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Book Review by Garth Clark

'Mohr on Ohr: PC Correctness Meets the Mad Potter of Biloxi'


Pottery, Politics, Art: George Ohr and the Brothers Kirkpatrick

Richard D. Mohr

256 pages
ISBN: 0252027892
Champaign-Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2003.

It is always a dilemma when a book arrives on ones desk that is hopelessly, irredeemably, flawed. Does one grace it with time and write a review even though there is nothing positive to say? Does one, by giving it attention, even in damnation, offer it more credence than it deserves, throwing good paper after bad? (In this case seeing as this will appear in an electronic journal that analogy does not apply in the strictest sense.) Are some atrocities best ignored in the hope that they will self-destruct and go away? The discrepancy between the date of this review and the year the featured book was published shows that this question was one that I could not answer for some time. On the one hand if something is bad enough, taking up critical cudgels against it seems to be the equivalent of mugging an octogenarian. One's victim is helpless; it is too easy. But eventually when I saw this book being referred to by other writers as though it had credibility it became clear that a voice needed to be raised in protest.

The book on Ohr is sturdy looking, dull enough in its design to suggest the seriousness of an academic press. The author, James Mohr, is self-professed 'public intellectual' (whatever that might mean) and professor at the University of Illinois, and so his treatise comes with the imprimatur of his employer, a major (or at least a large) American university. One could reasonably assume that the text went through peer review and while, like most academic publications, one might not expect a page-turner, one would expect it to be structurally solid, factually correct and observant of the protocols of academic research, for better and for worse. Alas, this is not the case.

In the cause of fairness, I should state at the beginning that I, together with almost everyone who has written about Ohr (including the artist himself) is debunked in this book. (At the same time the author enlisted our help to provide the illustrations.) The one writer who is praised is Jeff Perrone. When Perrone's review and article on Ohr appeared in Artforum , I sent a three page letter to the editor listing just the factual errors. Perrone and Mohr make good bookends for this study. By Mohr's standards we never got a thing right. That is certainly possible. But that does not make Mohr right either and the reader will have to make up his or her mind as to whether I am writing out of pique or in utter bemusement at this curious document.

Pottery, Politics, Art: George Ohr and the Brothers Kirkpatrick, begins innocently enough. The first chapter, also the first half of the book (a warning in itself) is a pedestrian study of the Kirkpatrick brothers, folk potters active in Illinois at the turn of the 19th century. It is not a thrilling read but then the Kirkpatricks are not exciting potters, particularly when compared to Ohr. Their work is neither naïve enough to be charming nor sophisticated enough to be impressive. Their snake-covered vessels, on which their fame is based, are a disappointment. The reptiles sit on stolid vessels without sinuous threat or linear energy. They have none of the life and sensual plasticity of Ohr's less realistic but more elemental pinched snakes. Maybe it was the dreariness of Kirkpatricks vs. the growing glamour of Ohr (with his museum being built by Frank Gehry) that resulted in the Mad Potter of Bilxoi being grafted, somewhat unnaturally, onto this volume.

How, one might wonder, did Ohr in Mississippi and the Kirkpatricks in Illinois get paired anyway? The hook is tenuous; Ohr visited their pottery around 1882. We do not know whether it was for a week or a day and there is no supporting body of fact--visual or written--to suggest that this visit was a defining epiphany for the Biloxi potter. Yet Mohr, without a shred of substantiation, claims the Kirkpatricks as Ohr's muses; '(They) wrenched Ohr away from the conventional and traditional potting of Joseph Meyer, and set him up to exploring clay as clay... It is thanks to the Kirkpatricks that we may say for Ohr: The Vessel is dead. Long Live the Vessel'.

Mohr bases this major revisionist position on a few superficial characteristics they share in their work, primarily the modeled snakes and the playful fright mugs. But he does not point out that these elements are ubiquitous amongst folk potters, particularly in the South where Ohr was born and spent his entire life. Indeed the visceral, funky work of the low-fire Southern potters is much more in keeping with Ohr's zany vision than the uptight, stoneware of the Kirkpatricks.

Mohr makes a series of unprecedented claims without any arguments or facts to shore up his case. He simply issues edicts. When the actual record contradicts his opinions he simply dismisses the evidence as flawed or erroneous, even when it comes directly from the potter himself. For instance Mohr rejects Ohr's repeated references to himself 'the second Palissy'. Bernard Palissy, a 16th century French Mannerist, was an eccentric potter, and legendary for amongst other extreme acts, waking his wife in the middle of the night, rousing her from their bed and breaking it up for fuel to keep the kiln alive during a crucial point in the firing. He made large ceramic chargers that were writhing with reptilian life and with a colorful palette of glazes that is strikingly similar to that of Ohr (particularly when one examines the reverse side of a Palissy plate.) But, were Mohr to acknowledge Ohr's bond with this fellow eccentric, it would undermine Mohr's thesis about the Kirkpatricks. So despite Ohr's obvious oft-stated reverence, Palissy is out.

Some of the problems come from embedding hot button current issues (many of which are non sequitors) into the text. Some are so patently groundless that this book would make a perfect additional target in Roger Kimball's survey, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004.) Kimball is not my favorite art writer, leaning a little to far to the right for my tastes, but in this book he accurately and mercilessly skewers the absurdity of applying today's political values to art of the past.

As he writes, 'Political correctness? Art? What can these seemingly disparate phenomena have to do with each other? It is worth pointing out that by "political correctness" I do not mean only hypersensitivity to this week's roster of approved victims and virtuous causes...the deeper effect of political correctness shows itself not in the particular fixations claimed by a given art historian (feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, etc. etc) but rather in the determined effort subordinate art to non-artistic agenda. It is here that political correctness wreaks the most havoc. Substituting the ideological for the visual, it reduces art to a prop in an essentially non- or extra-aesthetic drama'. This raises the central question about this book, 'who or what is it about?' Ohr just seems to be the medium to express some oddly personal fixations.

Mohr ventures deep into the PC twilight zone. We are told emphatically that Ohr was not a racist. The proof, of all things, is a nonsensical reading of how Ohr once used the word 'nigger' in a letter. Other letters actually reveal Ohr to be both racist and sexist, not surprising for a blue collar Southerner at that time (or even this, sad to say.) Then out of nowhere, like a bat flitting unexpectedly through a half-lit room, Mohr declares that Ohr was neither a homophobe nor a closet case. Where did that come from? Why should Ohr be either? For a moment it is a little disorienting. Why is this argument raised, how is it relevant and where is the evidence? Again, there is no proof of any kind for the good reason that none exists. But this brushed aside by Mohr. A footnote is attached but when one looks it up it turns out to be a red herring and has nothing to do with this absurd claim.

Mohr's purpose becomes clear when one browses the poorly assembled index. Current academic protocols require one to imbed certain hot-button issues into almost any text regardless of their logic. Mohr's one line remark about Ohr's sexual orientation is listed transparently under 'Homosexuality' so he can tick Queer Theory off his essential list of politically correct issues (just as his comments on race had earlier accounted for Black Studies). Feminism is next on his list.

At least this, while still pushing the boundaries, is an interesting subject to raise as Ohr's record on this subject is teasingly contradictory. Having praised Ohr for being surprisingly in touch with his feminine side, I assumed I would be safe from Mohr's PC Storm Troopers. In The Mad Potter of Biloxi: The Art and Life and George E. Ohr , a book coauthored with Eugene Hecht and Bob Ellison, I pointed that while Ohr made some coarse sexist novelties, he always spoke of his 'art' pots respectfully in the female voice, as a nurturing mother giving birth to what he called his 'clay babies'. I found this remarkably tender and unusual. But no, Mohr dismisses this as 'heterosexual triumphalism' (notch up another point on his PC report card) and 'insulting' to Ohr.

Let us examine this insult. Ohr was after all heterosexual as his own musings in writing about sex with young teenage girls leaves in little doubt. But Mohr has a point to make about Ohr being a feminist and does this through a gimcrack. In a rare moment of modesty for Mohr, he refers to it as a piggy bank. The author illustrates many of these objects in the Kirkpatricks' segment of the book, and he knows that piggy banks are shaped like pigs. However, the bank under discussion is in the shape of a vulva and was known in the patois of the day as a 'pussy-bank'.

On the front it has detailed modeled labia and carefully incised pubic hair. The back is in the shape of a breast. It is essentially a portable hooker. One pays for one's pleasure by dropping coins into the vagina while fondling the breast. When one tires of the game, or has filled its interior with coins, one smashes the bank and retrieves one's money. This is hardly feminism given that the woman, or to be more pointedly, her sexual organs, always end up being short-changed.

Mohr even sees putting money into these banks as a pro-feminist act, declaring it an 'homage' to feminine fluids. Of course, a woman's fluids flow out while the coins flow in. Sperm seems more appropriate seeing as these banks were bought by men but that would bring the evil of heterosexual 'triumphalism' back into the discourse. Moreover, he discusses this object, a mere novelty, what Ohr considered to be commerce and not 'art', with the kind of hushed academic tone one might employ to debate say Marcel Duchamp's erotic Female Fig Leaf (1950.) But Ohr's banks were not made for Marcel's recherché conceptualist salons in New York, they were made as fair trinkets for a coarse, ribald, often drunken audience at country and state fairs in Mississippi. It is doubtful that the men bought them to express their concern for gender politics let alone with a tender reverence for feminine fluids.

Unfazed Mohr anoints Ohr as an 'amazing' proto-feminist, rejecting all evidence to the contrary and basing his assumption on a single quote by Ohr in an 1899 magazine interview in which he claims that Ohr acknowledges women as worthy competitors. The quote does not in fact say this but Mohr then blunders into an inexcusable historical error. He says that Ohr's stance is remarkable because pottery in America was a 'wholly-male' activity and you can 'count on two fingers the women studio potters at that time, Adelaide Robineau and Susan Frackleton'.  

How did this get past the University of Illinois editors? Far from being 'wholly-male', the unique aspect of the early ceramic art movement in America, compared to say Europe or Britain which was male-dominated, is that it was founded primarily by women and that they continued to play a major, visible role in its development from 1876 to the present. It is true that as art pottery become profitable, more men entered the field and men often took over the business side and became the dominant players. But even with male-owned potteries, like Greuby, both women and men signed the works as artists. Rookwood Pottery, America's premier art pottery, featured artists of both sexes and was founded and owned by a woman, the imperious Maria Longworth Nichols Storer. (Strangely, Mohr mentions this in the first half of the book then ignores it the second half when it does not fit his thesis.)

Nichols was an active artist in her own right and won numerous medals at various World's Fairs. So did several other woman potters such as Mary Louise McLaughlin and Mary Chase Perry. McLaughlin was an influential ceramics teacher and writer and a pioneer; first in china painting, then in art pottery using a variation of the French proces Barbotine and finally in studio pottery making unique porcelain vessels. Perry founded the immensely successful Pewabic Pottery in Detroit that continues today as a living museum. She produced ambitious architectural installations as well as studio pottery. Mary Given Sheerer was the director and chief artist behind Newcomb Pottery in New Orleans, Ohr's neck of the woods. How can one possibly write about American ceramics at the turn of the century and not know about the pioneering, defining role of women? Curiously, I believe that Mohr does know this history but he simply rejects that which does not fit his thesis.

Mohr then turns on the work itself and examines an unusual group of about twenty or so vases made by Ohr and known by various names; 'monumentals' (because they are larger than usual for Ohr), 'bullet vases' (because they resemble bullets and shell casings), and 'stovepipe' pots. To add to the machine-made look of these pots Ohr decided to glaze all but a few in metallic glaze. Ohr also removed any sign of the hand. So the visual evidence, not conclusive but certainly worth offering as a concept, points to the artist striving for a modern, industrial minimalism. This is an intriguing direction for Ohr, an artist who was otherwise deeply invested in slippery, organic, biomorphic sexuality.

But no, Mohr tells us, we are wrong. All this mechanical stuff is just a clever way to disguise the fact that Ohr is making penises. Yes, they are phallic but no more so than any of the classical cylindrical forms of this type that potters have made for thousands of years. Mohr, to his credit, is specific. Firstly, they are 'mammalian' (which is a relief, considering the options), and 'ithyphallic' (lewd, lascivious and tied to Bacchanalian rites.) Having said this he contradicts himself within a paragraph to say that they have nothing to do with sexuality but with the asexual mechanics of 'vascular hydraulics'.

Remarkably, we learn that the pots are uncircumcised and that these invisible foreskins can become erect by themselves, hardly a mammalian trait. He then insists that Ohr is exploring 'subtonic hermaphroditism' by inserting upside down wombs into the heads of some of these penises. They are just straight-forward cylinders by the way with no sign in the interior of being wombs. I doubt Ohr even knew what 'subtonic hermaphroditism' meant. To simplify the argument Mohr uses much coarser language in describing these attributes as he does regularly in this book. One has to wonder why he insists on using gay chat-room vulgarities in his text. Is this because he thinks he is channeling Ohr? Does he see him as a foul-mouthed, poorly educated, Southern ex-blacksmith? If so the assumption is incorrect. Those who knew Ohr recalled him as being soft-spoken and courtly in his manner.

Mohr constantly tells us what Ohr was thinking--not suggesting that this might have been his state of mind--but stating it as irrefutable fact. Again, none of these trips into the dead potter's brain are buttressed by anything other than Mohr's arrogance and the collusion of a third rate editor. The key to his 'knowledge' of Ohr's subconscious comes in the final soiling chapter 'The Pot: The Anality of Ohr', in which the potter of Biloxi is described as a 'regressive anal type' whose art is entirely determined by this early and arrested developmental stage.

Everything Ohr does is apparently linked to merde , his anus and the urge to expel or retain thereby reducing Ohr's magical sensibility--freely plastic, innovative, eccentric, cranky, creative, witty, subtle, supple, courageous and above all surprising--to what Mohr insists is 'excremental vision'. Then, in the hoariest of clichés, he defines Ohr's life and art as a fight between the world trying to force toilet training on the artist and his resistance.

In a rare show of caution or self-doubt (and the only one I remember in the entire book) Mohr admits that some latter day therapists might dispute his loosely structured Freudian reasoning. He is right. Any therapist of worth will tell one that trying to definitively explain the interior mind of an artist with nothing more to go by than few fragments of biographical record and the art, is a bogus and discredited approach (alas, still used too often.) But one does not have to go to current practitioners to receive this judgment. One such 'latter-day' therapist is Freud himself. In 1914 he rejected the simplistic reductivism that Mohr applies, acknowledging the greater role of the id or super-ego in our psychological makeup.

I am not sure that Mohr actually knows what his 'diagnosis' of Ohr really means. Certainly, potters are arguably more anal than other artists. But if Ohr was as completely controlled by his anality as Mohr suggests, he would have been a pathetic emotional cripple, unable to function from day to day, yet alone run a pottery. As the artist Ron Nagle remarked after reading this book, 'it reduces Ohr to Ohrifice'.

But I do have a favorite moment. At one point, Mohr recounts that one of the pots shouts to him, 'I am a Vase'. I am sure Mohr misses the poignancy of this imagined outburst. Given the added drama of the author's quotation marks, these four words remind me of the Elephant man's cry of anguish, 'I am a human being'. The vase seems (just my opinion) to be trying to escape from Mohr's wearying, over-analysis, desperate to be released from the writer's murky sexual views, excremental obsessions and again become a (relatively) simple container of Ohr's visionary artistic expression.

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Open Competition Sponsored by ICRC

Introduction to the 'Speak For Yourself' project

Jo Dahn

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A Collection of Small Miseries: Studio Philosophy and Project Research

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My Father's Razor

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Highly commended
Mimics of Everyday Life

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My Hands in Clay and Other Media: The 'CASUALTIES' Project

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UK Student Competition, Prizes awarded by the HEAD Trust

Ist Prize
A Student's Reflection on Making Pots for Use

Olivia Horley

Joint 2nd Prize
Using Ceramics in a Mixed Media Context

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Joint 2nd Prize
Conservational Intervention

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Reviews by:

Linda Sandino
(book review)

Garth Clark
(book review)

Richard D. Mohr
(reply to Garth Clark's review)

Wilma Cruise
(exhibition review)

Ron Wheeler
(obituary of Sid Tustin)

Book Review by Garth Clark • Issue 7   Interpreting Ceramics