Ten-cent art (and other oddities)

Russell Biles is an anomaly among professional artists. Sure, many of his ceramic works sell for thousands of dollars. But some can be purchased for as little as 10 cents.

The Greenville, S.C., resident’s body of ceramic sculpture — some of which is now on display at Semi-Public Gallery (located at 305 Hillside St., in what we’ll call “NoBu,” a funky little north Asheville neighborhood that’s just coming into its own) — include works from a cookie-jar series, some piggy banks and two gumball machines, from which one can purchase signed Biles mini-sculptures (safely encased in small, plastic bubbles) for one thin dime apiece.

Biles’ work, though, goes far beyond childhood totems and trinkets. His subject matter, particularly in more recent works, carries a biting social critique — from his “McHeart Attack” ceramic salt shaker, featuring a contorted Ronald McDonald in mid-seizure, to sarcastic takes on Bill Gates and the Clintons.

What follows are excepts from a long talk with Biles about his life and work:

MX: Could you talk about your earliest memories of making art?

RB: Well, even before school, [I made] things to play with, like little animals and monsters out of clay, or plasticine. I don’t even know where I got the stuff — it was around. I suppose my folks got it for me.

MX: Was this a solitary pursuit?

RB: Yeah, building models, stuff out of clay, I did on my own.

MX: And you continued on through school?

RB: No, It stopped in school. We didn’t have art in school.

MX: So, when did it start up again?

RB: When I was in college, I wanted to be an architect. They told me to take an art course. I did — I made that mistake. I signed up for a painting class and didn’t know anything. It was hard, but I progressed fairly quickly. I enjoyed painting, but I was really making paintings of sculpture. Then I took some clay classes, and the teacher was a painter. She didn’t know much about ceramics, but she was a great teacher. The first thing I made was a suspended, two-headed flying dragon. It was a complex piece — nobody could figure it out. We finally got it worked out and fired. I was hooked.

MX: Your vision was proving to be technically challenging, right off the bat — not just throwing a bowl or two.

RB: No, they made me do six cups. Still have them. That was and is the full extent of that stuff. Glad I did them though — I use them.

MX: So the work has always been grounded in some personal vision?

RB: Yeah.

MX: Your earlier work, the large totemic pieces [like the gargantuan gorilla that greets visitors at the entrance to Semi-Public] — how do they work?

RB: Well they are inspired by Northwestern Indian totems I saw at the [Museum of Natural History] — powerful, big objects of ritual and belief. Art, in many cultures, is [controlled] by the hierarchy, and scale is an important part of it. And for my work, the larger it becomes, the more difficult it is. However, the totem form — applied to clay by individual building, firing and stacking of forms — is a very practical technical solution to achieve large-scale works. You have a limited-size kiln; logic dictates you go up [and incorporate] stacking. But I wanted to make objects that appear to be singular forms. It’s very important that the seams are visible, to reveal process; but most people see them as singular forms.

MX: You have a reputation as a craftsman; I think of you as a sculptor. How do you think of yourself?

RB: I’ve always respected craft. But craft is just an element. It’s true, you can’t bulls••t craft. You have to work at it, develop it. Craft gives the work integrity … [and] holds the viewer. It’s like the backbone. You can’t deny it. The work is as finished on the inside as it is on the outside. [That’s] important to me. I want people to see the quality of the work involved. But there has to be more to it than that. And it’s funny, but I don’t think I get much respect from craftspeople, because of my imagery.

MX: Much of contemporary craft is about comfort. Your work can be very uncomfortable, even disturbing.

RB: Yeah, I scare those [craft-oriented] people.

MX: Could you talk about the transition in your subject matter, from the fantastic personal imagery to the appropriated popular subjects like Bill Gates and the Clintons?

RB: I think it has a lot to do with my developing confidence in my abilities. To be able to pursue my own rhetoric on a solid foundation of work, I can open up more, be more free to pursue my own artistic vocabulary.

MX: The first piece I saw of yours was a papier-mache sculpture of Jim and Tammy Baker covered with dollar bills, back in the mid-’80s. So this [pop-culture] trend is not new.

RB: Well, it’s easy to cut loose, but you have to be able to back it up. I had to develop something — build confidence, make the work legitimate on more than one level — before I could really cut loose. It takes a lot of work to get … people to take you seriously as an artist, particularly with slip-cast ceramics, which is sort of the low man on the totem pole. … So it’s a great challenge to generate serious work in this way. … Also, I can edition my works and make them affordable, and still be in the art context. But there must be some underlying qualifier, or it won’t be taken seriously.

MX: That reminds me of the children at your opening the other day, who were buying your work with their dimes out of the gumball machines. They talked about holding onto them, and the fact that they “could be worth something someday.” They clearly put your stuff in the “high art” context.

RB: Oh yeah, I love that. The tiny pieces people get out of the machines are sort of gifts to my audience. If they cherish them, great.

MX: Here is where I believe your work operates at other levels. Specifically, art about art and art about the art market. The work takes on a conceptual edge that goes beyond sculpture, yes?

RB: Well, I hope so. I want the work to be a challenge — for me and the audience.

MX: Could you speak [about] the challenges of pursuing your vision in our culture?

RB: Well, it’s not easy. If I were dependent on [art] for a living, I wouldn’t make it. I expose our capitalistic society for some of its obvious shortcomings — like Ronald McDonald pitching an unhealthy diet to our kids. Like the unreasonable expectations placed on working mothers. I know, in some way, I’m shooting myself in the foot with my subject matter. I attack the people who buy art. I have offers for commissions, but I don’t want to do that. I’ve never received any grants or fellowships. I’m somewhat isolated, but that’s OK. The work is what’s important, and I hope to do it well into my old age.

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