apprenticed at both The Fabric Workshop and Musuem, Philadephia, PA , and The Moravian Pottery and Tileworks, Doylestwon, PA. This September Robert will be a NEA funded Fellow at Civitella Ranieri in Umbertide, Italy. Robert received his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, and his BFA from Rhode Island School of Design.
My work draws on the complex history of decorative art, a tradition that intersects with and runs parallel to the history of art. Decoration is often perceived to be superficial, but I believe its strength lies in its seductive nature. I build porcelain objects that refer to strength, delicacy, sexuality and gender. I coat my sculptures with thickly glazed surfaces while allowing the material to contribute to the making process through warping, cracking and other chemical changes that occur during the firing process. There is a constant dialogue between my conceptual intention and the phenomenological nature of ceramics. This relationship of tension/imperfection can be seen where the physical weight of decoration alters the original posture of the work. On some sculptures the beauty of heavy flowers act as a burden that buckle and transmute my deliberate constructions.
Neoclassicism has been a primary focus of my sculptures for the last year. I have investigated this theme of decoration for its connection to antiquity, its existence as an 18th century ceramics design trend, and its persistence through contemporary society. I am currently creating flat, structural representations of Ancient Greek pottery, with a glaze palette that refers to the color ways of Josiah Wedgwood. My current works are also a conflation of ideas from the Weiner Werkstätte and their interest in the Gezumtkunstwerk. These ideas are leading to objects where ornament can become structure, and structure can become ornament.
Interview with Robert Raphael
Written by Andreana Donahue
Hi Robert. I know you’re currently based in Brooklyn. Are you originally from New York? What was your first introduction to art or art-making growing up?When and why were you initially attracted to working with clay?
I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, about 30 miles northwest of New York City. Surrounded by nature, It was a nice place to grow up, but the city and its museums were always accessible to me. When I was 15 I signed up for classes at a local ceramics studio. Ceramics got under my skin then and the affliction hasn’t left me since.
What role does research have in your studio practice? Do you have any favorite resources, archives, or collections that you have access to in New York?
Research is an essential part of my practice. My studio is as much a space for reading as it is for making. The amazing thing about New York City is the constant flow changing exhibitions. I do have my favorite haunts however: I am a frequent visitor at the Greek and Roman galleries at the Met, the Whitney, as well as the Weiner Werkstätte collection at the Neue Gallery.
How do you generate ideas when you’re starting new work? Can you tell us about your overall creative process?
The constructs of my work are always evolving. My work is a direct result of my research, the process of making, and the material nature of ceramics. I don’t generate ideas as much as they are a result of an ongoing conversation/argument that I have with myself and the material, that I imagine will continue for the rest of my life.
Columns appear frequently throughout your body of work, inspired by various art historical, architectural, or totemic structures. Can you talk about your ongoing interest in these forms?
The interest in the form of the column comes from my interest in Antiquity, Neoclassicism, and architectural ornament. I am interested in how the role that ornament plays in spaces, objects, and architecture is often perceived to be shallow or superficial. Building large structural columns of a material that is seen to be delicate or fragile is a motivation and a challenge. This interest is about turning these perceptions upside down and looking at them again.
In your recent work, you create flat, sculptural interpretations of Ancient Greek vessels (such as Bell Kraters and Lekythoi). Why are you particularly drawn to these objects?
Ceramics from Antiquity are amazing and beautiful objects. It is always fascinating to understand how long these objects and ceramics can survive. Looking at history is an essential part of working with craft. Ceramics from Antiquity are one of the main records of homosexual relationships and practices from ancient Greece. The functions of these pots also teach us about Greek social behavior. By recreating them I am learning from them as well as making subtle cues into their deep layered histories.
Can you talk about the significance of hermaic statues for you?
The Greek Sculptural tradition of Herma was one with apotropaic powers. These simple rectangular columns with only the head of Hermes, and a phallus at the appropriate height were used to ward off bad luck. I like the idea that these sculptures placed outside of temples, homes, and intersections offered protection and that they held magical powers which the penis brought to life. The herms also exist in a space that exists between sculpture, architecture, and function while also being gendered
Your statement describes your current works as “a conflation of ideas from the Weiner Werkstätte and their interest in the Gesamtkunstwerk. These ideas are leading to objects where ornament can become structure, and structure can become ornament.” Can you elaborate on this connection between ornament and structure?
The Gitterwerk, or grid work, was a pattern of perforated squares that was in a lot of the Werkstätte’s early works. This was an interesting tool that was used to incorporate pattern in their works without actually applying anything. The grid pattern was inherent to their pieces because it was part of their overall structure. I have always been interested in finding this space where structure, ornament, and pattern can coexist without one having a hierarchical position over the other.
Can you share your thoughts on the use of flowers as a decorative element in ceramics? Are you interested in their potential to evoke a sense of loss or desire?
I don’t have any thoughts as to why flowers have been used as a decorative motif in ceramics. The decorative to me is about desire. I am interested in beauty and its effects. For instance, the heavy flowers on top of my flat vessels. The physical weight of the flowers contributes to the warping and transformation of the sculptures during the firing. I see it as the pieces buckling under the weight of beauty.
Your ceramics incorporate seductive glazes that drip and commingle, as well as hand- built structures that are fully expected to warp or transform in the kiln. What is your relationship with chance and control during the firing process?
I choose to work with ceramics because by nature it is an active participant in the process of making the sculptures. I formulate and experiment with glazes that will run over and transmute my deliberate choices. I construct the sculptures out of porcelain because it will warp and transform more than any other clay. It is not unusual that a sculpture will no longer stand after it is fired. The choices I make are informed but with the expectation that my material will be talking back to me every time I pull a piece out of the kiln. For me this is the magic of ceramics.
Can you tell us about your current studio? How do you spend a typical day working?
I have a small studio in Brooklyn. It is just me, a lot of porcelain, a desk, and an electric kiln that takes a lot of abuse.
Agnes Martin was known to destroy numerous iterations of a painting until she felt satisfied, slashing them with a box cutter or even throwing them off the mesa. Would you say you’re a strong editor of your own work? And if so, what happens to the pieces that don’t meet your standards?
When you experiment with the material phenomena of ceramics, editing is always required. Between what I don’t like and what fails, I probably have a minimum of 25 percent loss. I don’t have a mesa to throw pieces off but I do have access to a hammer and a dumpster. I utilize both of these often.
Are there specific artists who have influenced you, whose work you keep returning to? Who are some other contemporary artists you’re excited about right now?
Picking your idols is always hard and this category for me is full of many names. For many reasons I think the contemporary art world has become a space of trends and fashion. The work that I am excited about is the work that functions outside of this space.
What non-visual works of art—from literature, music, or film—are important to you?
I would say all of the above. A recent example of the importance of non-visual art in my life is after returning from my six week residency in Italy, I read D.H, Lawrence’s “Etruscan Places.” I don’t know that I could have fully processed that experience without his help.
Can you share your perspective on craftsmanship, especially with regard to the decreasing presence of handmade objects and traditions in our current culture?
I’m not sure I agree or if there is any way to truly know this. The definition of craft is highly subjective and has evolved over time. I think assumptions are often made that because we are living with more and more technology that craft is dying. Craft is process, a way of making and these processes and materials all come with deep traditions. For example, craft exists for crafts people making pots, it exists within industry, it exists within contemporary art, and it exists in the historical objects we look at in museums.
What is universal is that all the above involves understanding the materials that we work with or understanding how they have been used to create things. For me, as an artist, the exciting nature of craft is in understanding how to work within and outside these traditions to discover new and exciting potentials for our work.
During your most recent artist residency at Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, you made work based on black Etruscan Bucchero vessels while living in a 16th century castle. How do you usually approach your time at residencies? How have these experiences impacted the development of your practice?
I have been fortunate to participate in many residencies throughout my career. I usually go into a residency with a vague concept of what I’d like to accomplish through the experience. Rarely do I have a definite plan. My strategy is to throw myself completely into my new environment. For example, in preparation for Civitella I took five months worth of Italian lessons. Being able to communicate in Italian opened a whole layer of experience to me.
Normally ceramics is challenging and exciting and then you add a compressed time frame, new clays, and firing processes. All of these factors lead to an exciting, wonderful, and anxiety laden freedom. The physical results during the residency are never as important as the experience. Often the pieces that I make during a residency feel like strange cousins of my work. The work that comes after the residency always jumps exponentially.
What are you currently working on? Do you have any upcoming projects, residencies, exhibitions, or other news to share?
I am currently experimenting with the wall which is a new space for my sculptures. In January I am participating in a group exhibition called Portray at Wasserman Projects in Detroit. In March I will also be starting a three month Residency at Houston Center for Craft in Houston, Texas.
To find out more about Robert and his work, check out his website.