Yellow Bowl #2, 2018. Stoneware and underglaze, 14 x 18 x 22 in. Photo: Courtesy Emmanuel Barbault Gallery

Trevor King: Understanding Utility

Trevor King’s ceramic sculptures aim to understand utility. Over the course of his career, he has quietly but steadily been building a body of work that is autobiographical, sure in its handling, and aware of the contemporary art scene. His recent efforts have focused on fashioning three-dimensional versions of drawings dashed off by his grandfather, a truck driver and untrained draftsman. With an untoward awkwardness that stems directly from the sketches, these works are earnest but rough in nature, although King’s 2015 show, “Listener,” at 9338 Campau in Hamtramck, Michigan, established him as a ceramic artist of unusual technical ability, and in command of beauty in a traditional sense. During the course of my visit to King’s studio, he mentioned the necessity of “understanding utility”—a phrase of acute formal insight that means we are to comprehend the usefulness of art, even as we are being educated to appreciate aesthetic effects.

Installation view of “Stillnessness,” 2018. Photo: Math Monahan, Courtesy Emmanuel Barbault Gallery

King’s work raises the question of what it means to see ceramic art as a way of democratizing culture. For the last 25 years, there has been a big push not only to democratize the implied social outlook of art, but also, and more literally, to employ sculpture on an everyday basis. King, who denies the idea that art can or should be separated into the traditional hierarchy of value—high, middle, and low—still has to make work that sells and fits the needs of the market. To that end, he has said that he knows how to make a beautiful pot. But in his current work, beauty takes second place to an integrity rooted in offhand creativity. If we study his grandfather’s drawings and the works made in emulation of them, it becomes clear that King followed the sketches as closely as possible. As much a biographical assertion as an aesthetic choice, this decision gives the work an unspoken and unusual personal force—if we know the circumstances helping to shape the forms.

Looking at King’s sculptures alone, we cannot tell how they operate in relation to his grandfather’s ideas; yet we must know that context to make full sense of what we see. King has invested his production with the intangible—the raw, but striking creative gift of his grandfather. The sculptures look unkempt, slightly lopsided, but their rawness maintains the tie to his forebear. King regularly shows the drawings with the finished sculptures to acknowledge the dialogue between the sketch and the volumetric work that brings the former to life. While some might see the connection as sentimental, it is more accurate to see the sculptures as the perpetuation of a mostly unrecognized creativity—King is keeping an otherwise unknown voice vital.

Drawing by Roy Mellott. Photo: Courtesy Emmanuel Barbault Gallery

At the same time, the drawings by King’s grandfather are good; quickly realized on the pages of small notebooks, they appear awkward but not without feeling. By copying these forms, King addresses their uneven energy—even as his reliance on them makes his work remarkably contemporary and even cerebral (in a hidden fashion). In the marvelously idiosyncratic Yellow Bowl #2 (2018), for instance, a solid cup form rests on the edge of a yellow bowl with nonchalant confidence. The accompanying drawing functions as a conceptual blueprint—a starting point, as well as a detailed set of directions. The bowl’s formal originality suggests such qualities as balance and connectedness, and it both adheres to and freely interprets the original drawing.

The fact that King is working within, around, and outside a paradigm not completely his own gives Yellow Bowl and other recent works an edgy, contemporary feeling. We remember Ezra Pound’s dictum, delivered in 1937: “Make it new.” Even now, there remains a small shadow hanging over this kind of artisanal work. But the complexity of King’s method leads him to a place where there is no confusion regarding his status as an artist. Cactus Leaf (2018) is remarkable for its sheer aggression: two monstrous leaves like open pincers lift on stems attached to a central hemisphere. Between them, a heavy thorned spike pierces a thin circular disk. The work leaves nothing to doubt, embodying threat through form. At the same time, it becomes more than a menacing presence, activated by expressively realized forms, balance, and centered energy.

Bottle, 2018. Stoneware and color-matched paint, 6 x 7 x 10 in. Photo: Math Monahan

Bottle (2018), though small, is equally compelling. A series of peculiar additions, including several hooked tubes, adhere to the titular object. The neck ends in a jagged edge. The various accretions are best explained as extrusions that serve to highlight the basic form. What could be more pedestrian than a broken bottle? King sees poetry in things that most of us would pass by. Contemporary art has long had a romance with the ordinary—and the blighted. The slight repulsion engendered by Bottle has a precedent that counters simple proletarian vision. It is not so much that King is turning away from making something beautiful as much as he is exhorting viewers to see his work as utilitarian, meaning that Bottle completes itself in light of our acceptance of its implicit function.

There is a determined movement in American art to undermine the market’s power through works that challenge our usual preference for the attractive. In King’s case, that impulse is complicated by the conceptual beauty of the process behind it—the use of his grandfather’s drawings—as well as our knowledge that, if he wished, he could easily make a traditionally beautiful object. These two circumstances reveal that there is more to his vision than roughness alone. And it must be said, these works are not unattractive. Once we walk away from the question of beauty, we can properly value King’s thinking and approach. This is process art of a high conceptual order, but it also rejects rhetoric in favor of a technical and formal honesty that demands respect in and of itself. Working in an intensely personal way, King has produced sculptures that anyone might appreciate—or even make. At least it seems that way.