Jennifer Brazelton: Essential Structures

by Susannah Israel

“CAA artist creates a world of abstraction.”

“I juxtapose the macro and the micro to highlight visual parallels and to remind us that we are structurally connate with the world around us”. [1]

Relationships and interdependence are building blocks for Jennifer Brazelton’s work.  She draws inspiration from visual patterns as apparently unlike as maps of San Francisco bus lines, viral colony growth patterns, and machine gears. Order and place in these structures are emphasized like links in any living chain. Organic forms of expansion, like molds, dictate the conversion of separate elements into the dominant structure. Patterns of the urban environment contribute to her organizing principles of visual composition. The mechanical formations hide the hand of the artist. What is revealed is the mind of the artist.

Brazelton makes intricately constructed ceramic forms which re-present and abstract our daily environment. She uses extrusions and pressmolds to generate mass-produced parts, then arranges the elements in layered, formal relationships. Brazelton’s work can be simultaneously apprehended as convoluted highway ramps and as Petri dishes.  Our human point of view oscillates between micro and macro.  Are we in it or outside it? Governed by it or controlling it?  The word connate refers to parts that have grown to form a single structure. Such parts may be dissimilar or even forced together.

This intensive investigation began during graduate studies at San Francisco State University.  For her thesis exhibition, Brazelton took the aerial view from a plane as her point of departure, creating scaled landscapes of fields and cities as seen from the sky. Relationships of size and space, especially hidden aspects, change with distance and perceptual assumptions. The abstracted perspective which allowed new visual relationships to emerge especially intrigued the artist, who says of her passion for travel:  “Long airline flights to Thailand, Indonesia, Micronesia, Laos, Turkey, and Hong Kong provided inspiration in the ever-changing landscapes… connections, shapes, and colors layered over each other.  Rivers and roads became branching trees, human veins, and knots of rope.”[2]

Brazelton describes herself an abstract artist. To abstract is to summarize, to express a quality or characteristic not based on individual elements; in sum, to look at ideas. But how do we look at an idea? In our increasingly sophisticated world, bombarded with visual signals, we have arrived at a point where Brazelton’s approach utilizes common practice.

In 1977, the film Star Wars showed a breakfast scene on a planet “far away”. To emphasize the idea that this was an unknown planet, the family drank blue milk. This was a creative and powerful visual because the film-going audiences of the time did not drink blue beverages. Today in Alameda, the local ice cream store regularly runs out of macapuno ice cream, a similarly startling deep blue.   Multicultural perspectives and shared global technology make for sophisticated world citizens. This is the world in which Brazelton works.

The artist employs abstraction with visual blurring between very large and very small points of view. Repeating patterns, from bacterial colonies to farm fields, show an arrangement of orderly elements whose purpose includes generation, protection and nurture. Brazelton reduces the components to reveal essential elements of the governing structure.

Her highly thoughtful work incorporates aspects of installation and social practice. Brazelton recently exhibited Pieces of What, a large-format installation work, at the Richmond Art Center. The wall-mounted display allowed the artist to arrange a complex pattern of circular blue forms with irregular interiors in formal shapes suggesting a labyrinth. Viewers approaching from the hallway experienced a focusing of vision from the large view to detailed inspection of the color and texture of individual components. Brazelton says:  Color for me expresses emotion/ texture can suggest many things simultaneously.[3] The composition evokes maps, with their implied movement, pathways and destinations. The dissected tubular forms also cross-reference the human lymph system, called a transport system in medicine, with urban railway transit.

Brazelton’s Lamentations series critiques the American practice of war as business, and the unconscious participation of all Americans in the profits of our way of life.  War, with soldiers as the chess pieces for military conquest, has changed very little at the human level, even as weaponry has moved from stones to smart bombs. This is the entrapped aspect that Brazelton addresses. What is war? is it the nightly news? The body count, which was dinnertime viewing fare during the Vietnam era?  When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer.[4] Lamentations: Growing American Culture resembles a giant sunflower. Very close reading reveals that the seeds are discernibly the tiny heads of soldiers in helmets, by the hundreds, meticulously applied. The generic little heads call up our tepid reaction to the annual newspaper listing of their deaths, where each face receives one square inch of newsprint, in a format as ultimately anonymous as Brazelton’s minute castings.

Brazelton exhibited the Neighborhood series at the inaugural Ceramics Annual of America, a new venue for ceramic art at Fort Mason, in 2010.  Much map-based art uses the original cartography, altered but still inherently familiar at a casual read. Brazelton further reduces this, remaking the world in terms of the connection between a baby’s head and an electronic gatepost.

One piece, titled Crossroads, is an attenuated oval shape with three swelling apertures, symmetrically placed, and a saw-toothed red form in its interior.  The color of the red form, its shape and the texture of the wet red glaze, all evoke organic growth. The small spurs on the edge of the red form reveal themselves, on close reading, as baby heads. They are slick and mottled with red, like newborns. Brazelton would accept the most direct interpretation, the natural object as the adequate symbol.[5] At the core of these implied lives is the nurture and protection of the babies inside the gates.  Very real human conditions drive families to choose survival and guaranteed protection through such exclusivity. In recent discussion about gated communities, it was said ‘the people are stuck inside as well as outside,’[6] The quality of exclusion in a high-priced neighborhood has another price for the people dwelling there: by limiting  perceptions to shared socioeconomic assumptions,  privilege becomes self-deprivation of stimulus and change. The most exclusive retreat in the world is found in the manufactured islands near Singapore, quite literally a world of one’s own, which is what Brazelton asks us to consider. Aerial views of the new constructions bear an uncanny resemblance to Brazelton’s abstracted communities.

Brazelton’s process, like the work she creates, is an intricate layering of intimate and monumental structure, fused into a new entity. She says “My creative process is about absorbing and filtering ideas and information. I take bits and pieces of things I like and combine them to make something new.”[7] 

It is important to the artist that the works are beautiful – almost all of them are – and that they meet exacting standards of technical construction and formal composition.  In order for the close relationships between macro and micro structures to prove out, they must be accurately made. The necessity for getting all the details right at this level makes Brazelton a meticulous worker.  She comments on her exacting approach as  “quenching my obsessiveness.”  Although her careful attention to detail is thorough and considered, she remains open to spontaneous evolution; this is no physical tic but a determination to see the idea to full conclusion. The material she has chosen to work with contributes its unique unpredictability: “I love the unknown element, especially the results of kiln firings.  You might think you know what is going to happen, but often it is not what you expected.  This can be both good and bad.  I like the element of chance.”[8]

Brazelton uses abstraction to reveal hidden structures stripped of nonessential elements. The governing structures of our lives can entrap us by providing unexamined, intangible benefits.  Engaging  her detailed work is provocative; we are called upon to exchange casual perception for a more thorough awareness of how closely enmeshed we really are within our environment. To be connate also indicates that dissimilar elements are forced together, interestingly. The layers of such connate structures vary extremely: water in rock, charged ions in soap, soldiers at war. The protected family inside an exclusive community is also confined there.  We get stuck because we are linked through our own social expectations and the practices that have grow to contain us.  Brazelton’s ceramic works locate and examine these hidden relationships, creating a fascinating new lexicon.


About the artist:  Jennifer Brazelton’s work is exhibited nationally and appears in numerous publications.  She maintains her studio at the Voulkos Dome complex in Oakland and teaches at California State University, East Bay, Merritt College, and the Richmond Art Center. Brazelton lives with her husband, artist Tom Michelson, in San Francisco.

About the author:  Susannah Israel is an artist, writer and educator living in east Oakland. She has published extensively since 2001, and was the 2011 Jentel Critic at Archie Bray Foundation.


[1] Artist’s statement, unity.


[4] Wonder, Stevie. Superstition, Motown Records: New York 1972

[5] Pound, Ezra. A Few Don’ts, Poetry Review: London 1913

[6] las cadre critique, Voulkos Dome studios, Oakland, 2010


[8] ibid.

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