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
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)