Material Earth has established itself as a fundamental and popular part of Messums Wiltshire’s annual programming that explores our engagement with art through materiality and process and for the first time will celebrate the vessel, in all its abstracted forms. Showcasing new work by artists and makers from the UK, Japan, Canada, Israel and France, Material Earth: The Abstracted Vessel takes a new look at this ancient form, stepping beyond functionality into wider contemplation.
Clay, as the most elemental of all materials, has a history as old as our own civilisation, but it has how contemporary artists are using this material in new and dynamic ways – using process, metaphor and performance – to create objects that go beyond a mere receptacle, that we are casting a spotlight on here. The potters wheel plays a big part in the practice of many of the artists selected – including Thiébaut Chagué and Stuart Allen – as does performance, as seen with the work of Stephanie Buttle and Duncan Hooson. But it is the emphasis on experimentation and the possibilities of a raw material – used to create non-utilitarian, twisted, morphed and often torn vessels, like bodies of meaning and metaphor instead of those of blood and bones – that brings this group of artists together.
Artists like Amber Zuber, who graduated from the RCA in 2017, and has both a dynamic and a collaborative relationship with clay. Amber’s process-oriented and expressive practice explores the tactile and emotional qualities of the material and the act of making, working abstractly and directly with the material in different stages of plasticity. By stretching, ripping, rolling and pushing the material to near collapse she finds new aesthetic qualities in her black and terracotta earthenware pieces.
Another RCA Ceramic graduate is Stuart Allen who explores the interplay between the inner and outer surface of the vessel, looking at how this historic form can be a container for meaning or emotion over liquid or food. Having trained in ceramics at Central St Martins in the 1980s before turning his attention to other things – namely teaching homeless people the plastic skills needed to able to build their own houses – Stuart returned to ceramics in 2014. His expressive pieces, all hand-thrown on the wheel, are composed of twisted, churning clay interior landscapes held in by smooth, almost engineered, exteriors.
French artist Thiébaut Chagué, who lives and works in a remote region of France, uses raw clay brought as dug from near La Bourne, an area of gorges and rivers in the Rhone-Alpes region. At high temperature this clay acts temperamentally, as forms split and shapes sag, but relishing the uncertainty of his material – the clay in this case is not purchased for its efficiency but for its tactility and materiality – Thiébaut disregards conventional ceramic technology, to create fiercely sculptural work, presented as dramatic, fractured and complex objects.
British artist Duncan Hooson also experiments with form: specialising in large-scale, freely thrown ceramics his work is often made of thrown composites that are incised, modelled and manipulated. His work, which takes its starting point from the landscape, history and stories of his native Stoke-on-Trent, is presented in multiples or clusters to highlight the experimentation and investigation of form. His performative practice is linked to that of another British ceramicist Stephanie Buttle whose practice explores the politics of intimacy and who will perform alongside Duncan in our Clay Festival (23 February 2019). Stephanie finds new ways of presenting an experience that often includes a performative element and a personal physical component. Trained as a dancer she uses her experience of movement to investigate the qualities of clay and her most recent series, ‘Thrum’ continues this enquiry in to the tensions of materials and transformative processes within the medium.
Japanese ceramicist Taizo Kuroda is one of the most important artists in Japanese contemporary ceramics. Rather than exploring unusual form or decorative designs in his work, he is captivated by the beauty of the pure white porcelain of Joseon Dynasty Korea. His oeuvre includes bowls and stands of all sizes, high-shouldered cylindrical vases and occasionally urn-shaped vases with full, rounded shoulders but it is his distinctive works that feature breaks in the surface, jagged apertures that emphasise the irregular lines of his vessels, that are part of this exhibition.
Another artist working in porcelain is Israeli ceramicist Zemer Peled whose cerebral pieces – created in black porcelain – examine the beauty and brutality of the natural world and reflect the artist’s sculptural language that is informed by her environment and landscapes, engaging with themes of memory, identity, and place. The association of porcelain with refinement and civilisation is turned on itself when broken into shards.