Report From Portland: Erik Has Left The Building - Text by Dave Hampton
Danish-born artist and craftsman Erik Gronborg has been in the San Diego area for the last forty years - longer than most San Diegans - but the time he spent in Berkeley and Portland during the 1960s still has a lot to do with his reputation.
Despite the fact that Gronborg left Portland decades ago, his connection to that city underscores
Reflecting On Erik Gronborg, an exhibition of ceramic objects at Portland's Museum ofContemporary Craft that runs through February 16, 2013.
MoCC is one of the oldest institutions dedicated to craft in the country. It's been around, in one form or another, for more than 75 years. The Museum presented four one-person exhibitions of Gronborg's work between 1967 and 1977, while it was known as the Contemporary Crafts Gallery.
Gronborg remained a presence in Portland long after he'd "left the building."
PAX AMERICANA exterior
An engaging and informal day-long symposium called Reflecting On Erik Gronborg Contains Nudity, recently brought the artist and his fans and fellow artists together at the Museum. As Director and Chief Curator Namita Gupta Wiggers described, the name was the museum's "cheeky" play on their own signage, put up because some of the content might, by today's standards, be suited to mature audiences.
(l-r) Namita Gupta Wiggers, Garth Johnson, Dave Hampton, Erik Gronborg
Photo by Irina Gronborg
The show contains significant pieces from the MoCC collection and several from collectors who knew Gronborg while he was living there, including the largest work in the show, a squat and colorful ceramic and wood table that's on loan from one of Gronborg's former Reed College colleagues.
But most of the work comes from avid, Portland-area collectors who built their collections after Gronborg was long gone. This group has accumulated a diverse range of works from the 1960s through the 1980s, and their collections give the exhibition its broad scope. It's an impressive array and one that reflects the dedication of Gronborg's newer fans, along with his more enduring relationships.
Following his studies in sculpture at U.C. Berkeley, Gronborg's first teaching position was at Reed College in Portland, where he remained from 1965 until 1969. At Reed, Gronborg took to clay in earnest, adding a more functional dimension to his established sculptural repertoire of metal casting and wood carving.
With the College's limited equipment, Gronborg started making low-fire cups, plates, vessels and containers that show the powerful influence of the U.C. Berkeley environment (read: Voulkos) where he was introduced to contemporary ceramics.
But this connection quickly became less evident. Gronborg developed a unique body of work characterized by robust, slab-built forms, bright lead glazes and lusters, thickly outlined drawings of female nudes, and by relief elements; newspaper printing plates and snazzy auto emblems, pressed into the damp clay. A pacifist, who spent two years in a camp for conscientious objectors as an alternative to Denmark's compulsory military service, Gronborg also started adding short lines of text to his work in response to his adopted country's political climate and the Vietnam War. These include such phrases as PAX AMERICANA and HOW MUCH AMERICA CAN THE WORLD TAKE?
Although the earliest cups and vessels from his Portland years were thrown on the wheel, he soon abandoned that approach for a purposeful, at times architectural, style of hand building. Occasionally, Gronborg still lets his disdain show for the "round, brown pots" that dominated previous decades of studio pottery.
By the time he left Portland for a position at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1969, Gronborg was also incorporating photographic decals that brought scenes of the wild west, naked Hollywood starlets and car culture to the surfaces of his objects. These appropriated graphics added an overtly Pop Art dimension to work that was already laden with wry symbols of Americana. "Like television commercials", Gronborg wrote in 1969, "the images can be suggestive, complex, fragmentary; they do not necessarily tell a story, but they excite."
While generously focused on his ceramics, Reflecting On Erik Gronborg also includes a few examples of the artist's sculpture in other media. Three cast bronze torsos and a chunky wooden crucifix discreetly indicate that ceramics reflect only a portion of his output.
Gronborg won international acclaim at the 1963 Paris Biennale for his wood sculpture while still in school at Berkeley. The same year, he was recognized as part of the East Bay bronze casting phenomenon, hailed as the "epicenter" of a new artist-foundry movement by the Creative Casting exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York.
While he added ceramics to his repertoire after a few years, he never stopped working in wood and cast metals. In fact, nonfunctional sculpture that combined clay, wood and metal, epoxied together in various combinations, is one of his most compelling areas of endeavor; an area that really took off in Portland but is largely absent from the current show.
As if that wasn't enough, once the Gronborg's had settled into life near San Diego, Erik began a whole new creative chapter making furniture. His distinctive wood carving was put to a supply of local Avocado wood; raw material for the eccentric chairs and tables that Gronborg lived with and exhibited as part of the burgeoning American studio furniture movement. A series of clay-topped wood tables Gronborg began in the 1980s seems to pick up where the current exhibition's clay and wood table left off. That table, first published in Craft Horizons magazine in 1969 and then, a decade later, in Lamar Harrington's book Ceramics In The Northwest: A History, is one of the show's highlights.
Bronze casting at Berkeley. Funk ceramics. Studio furniture. For someone who frequently went against the tide and developed a truly unique voice, Erik Gronborg still managed to participate in three of the most exciting American art and craft developments of the mid 20th century.