Brian Kluge and the Beauty of Decline

Ceramic cubes
Photo by Brian Kluge

I met Brian Kluge at Midwest Clay Project for his interview. As of July, he’s the studio’s owner and invests a deliberate portion of his time and energy in its artists. He works with burgeoning students and practicing studio artists to help them find the balance between being at the mercy of the material and manifesting their intentions.

At first glance, you may struggle to see how Brian’s work fits into an artistic approach that centers humanity and community engagement. His main body of work consists of large, unglazed geometric objects extruded from pressed clay molds. Given his artistic style, his pieces touch at the human experience in ways that, initially, are far more subtle than those of pottery art objects. In contrast to his contemporaries who create functional work, Brian’s pieces often appear to be eroding (and sometimes actually are). Understanding how his work directly connects to the human experience requires moving past physical utility and diving into, in his words, “subconscious triggers.” After speaking with him, it becomes clear not only that Brian’s work embodies collectivity in a way that parallels the mentorship and teaching he does, it celebrates the transience and connection that define the human experience.

After completing a residency at the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Institute in Roswell, New Mexico, in 2012, Brian moved back to Madison with his family. Shortly thereafter, he began teaching ceramics at Madison College and University of Wisconsin–Madison and continues to teach there today. Brian became involved with Midwest Clay Project in 2014, working as a studio manager under its founder, Jennifer Lapham. After running it in her stead for a few years, he purchased Midwest Clay Project from Lapham in the summer of 2017, and is now the studio’s owner and operator.

Photograph by Rey Berrones

Throughout his career, Brian has remained devoted to clay. As a result of this constancy, his relationship to the practice has not stagnated. It’s easy to see how he has changed in his understanding of the material; after his undergraduate work, Brian moved away from functional pottery. That being said, his practice has altered in ways more crucial than physical process. Notably, after his time in Peace Corps, Brian’s work incorporated three definitive elements: pressed earth, scale, and time.

“During my time in Malawi, I had a lot of space to think about what I wanted my life to look like,” Brian says, explaining what caused his shift away from pottery. “The buildings that rural Malawians would build were being formed out of pressed mud. They’d create these structures out of pounded brick clay and build the walls of their houses up one layer at a time. Watching that clay construction happen on that scale caused me to see a different possibility for making.”

Malawi’s influence on Brian’s work is evident not only as it relates to pressed earth, but especially as it relates to change in scale. His Entropy Block featured a five-foot cube of clay left to change and dry over a few days and the photographs he took to document change. In his project Collective Confluence , Brian covered massive swaths of floor with wet clay for individuals to walk over, hand mold, and otherwise leave their marks on.

Photograph provided by Brian Kluge

In addition to the elements of pressed earth and scale, Brian’s life in Malawi reframed his relationship with time, or more specifically, transience. “They would make these homes, and they were designed to last for four years max. They’d have thatched roofs and decay as time and weather would hit them. It caused me to reflect on my own ideas of permanency. When the houses would eventually fail, they wouldn’t knock them down and build in the same spot—they’d build them right next door. You’d get to see their homes in all stages of being all at once.”

When examining Kluge’s oeuvre, it becomes obvious that this reverence for the passage of time and interest in capturing moments along the way have clearly embedded themselves in his work. The artist has created installations involving placement of a clay block and documentation of its erosion from environmental circumstances. Scorched Earth had one of these blocks in an annual prairie burn in Edgerton: a project Brian was able to execute after completion of the Aldo Leopold Nature Center Burn School and acquiring permission from the landowners involved.

In another project, Equilibrium , Brian built a cube using clay collected from the Salt Creek riverbed in Wilderness Park on the outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska. The project was completed with photographic documentation of the object’s decay over nine days in the middle of winter. Afterward, the cube was placed back at the riverbed to return to the elements.

Photograph provided by Brian Kluge

For Brian, however, “time and weathering” expands beyond environmental effects of fire and winter. He examines how we can act as the environmental factors and thus mark the passage of time through our influence on our surroundings. In his Artifact series, Brian blurs the line between functional work and sculptural object in exploring what relics would represent our society after its passing. In one object from this series, he creates grooved soap dishes entitled Everyday Phenomenon . The concept involves using the soap dish over time to the extent that soap scum builds up in patterns dictated by the object’s form while also creating a smooth patina. In creating these objects as both personal and ubiquitous, Brian enables viewers to connect to the questions “What would our world look like if we stopped maintaining it tomorrow?” And “How long would it take for our imprint on the world to disappear?” while finding beauty in the change.

The hints of human touch and strong allusions to the impermanence of time makes Brian’s work not only novel, but instrumental in pushing forward ceramics as a genre within artistic practice. He will be an artist to watch in the next decade as he challenges the conventional usage of clay and the mechanisms artists may use to allude to human influence, experience, and moment.

To see more of Brian Kluge’s art, visit briankluge.com .

Photograph by Olivia Loomis

Elissa Koppel is a freelance writer and a local artist.