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Topographies: Barbara Sorensen

During the decades since Barbara Sorensen first felt clay’s quintessentially satisfying tactile and expressive potential as - literally - the Earth, there have been many changes in her field. The old barriers between “fine arts” and “crafts,” already challenged by the emerging American Craft Movement, had been further eroded by the modernist principles of pioneers such as Peter Voulkos and his emphasis on primal expression and process. Clay, increasingly viewed since the mid-twentieth century as simply an additional medium for creating vanguard sculpture, was in the process of taking its rightful place in art’s pantheon.

 So when Sorensen, planning for a career in art education program, walked into the University of Wisconsin’s Madison pottery studios that day in the mid-1960s, she also entered an ongoing revolution with Don Reitz at its helm. From that day on, clay - earth itself - was her ideal medium, the artist says. “Everything drew me to it: the touching; the feeling; the making something from absolutely nothing. I loved the tactile quality of the clay, the pushing and pulling of the earth; I loved physically moving the clay and building it; I fell in love with clay."

“It just clicked for me, and I’ve never looked back,” says Sorensen. That early connection was reinforced and powerfully recharged after studies at post-graduate workshops and a move to Florida. Sorensen began working at Stetson University with ceramics professor Dan Gunderson, the noted artist and curator of the current exhibition. She launched a new level in her work.

The collaboration between the two potters, which began on a mentor/protégé basis, was particularly fortuitous: Like her, Gunderson had studied with Reitz in Madison at that pivotal moment for the medium. While their styles differed, both potters shared their approach to the medium and, crucial to the development of Sorensen’s mature work, their attitudes and expectations harmonized. Sorensen's first solo exhibition in Florida, at Stetson University's gallery, showed the results of her independent exploration in Stetson’s studios; it also led to work with other key mentors, among them Voulkos, Rudy Autio and Paul Soldner, during workshops at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

Those workshops were intense – and intensely influential. “Paul and Pete were burning the midnight oil in studios next to mine,” Sorensen recalls. “We had weeks of work, critiquing, going out for meals and firing kilns on those beautiful fall days and nights that only Aspen has. I remember a lot of sharing of ideas, of new and important turning points in my work: epiphanies and new directions.”

Soldner's encouragement was chief among these new ideas and epiphanies. The older artist, who in the mid-1950s had begun his ceramics studies as Voulkos’s first student at the Los Angeles County Art Institute, had established Anderson Ranch in 1968 as a center for creativity and artistic growth. That’s where she found her voice as an artist, Sorensen says. “Paul was always there. He told me to give myself permission to experiment, to grow. He empowered me to develop in my own way, on my own path.”

Surrounded by the broader shifting views of clay and immersed in the constant flow and exchange of ideas, techniques and concerns with clay’s masters, Sorenson remained true to her initial response to the medium. At the same time, she found ways to strengthen that response as she mastered and rapidly expanded on seminal, ground-breaking new forms like her Purse and Pandora series.

Monumental in scale despite their moderate sizes, those vessels were nascent Dwellings, inviting viewers to step close and peer inside, to experience directly their richly varied surface tones and textures, their swelling forms and the folds and cavities that invite exploration. The gilded interiors of the Pandoras, in contrast with pitted, tactile exteriors that alternatively seem to challenge or demand the viewer’s touch, hint at atavistic mysteries, at primal, universal messages and meanings, at an eternal interplay between craggy, inchoate Earth and the sort of burnished, jeweled ornamentation that elicits a sense of antique, half-forgotten civilizations.

Still, emphatically, they remain of the Earth: Clay, the fundamental material of the earliest cultures and, paradoxically, a medium that is utterly modern, bears in Sorensen’s work gouges, fingerprints and other marks that are at once intentional and random, fierce and subtle, two-dimensional and sculptural. Earth itself took on recognizable form in the Purses and Pandora caskets, allowing Sorensen to smooth its surface in one series while enhancing its roughness in the other. Closely related, with their suggestions of the figure merged with and into the Earth’s contours and tactile elements, they embody the essence of new work that retained the vessel form or, alternatively, moved into a new format, the relief-like Shield series.

Massive and weighty, singly or in heraldic clusters, the Shields appear encrusted and eroded, as if from centuries in some long-forgotten tomb. They appear to be losing their original designs as the earth reabsorbs them, returning them to their fundamental materials. Colors are mottled, peeling, fading in “Shield de Pyrenees,” and an overall rusty sheen is broken by the marks of the artist’s fingers imprinted on bands and circles that seem in the process of being eaten away by the crackled, pitted gray remnant that borders the lower portions of the piece. Underlining the links between the Shield’s role as both absolutely earthly and highly symbolic is the way Sorensen slashes the form into two halves, as if split by human or natural forces in some epic battle.

Just as masterful in its blend of past nobility, now in fragments that even in a state of advanced decay still retain the artist’s physical touch, the human presence, and the inexorable effects of time and nature on all the works of mankind – literally, a personal, affecting statement of art’s ability to endure – are works that retain the vessel form. Seemingly far from the sleek, swelling Purse, the forms that emerge as a Goddess or Chalice draw on that prototype as the traditional vessel and then push it to and just beyond its earth-bound limits. The mystical overtones evoked by the sculptures’ names are intentional, as is Sorenson process of building the monumental, spiraling vessels from thick, embossed, pitted slabs, leaving the traces of her actions in their patchy skin and giving them a precarious, balletic balance.

The Chalices, inverted cones or mountains that also embody notions of such catastrophic climatic events as whirlwinds and tornados, are visceral celebrations of clay’s potential given full expression. Like three-dimensional topographical maps or sections of sod pleated over immense eons by the agonizing clash of tectonic plates and forced up into mountains - only to be eroded again - the Chalices at first glance seem far removed from their namesake, the sacramental cup that inspired Crusades and holy wars. Their sheer size and earthen walls, embedded with exploded pebbles and slathered with chalky, peeling slips, appear primordial, sui generis; what makes them sacred and ties them to Sorensen’s elegant, elastic aesthetic is their balletic poise and, in an unexpected and uplifting grace note, the barely visible gold-leafed interiors that are so different from their gritty, grainy surfaces.

Just so do Sorensen's Goddesses, like the related Caryatids, Muses and Sirens, embody seemingly contradictory elements while ultimately melding them into a coherent and satisfying synthesis. The forms are variations on the classic container, repeated in hourglass columns made up of stacked, mouth-to-mouth chalices in the more abstract Caryatid series and in the attenuated Siren series, where wraith-like female figures appear on the verge of whirling into thin air, spun into slender, wiry goddesses, bound by their own rippling robes. The Goddesses, however, are far more substantial, like Chalices that develop most fully the artist’s sense of the vessel as a metaphor for the human body which cradles the spirit. Like the open, broad-bellied Purse and the closed, footed Pandora, Sorensen’s Goddess is a primal generative deity.

Made of and from the Earth itself, she - alone or with other, similar deities - seems to still be in the process of becoming, to be shaping herself out of the flesh of her Mother. As such, she is a modernist cousin of Michelangelo’s Bound Slave, who symbolizes the soul struggling to escape its mortal prison. Instead of marble carved in the approach codified by Beaux-Arts tradition, however, Sorensen wrestles with her material, the plebian and ubiquitous clay from which the gods shaped man. But, in her hands, the result is just as stunning: The figure, fragmentary but recognizable, strains against the bindings that both envelope and embody it. Goddess, Siren, Muse all appear to be either taking on human shape or experiencing the disintegration of their human forms.

Either way, it is not the form that matters but the spirit it contains and which, with its earthly bindings marked by the artist’s emphatically human touch, it releases. In a subtle nod to the pivotal Chalice form, Sorensen’s mythical nudes reach upward or outward, their arms truncated or absent, as if they themselves are merely extensive, highly evolved Chalices reaching toward the sky in celebration. Michelangelo left his Bound Slave forever fighting his marble cage; Sorensen’s deities are in the process of becoming, mutating, organically transcending their physical prisons. They twist and turn, spiral and reach heavenward, joyously; in a sense, whether the more recent of the Goddesses are dancing, posing, writhing, what is most engaging emotionally is an almost inexpressible sense that they are, essentially, husks for a departed, or soon-to-be fully dematerialized human spirit.

Sorensen expresses the same ethos in Dunes and Foothills, series that succeed in erasing the line between art and life that so absorbed Robert Rauschenberg when he created his “Erased de Kooning Drawing” in 1953. The young artist’s iconoclastic gesture, obliterating the work of a modern master whom he greatly admired, made a number of points. Chief among them was that his actions created a work of art imposed on a now invisible iconic image - minimal, yet open to accidental effects of pentimenti on the laboriously erased drawing or of fleeting effects of light and shadow on the newly white sheet. Thus the art is not the object but the concept. Both eloquent and open to interpretation, pieces like Foothills, thick blocks of clay incised as if by rivers and geological pressures and embedded with pebbles, and the more ethereal, wall-hung mixed-media Dunes, capture two very different views of nature.

The Foothills, either in single slabs that appear to have been lifted intact from the Earth or installations that may include as many as 20 blocks set on the floor just far enough apart to call attention to their individual elements, express a vertiginous duality. At once close and so compelling visually that its blocks invite physical contact, Foothills simultaneously appears to create an aerial landscape seen from such a great distance that small details like the cracks, canyons and fissures made by melting, exploding pebbles blur into insignificance. Constructed from white resin on cones of coiled rope, Sorensen’s wall-mounted Dunes also express aspects of her central theme: the Earth, in its varying forms. Ghostly and insubstantial, each Dune is an inverted Chalice form that has been reduced to a skeleton, inviting dramatic shadows and defying the tactile qualities implicit in Sorensen’s clay forms.

Related wall works, the rope-and-resin Wind and Pool installations, literally turn the Dune concept on its head. These Chalices, with loosely closed mouths open to the elements and to the viewer, could hold nothing. Pushing the lacy qualities still further, in her Wind series Sorensen allows the open columns, cones and basket shapes to bend, sway and dance as if blown about by an invisible wind. There is greater freedom in the coiled rope pieces with their open walls; nonetheless, the sense of natural forces, present or long past - a constant in Sorensen’s work - animates the Dune and related series. It also pushes toward the most recent body of work, the dematerialized and even more interactive Dwellings. 

Yet they also draw on the seminal Boat series of vessels that embody the classic concerns of transformation, of spiritual transcendence. Like Goddesses, Boats draw on the most ancient sources to express the most enduring human concerns: "Who are we? Where do we come from? And where are we going?” in Gauguin’s words.

The Boats - elongated mandorla-inflected forms pedestal-mounted or suspended in groups against gallery walls in installations that invite the interplay of light and shadow - symbolize a journey between the opposites as life and death, physical presence and spirit, masculine and feminine. Their forms are massive, as encrusted and marked by the artist’s manipulation of her essential material as any Chalice; the use of a vessel form, classically female, and the paradoxical sense of lightness that is given in the installed suspension of each Boat, however, paves the way for a deeper, more reflective exploration.

For Sorensen, most overtly in the Boat series, the creative goal is to forge the inner and outer forms – the spiritual “sacred center,” private and personal, and the toughened outer core with its scars and thickened skin – into a balanced vessel that can transcend the mortal, that can make life’s sometimes perilous, sometimes smooth journey. The direction taken by the Boat is uncertain, however stout and firm its surface or how sensitive its core; unlike the related but static Ledges series, the Boat can move backward or forward, casting shadows or moving into the light.

The Ledges, massive half-vessels that jut from gallery walls like hollow, unstable natural formations, express a sense of precariousness that goes beyond that of the Boats, yet at the same time offer handholds, projections which a climber might grasp to pull up a steep slope. They retain the vessel shape, and ironically suggest that they continue into the gallery wall - whether only one deeply scored, rippled ridge is mounted on the gallery wall or a grouping, only a small part of the structure’s resistant stone is visible, and the Ledge will remain solid.

Ironically, that same sense of security and permanence pervades Sorensen’s recent series, the enameled metal Dwellings. Lacy, almost completely minimal or eroded versions of her earlier series, the sculptures that rest on gallery floors, hang alone or in multiples on walls or revolve on pedestals in shiny reds, yellows, blues or black, represent a major leap forward for Sorensen, rather than a departure. Like her other series, most inspired by features of the landscape, the metal sculptures sprang from the artist’s experience. While traveling, she was open to influences from a wide variety of sources – in this case, primitive fishing nets. Their shape, a tubular design woven into an elongated sack, moved her vessel forms forward in a surprising way; the net retained the essential concept, reducing it to its simplest elements while expanding its potential.

Gone are the earthen walls and the tensions between thickly folded walls and the eroded, encrusted bands that underlay the Shields’ geometric ornament or the sleek golden polish inside the rough Chalice. The artist’s touch remains, in miniature, at each welded joint between slender, hollow metal tubes. However, the Dwellings are, in a very literal sense, more reflective than Sorensen’s earlier iterations of her central aesthetic: Those slender tubes capture every passing shadow, changing in response to an approaching viewer and even, in natural light, to the passing of time as their shadows lengthen and contract in response to nature’s rhythms. Each has an opening, an inviting portal that draws the eye into the Dwellings’ interior – or, as there are no longer walls, no more intensely worked earthy enveloping walls - into an implied space that is open to the world.

Dwellings, remarkably, restate Sorensen’s major themes in a lighter, livelier and more playful fashion, as do her equally elegant and assured new works on paper. Her monotypes and encaustics suggest spiritual versions of Foothills, abstractions of monumental earth forms.  Rather than the muscular, tactile qualities that make her Chalices, Goddesses, Boats and other clay sculptures so hard to resist physically, so lusciously textured and toned, Dwellings and the new works on paper invite an equally immediate response, but one that is more spiritual, more centered in the intellect and thus more abstract. That should come as no surprise in the oeuvre of an artist as focused, disciplined and mediumistic as Sorensen. From the day she walked into Reitz’s Madison studio, she has worked to balance the basics of art and life and to erase in a personal but thoroughly modern approach the line that divides them. 

Watching this mature artist at the very top of her talents and field grow and evolve will be compelling - Sorensen is open to fresh approaches, new materials and the most inspiring and subtle influences. Her work consistently has sprung from her central concern for the Earth, its endless variations and permutations, her abiding respect for its materials, generative and eroding forms and its immense forces, past and present and future. She has moved forward continually, to express herself in new ways, to state and restate her core beliefs, and even to even turn them upside down; a modernist with a strong sense of the whole panorama of art, she has grown increasing free in the ways she sees, evaluates, formulates and, instinctively, makes her art. In her most recent body of work, Sorensen sharpened her focus, paring all extraneous material away and reaching, provocatively, toward a personal, and highly resonant, abstraction.

Laura Stewart, Writer and Art Historian