Burning hot
Recent observations on pottery in the visual arts

published in: HART (Belgium) #85, September 2011 (online: http://www.kunsthart.org/nl/16/169/burning-hot.aspx)

As attentive visitor of contemporary art exhibitions you might already have noticed it: pottery seems to be everywhere at the moment – as plate, delicate structure or lump, colourfully glazed, monochrome or raw, figurative, abstract or non-objective, in shows at galleries and museums ceramic is appearing in all kind of ways these days.

For a long time, ceramics as a medium used to belong to the arts and crafts rather than to the fine arts. Sure, Picasso’s delicate plates are famous and beloved, and artists like Thomas Schütte, Tony Cragg, Rosemarie Trockel, Miquel Barceló and especially Asian artists like Ai Wei Wei or Leiko Ikemura have worked with pottery for years now, thus holding somewhat exceptional positions within the field of contemporary art. But just recently they got good company: the younger generation finally has discovered pottery too – the ceramic mania seems to spread out quickly.

It’s always difficult, if not impossible, to explain a phenomenon like this – why is it that artists suddenly become aware of a certain medium or technique? Susanne Jung, head of the pottery department of the Bildhauerwerkstatt (sculpture workshop) Berlin which provides artists with all kind of special workshops and tools, tries an explanation anyway: “Probably the new interest in ceramics evolves from the ongoing dissolving of the borders between the different arts and media. This process now finally involves even traditional arts and crafts technique like pottery which was dismissed for so long by the visual artists because of its somewhat quaint reputation”, and she adds: “We have so much more to do here in the ceramics workshop than three years ago – artists from all countries, of all genres and media come to us and use our expertise, and our oven.”

Not only but especially sculptors are fascinated by the easy-to-form material – most of them seem to either recently have experimented with pottery, have just something burning in the oven or at least already bought a big chunk of clay now waiting for the first trys in the – for most of the artists – new medium. Yet it’s not only the plastic mouldability that strikes artists but also the sophisticated process as well as the complexity of the colouring respectively the glazing which requires craftmanship – and the openness to results one hadn’t exactly expected. So experience and imagination are required. However, one never is immune to accidents and surprises, especially during the process of burning – colours come out different from what was expected, forms get torn apart, glazes blister or crinkle – maybe it’s this incalculability which is particular appealing to artists too.

Different approaches to the medium

One can broadly distinguish between four different approaches to the medium: there are the artists who work with familiar ceramic forms, such as tiles, vases and dishes. You might think of Grayson Perry, Turner prize winner in 2003, and his elaborately coloured vases or the young Berlin-based artist Claudia Wieser who creates images by glazing and assembling tiles. Then there are the artists who use pottery in a rather classical – representative – way for sculpting figures and objects, like Mona Hatoum’s grenades, Rachel Kneebones porcelain limbs or Ai Wei Wei’s beautiful “Rock” which was recently on view in Berlin, a rock formation made out of delicate white-and-blue-glazed porcelain. Then there are the artists who stress the specific consistence of the clay and transfer it into the final form by moulding, kneading and pressing the substance before burning and glazing these peculiar shapes. And some artists take one step further by combining ceramics with other materials, like leather, metal or synthetics, as Caroline Achaintre does it.

Tiles and dishes

Grayson Perry (1960 in Chelmsford, lives and works in London) is probably the most famous among the contemporary artists who work with pottery, not least because he won the reputable Turner Prize in 2003 for his classically shaped vases covered with colourful, decorative figures, patterns and text. His topics include autobiographical images of himself, his transvestite alter ego Claire, and his family, as well as references to political events and an investigation of cultural stereotypes. Perry uses classically-shaped ceramic objects because they are charged with meaning and significance. It’s crucial that the support for depiction of the mainly dark subject matters are pots and vases, that is familiar household objects, usually perceived as decorative, prestigious props.

Claudia Wieser (1973 in Freilassing, lives and works in Berlin) also goes for pre-shaped ceramics – besides, drawings and wallpapers, she constructs wall installations and, most recently, sculptural works with tiles, glazed by herself. The strict geometrical form of the tiles is essential for the lucidity of the works which refer to modernist ideas and shapes. Wieser transfers circles, triangles and cones from her drawings on paper onto the shiny surface of glazed ceramics, thus exploring the relation between colour, form and material. The seam between the tiles makes an essential element of these “drawings” on tiles, even the more in her recent tile sculptures which are less colourful.

Figurines and objects

Mona Hatoum (1952 in Beirut, lives and works in London) who is best known for her video art and installations but experiments with all kind of material, also has worked with ceramics, for example for “Still Life” (2008/2009), a collection of small colourful objects in the shape of hand grenades. Clearly, it’s the tension between the threatening character of the depicted objects – grenades – and the ‘harmless’ nature of the material and colour which makes this work so striking.
A completely different position holds sculptor Caro Suerkemper (1964 in Stuttgart, lives and works in Berlin). On first sight her pastel-coloured statuettes remind of Rococo-like kitsch, decorative knick-knack, but then one realizes that the voloptuous figurines are involved in all kind of carnal and physical action, sometimes disturbingly blatant and certainly not G-rated. By referring to table decorations of the 17th and 18th century, using pastel colours and, before all, ceramics, Suerkemper plays with notions of moral, modesty and esthetics on different levels. Thus she willingly takes the risk to overstep the – in the context with pottery probably most dangerous – border between art and kitsch.

Rachel Kneebone (1973 in Oxfordshire, lives and works in London) takes this game further: her delicate white porcelain sculptures on plinthes which White Cube in London earlier this year presented classically on pedestals in a dimmed space clearly reveal their references to ancient Greek and Roman myths but also to Rokoko artists, such as Francois Boucher, but their beauty is undermined by what is depicted: limbs, extremities, body parts, put together to an uncanny, yet erotic round dance. Everything is fragmented, damaged, only merged by the perfect shiny surface of the porcelain which makes the composition to a – precarious – whole again.

Kneading and moulding

Forming clay, or dirt, by hand is doubtless one of the oldest cultural techniques. The directness of the connection between hand and material is a fundamental characteristic of this medium and makes it so very appealing. The step from idea to creation is almost none. One can see the result of one’s doing immediately. This immediacy makes Markus Karstieß (1971 in Haan, lives and works in Düsseldorf) visible in his ceramics sculptures in which he examines the possibilities of the material. Karstieß experiments with shapes and shaping, exploring the transitions between the unformed, the formed and the figurative. On hand-made tube elements of a sculpture the artist’s fingerprints are visible, in fact, one can lay one’s own hand into the mould which was formed by the artist’s hand before the clay was burned and glazed. In other works it’s the form of Karstieß’ teeth – the artists bit into a chunk of clay, burned it and glazed it golden. Eventually, these peculiar small lumps were combined to a mobile which is to be hung on the ceiling. Despite the archaic way of making them, they get promoted to precious, even decorative objects.

Jessica Jackson Hutchins (1971 in Chicago lives and works in Portland and New York) is another artist who uses pottery in a rather raw way. It’s not always clear if her objects are pots or vessels or if they represent anything – there are e.g. horns and rocks in her work – or if they are just meant as lumps and bodies. Anyhow, all of them look hand-made and are elaborately glazed. Many of them are part of bigger installations, involving chairs, sofas, textiles and all kind of found materials. Jackson Hutchins explores the relationships between people and objects and how they both form and inform each other, in this context the sometimes coarse, amorphic ceramic shapes play the counterpart to the furniture and other standardised everyday objects.

Merging and assembling

It seems very contemporary and thus very natural that artists not only work with ceramics exclusively but also assemble it with other materials and techniques. Whereas Jessica Jackson Hutchins explores the relations between the mouldable, organic clay and found objects, artist Caroline Achaintre (1969 in Toulouse, lives and works in London) creates delicate wall-based sculptures with ceramic, leather or textiles. Achaintre’s works are informed by Primitivism and typically recall tribal masks or are suggestive of heads but in a rather abstract way. With its references to archaic art, its merging of different materials and forms, the sophisticated use of colour and at the same time a kind of cool appearance, the works by Caroline Achaintre seem to take chance of the whole range of possibilities of pottery for contemoprary art. And it’s indeed a wide range that ceramics as a medium provides – just like metal, wood, stone or synthetics. Ceramics is a medium like any other, hence its increasing popularity in the art world is more than welcome.