John Balistreri’s new totemic ceramic sculptures fuse modern pop, indigenous motifs

07/09/2014 7:00 AM

07/08/2014 3:44 PM

Enormous totemic ceramic sculptures tower over viewers in John Balistreri’s solo exhibition “By and Large” at the Belger Crane Yard Gallery. Using a nautical metaphor, the oblong ceramic monoliths are covered in brightly colored graphic patterns, fusing modern pop art aesthetics and motifs inspired by indigenous art.

Balistreri earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1986, his master’s from Kent State University in 1988 and now serves as a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio as head of the ceramics program.

Balistreri also holds two U.S. patents related to ceramic 3-D printing innovations and has been published in journals such as American Craft, Art and Perception and Ceramics Monthly.

Balistreri is known for pushing the structural limitations of clay — “By and Large” features some of his largest works to date. During a stint at the Jun Kaneko Studio in Omaha, Neb., Balistreri utilized Kaneko’s enormous kilns to build in new ways, describing the process as closer to building a tree than an eggshell.

Balistreri’s sculptures resemble totem poles, with large outstretched arms and segmented bodies. Viewers familiar with his work will recognize his iconic structures, but “By and Large” diverges from past work in its primary color palette and smooth, glossy surfaces.

Works like “Crane” and “Eighty Four” have simple geometric forms reminiscent of Mesoamerican and Native American styles, but with a modernist pop-art twist of graphic, abstract patterns, not too unlike those used by Kaneko.

The exhibition title, “By and Large,” meaning “generally with a few exceptions,” has nautical origins. To sail “by and large” means to sail slightly off the wind to prevent unneeded stress on the masts and sails. Balistreri applies this idea to his sculptures. His oblong, rounded forms and whimsical patterning push right up to the edge of “being perfect,” but maintain a few purposeful irregularities.

The sculpture “Reef” exemplifies this quality, with its irregular, bulbous segments painted in an intentionally clumsy way, repeating a graphic pattern resembling coral or brains.

But these irregularities don’t push against the standards of contemporary art. Instead, “By and Large,” with its mish-mash of 1980s Neo-Geometric Conceptualism, 1920s Cubism and ancient indigenous motifs, is a near perfect example of contemporary art’s propensity for remixing old styles (many of which were remixes of older styles themselves).

So while Balistreri’s work is technically impressive and physically imposing, one is left wanting a deeper connection to these monolithic idols.

The show

“John Balistreri: By and Large” continues at the Belger Crane Yard Gallery, 2011 Tracy Ave., through Aug. 16. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. First Fridays. For more information, call (816) 474-7316 or go to


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