The Essence of Tradition: A Review of the JB Blunk Monograph

The work of the noted twentieth century sculptor, JB BLUNK, is finding new currency in a contemporary art world starved for authenticity. A significant figure in the craft field in the sixties and seventies, Blunk’s work was included as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s seminal 1969 exhibition OBJECTS: USA, alongside prominent craft figures like Toshiko Takaezu and Wendell Castle. Although notions of material essence and expressive distillation fared poorly through the postmodern intellectualism of the last quarter of the twentieth century, the digital age has embraced what art critic Matthew Kangas called the “rematerialization of the art object.” JB Blunk (Blunk Books and Dent-de-Leone, May 2020) captures in words and images the plain-spokenness of the Kansas boy, the contemplative depth of the Japanese-trained ceramist, and the laid-back style of the California sculptor, that was James Blain Blunk.

Mariah Nielson, Blunk’s daughter, has edited a collection of photographs and essays that introduce the artist and his body of work to the twenty-first century through a transdisciplinary lens. A design historian and curator, Nielson brings a curatorial acumen to this book, which honors her father and his legacy as a boundary breaking artist of the sixties and seventies. Punctuated by essays, the photos filling the book range from formal documentation of Blunk’s copious creative output, to historical records of the California logging industry. Most engaging though, and exegetical, are the images that bring us into the home and compound that Nielson refers to in the book as “One Big Sculpture.” The enclave of Bishop Pine Reserve in Inverness, California, where Blunk’s friend and patron cum benefactor, painter Gordon Onslow Ford, gifted him land for his home and studio, is a marvel.