The Ceramics Menagerie
DEAR HEAD ON WALL, Jeff Irwin wants you to know he feels your pain. Irwin, who has taught ceramics at Grossmont College since 1989 (he’s led workshops for prison inmates, as well), produces work that riffs on wall-mounted hunting trophies. Imbued with equal doses of irony and pathos, his starkly white earthenware sculptures are depictions of animal/tree hybrids, truncated and sawed down, reduced to mutilated facsimiles.
“It represents this whole idea of man’s control over nature and the way in which we manipulate it and then put it up on the wall for our own pleasure,” says Irwin. “I look at these trophies and they just give me this very odd sense of death; they make me really uneasy.”
An avid outdoor enthusiast, Irwin, 57, found his muse among the redwood trees as an undergraduate at Humboldt State (he earned his MFA at SDSU), starting out as a painter before moving into ceramics.
“There are a lot of possibilities with clay,” he says. “There are unending possibilities that I couldn’t get in painting.”
With influences that include the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein and the surrealism of René Magritte, drawing still plays an integral part in some of Irwin’s work, though. In his narrative “black and white” series, featuring branch and stump forms adorned with two-tone images, he manifests his love of German expressionist woodblock prints.
Another body of work consists of tiles and plates that resemble sepia photographs (utilizing a relatively new technique of firing laser-printed images onto the clay) or engravings (achieved by sgraffito, a scratching process that reveals one glaze beneath another). These pieces, too, examine our complex relationship with the natural world.
“I think my work has always been pretty emotional,” he says. “I’m touched by these animals that are being represented in a new way; it’s a different way of seeing them.”
Stars: Jeff Irwin: By Mark Hiss • Photography by Martin Mann