This has got to be one of the best rediscoveries of the last twenty or thirty years. Guy Bareff’s clay sculptures earned him quite a big following in the 70s, today he is drawing new admirers by reinterpreting the visual vocabulary of his previous work from a contemporary standpoint.
It is the end of an important period and the start of a whole new one: Guy Bareff is leaving Baux-de-Provence, where he was in residence for five years and moving into a larger studio, one that is better suited to his current, prolific, creative activity. We went to meet him where it all began. It’s a unique story and the man himself is truly fascinating. You could say that Guy Bareff has lived several lives, but for him it is the current one that gives him the greatest satisfaction and feeling of fulfilment. “Inaugurating my new studio in May was really important to me”, he confides “because the kind of pieces I am creating
now, these architectural pieces, began back in May 1968 with a first exhibition in Marseille. That was 50 years ago.” When he was a child, Guy Bareff wanted to be an architect. He used to spend all his free time drawing houses, however his ceramicist father had a different idea and obliged Guy to leave school and come to work with him. The activity was more decorative and utilitarian than artistic, but although Guy didn’t really think much of the whole idea, he was immediately taken with the wheel and the physical contact with the clay. “There’s something magical about creating a shape from a ball of clay. I found I really enjoyed it. It gave me a feel for the tactile that I still find useful today. And I continued sketching things just for fun, without realising that in fact I was drawing what my life would later become.”
The architecture of life
One day, Guy made a ceramic based on a photo of a shell, using plaster instead of clay. “I like shells. They are architectural: a house with an animal living inside. One day, I saw this photo of a pointy shell taken from above. It looked like the sun. It was as if light was coming out of the shell and that’s where I got the idea for this piece. I put it on the
wall and it was a revelation.” Admiration, praise and encouragements followed. More creations, the first exhibitions, trade shows… and success. In the 70s, Bareff exhibited in various galleries and completed international commissions for luxury hotels as well as private villas. He had invented an architectural approach, a way of placing a concealed source of light in his ultra sculptural stoneware creations. The light was diffused, whilst illuminating the object itself. A marvel. “I started making illuminated sculptures because of my interest in architecture. To my mind, these pieces had to create a feeling of mystery and an intimate atmosphere, because a building’s interior is part of our private life.” And then life took over. Many years went by. The sculptor turned to other activities—painting, music, theatre, writing and yoga. It was only some ten years ago that the adventure began once more, when a gallerist and antique dealer duo specialising in pieces from the 50s and 60s bought a red earthenware lamp by an artist they had never heard of. Many months went by before Hélène Bréhéret and Benjamin Deprez managed to finally track down Guy and several more before the sculptor began making his sculptural lights again. That was 5 years ago.
“From a technical point of view, biscuit is the term used in ceramics for unglazed clay that has been fired once”, Guy explains. “I use biscuit because I like this material and the way light softly reflects off it. It’s wonderful - my creations almost seem to be made from stone.” His sculptures are like small architectural constructions, both in their inspiration and the way they are made. “I draw everything. Each of my works is first drawn to scale. My sketches provide a permanent source of reference, first because that’s the way I work and then for the actual production process when a life-size drawing is necessary to create the volumes. I do several drawings just like an architect— plans and elevations—and sometimes I even build a clay or plaster model, especially when the piece is a bit complex, just to make sure.” And then Guy models his sculpture, laying out sheets of clay that he has left to firm up for easier handling. He then cuts them using templates he makes himself and assembles the various pieces, shaping the form and bringing it together, using moulds and creating curves. It’s as if he
were building a house. “Working lifesize has been useful for lots of creations as it enables me to see where I am going, what I want and what I don’t want and identify the differences with my previous production in the 70s and 80s. I have realised that I want my shapes to be much more assertive, clearly designed and detailed and that to achieve that I have to finish them off with sandpaper. This was a major change, just as was using chamotte.” Disconcertingly simple in appearance, his works are actually the fruit of a carefully controlled process. Indeed his mastery is truly mindblowing when you realise the sheer amount of complex operations that goes into making each piece, as well as the trials and tribulations that come with working with clay and firing in the kiln. According to Hélène Bréhéret and Benjamin Deprez (from Galerie Desprez-Breheret that has exclusive representation):“The object itself is so intrinsically beautiful and well designed that it is at home in wide variety of locations, from trendy hotels and New York interiors to Haussmannian apartments and holiday homes on the Balearic Islands” Today Bareff produces his unique pieces, totems and illuminated sculptures on a very small scale in limited series of 1-10 numbered pieces