BY Amy Sherlock in Features | 30 SEP 14
Featured in
Issue 3

A Potted History

Contemporary artists and ceramic traditions

BY Amy Sherlock in Features | 30 SEP 14

Through a narrow doorway and up a scuff- marked staircase, the contemporary art galleries Mary Mary and Kendall Koppe occupy two floors of a former hotel in central Glasgow. During the city’s GI festival earlier this year, a brief and serendipitous confluence between the programmes at the two spaces reflected the contemporary art world’s current weak knees over all things clay. ‘Chester Man’, the young London-based (Chester-born) sculptor Jesse Wine’s first exhibition at Mary Mary, consisted entirely of new ceramic works: on a series of squat plinths, gilded, rubbery-wrinkled elephant legs framed large, crumpled anthropomorphic heads and oversized platters loaded with Sunday portions of comfort dinners. They remind me of the shallow Majolica salvers of 16th century French polymath potter Bernard Palissy, teeming with amphibious marsh-life, laid out like a Gollum’s picnic. But if Palissy’s platters look, unsettlingly, still-squirming, Wine’s, under a swamp of glaze, look regurgitated or otherwise expelled — an unambiguous, if unintentional, statement about the gulf between this work and the clean, functional presence that ceramic wares usually assume at the dinner table. Wine pushes his clay hard, almost to the brink of collapse. Like the wounded eye-slits of his mummified Chester Man II (2014), his figures (or self-portraits) express intensely felt humanity. The pinched, smoothed and overworked clay serves as a reminder of the pain, and the pleasures, of being subject to a world whose forces and caprices are beyond your control.

Clay lends itself to approximating bodies. The Adamic ‘for dust you are and to dust you will return’ of the Abrahamic faiths (Adam being the Hebrew word for earth) is just one iteration of a creation myth found in cultures throughout history in which man is brought forth from the ground. And, in the same way that we think of bodies as vessels for something beyond the material, we also anthropomorphize pots — we talk about the fineness of a lip, the swell of the belly, a rounded shoulder, a turned foot. Clay bears the trace of bodies, of scale, of weight.

On the floor below, Kendall Koppe’s beautiful, nimbly curated exhibition laid bare these corporal associations, pairing the minimal, Modernist vessels of potter Lucie Rie with the rigorously composed black and white images of American fashion photographer George Platt Lynes. Taken between the 1930s and ’50s, Lynes’s intimate images of naked, often paired, chiselled male forms were too homoerotic to be exhibited publicly during his lifetime. Rie, who trained in the 1920s at the Vienna Workshops’ Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts, now the University of Applied Arts), fled to London to escape Nazi anti-semitism in 1938, setting up studio in Albion Mews, Bayswater, where she lived until her death in 1995. Her use of the clean lines and simple forms of continental Modernism set her apart from the British studio pottery tradition still dominated by the Orientalist-vernacular syncretism of Bernard Leach and his St Ives-produced Standard Ware. Leach supposedly advised Rie that her pots were too thin-walled; their narrow feet and fine lips — often pulled off-centre to create a gently pouting dip — lend them an air of studied precarity, as if they had been caught on the wheel at the very moment at which they were about to collapse. Like Wine, Rie took clay to its edge. Her pots, arranged at Kendall Koppe on a long curved plinth, seem to share the muscular tension of Lynes’s sculptural torsos and the sense of achingly contained desire of their restrained, highly formal compositions.

Can a line be drawn from Rie to Wine? Is it necessary or interesting even to try? Rie, though her work was exhibited widely in institutions including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, always identified as a potter: from her fledgling efforts on the wheel in Vienna, she was, as she once said in an interview, ‘lost to it’; her long career was a love story with a single medium. Wine does not feel similarly beholden to a particular material tradition. As for a number of young artists working in or with clay — other London-based examples might include Caroline Achaintre, Aaron Angell, Agnes Calf and Jonathan Trayte; in Glasgow we could add Laura Aldridge, whose ‘Openaries’, a series of public kiln firings, was also part of this year’s GI — ceramics is a medium rather than a discipline, used with varying degrees of technical skill and very rarely exclusively. We expect, and maybe desire, young artists to be capricious, or promiscuous, with their materials — trying, liking, moving on. It is perhaps unsurprising that they are unable or unwilling to contextualize themselves in the lineage of Leach or subsequent patricidal generations of British ceramicists (the Postmodern ‘New Ceramics’ of 1970s Royal College of Art graduates Alison Britton, Elizabeth Fritsch, Carol McNicoll, Jacqueline Poncelet et al.; Edmund de Waal’s and Julian Stair’s ongoing, almost Platonic, inquiries into the vessel form).

Some of these artists engage with the legacy of British studio ceramics if only to disown it. Angell’s Troy Town Art Pottery, based at alternative art school Open School East in Dalston, London, is a ceramic workshop that hosts short residencies where practicing artists are invited to come and work in clay. (These have included Achaintre, who made some of her most recent pieces at the studio.) Troy Town has a strict ‘no vessel’ policy and, instead, encourages artists to explore pottery as a valid sculptural means rather than a functional end. This anti-craft position, as Angell himself admits, is contrarian and willfully simplistic. It is complicated both by his adoption of studio convention (in which he oversees and gives technical help to resident ‘apprentices’) and his evident fascination with, and aptitude for, ceramics technique, especially the particular alchemy of glazes, most of which he now mixes on site. Angell’s own weirdly wonderful work is steeped in the folk and the folkloric: his sculptural dioramas are like mushroom-induced visions of a bucolic England of myth and monster.

These contemporary British artists might more closely relate to the sculptural ceramic movements coming out of the west coast of the United States from the late 1950s on. California clay had its roots in the ‘Abstract Expressionist Ceramics’ (so called after the title of a 1966 exhibition at the University of California at Irvine) championed by Peter Voulkos and his students — whether formally enrolled or not — first at the Otis Art Institute and then at Berkeley, in the late 1950s and ’60s. Voulkos may be the closest thing there has ever been to a hero-potter. There are videos of him in the studio pummelling grey boulders with his shirt off, or piling adroitly thrown forms into tall totemic stacks. (‘Direct onslaught’ is how Ken Price, a former student, once described Voulkos’s technique.) He heaves the clay as if he were engaged in some kind of Promethean battle with it — fighting the gravitational weight of tradition to elevate clay to ‘high art’. Pottery was always an uphill struggle, largely overlooked by the (mostly east coast) critics of the time. Still, the boulder didn’t roll back down the hill entirely. Voulkos and the (almost exclusively) male students who worked with him — Billy Al Bengston, Michael Frimkiss, John Mason, Jim Melchert, Ron Nagle, Stephen de Staebler, as well as Price — were at the heart of the period’s booming California art scene. Recent exhibitions such as ‘Grapevine’, curated by artist Ricky Swallow at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles last summer, as well as ‘Clay’s Tectonic Shift’ at Scripps College, Claremont (part of the Getty Foundation’s compendious 2011–12 survey ‘Pacific Standard Time: Art in la 1945–1980’) have served as welcome reminders of clay’s significance to that  west coast moment.

The suggestion that clay needed liberating betrays a certain level of insecurity. There is, perhaps, no more telling declaration of the medium’s ambivalent possibilities than the ‘Plumbers Tool Print’ series that Mason began making in 1971. Rough-edged tablets of clay, each bearing the impressed outline of a fixing, wrenching or tightening implement, glazed with a single glassy wash of colour, they suggest by turns that clay is masculine/tough/real or, conversely, soft/a handicraft/a stand in. And the emphatic correlative: a craftsman is not a workman. Ambivalence towards clay is important: it perhaps accounts for Mason’s later ‘Hudson River Series’ (1978), large-scale, rigorously Minimalist arrangements of commercially manufactured firebricks, which were east coast endorsed by none other than Rosalind Krauss, or Voulkos’s own foray into bronze. (His efforts were succinctly dismissed by Glenn Adamson in his 2007 book Thinking Through Craft as, ‘a transparent bid for art-world acceptance’). It creeps into these artists’ conflicted evaluations of their own work, typified by sculptor Robert Arneson’s declaration, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday magazine in 1979: ‘The problem with ceramics [is] everything looks like a knick-knack [...] But it’s important to make something [...] majestic.’

Early on, Arneson had been a follower of  Voulkos, but with his 1963 sculpture Funk John — a hand-built ceramic toilet filled with scatalogical contents — he effectively launched a new aesthetic school, which would become known as ‘Funk Ceramics’. As Angell reminded me recently, the one ceramic item that we all use daily is the toilet bowl. Arneson knew that, of course, and he made a career of playing up the shittiness of clay. It cannot have escaped Arneson’s notice, as I’m sure is hasn’t escaped Angell’s, that the 21st century’s most radical cleaving of art from craft, the first and irrevocable dismissal of the idea of artist as maker, involved a ceramic bathroom fitting. The message of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) was that everything has already been done (as Angell says of the vessel form) and so everything is equally worthy of re-consideration. This thought frees art from accountability to tradition but, equally, means that there is hope for the pot yet.

Amy Sherlock is a writer and editor based in London, UK.