Inventory Number ELM035
Size 21.65" h x 15.35" w
Country of Origin Denmark
Year Made 2014
Morten Løbner Espersen’s Horror Vacui is built around a traditional vase-shaped core, whose outlines are just discernible through a labyrinth of serpentine elements built around it. This work features a dense variegation in the glaze and the the topsy-turvy roller coaster of the pot produces endless visual interest. The gravitational slide of the glaze adds to the volcanic energy; near the base, a few suspended drips preserve that sense of fluidity.
For most potters, glaze is a just a quick dip. It finishes and protects the pot’s surface, and adds a splash of color to the piece. Some ceramic artists go a little further, layering or mixing two or three coatings of glaze, or experimenting with other effects like sgraffito, wax relief, or underpainting with oxides or other colorants. Then there is a tiny coterie, at the upper echelons of the discipline, for whom glaze is something else entirely: dimensional, temporal, and cosmic. Among these standout figures we can list the California-based Adam Silverman; New York’s Kathy Butterly; Takuro Kuwata, in Japan; the Polish-born Aneta Regel (see p. xx); and the British ceramist Gareth Mason (see p. xx) . There is amazing quality and breadth of vision in all these artists. But nobody, nowhere, does more with glaze – more in each piece, and more across the span of his oeuvre – than the Danish potter Morten Løbner Espersen.
What all the above-mentioned ceramists have in common is the ability to conceive of glaze as depth. Instead of thinking of it as a thin, glassy covering for the clay body, they build it up into a many-layered mass, usually over the course of many firings. Espersen’s work is exemplary of this approach. For him the unglazed vessel is a bedrock, and the glaze a rich stratigraphy that lies atop it. It has all the complexity of the earth’s surface: rivulets and streams, promontories and peaks, cracks and pitting. Each deposit of material interacts in the kiln with previously applied layers and the result is fantastically complex.
Though his ceramics seem otherworldly, Espersen comes by his mastery the old-fashioned way. He trained originally at the Danish School of Design in Copenhagen, which has been producing great ceramists for decades. Many of its graduates find a place in industry, but Espersen always has been based firmly in independent studio mode. He has remained a patient student of his discipline’s history; both his forms and his glazes insistently recall certain historic Chinese and Japanese works, fin-de-siècle ceramics from France by the likes of Pierre Adrien Dalpayrat, and the vividly individualistic creations of George Edgar Ohr. He has been inspired by his countryman Axel Salto, who did for Danish ceramics more or less what Ohr had done for American Art Pottery, introducing a totally new abstract language beginning in the 1930s. In Salto’s so-called “sprouting” and “budding” styles, the whole vessel was articulated with organic protrusions of various scales. In some of these works he dared to explore asymmetrical compositions, highly unconventional at the time; his glazes coursed down their irregular exteriors, thinning out to a gloss over the bumps, thickening to opacity in the hollows.
Critic Karen Grøn has described Espersen as being “like Axel Salto on acid;” certainly, his pots can be seen as a trip departing from his Danish forebear.[i] The upright vase which was Salto’s principal format is also Espersen’s; so too is the earlier potter’s way of defining the object as a massive wall with a rhythm shuddering through it. The big difference, apart from the much more complex and painterly glazing in Espersen’s work, is that he literally extends his pots into space. While he produces simple vase forms, he is best known for more freely sculpted objects in which the container form is ruptured into discrete elements.
His Horror and subsequent Horror Vacui series (2013 and 2014 respectively) exemplify this latter direction in Espersen’s work. Each is built around a traditional vase-shaped core, whose outlines are just discernible through a labyrinth of serpentine elements built around it. The use of the term “horror” in the titling makes a certain sense – Grøn has compared the pieces to the mythological Midgard Serpent of Nordic legend, and the writhing snakes of Medusa may also come to mind. Particularly in the Horror Vacui series, which features a denser variegation in the glaze, the topsy-turvy roller coaster of the pot produces endless visual interest. In some examples, like Horror Vacui (blue/matte black), the gravitational slide of the glaze adds to the volcanic energy; near the base, a few suspended drips preserve that sense of fluidity.
One reason that the works give rise to such varied associations is the dramatically different palette that Espersen develops for each one. There is a tremendous range of color and texture in his work. In earlier pieces, he often used a chalky, dry surface, but in the Horror and Horror Vacui series the glazes tend to be richer and more fluid. Some are saturnine and mineral in quality, with visual interest provided mainly by the play of light on the burnished-feeling surfaces. Others are saturated with prismatic hue, like a palette full of thick oil paints slathered on a canvas and allowed to intermingle. Others still have the lightness and translucency of watercolor: the jewel-like tones of Violet and Light Blue Horror blur together as if seen underwater.
Espersen does make some more contained pieces, nominally more conventional, and even notionally functional (though it would be a bold person who would test their flower-arranging skills against his work). In 2015, for example, he completed a series of relatively straightforward vases, some of which could almost pass for late-nineteenth century pots: ovoid, lobed, and gourd shapes, with explicitly historicist glaze treatments like oxblood, gold luster, and blue-and-white. Another group of that year riffs on the Korean moon jar, adding maximal color and texture to this famously minimal archetype. Espersen’s gentle sense of humor is evident here – a red version is entitled Blood Moon, a squat variant Halfmoonjar – but the overwhelming impression is one of deep respect for precedent, across a wide sweep of ceramic history. Although Espersen is grounded in a distinctively Danish point of view, his aesthetic is also cosmopolitan and draws on many national traditions. It is worth remembering, too, that he has undertaken many periods of work abroad, including in France and Japan.
The simplicity of his monolithic forms allows Espersen to show off this rich palette of influences, and of course, they become perfect settings for his hyperactive glazes. Effects that might get lost in his more sculpturally complicated works are laid open to view here: the cratering on a moon jar, the drizzles and bubbles of his thinner glaze applications, the soupy opulence of his thicker ones. Among the latter, the piece Monsterwhite is particularly noteworthy. The shape could not be more basic, a simple flared neck atop a globular base. But the gorgeousness of the glaze is something to behold: like a weathered cliff wall, or some other geological formation, it contains numberless variations of tone within a relatively narrow color range. We don’t usually think of white as “saturated,” but this object proves it can be done.
In the end, this is the sort of alchemical effect that makes Espersen’s work profoundly satisfying. He works intensively at his craft, exploring a single discipline and form-language, rather than skipping from one to the next. This dedication to the possibilities of a traditional genre may seem unfashionable to some, but not for those who have eyes to see. To them, it will be abundantly clear how much transformative power Espersen draws from the deep well of ceramic technique and tradition. Like Salto before him, he has stayed close to the fundamentals of pottery – all the better to reinvent them.
[i] Karen Grøn, “Horror Vacui at Trapholt,” in Morten Espersen: Horror Vacui (Trapholt Art Museum, 2012), 5.