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February 23, 2006

Art Beat

Louis Marak's Ceramics:
Perspective and Retrospective


photo of Loius Marak's work "Tea Bag Table" 1991It's the end of an era at the HSU Ceramics Department -- Louis Marak is retiring after 37 years of teaching. He came here from upstate New York in 1969, interested in what was going on with West Coast ceramics. He had landed the job after an interview at a College Art Association conference, but the school's budget didn't cover a trip to come and check the place out. So Lou and his wife, Noelle, moved to Humboldt County sight unseen. They haven't regretted the decision.

Soon after he started at Humboldt, the college acquired a building, an old laundry, which was converted into a makeshift ceramics studio. He was originally told that it would be a temporary thing, so there wouldn't be a lot of expensive alterations. Thirty-odd years later, the pottery lab is still there and any improvements have been made by the staff and the students. Be that as it may, it must have been exciting to be involved in setting up a whole new studio.

Right: "Tea Bag Table," 1991

Throughout his teaching career, Lou has also worked on his own art, producing and selling pieces, exhibiting nationally and internationally, winning awards and conducting workshops throughout the country. He's been a busy guy.

In honor of his retirement, HSU's First Street Gallery is presenting a retrospective. The exhibit spans his career and features "new works, works never seen before and works borrowed from lenders throughout the West." They also produced a gorgeous exhibition catalog with photos by Robin Robin, an essay by Jo Lauria (an independent curator and museum consultant) and a student appreciation written by Pauline Greenfield, an intern at the gallery. Perusing the show and savoring the catalog will give you a good sense of Lou's development as an artist. So I don't really need to write anything more. But I will, because I love to put in my own two cents.

Lou is known for his sculptural optical illusions. He employs what arty folks call trompe l'oeil, which translates roughly to "fool the eye." Technically, all realistic painting on canvas employs trompe l'oeil. After all, you've got a two-dimensional (2D) surface and you're fooling the viewer into believing that they are looking at a real, fully dimensional landscape, still life or person. There are various techniques (besides carefully rendering what you see) that an artist can use to aid the deception. One of them is linear perspective, which was "discovered" in the 15th century. It was discovered like gravity was discovered -- it always existed, but someone had to figure out what it was and take notes. Like most things, it was a long process and many people contributed to the theory, but its "discovery" is generally credited to Filippo Brunelleschi, a sculptor and architect who took really good notes.

Basically, a good understanding of linear perspective helps you recreate on paper the shapes that three-dimensional (3D) objects have in space. That and some good shading will do a lot to give a flat surface depth. So getting back to Lou Marak's work, here's a guy who works with a 3D surface. So what does he do? He flattens the object and uses perspective to pretend that it's deep again. Why, you may ask? Because he can, and because he likes to play around with things and make you ask questions.

photo of Loius Marak's work "Green Chair" 1985Lou's work involves drawing, painting and sculpting -- all mediums that he enjoys. The pieces are built with clay, but they start as drawings and the surfaces are painted. While the pieces are sculptural, the 2D surfaces of the pieces are as important as the 3D elements. A sculptural tail that sticks up out of the top of a vase will complete a fish that is painted on the surface of the vase. The 2D surfaces are also where he puts that perspective to use, making a shallow surface look like a full-sized table or chair. He uses low relief for elements like water drips, furled tablecloths and tea bags. Tea bags? Yes, the Tea Bag Table is a low table draped with a cloth and piled with used tea bags. Don't look too deeply for the significance of the tea bag -- the artist probably just drinks a lot of tea.

Left: "Green Chair," 1985

And speaking of deeper meanings, that's not the point for Lou. You'll find various motifs that show up a lot in his work: hands, water, fish. But you can't get him to pontificate on them. He just likes working with them and the way they look. He likes to juxtapose elements in illogical ways, to play with perspective and illusion and, as he writes in his artist's statement, to "pose questions rather than provide answers."

All of this trickery makes for sculptures that are fun to look at, and, indeed, humor is a big part of Lou's work. But in addition to that, and despite my light-hearted discussion of his work, his technical skill is vast and impressive. Many of the techniques he employs he developed himself, and his work is precise, detailed and flawless. Those who collect his art enjoy the wry humor of it; fellow ceramic artists are in awe of his skill.

The HSU ceramics studio is going to be a different place without Lou. I spoke with Keith Schneider, one of Lou's colleagues, about his leaving. "He was the man!" Keith says -- popular with students and faculty, in love with his medium and able to translate his enthusiasm to his students. He also put in a lot of overtime, working with students outside of class. His own successful artwork, exhibitions and sales set a good example to students of a working artist.

But I sincerely doubt that Lou is going to fade away. He'll keep working and with the extra time he can devote to his art, we can probably expect to see wild new developments in his sculptures. So here's to a successful teaching career and an unknown but promising future.

Louis Marak: A Retrospective, 1963-2006 is on exhibit at HSU's First Street Gallery, 422 First St., Eureka. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m. 443-6363 for further details.

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