BY Tom Morton in Interviews | 16 JUN 13
Featured in
Issue 156

In Focus: Aaron Angell

Studio pottery, anti-art, John Fahey and compost

BY Tom Morton in Interviews | 16 JUN 13

Tom Morton Your ceramics often resemble something between a desk tidy and a diorama from a tabletop fantasy war game, reimagined by a 20th-century British studio potter. What interests you about working in this material, and to this scale?

Aaron Angell I began working with ceramics as a way to make maquettes or proposals for larger environments, which will never be made. They tend to behave as an intricate, gem-like foil for larger and more boisterous works within a show. I also like those barely useful ceramic types that are endemic to schools and prisons – desk tidies being a good example. Clay is a particularly facile medium for individuals who are not only ‘non-artists’ but also actually anti-art. Hormonal teenagers taking ‘Fine Art’ as a doss subject regularly produce some of the best sculpture I’ve ever seen.

TM     Unlike some artists who are interested in amateur or vernacular art, the impulse here doesn’t seem to be simply to celebrate lay creativity, and through it a fuzzily imagined notion of democracy.

AA     I’m definitely not celebrating unmediated self-expression, but I am interested in certain hermetic, hobbyist cultures where there is a difficult mixture of canonical and fantasized history.

TM     Is ceding control important to your work? I’m thinking of your wall collages, which you make by gluing sheets of paper to a gallery wall, then ripping them away to leave a ragged image, or of the process of surrendering a ceramic to the kiln. How does this sit within a practice that often emphasizes craft?

AA     A balance between chance and an orchestrated set of criteria is important. I prefer to aim at the oddness of material and, rather than cede the pieces to failure, actually write a volatile natal environment into the whole production. If the ‘failure’ is there from before the start, then the ‘unexpected’ final form is never too unexpected or exciting to me. With the collages, I can never plan the exact final form. This, and the fact that they’re literally impacted into the wall, means they risk being dismissed as a kind of backdrop for other works within an exhibition. I recently had an exhibition in Miami where I showed only wall collages, with mixed results.

Troy Town - attitude adjuster, 2012, glazed stoneware, 50 x 65 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Rob Tufnell, London.
Troy Town - attitude adjuster, 2012, glazed stoneware, 50 x 65 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Rob Tufnell, London.

In terms of craft, I suppose I’m interested in its appearance and imagery but not in its philosophy, which sounds really shallow. Just as folksongs are often songs which ‘nobody wrote’, I like craft best when it is art which ‘nobody made’. People usually only get in the way.

TM     You’re planning on establishing a ceramics studio later this year …

AA     Troy Town Art Pottery is going to be a workshop and resource for artists in London wishing to use clay as a sculptural material, rather than for the production of wares, vessels and practical items. It’s curiously difficult in London for artists to truly experiment together with ceramics without being under the auspices of people who make teapots (not that there isn’t a lot to learn from people who make teapots). Along with a kiln etc. there’s going to be a scratch-built ‘glaze library’ of colours that are unique to the pottery. I hope it will help to promote ceramics as a material for sculpture, and one that is both rampant and plain.

TM     When discussing your work, you often refer to compost (the word is rooted in the Latin ‘compositus’ – ‘something put together’) , a substance that comes into being through organic accretion and rot.

AA     It’s more or less a method of shedding a psychical accretion of interests. Composting is a term I use to describe the process whereby elements and imagery from these interests are allowed to ‘rot down’ together and form their own equations or couplings. This is ‘compost’ as a sort of sophist mêlée whereby meaning, if there is any, is generated by reference to the whole of the output, rather than by focusing on individual pieces. This is in opposition to an alchemical, scientific or conceptual method. It feels organic and is, uncomfortably, much more errant than my life is.

Compost (Chaldon Church), 2012, acrylic and printed card on clear acrylic, 100 x 70 cm
Compost (Chaldon Church), 2012, acrylic and printed card on clear acrylic, 100 x 70 cm

In a sense, I’ve fallen pleasantly into a groove of having exactly three aspects to my current practice: wall collages, stoneware ceramics and églomisé-painted Perspex. Imagery and motifs are nested within these three processes and are allowed to bleed across them, either during the making or via the perverted logic of curation. Recently I have started introducing other partners. I’ve been planning scenes for a purportedly endless filmic ‘raga’ for a while, and I am currently working on a series of mantic grave rubbings.

TM     By ‘raga’, I’m guessing you mean a melodic mode used in Indian classical music?

AA     I’m particularly interested in the use of the raga in ‘American Primitive’ guitar music from the 1960s and ’70s. Robbie Basho, Peter Walker and John Fahey all combined the system of the raga as ‘mood’ or ‘colour’, with Appalachian melodies and elaborated blues transcriptions – something vaguely akin to tone painting, but in a long and wandering form. Fahey’s A Raga Called Pat pt. I–IV (1967–8) is a masterpiece – a rare example of a sort of cynical new-age mentality, in which field recordings, arranged guitar and esoteric psychedelia come together to express conflict rather than harmony. The ‘base notes’ in my case are a series of discrete processes, and the melody comes from the compost. In a sense, disparate elements are allowed to sink in the same boat.

TM     Certain motifs reappear often in your recent works: scarred coins, mushrooms, anthropomorphic ‘face jugs’. Each of these seem to speak of effacements, transformations, altered states.

AA     Those particular motifs probably stem from an interest in vandalism and vulgar forms of dissent, things that are easily made ‘anti-’ by simple gestures. A defaced coin is anti-, and mushrooms are very anti-; the fact that so many of them are inedible is telling. To me, they’re foremost an expressive schism in the landscape, and I like how they don’t really seem to sit comfortably on this planet.

I suppose it usually comes down to finding attributes of such interests that can be articulated visually in the first place. I’m currently writing about the figure of ‘The Wandering Jew’ in popular culture (via James Bond, Jerry Cornelius, Emmanuelle and Robin Askwith). The challenge is to avoid being too expositional, or attempting to reify a narrative. 

Aaron Angell lives and works in London, UK. Recent solo shows include: ‘Raga for Fishwife’ at World Class Boxing, Miami, USA; ‘Bumpkin’ at Rob Tufnell, London; and ‘Put John Barleycorn in the old brown jug’ at Croy Nielsen, Berlin, Germany (all 2012). This year, his work is included in the group exhibitions ‘Apparatus Criticus & Locus’, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, Germany; and ‘A History of Inspiration’ at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France. He will take part in a major survey of recent British and Polish art, curated by Tom Morton, at the CSW Ujadowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland, in September.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.