Feats of clay

Clay has be­come all the rage. Cather­ine Mil­ner in­ves­ti­gates the re­vival of en­thu­si­asm for work­ing with this de­fi­antly low-tech ma­te­rial and dis­cov­ers a new aes­thetic that has trans­formed pot­tery into fine art

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Cather­ine Mil­ner in­ves­ti­gates the re­vival of en­thu­si­asm for work­ing with clay and dis­cov­ers a new aes­thetic that has trans­formed pot­tery into fine art

FOR the past 30 years, the vogue for vir­tual, highly con­cep­tual art us­ing man­made ma­te­ri­als has dom­i­nated the con­tem­po­rary scene. Now, how­ever, there ap­pears to be a shift to­wards art that is more tan­gi­ble and a new artis­tic move­ment is emerg­ing, forged from that most el­e­men­tal and an­cient of ma­te­ri­als: clay.

There have al­ways been potters who have made vases, jugs and other util­i­tar­ian ob­jects. But there have also been times, no­tably in Italy dur­ing the Re­nais­sance—in works by Donatello, for in­stance—when artists have used clay to make the high­est forms of sculp­ture. The dis­tinc­tion be­tween craft and art be­came blurred in the 19th cen­tury, when Wil­liam Mor­ris pop­u­larised craft by get­ting fa­mous artists to work in wood and ce­ramic us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods. In 1913, just be­fore the First World War, the art critic and im­pre­sario Roger Fry es­tab­lished the Omega Work­shops pot­tery, where artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell ex­pressed them­selves in three-di­men­sional form, dec­o­rat­ing clay pots and plates. The merg­ing of craft and art was con­tin­ued in the 1950s by the Cal­i­for­nia Clay Move­ment, whose leader, Peter Voulkos, made mas­sive ab­stract ce­ramic sculp­tures.

In Eng­land at about the same time, British potters such as Hans Coper and Gil­lian Lown­des saw them­selves as artists rather than ar­ti­sans. They adopted a phi­los­o­phy that went far beyond what was sug­gested by the sim­ple-look­ing pieces—coper’s beau­ti­fully bal­anced pots, Lown­des’s cu­ri­ous loofah-like sculp­tures—that they made with their bare hands. In re­cent years, Grayson Perry, Ed­mund de Waal and Ju­lian Stair have re-es­tab­lished the pri­macy of the pot, us­ing it to tell sto­ries about ev­ery­thing from the his­tory of the Je­suits to the Ch­er­nobyl nu­clear-power-sta­tion dis­as­ter.

As prices for their work have soared from a few hun­dred pounds to a few hun­dred thou­sand over the past 30 years, pot­tery has moved from the homely world of craft to the high­oc­tane reaches of fine art. Nao Mat­sunaga, Sam Bakewell, Ma­lene Hart­mann Ras­mussen and Lu­cille Lewin are all part of a bril­liant new gen­er­a­tion of artists us­ing clay, their work headed more for the pris­tine gal­leries of May­fair and Man­hat­tan than the craft shops of the Bre­con Bea­cons.

De­spite sav­age gov­ern­ment cuts since 1980, which have re­duced the num­ber of art schools teach­ing ce­ram­ics in the UK from 17 to just four, Bri­tain is now one of the pre-em­i­nent places in the world in which ex­cit­ing art is be­ing made from clay (the other main coun­tries are Den­mark, Ja­pan and the USA). Paul Green­halgh, Di­rec­tor of the Sainsbury Cen­tre for Vis­ual Arts—whose new book, Ce­ramic:

a his­tory, will be pub­lished in the au­tumn—com­ments: ‘A very pow­er­ful head of steam is grow­ing in ce­ram­ics in Bri­tain at the same time as train­ing in the art schools is badly needed.’

The abo­li­tion of cour­ses teach­ing ap­plied arts such as ce­ram­ics and wood­work has re­sulted in a grass­roots re­bel­lion, he adds. ‘Over the past 20 years, we have heav­ily de-skilled our art schools, but the truth is a lot of younger peo­ple want to be in­de­pen­dent mak­ers, de­sign­ers and artists and, for that, they want to ac­quire skills and dis­ci­pline.’

A tes­ta­ment to this wave of en­thu­si­asm for clay among the pop­u­la­tion at large is the num­ber of com­mu­nity pot­tery classes and work­shops that can be found up and down the coun­try. Full to burst­ing, they’re much in de­mand, not only from bored house­wives, but also from twenty-some­things for whom dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy is sec­ond na­ture, but cre­at­ing some­thing phys­i­cal and pal­pa­ble is not. As Mr Stair says: ‘Peo­ple are mov­ing away from a vis­ual and vir­tual world into cre­at­ing some­thing tan­gi­ble. Mak­ing some­thing out of clay re­in­forces our phys­i­cal­ity and sense of who we are.’

The Troy Town Art Pot­tery, a ‘rad­i­cal and psy­che­delic’ ce­ramic work­shop in east Lon­don, is highly pop­u­lar with the throngs of young peo­ple who live in that area. It was es­tab­lished in 2014 by Aaron An­gell, an artist who had en­coun­tered much re­sis­tance to ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in the art-school ce­ram­ics stu­dios and com­mu­nity pot­ter­ies he at­tended. He wanted to pro­vide an al­ter­na­tive where peo­ple would be free to make what they liked.

The Great Pot­tery Throw Down

proved to be one of BBC2’S big draws last year, with more than two mil­lion view­ers re­flect­ing a gen­er­a­tion of indi- vid­u­als who are re­dis­cov­er­ing the grat­i­fi­ca­tion of mak­ing. One of the show’s judges, Kate Malone, whose flam­boy­ant and brightly coloured stoneware was the sub­ject of a won­der­ful ex­hi­bi­tion at the Roth­schilds’ Wad­des­don Manor last year, is try­ing to raise money to start a clay col­lege in Stoke-on-trent. Its aim would be, in the ab­sence of the art schools do­ing so, to en­sure that the an­cient skills of tra­di­tional pot-mak­ing are pre­served and handed on to the next gen­er­a­tion.

‘Ev­ery­one gets plea­sure from mak­ing, shar­ing and hav­ing ob­jects made from clay—it grounds them,’ she says. ‘What you pro­duce in a pot­tery class could be art or could just be your ce­real bowl.’

As strik­ing as the va­ri­ety of pot­tery be­ing made is the fact that it’s be­ing dis­cussed, ex­hib­ited and sold at un­prece­dented lev­els in ex­hi­bi­tions and art fairs. Mes­sums Wilt­shire has just opened ‘Ma­te­rial: Earth. The New British Clay Move­ment’, which cel­e­brates the new aes­thetic born from this de­fi­antly low-tech ma­te­rial. At the end of the month, Tate St Ives will re­open af­ter a clo­sure of four months with ‘That Con­tin­u­ous Thing: Artists and the Ce­ram­ics Stu­dio, 1920–To­day’, an ex­hi­bi­tion that ex­plores the rise of pot­tery as art rather than craft.

The Yale Cen­ter for British Art’s big au­tumn show ‘“Things of Beauty

‘Mak­ing some­thing out of clay re­in­forces our phys­i­cal­ity and sense of who we are

Grow­ing”: British Stu­dio Pot­tery’, opens at New Haven, Con­necti­cut, USA, in Septem­ber and will then travel to the Fitzwilliam Mu­seum in Cam­bridge next March. The Fitzwilliam has one of the finest con­tem­po­rary-ce­ram­ics col­lec­tions in the UK, the be­quest of Sir and Lady Nicholas Good­i­son, which has re­cently been cel­e­brated in a new book.

Ce­ramic Art Lon­don, the Craft Potters As­so­ci­a­tion’s an­nual fair, which opens later this month at Cen­tral Saint Mar­tins, is one of many sim­i­lar events that are flour­ish­ing, from Hat­field to Aberys­t­wyth to Perth. Even Wo­man’s Hour has em­braced the zeit­geist with its Craft Prize for a work ‘orig­i­nal and ex­cel­lent in con­cept, de­sign and process’. The top 10 en­trants will have their pieces put on dis­play at the V&A in Novem­ber.

A new mu­seum de­voted ex­clu­sively to ce­ram­ics opened in York in 2015. Mean­while, Stoke-on-trent, home to an in­dus­try of porce­lain man­u­fac­ture that had, un­til re­cently, been dy­ing a slow death, is pro­duc­ing more table­ware than ever be­fore, in­clud­ing some of a more arty genre. A lead­ing can­di­date in the bid to be­come UK City of Cul­ture 2021, Stoke is also home to the British Ce­ram­ics Bi­en­nial. ‘We are def­i­nitely en­joy­ing a ce­ram­ics mo­ment’ says the bi­enn­nial’s di­rec­tor Barney Hare Duke.

The re­def­i­ni­tion of craft as art can be seen in­ter­na­tion­ally, too. The Amer­i­can artists Ster­ling Ruby, Betty Wood­man and Liz Larner are all us­ing clay in widely di­ver­gent ways to make ar­rest­ing sculp­tures. In Europe, long es­tab­lished Euro­pean porce­lain fac­to­ries, such as Sèvres Meis­sen and Nym­phen­berg, now make as much money from sell­ing clay ob­jects by con­tem­po­rary artists and de­sign­ers, such as Chris An­te­mann or Aldo Bakker, as they do from din­ner and tea ser­vices.

The most en­dur­ing of all clay ob­jects is the hum­ble pot. A ves­sel that car­ries food and drink, it is also some­thing that has taken on the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the hu­man form, with shoul­ders, lips, feet and bel­lies. In re­cent times, aided by the evolution of enor­mous kilns, a num­ber of mak­ers—many of them fea­tured in the Mes­sums show—have started cre­at­ing ves­sels of gar­gan­tuan pro­por­tions. Alexan­der Mac­don­ald­buchanan, Felic­ity Ayli­eff and Mr Stair all throw jars and vases 6ft high or more, in ref­er­ence, per­haps, to our world of plenty.

Equally notable, how­ever, are the potters who en­joy smash­ing them up, break­ing them into a thou­sand beau­ti­ful shards. One of many artists work­ing in this way is Bouke de Vries, a Lon­don based Dutch ce­ram­i­cist, whose epic table piece War and

Pieces, made from frag­ments of 19th­cen­tury porce­lain, is cur­rently on dis­play at Ber­ring­ton Hall in Here­ford­shire. ‘Pot­tery is one of the only things that a cul­ture leaves be­hind, be­cause it sur­vives. And then ev­ery cul­ture is iden­ti­fi­able by its ce­ram­ics, they all have a style,’ says Mr de Vries. Us­ing clay—as any viewer of The

Great Pot­tery Throw Down will tes­tify—has some­times been equated with sex, its vis­ceral messi­ness be­ing a ci­pher for the or­ganic busi­nesses of the hu­man body. It has also been as­so­ci­ated with death, in the form of reli­quar­ies and ef­fi­gies. Two rare works by Mr Perry—a black urn il­lus­trated with a bull charg­ing a man and a plate in­scribed with the words ‘Death to Grayson Perry’—draw the con­nec­tion be­tween clay and the fragility of hu­man flesh. On the plate is one of the ear­li­est of Mr Perry’s self­por­traits, done when he was just 22. In hon­our of the same tra­di­tion, Mr Stair makes sar­cophagi, cinerary urns and mon­u­men­tal pots the shape of Egyp­tian canopic jars.

In stark con­trast with these artists are those work­ing in a Pop Art style, of whom Richard Slee is the most es­tab­lished mas­ter. He makes glossy, brightly coloured ren­di­tions in clay of do­mes­tic ob­jects such as fly swat­ters and gar­den shears. Ma­lene Hart­mann Ras­mussen draws on Nordic myths about trolls and forests to cre­ate dark, but lu­mi­nes­cent,

mise-en-scènes fea­tur­ing pink rab­bits, enor­mous acorns and psy­che­delic flow­ers.

There are even some per­for­mance artists, such as Stephanie But­tle and Phoebe Cum­mings, work­ing in clay. Their pieces are not in­tended to be fired or to last, play­ing on the ephemeral na­ture of the earth around us.

From a col­lec­tor’s point of view, the op­por­tu­ni­ties are as ex­cit­ing as they are var­i­ous. On­line gal­leries such as Cfile and Maak of­fer an in­fin­ity of ce­ram­ics beyond the choice found at more tra­di­tional gal­leries.

There is a com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the maker and the col­lec­tor that can only be found through hand­made ob­jects, par­tic­u­larly those that use el­e­men­tal ma­te­ri­als. To cel­e­brate the new love of clay, Mes­sums Wilt­shire will hold a Mak­ers Fes­ti­val on April 29 and 30. Vis­i­tors will be in­vited to throw pots, sculpt por­trait busts, make clay paint­ings and even cars and help build an enor­mous co­ral reef. Talks and panel dis­cus­sions by ce­ram­ics ex­perts will de­bate the im­por­tance of mak­ing in ed­u­ca­tion, the en­dur­ing legacy of the pot and how to col­lect ce­ram­ics. One of the more in­trigu­ing cour­ses on of­fer will be the clay play ses­sions for adults, led by award-win­ning pot­ter Sandy Brown.

As Johnny Mes­sum says: ‘One of the most ex­cit­ing things about this new Clay Move­ment is the wider con­sen­sus un­con­sciously held by mak­ers and cu­ra­tors about the need to re-eval­u­ate the im­por­tance of the hand­made as part of the cre­ative process.’

Above: Dead Na­ture, Chaos by Bouke de Vries (2015). Below: Christie Brown’s The Un­canny Play­room (2010)


3 by Alexan­der Mac­don­ald Buchanan (2012–14)

Left: Bull­fighter by Grayson Perry (1984). Below: Merete Ras­mussen’s Blue Twisted Form (2011)

Venus et Amour II by Philip Eglin (2016)

Top: Chris An­te­mann mod­el­ling her porce­lain Covet sculp­ture for Meis­sen. Above: Miss An­te­mann’s Card Party (2015)

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