You might have been forgiven for thinking, momentarily, that you were looking atthe models for a particularly restrained architectural commission. The way that the works were presented, as very-almost uniformly rectangular slabs evenly spaced across glass-topped tables, to be inspected and admired from all angles (even beneath), certainly lent that air to proceedings.Subtly contoured topographies in creamy un-glazed, un-fired clay, rising and fallingin layered steps or otherwise cut awayto form firm-lined recesses, gave an initial impression of controlled experimentation within the limitations of a self-imposed brief.
Clay lends itself well to rehearsals. As the just-scratched scribble in one of the dozen or so untitled tablets (all 2013) reminds us, it is often used as a kind of sketchbook,a medium for mocking-up or planning out. Perhaps this is because, whilst clay remains unfired, it is never quite fixed; until reaching a crucial stage of desiccation, it can continueto be shaped, smoothed and added to. On the other hand, with the help of a bucket of water, the process could be reversed completely– a threat to which Anna-Bella Papp’s chosen medium is always vulnerable but that offers almost limitless possibility. From mud back to mud. There are few materials that can be recycled so completely, leaving no trace of their former shapes. The question, then, becomes one of knowing where to stop; and this young Romanian artist seems to be mastering the answer.
It would only take a few minutes witha wet sponge to wipe the slate clean, as it were, of the corkscrew mark that it carries.For a debut presentation – the exhibition was Papp’s first ever solo show, following hergraduation from the de Ateliers programme in Amsterdam this year – this felt remarkably assured. Each clean-lined form built into the clay tablets, however slight, was assertive and precisely defined. On closer inspection, it became clear that these pieces are not models, or sketches, or prototypes for anything larger, but rather their own perfectly formed units, complete unto themselves.
As well as the process of working systematically, systems themselves seem to be important to Papp. Some of the forms, such as the clusters of three claw-mark-like scratches in one of the show’s only titled works, this verse has no other night than the one that is coming, recall much older forms of making marks in clay – runes, or maybe hieroglyphs. Their symbolic functionis emphasized by the fact that the rectangular slabs, or tablets, approximate thedimensions of a sheet of A4 paper. And the individual tablets themselves follow asimilar logographic logic. Each is a defined character in a cryptic alphabet, which can be endlessly recomposed across surfaces in new configurations.
Theoretically, each of these piecescan be both laid out flat and hung from the wall. In this transposition from the horizontal to vertical plane, shifting contours areflattened and the forms are given to be read symbolically – as ciphers mapping ideas, rather than sculptural approximationsof space. In practice, though, some are tooheavy to be hung. They cannot escape their own material weight. Seen up-close, thereis further evidence of the struggle with the medium: surfaces undulate ever so slightly; certain slabs are bowed or the finish is uneven with water marks or the traces of smoothing over – the faintest shadows of hands at work, otherwise eliminated from this most ‘crafty’ of materials.
In its raw form, clay is receptive and pliable, but as it dries out it becomes unyielding, tougher and more resistant, yet also more brittle. Brittle in the way inwhich words can sometimes be: rigid andinflexible when compared to the suppleness of the ideas that they express.