Russell Biles’ brick bungalow just north of downtown Greenville has a wide front porch and a terraced backyard that falls away into dense woods. From that lush and sun-dabbled space you pass through a door into a dark and musty basement workshop. Crammed in are a couple of small work tables, an electric kiln in one corner, and a yellow fiberglass shower stall in another. In-process, old, and broken art works are scattered around.
It’s like two different worlds on one residential lot. The art Biles makes provides a similar contrast. He makes figurative ceramics, not unheard of but not the dominant form for the medium. Most have political and social messages. He mines old television shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Leave it To Beaver” to speak to serious issues and make serious art. Some of his work is made by slip casting – a lowbrow, mass production method. He’s also invented an inlay technique that amazes other artists who do ceramics. He can make beautiful objects doing ugly things.
Although Biles calls himself “contrary,” he’s more about contrasts, contradictions, and complexity. There’s nothing about his work that doesn’t stand the work itself on its head and turn it inside out.
Another artist once told him “I make things people want to hear” – meaning beautiful things.
“You,” he told Biles, “make things people don’t want to hear.”
One of his sculptures is a pure white stylized dog with sinuous curves. Its eyes are orbs of tightly-grained wood salvaged from a 19th century building. From the other end of the porcelain dog pops another dark round ball.
“It’s really beautiful aesthetically,” Biles says, “but it’s a dog taking a crap.”
He thinks he makes ceramics pretty well – “I can stick clay together as good as anyone” – but he knows what sets his art apart is the stories his art tells. Those stories attract some and repel others.
“You like me or you don’t,” he says. “There’s not much in between.”
Biles is one of the few artists working in ceramics who attempts to keep to a news-cycle deadline. He makes art that comments on political and social situations and he wants to get the pieces built, fired, and into the art world when the news is actually new. Actually he’d like his commentary to be ahead of the news.
“If they get it a year later, it’s like I was ahead of things,” he says.
Not that everyone gets it – ever – but enough do to give him hope not just in art, but in the world.
Not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks he made a series of sculptures based on the ‘60s television show “The Beverly Hillbillies.” In Biles’ version, Ellie May has joined the Army and been killed; she appears perched on her own coffin. Jed cleans his brogan with an American flag and Granny polishes her shotgun the same way. He showed them at an arts and crafts fair in New York. Some of the audience found them offensive, but the firemen and cops providing security did not.
“They got it immediately,” he says.
African-Americans as a rule understand his works about race better than white people, who assume the art is offensive to black people.
“Someone came to a talk I was giving and told me, ‘I thought you were black,’” he says.
During the last year he’s been busy with sculptures of President Barack Obama that add several new layers to his social, political, and technical repertoire.
Half his pieces in “SC6: Six South Carolina Innovators in Clay” at the Columbia Museum of Art through Oct. 3 are Obamas. They’re like dolls with pudgy bodies and huge heads covered with mostly black and white patterns.
The first one he made depicts the President split – one side black, one white – that refers to Obama’s mixed racial heritage and how the presidential race split the country. One can also read into it that Obama’s policies aren’t as one-sided as those on the left or right thought they would be.
Another Obama is covered with elephants and donkeys, symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties; it’s titled ‘Screw Me, Screw You, Screwed.” One is blanketed in Confederate Flags and the X from Malcolm X – two widely misinterpreted and misused symbols. The pattern on another is pink triangles – a symbol the Nazis used to brand homosexuals; it’s a reference to the president’s unfulfilled promise to rescind the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Biles describes Obama’s problem succinctly: “He’s human and he’s a politician.”
A couple of technical aspects of creating the Obamas are important because the medium is part of the message.
The pieces are made by slip casting, in which watery clay or “slip” is poured into a mold. This is the kind of production method used to make decorative objects carried by places with names like “Ye Olde Ceramics Shoppe.”
(Biles has used slip casting for years to make his four-inch-tall “Wee Pee” figures. The body is based on a peeing boy toy and he’s made them with the heads of Bill and Hillary Clinton, George Bush, Queen Elizabeth, and Andy Warhol. Those who join his “Wee Pee” club receive several a year. The Obamas are the first time he has taken the figure to a larger size.)
Oh and that surface decoration on the Obamas – it’s not surface. After the figure comes out of the mold he cuts shapes into the body then layers in black clay slip. The patterns aren’t on the clay, they are the clay.
Even those with a basic understanding of ceramics can see it’s not just surface treatment. Serious ceramicists – the gear heads of the art world – go nuts over it.
“Craft people eat you up with technical questions when they see these,” Biles says.
Biles grew up in Concord, N.C., just outside Charlotte where his parents still live. They were solid Goldwater Republicans.
“I have a picture of my father shaking Nixon’s hand,” he says. “We went to the conventions, my parents worked at the polls.”
He got into a lot of minor trouble as a kid and after high school joined the Navy where he was trained as a weapons expert. He attended Piedmont Community College and then went on the Winthrop University. Not long after college he got married. His wife was an accountant who worked for several big corporations. They have three children – two in college and one in high school.
He and his wife split up seven years ago, although it took two years to finalize the difficult divorce. During the divorce Biles made a series about the “Leave it to Beaver” family disintegrating.
From the start, Biles made art with a sharp edge. When he was at Winthrop University in the 1980s, the televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were riding high tide and ran the Christian theme park Heritage USA just down the road in Fort Mill. Long before scandal drowned the couple, Biles made a big sculpture of the couple dressed in outfits constructed of greenbacks, waving up a giant cross with a dollar sign on it. Fat blue tears roll down their chubby cheeks.
“I tried to sell it for $200,” he says. It’s still on a table in his dining room.
That brings up another issue – selling art that’s tough, especially in hard economic times. How’s he selling?
“Shitty like everybody else,” he says with a wry smile. “Even the blue chip people aren’t selling.”
Biles may protest a bit too much because he has sold pretty well over the years. He’s been represented by good galleries, been included in group exhibitions around the country, and his work has been published in books. When the Center of the Earth Gallery opened in the North Davidson Street area of Charlotte 20 years ago, Biles was one of the first artists. (The gallery closed in June, but the owners will still sell his art.) For a decade he was also represented by Leslie Ferrin, one of the top ceramics dealers in the country. Recently, the new Mindy Soloman gallery in St. Petersburg, Fla., picked up his work.
His work sells for between $1,500 and $15,000.
“I’m a hell of a deal,” he says.
Recently if Art Gallery in Columbia began carrying his art. Biles expresses puzzlement about it.
“I don’t really have a market there,” he says.
Still the gallery has sold a few small pieces. Although Biles’ art has been in exhibitions in South Carolina and is in public and private collections here, he has never before had a commercial gallery in the state carry his art.
If he’s not getting rich with his art, he is respected. He’s been in group shows at Baltimore Clay Works, Westchester Arts Exchange outside New York, the Garth Clark Gallery in New York, the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh, The Mint Museum of Art and Design in Charlotte, the John Michael Kohler Arts and others. His art has been included in many books, most recently Masters: Earthenware, published this year, and Confrontational Clay from 2008.
The biggest publication exposure came when an image of one of his pieces of murdered baby beauty queen Jonbenet Ramsey was published in the National Enquirer with the headline “How Tacky Can you Get?”
Biles doesn’t think his art is tacky, but he knows it can be tough to take. Other artists, though, seem to be able to develop an audience for art with a serious message.
Recently, Biles attended a concert by the folk singer James McMurtry who never smiles and sings about bad love, bad lives, bad politics, bad people stealing money from good people, and getting their votes as well.
“He’s selling pain,” Biles says,
Biles figures that’s what he’s selling as well.