BY Matthew McLean in Features | 24 SEP 14
Featured in
Issue 166

In Focus: Jesse Wine

Botched temporalities and ceramic selves

BY Matthew McLean in Features | 24 SEP 14

On a recent visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jesse Wine passed through the rooms dedicated to ‘Greek and Roman Sculpture’ to reach those displaying the ‘Arts of Africa’. For Wine, as a non-specialist and a Westerner, it was a passage from generically intelligible objects to inscrutably personal ones: from, as he said to me, the products of ‘a consistent industry’ to the results of ‘individuals trying to explain an idea with their hands’. Wine discusses working with clay as a matter not only of conscious manipulation, but also of the material’s response to body temperature and ‘chemical make-up’. There is something intensely tactile about the results of this process: next to the ceramic works in the studio, I find myself wanting not just to stroke their surfaces, but to embrace them. 

Wine’s show at Mary Mary in Glasgow earlier this year replicated his discordant museum experience in miniature. While the first room presented works with comic classical allusions (a great platter of Mediterranean fish; two oversized metallic goblets, crumpled as softly as lead), the second featured two parallel rows of heads, which stared each other down across an aisle. Those in one row (Jesse Show Passion I–IV, 2014) were open vessels, glazed to resemble chunks of rusted hulks; in the other, the blue-green surfaces of complete rounded heads (Chester Man I–V, 2014) were as lumpily worn as mussel shells. If these textures suggested ancient artefacts dragged up from the seabed, the cartoonish erroneousness of their forms registered a different timescale together. Wine’s faces rarely behave. Tongues poke out, mouths wink slyly, cheeks bulge and eye sockets gape inwards. Across their skins and against their features, colour pools and glaze dribbles, as if each head has been left out in the rain.

Jesse Show Passion IV, 2014, glazed ceramic, 43 × 33 × 31 cm. All images courtesy: the artist, Limoncello, London, and Mary Mary, Glasgow

The botched temporality implied by these works is endemic to the artist’s fundamental urge to run things together, conjoining, he says, ‘what you would respect and what you wouldn’t expect to’. Among his abstract ceramics, delicate organic forms will be given a skin of smudgy psychedelic swirls (like the brilliantly bathetically titled Culture Stick I, 2013), or a glaze will render a surface both gnarly and glossy, like varnished bark (Market Culture, 2013). These strange and contradictory material qualities are probably the clearest trace of the influence of Wine’s hero, the American ceramicist Ken Price.

The Glasgow show’s faux-archaeological aspiration was confirmed by its title, ‘Chester Man’, which, as well as identifying Wine with the city he was born in, also recalled the ancient human remains scattered about the UK named for their excavation sites: ‘Cheddar Man’, ‘Lindow Man’, etc. Such names conjure up both a very specific human individual and only the vaguest sense of their way of life (naturally, only the barest of facts can be sketched about Cheddar Man’s existence 9,000 years ago). Some version of this bi-polarity – being both present and distant, contemporary yet primeval, individual but anonymous – seems to animate even Wine’s nonfigurative work: the strange amorphousness of Who’s that Blob? (2014) evokes a great archaic omphalos at the same time as its pelt-like surface brings to mind Cousin Itt from The Addams Family; its title simultaneously suggesting an almost-discernable identity and a splodgy indistinctness.

Wine collects potential titles in a list on his phone (recently accumulating some 250). His interest in naming is betrayed by an un-exhibited series of watercolours utilizing misspelled versions of his name found in his junk mail: ‘Jessy’, ‘Jason’, ‘Jeremy’, etc. Self-presentation – and the possibility of misrecognition – crops up repeatedly in Wine’s works. The series ‘I Really Care’ (2014) replicates, on broad ceramic plates, the contents of meals the artist cooked for himself on specific evenings; the belts that bind the heads in Jesse Show Passion I–IV derive from Wine being over-invested to the point of paralysis in the idea that the choice of this accessory should somehow reflect his character; vessels woven through with white shoelaces drawn from Reebok Classics trainers reference an adolescent angst about peer-approved footwear and fitting in. At times, Wine’s concerns with identity, sincerity and youth seem all bound-up together: he still scrapes the surface of works like Chester Man I (2014) with a hunting knife given to him as a boy; at MOSTYN in Llandudno this year, he installed an overview of his current production in a rough reproduction of his childhood bedroom, replete with gingham-checked bedspreads and a replica of the mural his aunt had painted there. 

I Really Care II, 2014, glazed ceramic, 8 × 54 × 54 cm

This self-awareness bleeds into self-censure. In one self-portrait, Wine parodically sports a hipster beanie (Travelling White Man, 2013). In the studio, he toys with titling two new pieces respectively Super Trendy Bastard and Conceptual Tit, before settling on the more opaque Lee’s Role I & II (2014). Torso-shaped, dripping in thick pink and cream glazes, like melted shop dummies, these are pierced through with stumpy black clay rods; each is like a St Sebastian, lacerated by self-doubt instead of arrows.

The gaps and edges of Wine’s works are a particularly interesting place to look. As also attested by his belts and laces, he seems especially concerned with the ways an object can be delimited, finalized, ‘finished off’. It’s fitting, then, that the irrevocable nature of ceramic finish should appeal deeply to the artist: once a work is given to the kiln, every crust, bump and crease that emerges is absolute. Wine never casts from a mould and never repeats a glaze. Each iteration must be a new experiment, in which the artist can only ever predict the outcome. Articulating, as he does so disarmingly, the pressure of choices and the anxious responsibility of self-expression, this aspect of the medium must surely provide Wine, if not release, at least relief from the interminable business of being himself – Jesse, Jeremy or whoever else that might be.

Jesse Wine is an artist based in London, UK. His exhibition at Galerie Hussenot, Paris, France, opens on 18 October; a solo show at BALTIC, Gateshead, UK, opens in November; and, in December, his work will be included at a group show at CURA, Rome, Italy. 

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.