Pareidolia: It’s a term we rarely use for a process we frequently employ — the tendency to see forms in random, abstract patterns. It’s likely a survival instinct, since it is better to believe you see animals in the forest that are not there than not to see them when they are. It remains with us in modern life, from the simple pleasure of identifying shapes in passing clouds, to finding religious iconography in a piece of toast or a cut tree branch. It can be part of an aesthetic process — Leonardo da Vinci suggested looking at stains in plaster for inspiration — and even follows us on ventures beyond our planet: when NASA’s Curiosity rover began sending back images of Mars after landing there in 2012, researchers on the internet with overactive zoom features were convinced they could see a squirrel in what Houston assured us was just a Martian rock. Andy Nasisse embraces this instinct and lets it drive his art. He sees life forms in the clay beneath his hands or on the weather-worn rocks he photographs, and works to bring them to the fore. “My best pieces make me feel like they have come through my hands rather than from my hands,” the Salt Lake City artist says.
Nassise was born in Pueblo, Colorado, a prosaic town on the plains in a state known for the poetic majesty of its mountains. “If you were to give [the state] an enema,” he repeats a common insult, “Pueblo would be where you would start.” The family moved to Colorado Springs, which is where he went to high school before getting a BFA from Adams State College in Alamosa and moving on to Boulder for his MFA in ceramics. When he graduated, in 1973, there were two places he was sure he did not want to go: to a big city; and to the South. “I had all these preconceived notions of who I was and what I wanted,” he says. “The next year I was in Chicago, [where he taught ceramics and worked as the crafts editor for New Art Examiner] and then three years later I was in Georgia,” where he began a career at the University of Georgia in Athens that lasted for 28 years.
Nasisse says he loved Chicago, a vibrant town where he was influenced by the work of the Chicago Imagists; and the South was rewarding because it was full of “rich folk art, outsider art, material things like quilters and carvers — people who were unselfconscious, making art for themselves, because they loved doing what they did with their hands” (it’s an ethos that informs his own work). Athens also had a thriving music scene that was — with bands like R.E.M. and the B-52’s — about to explode onto the national stage. “Most of the creative energy was in the music scene. A lot of the artists were part of that.”
After almost three decades at the University of Georgia, where he became a full professor and served a stint as the graduate coordinator, Nasisse was able to retire two years early “due to good behavior,” i.e. accrued sick days. He sums up his post-retirement stage, and how he arrived in Utah in 2012, succinctly: “I had a 12-year-old son, I had a divorce, there was a woman I fell in love with and we moved here because she got a job. That didn’t work out, she moved on and I stayed.” He still lives in the house they bought in Sugar House. It’s full of artwork, his own and that of others. On the patio he has built a storage unit for his works, and the garage has been converted into a simple, functional studio, where the electric kiln shares space with his mountain bike and kayak.
Nasisse is comfortable in his adopted home. “Salt Lake is a cool town,” he says. “The politics suck and the air is bad — someone made the comment to me recently that they’re the same thing. Aside from that, it’s a great town.” His neighborhood is lively and walkable, he enjoys the local music scene, and the landscape feels like home. “I like the West. I’ve always had this kind of need for space — a horizon that’s 40 or 50 miles away instead of 100 feet.”
Coming to Utah helped revive his interest in photography. He minored in it in graduate school and has always enjoyed the work of America’s great landscape photographers. He also loves rock climbing, especially with his son. “At a certain point in my life, climbing with my son was more important than anything else,” he says. When his son, now 25 and a documentary filmmaker, started climbing, Nasisse was “taking pictures of him climbing rockfaces and I would see rockfaces.“ It was similar to the way faces would emerge in his clay work. After fooling around with snapshots, he decided to commit, bought a good camera and a tripod, began in color, then moved to black and white and started manipulating the photographs so the faces he was seeing became more prominent. The results were part of Badlands, his first exhibit in Utah, at Cedar City’s Southern Utah University in 2016.
In these works, pockmarks in the eroded stone of places like Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef become simple eyes and noses. Nasisse emphasizes these features so that while the images look, from a distance, simply like photographs of Utah’s redrock landscapes, faces begin popping up all over on closer inspection. “With the photography, I do so much manipulating that I don’t really think of them as photographs anymore,” he said in a 15 Bytes article at the time. “I think of them almost as drawings. I want people to see them as manipulations.”
Many of the ceramic pieces he exhibited alongside these photographs showed this pareidolic process emerging from clay as well. In works whose textures and forms mimicked the redrock captured in the photographs, faces also emerged. In fact, faces emerge in almost all his work, from the plates and mugs of his pottery, to the wall pieces and freestanding vessels of his sculpture. Alongside “votive and burial pieces, Japanese Haniwa, Peruvian pots, Mayan clay sculpture, killed Mimbres bowls, Mexican folk art,” Nasisse cites the influence of “naives, visionaries [and] outsiders.” The latter are felt in his freewheeling approach toward figures and faces, which can be playful and whimsical, but also dark and threatening — not unlike trickster gods such as Loki, Eris or Kokopelli.
“One of the most central impulses of human beings is to see things in things,” Nasisse says. “So much of our aesthetic dimension, including astrology, is based on it … I think it’s the most honest thing I can do. I see a figure emerge out of my hands, or I see a cliff and I see these things, and that seems honest to me. I’m not doing it for any other reason than what’s inside of me.”
Returning to the West changed his ceramic work fairly quickly. Colors became more muted and the forms more landscape-oriented. In a recent artist statement, he says “Utah is an enchanted land of shadows, of extreme contrasts of light and dark, hot and cold, of parched dry desert and sudden flash floods. A land of fantastical forms sculpted over millions of years by wind and rain, creating hoodoos, mesas, gulches, draws, arches, towers, canyons and buttes.” It can be a hostile landscape, he continues, but also one where “the animistic imagination can thrive in the suggestive, eroded shapes that emerge and cast their timeless shadows.”
In his newest work, which is at the University of Utah’s Gittins Gallery before traveling to museum exhibits in North Carolina and Georgia, he explores a trinity of concepts that he says has characterized his work for years: “the mythic possibilities of the figure, the metaphorical possibilities of the vessel, and the animistic possibilities of the landscape.” The exhibit’s title, Heartland Darkland, references issues that are both personal and political — “I usually avoid politics in my work, but it’s kind of hard to do these days,” he says — but also universal.
In the first of two bodies of work in the exhibit, the heart serves as a physical and metaphorical point of genesis. The general heart shape is present in a number of the flat wall pieces (as are his trademark faces), but it is the larger-than-life, free-standing works that pulse with energy and allow the artist to give free rein to his creative abilities. Physically, the heart provides a form that refers to his interest in vessels, if obliquely: small perforations and the passageways suggested by large arteries sprouting from the top of the pieces, suggest a sense of volume and interiority. Metaphorically they speak to a range of human emotions and experiences. “The ‘heart land’ for me refers to America as an idea rather than as a place,” Nasisse says of the exhibition’s title. No two of these pieces are alike. His hearts can be smooth and polished, like bloody flesh, or thick and encrusted like the weatherbeaten land. Sometimes a piece is both.
The second body of work, which he calls “The beast with two backs series,” emerged as he was developing the first. He was creating flat wall pieces when, wondering how he might get them upright into space, he placed two slabs he was working on independently together, back to back. He had done something similar before, but never quite so successfully. “It’s funny how you get into habits in the studio that become barriers, your own style becomes a barrier to really breaking through, so a little thing like that will come along and you have a choice — to go with it or not.” Breaking through those barriers and continuing to experiment has been important for his work. “I have a form or idea — the heart or the beast with two backs — but as I’m working, something happens and I see something and I bring it out,” he says. “When you do that, you get all these unexpected things.” In this series, where the back of one slab can be seen from the front of the other, new possibilities emerge, changing the form. The bases he forms to hold the slabs together offer opportunities for textural experimentation and from the periphery of the two figures he pulls out additional faces and creatures. “I like that unknown thing, and being able to make it work out.”
He sought out the Gittins Gallery as an exhibition space for these works because, as he says, “the people around there will get it, because they are all generally artists.” One of those is University of Utah art professor Ed Bateman. “There is something sacred about life that informs Andy’s work and the choices in how he lives,” Bateman says. “You can even see this in his photographs. They are not rock formations, but stones imbued with living presences. I suspect that there might be something deeply shamanic in how he creates his work; it is as though there are souls inhabiting his pieces.”
Bateman has spoken with ceramics students and they have remarked on the complexity of the surfaces Nasisse creates with his own glaze formulas. “I have a few pieces by Andy and I was surprised that they have their own voices,” Bateman says. “They spontaneously make little ‘tink’ noises. To most ceramic artists, these pings would be considered a flaw of the glaze cracking. For Andy, this is the life in the work expressing itself: the pieces continue to change, even with no one watching.”
With Nasisse’s pieces, though, there is always someone, or something, watching — those creatures and essences brought to life sometimes by the simplest of gouges. Nasisse says he’s done some more conceptually based work, including performances, but the work he is doing now is what feels right. “What it comes down to is I started following what felt true to me.” At 72, he’s not interested in setting up specific formal problems to solve, or creating a body of work that will satisfy certain career goals. “The goal is to make something that has life, that has presence and has mystery.” To achieve that, he says you must pay “careful attention to the line between working and overworking. Something is lost when you overwork, it loses the life, the energy.”
Ultimately, he continues to make work because being in the studio is addictive. “It’s going in and not knowing what you’re going to find and being able to find something, come across some minor revelation. It might be something simple, but it’s fun. Clay reveals so much when you get into it.”
Heartland Darkland, ceramics by Andy Nasisse, Gittins Gallery, Art Building, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, through March 22.