Curator Catherine Milner, 2019

Narratives in Contemporary European Ceramics

Catherine Milner

Clay, as Grayson Perry once put it, is a ‘second-class material.’ Clay is inherently antiheroic, lending itself to an almost comic interpretation of what could otherwise be frightening. However, as this show proves, it is a first class means of visual communication and can also be the most sophisticated of materials. It responds to the simple pressure of a finger, confirming in a very basic way that we exist, that we have agency over our environment and can express our feelings in a silent but powerful language.

Beyond the Vessel presents two principal types of work; those inspired by the forests and dark tales of the North and those by Greek mythology. Biblical stories are also key; most notably in the works of Claire Curneen whose elegiac sculptures referencing imagery from the early Italian Renaissance, exude a gentle gravitas and calm. ‘Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery has been a constant go-to reference for me’ she says. ‘It challenges every aspect of my being, a painting that is utterly beautiful and complex.’ Equally important is the unheimlichkeit or the uncanny; a German term suggesting the dark, secret and impenetrable worlds beyond our understanding.

Sigmund Freud viewed this as an all-sensory condition; he suggested that the characters who appeared in ancient stories and myths are merely manifestations of each of our different senses being stimulated one after the other. Christie Brown’s bleached figures that have eyeholes in the place of eyes are particularly unheimlich; they are stiff like some archaic kouroi and particularly effective in conjuring up a sense of eerie dissonance. The work celebrates the animal instinct within the human being, where power can run amok; the doll-like faces of the figures joined to bodies are latent with muscular power yet oddly static.

Malene Hartmann Rasmussen was born in Denmark and grew up reading the Troldeskoven (In the Troll Woods); a book illustrated by the crepuscular drawings of the Swedish painter John Bauer. Her works are populated by the fauna of the forest floor as well as the trolls that some Danes believe exist. ‘It is not specific tales from Scandinavia but more the different sides of human nature the creatures represent,’ she says. ‘In some of the stories I have read, and I remember from my childhood, you have to be on good terms with the trolls and other creatures so they can help you in times of trouble. Often when people help the trolls, the trolls then pay the people with gold. If you don’t keep your promise the gold turns to rocks... I find that magical aspect fascinating.’

Also inspired by the wall paintings or kalkmalerier on 12th century Danish churches, Hartmann Rasmussen’s sculptures are of beasts with teeth or ‘hell mouths’ and fantastical creatures such as the Sciapod - a being that has one large foot that it uses for shade as it lives in the desert. Like many others in the exhibition, her work combines dark themes with levity; her scary monsters are often grinning. Combining pagan traditions, she has made an enormous Danish crown in the style of an English corn dolly. ‘I wanted to make a piece that was like an offering to the Gods – presents to those in the afterlife in the way the Vikings would bury gold and helmets in their graves,’ she explains.

Stories of lost or abandoned children, left to scavenge for survival have always been a peculiarly northern European preoccupation and one expressed in the haunting figures of the Finnish artist, Kim Simonsson. His troupe of Moss People, a group of seven androgynous children dressed in wolf skins and feathers, have been abandoned it seems either by their parents or some other figure of societal authority. On their backs they carry computers and mobile phones – vestiges of the sophisticated, technologically dependent civilisation that they were born into, but now, in the post-apocalyptic world they inhabit, tools that have become utterly useless. Their green bodies are the colour of moss, but also uranium; their faces resemble those you see in Japanese manga cartoons rather than human faces, creating a haunting futuristic vision of what is to come as well as harking back to stories by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

Myths depend on charms being worked by their protagonists; they are peopled by monsters and gods who bring both luck and catastrophe. The works in this exhibition spring from a similar universe of nightmares and dreams, with exquisite beauty matched by horror. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of Carolein Smit – whose raw and emaciated bodies, flayed like Marsyas, roiling in blood and tears, are sometimes hard to look at. They challenge you to not look away or be disgusted and act as fierce reminders of our imminent decay. Smit’s sources of inspiration range from Dutch Vanitas paintings to plastic skeletons taken from a gumball-machines.

‘Death is a part of life – it makes life interesting’, she says, adding: ‘In reaction to our violent times that seem full of butchery, I wanted to find something to do with my disgust. They are about taking an historical precedent and making it relevant now.’

Each of Smit’s sculptures is executed with the painstaking dedication of the ancients for whom time was determined by the seasons and the light of the sun rather than the clock; tiny splinters of clay are brought together to form works of astonishing intricacy that take weeks to build. Every one of the 56,000 hairs of fur belonging to the hare in this exhibition, for example, was individually moulded by hand; a process that puts her almost in a state of trance, she says. It is this dedication to process that makes Smit and others in this exhibition both anachronistic but also part of a rising trend.

The haptic has replaced the plastic and even though clay might still have the status of the underdog in relation to other materials, it also has the major advantage of being the most democratic - accessible to all and unsullied by anything artificial or inauthentic; a quality that plays well at a time when everything - from the news to clothing - seems synthetic.

‘The new technologies give the illusion that you can do without hands. The same thing happened with photography and painting when people thought you could do without brushes and drawing,’ says Giampaolo Bertozzi, half of the duo Bertozzi and Casoni whose Arcimboldo-like sculpted heads made of fruits and flowers, representing the four seasons, make up some of the most dexterously elaborate oeuvres in this show.

‘We think of it in the same way, as many others did back then about photography, that it opens up a possibility, it is an additional instrument in our hands to advance in the design and imagination of new horizons.’

Bertozzi touches upon the rising interest among young. For the past 50 years we have enjoyed a Machine Age. Scientific advances and the boom in technology have led us to value the digital and industrial over the handmade. The mobile phones that nestle in our pockets or the wafer-thin computers that sit on our laps give us access to a virtual world - the entire planet - at the push of a button and colossal amounts of data can be amassed in seconds to prove or disprove theories or to create arguments. Using technology, images can be manipulated to create new worlds and distinct forms of beauty. But in dwelling in these virtual worlds we have disconnected not only from each other, but from our bodily selves. Nowhere is this more evident than in contemporary art where the use of manufactured materials has triumphed over natural ones and the practice of making work with our hands. Now, however, a new kind of art is emerging which is irreverent, playful, beautiful, forged out of that most elemental and ancient of materials; clay.

What this exhibition hopes to illustrate is what lies beyond the vessel; meaning not only what lies beyond pots, cups and other utilitarian objects into which clay is often formed, but what lies beyond the vessel of our human bodies; namely our spirit and imagination and the art we create as the image of ourselves. It focuses on our need to explain to ourselves where we come from and how our beliefs emerged through myths but also to demonstrate, as Vivian van Blerk puts it: ‘The arbitrariness of life that dogs our every living hour.’

At a time when so many of us spend much of our time isolated from each other, gazing at the crystal screens of our cell phones like a myriad of miniature Narcissian pools, these stories have become more vital than ever, plunging us into a world of collective beliefs and reminding us of our common narratives.

Although they date back to the beginning of history; stories about the Cyclops, Medusa, Gaia and Zeus continue to resonate with us in the shape of the zombies, aliens and monsters that dominate our silver screens. More than 50 percent of the world’s population now live in cities, largely cut off from nature yet there is clearly a yearning to be reconnected with the earth, a new kind of animism, through tales about spirits lurking in the forests or at the bottom of the sea, or under the eaves or in the sky.

Clay embodies this emerging sense of connection and is now being used both as a material to make art and also as a symbol of rootedness. It is anthropomorphic; close to us. A body.

It is also prevalent in the games that children play. Two years ago, the most common question tapped into Google’s search engine all over the world was ‘How do you make slime?’ This was borne of a still highly popular craze among children to make something physical, tactile and real, from flour, glue, hair conditioner, washing powder - anything they can lay their hands on at home. Is this not evidence of a thwarted human need to touch, feel and shape materials in a way that is not being met by prodding and swiping computer screens; a primeval need for the elemental, sensory gratification of moulding the most readily available substance around - the clods of earth beneath our feet?

It seems that it’s people in their early twenties who are adopting clay as their material of choice, rather than people in their fifties or sixties, with pottery classes flourishing in the beatnik centres of New York, London and other capital cities.‘The popularity of ceramics among young people is due to its nature - it is so close to us humans, to the earth and to the fact that in art it is a material yet to be discovered and which still has much to give,’ says Bertozzi.

Vivian van Blerk who has made a mise-en-scene of animals fleeing some unknown catastrophe, puts it another way: ‘Even when clay is used to make sophisticated objects, their origin in clay hardened by fire remains understandable. I do not understand a lot of things I use daily - plastics, computers, even electricity. Perhaps understanding the genesis of things gives us some hold on the world around us, that we form it as much as it forms us. It is an honest testament to what happens when the abstraction of being enters the real through making.’

The revival of the use of clay as a means of creating abstract sculpture is one of the most compelling elements of this new trend in which the narrative element is made subordinate to the expression of raw emotion. Sam Bakewell has a preoccupation with the textural, raw qualities of clay and equally its capacity for perfection. His work, Reader is made of 22 slabs of clay, each fired with different glazes and chosen to mirror art works by different artists; be it Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, an Etel Adnan painting, a Fra Angelico or a Cy Twombly.

‘In large volumes the human body struggles against the restrictions of volume and weight, which act as a reminder of our anchoring in material existence,’ Bakewell says. ‘Clay suggests its own structural forms — evident when handled in bulk. Through the simple working of mass, weight and material sensibility, certain truths, whose transmitting power comes closer to the raw material of perception, seem to reveal themselves.’

Jørgen Haugen Sørensen uses clay to express turmoil in pieces where the clay itself, gouged and thrashed, becomes the embodiment of chaos and frenzy. Brought up during the Nazi occupation in the Second World War, the first piece of sculpture he made as a child was moulded out of a stick of dynamite that his freedom- fighting mother had left on the kitchen floor. Sørensen’s figures look almost wrestled into being; pinched and pummelled and wretched as if in pain, they embody the turbulence, frustration and fear of those years that still have a continuing resonance in our increasingly nervous times.

‘Since I was born, there have been wars, wars, wars, wars. All the dead, the men; it is crazy,’ Sørensen adds. His dogs of war are meant to exhibit the brutality of human rage; their callousness as they circle each other, as they tear each other up, limb from limb, echoing our own savagery. Sørensen’s favorite tale is The Shadow by Hans Christian Andersen. The story tells the tale of a shadow that takes over a man until there is nothing left of the man himself. His sculpted figures, the color of bone, long and etiolated and lumped together as dehumanised masses are an excoriating comment on the living dead, the shadows, born of war.

‘I make my own myths through what I see,’ he says, claiming that the story of the present moment is what he feels needs telling, although one feels while standing in front of his works that they stand for Now and Always.

Bouke de Vries also focuses on conflict in his masterpiece, The Last Supper. Centered around a mushroom cloud made of thousands of shattered pieces of porcelain, the sculpture is set up on a table as a center piece like no other, populated by Delftware figurines diving for cover amid the cruet dishes and table napkins.

The show concludes with a film by Phoebe Cummings, one of a new group of clay performance artists that plays on the fragility of clay and human endeavour. It features the image of an exquisitely crafted, beautiful garland of unfired leaves and flowers reminiscent of those festooning the pediments of ancient Greek temples. Cummings is seen circling her oeuvre hanging from the ceiling like a gigantic chandelier, scrutinising and touching it intently and tenderly when, after a long hiatus it suddenly and unexpectedly crashes to the ground shattering into a thousand tiny pieces. ‘When I observe plants, I can’t help but think what fools we are in comparison,’ says Cummings. ‘I think our anthropocentric viewpoint is part of many contemporary problems in the world.’

It is said that art anticipates life by 30 years. The widespread reemergence of clay as a material in art denotes a revival of interest in the fundamental elements that sustains us and can thus be seen as a cause for optimism as well as celebration.

Catherine Milner is Senior Curator at Messums Wiltshire