The names of the Harris Deller’s works in “Permutations,” on exhibit at the Averitt Center through Feb. 1, are filled with words that seem taken from a high school geometry lesson — trapezoid, arc, triangle and ellipse.
But don’t be fooled, these ceramic works could never be made with a T-square and level. This is the geometry of creativity and surprise.
Deller’s work is an ongoing exploration of the way line, proportion and repetition can be rethought, recombined, re-imagined. And the phrase “thinking outside the box” — or circle or triangle — barely begins to describe this work.
A lifelong professor of art whose work has been exhibited across the U.S., Europe and Asia, he seems to take an educator’s pleasure in challenging our expectations. For example, he has said his work is influenced by his early traditional works, architecture “and music: cool, bop, hip, rock, folk, scat and the quirky.”
Deller’s teapot series falls into the delightfully quirky category. He has cheated depth and exaggerated scale to create funhouse mirror teapots that belong on the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party table. “Teapot with Squares,” for example, is stretched to more than 2 feet tall, and I think that could be the Empire State Building forming its skyscraping lid. A fantastical white silhouette, it’s etched in the whimsy of intricate black cross-hatching.
The installation “Wall Plates, 2003-2013” takes a decidedly more graphic approach, playing with the notion of repetition and originality. Twelve square plates form a solemn grid of black and white, but with each square exploring a very different permutation of line or arc. One is solid black, broken only by texture. Another features a wave of curved lines that creates the feel of an Asian woodblock seascape. A third takes a field of concentric circles, and boxes them into squares and rectangles. Each one has an abstract beauty all its own, made more engaging by its juxtaposition to the rest.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Deller’s work is that he refuses to tell us what to think. His titles say it all — by saying nothing. “Vase from Three Triangles with Neck and Trapezoid with X-Hatching” is precisely accurate, but leaves you to take what you will from this winsome stacking of shapes.
Not surprisingly, that sense of discovery we feel mirrors Deller’s own process of creation.
“I start with what I know, but what I’m really looking for is something I’ve not thought of,” he said at the exhibit opening. “I set up a dialog.”
It’s a very creative conversation, that’s certain. And you’re invited to join in.