The Gravitational Pull of Turrell's "Lapsed Quaker Ware"

emily singer
May 2, 2014 3:26PM

James Turrell was raised as a conservative Quaker, but in the post-Vietnam War era, he questioned his Quaker faith and ceased attending Sunday Meeting services. In the 1990s, however, Turrell returned to his Quaker roots and has remained a self-described “un-lapsed” Quaker ever since.

The 1998 ceramics series, “Lapsed Quaker Ware,” was born from a collaboration with Irish ceramicist Nicholas Mosse, and was inspired by eighteenth century black basalt funeral ware by Josiah Wedgwood. Quaker spirituality emphasizes seeing the light and recognizing an internal spirituality, while Turrell’s art guides viewers to realize a new perspective on light by rendering light material. The pitch black basalt of each “Lapsed Quaker Ware” piece exerts a gravitational pull on the viewer’s eye, seeming to absorb external light and draw the viewer’s eye closer with an inescapable force.

The geologic roots of the ceramics, in that the pieces are quite literally products of heat and earth, and that basalt is a volcanic rock, aligns the pieces themselves with earthworks. As Brooks Adams points out in Art in America, the concentric rings that adorn many of the pieces parallel the concentric topographical rings of aerial crater maps. In this regard, the apparent incongruence of the ceramics within the broader context of Turrell’s oeuvre is countered—the embellishment and coloring of the pieces are in conversation with Turrell’s studies of light and his ongoing Roden Crater Project.

In the indisputable three-dimensionality of the “Lapsed Quaker Ware” series and the infinite and borderline nonexistent blackness of the basalt, Turrell teaches viewers that, as Adams noted, “looking at ceramics can be as hallucinatory an experience as floating in one of Turrell’s Ganzfeld rooms.” Each plate, bowl, pitcher, and salt shaker is imbued with the energy of a black hole—simultaneously invisible and tangible, and imbued with the awesome power of light that only Turrell’s art can make apparent.

emily singer