Chris Dagradi is based in Delft, Holland. Works from his most recent exhibition (December 7, 2002, through January 7, 2003, at the Royal Delft pottery museum), “Panorama,” featuring painting, tile, and tile tableau, is reproduced here along with an accompanying essay.
Panorama, tile tableau by Chris Dagradi
Above and detail at bottom of page: “Panorama,” tile tableau by Chris Dagradi.
Tiles featured in the essay below are also from the exhibition.


Chris Dagradi
© 2002

Anyone who has ever stood atop the World Trade Towers knows what a panorama istile. I am standing there now. My first reflex is to look straight down. In the distance spots of colors, which are cars and trucks, creep along. The grid of streets and buildings appear to be no more than made of Lego blocks. Looking south is Lower Manhattan, Manhattan Bay, the Statue of Liberty, then all the Southern states, Mexico, and Central and South America. As I look north I see the island of Manhattan stretching out from Wall Street to Harlem. It’s a forest of stalagmites. To the west over the Hudson River lies New Jersey, a tangle of highways, factories, swamplands, suburbs, and the Pine Barrens. Still further west, past California and across the Pacific Ocean, I see the smoke of the recently demolished great standing Buddhas in Afghanistan. Looking east, over the East River is Brooklyn, my birthplace. Further over the Atlantic Ocean I see the crooked tower of the old church in Delft where I now live. Looking further east there is a tiny hilltop village in Northern Italy where my grandparents once lived.

The view is breathtaking; It is almost too much for one person to absorb. The enormous freedom of the view stirs up some questions. What is freedom? Where does it begin? Where does it end? As a painter I try to bring difficult questions into perspective by viewing things in relation to the art of painting. And so I arrived at the following two definitions of freedom.

Imagine there are two painters. One uses all available ways of applying paint, all available materials and images. Citations from over 50,000 years of art, painting, photography, film, infrared, x-rays, microscope, telescopes, you name it . . . all possible ways of looking at the world with every conceivable resource. Endless freedom. Endless because there is no end to the invention and imagination in discovering new ways of seeing.

The other painter has just a few tools. He has only one subject or just one color. His territory is small; the limits are set. Maybe he uses only white . . . but how many whites are there? What kind of paint does he use? How does he apply it? What’s the texture of the paint and underground? What size is the work? All these extremely personal choices reveal aim and motivation. This painter offers the viewer the freedom to ask questions, even the freedom to add to the work by the simple act of viewing it. And this is possible because of the open quality of the work. This is beginingless freedom. Beginingless because this way of working seems to have always been with us. It is tied up with instinct developing into intuition. A survival skill. This second form of freedom is closely related to all traditional art forms, for example ceramic decoration. Certain set rules must be followed, certain processes. Through experience dexterity can be acquired and developed. Results can be predicted and repeated.

I became interested in ceramics when, while walking over a field in Delft, I chanced upon an old shard. There, out in the open, lay a piece of a plate at least 200 years old. There were just a few brush strokes on it. A shard can inspire more then an entire object because it allows one to see the part as a whole, and, if one wants to, to visualise the entire piece.

As an art student in the 70s in New York, the abstract expressionist painters were examples of painters who had captured the essence of painting and filled it with new life. Pollack, Gorky, De Kooning, Newman, and others. There was a first, a second, and a third generation of abstract expressionists. . . . Room enough for one more generation.

With this in the back of my mind I looked at the broken pottery. The single piece was the start of a collection that has grown over the years to several hundred examples. Each is unique. The strong abstract character of the painted decoration, the sensual effects of weathered glaze, and various mixtures of clay each tell their own story. More like jewels then junk. Inspired by the wide range of possibilities I became fascinated with the actual technique and slowly began to learn the craft of ceramic painting. Since then I have experimented using traditional painting techniques for my own work in creating relief tiles and tile tableaus.

The grid of a tile tableau can be daunting because it calls to mind every dull tile wall that I’ve ever seen. A limited surface. Matisse said about his painting, “The good thing is certainly — as in painting generally — to give the idea of immensity within a very limited surface. The role of painting . . . is to enlarge surfaces, to work so that one longer feels the dimensions of the wall.”

Growth implies decay and destruction. Sometimes one can only understand how something is created by seeing how it falls apart. A leaf that slowly tiledeteriorates reveals its skeleton of veins. A shard lets itself be read from its core to the surface. As a painter it is essential to investigate, to work out ideas, to take unexpected side roads, to be able to double-back and return to something once begun and then set aside, or to make a clean break and finally discard a work. But, nothing is lost or wasted. If something is thrown out it winds up on a virtual manure pile to provide nourishment for future work.

At times of great loss it’s difficult to imagine the purpose of continuing to create. Everything seems destined to fall apart. Black is no longer a color but a state of mind. After September 11th I can only enjoy the view from the World Trade Towers in my imagination. The slow glitter of choppy water on the East River, the play of shadows snaking down the skyscrapers and up the avenues, the specks of color creeping along. The endless view stretches through space and time. Only when I realise that I have recreated the entire panorama in my mind does hope return. What then could be more meaningful then to once again give form to the imagination?
Panorama, tile tableau (detail), by Chris Dagradi

Chris Dagradi, September 2002

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