The Human Condition
Tuska: The Human Condition
Works From 1964 – 1993
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A collection of works from the traveling exhibition.
For years, many have attempted to describe the life and works of John Regis Tuska (1931-1998). Too often, words fall short.
To truly know Tuska, you must view his work. Not just through a window, but through the sum total of your life experiences. Let the art and insights of this visionary take you, as he would say, “to the moon.”
“What if…” inspired Tuska’s work and drove his life. In his studio hung a simple, handmade sign: Non basta una vita. One life is not enough. Prior to his passing, Tuska asked that his life be shared as an educator.
Artists seek the defining characteristics of their vision through mastering media and adapting techniques that best express this vision. Throughout his distinguished career, the Kentucky artist John Regis Tuska (1931-1998) mastered new media and techniques to more fully develop his abiding inspiration: the human figure and what it means to be human. These sixty works survey thirty years of Tuska’s art and celebrate his versatility in ceramic, bronze, cast paper, and drawing. At once reflective and introspective, delicate and strong, this exhibition is a potent reflection of Tuska’s guiding motto: ‘Non basta una vita’: One lifetime is not enough.
Stationed in Japan for part of his naval service in the mid-1950s, Tuska studied contemporary Japanese ceramics and was deeply inspired by Rosanjin, Kawai, and Hamada whose works were marked by a calculated roughness, inventive glazing, and calligraphic decoration. When he returned to his own studies in the prestigious ceramics program at Alfred University and in the decades that followed, Tuska reveled in the expressive possibilities of American studio pottery. He enthusiastically manipulated glazes, adapted forms, and relished whatever marks, scars, and spots resulted as part of the firing process. Like most ceramic artists, he created functional pieces-platters and plates, cups and goblets-but Tuska’s most inventive works were decidedly sculptural in form and figural in intent. The traditional bodily description of pots inspired sophisticated and witty responses that explored the body as a vessel and the vessel as a body. Massive bottles recall the shape and aura of torsos; rectangular wall reliefs have mouths and nipples; pots evoke the human heart, throbbing with life. And throughout his career, he used slabs of clay like paper, incising and shaping sketches of studio models on the surface.
In 1969, Tuska moved to Rome to study the lost wax method of bronze casting, which allowed him to achieve new levels of detail with the sculpted wax and give his works a permanence impossible to achieve with clay. The resulting bronzes, created in the 1970s and ’80s, reveal an underlying classicism: figures are self-contained and masses are simplified to call attention both to the figure and the space around it. Marrying the grand tradition of figurative sculpture to the quiet pleasures of the ordinary, pieces such asLady on the Baroque Couch and Reclining Figure have a warm intimacy borne from the artist’s appreciation for the familiar. Tuska’s growing facility in the medium led to explorations of figures in movement-a theme that he revisited regularly for the rest of his career-and his tour-de-force Acrobat figures are deceptively complex compositions that seem to confound gravity.
In the late 1980s, Tuska began making cast paper sculptures. Addressing themes explored in earlier years and other media, the cast paper works reveal an artist driven to reexamine the formal and expressive qualities of the human form. The ceramic relief of the early 1970s titled Energy Source is a spare and elegant clay drawing of seated figure; the cast paper version of the following decade is a compact mass of muscled flesh. The Icarus theme is similarly transformed, from the tumbling and falling figures found in clay and ink sketches of earlier years to the tight ball of sinuous muscled forms in cast paper.
An accomplished draughtsman, Tuska produced reams of drawings over the course of his career-carefully observed figure studies, deeply symbolic visions based on the figure, and incisive self-portraits. Tuska’s drawings of studio models served both as autonomous works and as fertile source material for his work in other media. Tuska also created highly finished drawings in serial form to develop ideas in sequence, from the whimsical treatment of the traditional subject of Adam and Eve to the more personally resonant themes, such as the evocative Taurus cycle. Tuska’s 1992 charcoal and ink self-portrait, completed after the artist’s heart surgery and stroke, is more than an authoritative affirmation of the power of drawing and a sober analysis of personal frailty; it is a searing testament to the artist’s unfaltering fascination for the human figure.