The LONG Read

Essays and articles by journalists, curators, art historians and experts.

Much of online content is about speed, big headlines, and punchy soundbites that can often skate over the core of the story.

While fast journalism is taking over much of what we consume, our Long-Reads aim to channel thoughtfulness and promote deeper consideration.

Many of our long-reads are commissioned from writers, art-historians and journalists to delve deeper into our artist’s stories that often speak to universals of contemporary culture. Take your time to explore our archive and enjoy.



Routes North – Sculpture in Yorkshire Today

by Julia McKinley

It is quite difficult to identify why you might be drawn to a particular medium or group of materials over others as an artist. I have always had a gut feeling that my desire to make sculpture has something to do with my early experiences of living in North Yorkshire.

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Ti Parks

by Fiona Gruber

On the wall of his studio in Blackheath, South London, Ti Parks had pinned some words by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989).

“Don’t ask me for any meaning in the thing; it just is what it is.”

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A New Stone Book

by Robert Macfarlane

I grew up in coal-mining country. Collieries were the highest structures around: the headstocks with their spinning wheels, the non-stop chunters of the winding engines. Power station cooling-towers made their own weather. Nodding donkeys pumped drifts dry.

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The Raft of the Medusa: Then and Now

by Andrew Graham-Dixon

I have known John Beard for a number of years and have followed his work with interest. In February 2020, he asked me if I might consider writing something about a work he was creating, inspired by Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa.

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John Beard

by Charles Saumarez Smith

John Beard is an artist who has led an adventurous life, leaving Britain in the early 1980s to teach in western Australia, then settling in Sydney, while at the same time showing his work all over the world.

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The Work of Makoto Kagoshima

by journalist & author Emma Crichton-Miller

Makoto Kagoshima trained as an artist, and then worked for the Conran Shop in Japan, but it is with clay that he has found his medium.

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Not Empty Vessels: The Work of Stephen Dixon

by Catherine Milner

March 2021

Satire has always been a key feature of British art; from Hogarth to Spitting Image, Gillray to Banksy, artists in this country have for centuries lampooned hypocritical politicians or dim-witted dignitaries with glee.

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Björk Haraldsdóttir ceramics

by Catherine Milner

January 2021

The patterns on her ceramics echo the distinctive black and white designs of Icelandic woollen garments, rugs and tapestries, inspired by snow, nets and other crystalline and geometric forms.

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Elliot Walker ‘Surf ‘n’ Turf’

by Lucy Reis

December 2020

Sometime in the 1600’s, somewhere in the Netherlands, silver platters are teetering on a darkly lit oak table. Bunches of peaches and plumbs spill over the silverware onto the satin cloths.

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Antony Williams

by Lucy Reis

December 2020

When observing Antony Williams’ new still lifes one hears the echoes of Italian churches and smells the faint scent of incense in the air. Akin to a fresco by Piero della Francesca suspended in eternal stillness these paintings are quietly contemplative.

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A New Eden

by Catherine Milner

November 2020

‘The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes,’ said Marcel Proust and at the moment, the effects of that thought can be seen as not just philosophical but also practical.

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Dante Marioni

by Lucy Reis

November 2020

Glass making is a dialogue between many elements and many people; it requires patience, creativity and teamwork. Dialogues open new avenues of potential exploration between those that enter them. There is a clear parallel between two Dantes who set themselves apart from their contemporaries through pursuing revolutionary paths in their respective creative fields.

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Brian Taylor ‘Animalia’

by Lucy Reis

September, 2020

Shying away from showing his work publicly in his life time, Brian Taylor’s work is seldom seen. This remarkable body of sculpture and rare drawings are indicative of Taylor’s unparalleled observation of animated volume and we are delighted to be showing this collection of sculpture and drawing in Messums Wiltshire.


Brian Taylor studied at the Slade School of Art in the mid-1950s and his prowess as a sculptor of the human figure was so impressive that he gained a covetable three-year scholarship to Rome. The artworks Taylor encountered there stimulated him enormously, ranging from classical sculpture right through to early twentieth-century modernism.

“Italy called him back in 1971, and he could not resist an impulse to visit the Serra di Burano. This alluring rural area, not far from Umbria, enabled him to study horses – in particular an unusually large and well-built animal strong enough to run even when pulling a very hefty cart. Although this pugnacious creature threatened to bite Taylor, he insisted on studying the mighty horse at close quarters. He cunningly distracted the animal by flinging wet clay onto its nose. And while the horse licked off this muddy substance, Taylor took detailed measurements of its head and body without suffering any assault at all.”
Art Historian & Critic, Richard Cork

Taylor’s interest in sculpting animal form has pervaded his work ever since and we are delighted to show a selection of stand out bronze works focussing specifically on Taylor’s obsession with the characters and forms of animals.

Drawings from the Gabo Studio

Also included in the exhibition are drawings made during a period of time Taylor spent in Naum Gabo’s studio in Connecticut. Taylor rarely made drawings of his subjects in advance of sculpting them in clay, but in 1984 he went to stay in New York and worked in the studio of one of his major artistic inspirations; the celebrated Russian artist, Naum Gabo. Taylor had made a series of drawings of the sunflowers that surrounded his summer house in Umbria, Italy, coupling a homage to Van Gogh – whom he also revered – with one of the most celebrated Russian artists of the 20th century. Taylor’s wife, Michele Franklin, whose grandmother, the painter Miriam Israels, married Gabo as her second husband, had suggested that Taylor go to New York to launch his career on the international scene:

“Brian had always been fascinated that I was related to Gabo,” she recalled. “Gabo kept a place in Connecticut and had a quiet studio there and after he died, my grandmother loved people to work in it.” There was a beautiful flower garden surrounding the house created by Miriam, which inspired Brian to start drawing the things he saw around him there, as he had been doing in Italy ever since he bought the house near Gubbio in the early 1980s.

View Brian Taylor exhibition Animalia

Charles Poulsen

October, 2020

Transcribed interview between Charlie and Messums Wiltshire head of programming Hannah Hooks.

Following two shows in Messums Wiltshire, and online, Charlie Poulsen has lately been preparing for a new collection of drawings debuting in Messums Yorkshire, Harrogate.

To bring Charlies character to the fore and to shine a light on the artist behind his collections we talked to him about his working day, his creative practice and his inspirations.

Drawing has, in recent years, been Charlie’s primary means of expression however it is only one of many. As Lynne Green says, ‘that Poulsen is also a sculptor is important. He works with the solidity of wood, the weight of lead and the malleability of wax (in 3D drawings). Moreover, he is a gardener – or rather a sculptor of growing form – whose preference is for order, repetition in planting and colour, and the training of tree branches and shrubs in to unaccustomed geometries.’ Charlie’s many projects of all shapes, sizes and materials are a large influence on his abstract drawings.

In this transcribed interview with our Head of Programming, Hannah Hooks, Charlie discusses the essential collaboration between the physical making process and the concept, as Charlie Says; ‘The great idea, to me, has to be modified by the physical facts of making’.

HH: Good afternoon Charlie, thank you for taking the time to talk to me this afternoon.

I thought we should start with.. You’re up there in your studio in the Scottish boarders, it’s a beautiful spring day, and so what does a typical day in your studio look like.

CP: At the moment I’m in the middle.. well I’ve started another drawing. I’m in the middle of the first stages where mostly the first stages are pencil work which is very quick and very busy, it’s a very active time where I’m really buzzing. And in some ways, you ask that question about automation, and in some ways yes, I’m in automation role. Because you stop thinking, the whole aim is to stop thinking really and just do and react to whats in front of you. Obviously I have done some small preparatory drawings but they’re a guide and I try not to be too strongly guided by them if I feel the drawing is going another way because in the end it’s the big drawing that counts not the small one.

The drawing is the quickest part of the time and that might be a matter of a day or two only, and then you’re doing the other processes which is adding a layer of wax and gouache and so on which gives more depth to the painting, to the drawing, and at the end you can go back to drawing because the pencil lines, because I use a very hard pencil it creates a groove in the paper and when you apply the gouache the gouache will go into the grooves and so in a sense it becomes a bit like a print if that makes sense.

Especially if, a lot of the drawings, just before I put the final layer of gouache on I run a layer of wax on the

whole surface so what that means is that the gouache only goes in the lines, it just picks up the lines. I suppose the wax must glide over the top of the grooves. So on the final stages I’m trying to emphasise various parts of the pencil line and various parts of the drawing. It comes to a point where I’ll even use a very very fine number one paintbrush to actually paint in individual lines if I had to. At that point then, at that stage of the drawing, it slows right right down, and I can be messing around for several days, trying to get it adjusted. I suppose i’m trying to get to.. stillness or something, yes I’m trying to get a sort of calmness and stillness within the drawing even though its very busy I suddenly want to control that business, I’m not quite sure why but that feels right anyway.

HH: So is that what  satisfaction in a painting looks like or feels like to you? Its arriving at a point of stillness?

CP: Yes I think so. Stillness is important and I don’t really know why but in some ways my role is not to ask the question why my role as I see it is just to do.

HH: What’s interesting about your drawing practice it that you’ve been an artist for many many years but you haven’t always made drawing a primary means of expression but more recently you have, for something like ten years?

CP: Yep, I think partially I got very frustrated with sculpture because if you’re not selling it or showing it a lot the damn stuff just sits there and if its quite big you keep having to move it and I get really fed up with it. And also its very slow work and in some ways because I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I wasn’t for years really with sculpture I suppose, and so I decided when, well this would have been 2010, that I was going to concentrate on drawing because one, you can get through ideas very quickly and in some ways its more me in my head, in some ways it’s a bit like.. lets put it like this on a musical thing.. it’s the difference between a big concert piece and a chamber work, something classical, and it’s the chamber work which is more personal, more introverted if you like but I find that more interesting and the sculpture was the more public side of things so i’ve turned to drawing as a way of getting through ideas faster and maybe finding myself more. Because about fifty I suddenly realised you’ve got to stop getting frustrated at not getting anywhere with this work, you’ve just got to do it for yourself. And I think I thought sculpture wasn’t doing it for myself so much. As well as.. it just took too long really. I’m inpatient. The older you get the more impatient you get. You can sort of see the departure lounge you know.


HH: So the date that you give as the title on the work has always interested me because I’ve never known whether it was the start of the work or the end of the work.

CP: The end. Very much so. There doesn’t seem much point in putting the date where you begin because you might never finish. In some ways you make a decision that its finished, it isn’t, its never really finished, there’s always something you can do but I think in some ways also you can lose the freshness of it and that sort of thing and that’s a sort of decision you make somehow that you’ve got as far as you’re going to go with that piece of work.

HH: I think that’s what is really captivating about your work is that energy you’re able to harness within the framework or the constraint or outline of the square so you start always with the square and then you’re working within that each time but there’s this sort of containment versus this sort of freedom or energy that I think, that kind of push and pull creates a really interesting practice.

CP: Yeah, because, you mention the word restraint and you meant the square. It is a restraint but also it makes decision making a lot easier, otherwise theres always all those different sizes you can do. You can have a rectangle in all sorts of different proportions but there is a convenient side of things because as a maker of things, i’d rather call myself just a maker of things, as a maker of things there are so many choices and its actually quite important to reduce your choices. But there was a logic behind reducing choices to a square, well you’ve got the classic thing about the portrait and landscape isn’t it. Painting is always in a proportion of landscape or portrait but a square in neither so it has that great advantage, it is a very powerful structure and virtually nothing will break it down really so I’m constantly trying to break it down to a point where it just.. sometimes it may nearly disappear altogether but its got that nice tension about seeing how far you can go with a drawing. In terms of extending the drawing, not beyond the boundary and yet its still feels like a square even though the drawing escapes right the way to the edge of the piece of paper, you’ll still feel the square when it’s finished, I hope.

HH: You mentioned a few moments ago your changing concerns or a sense of being impatient as you feel time is against you and I wonder if your inspirations have changed and who and what they were to start with. You sent me a beautiful picture this morning saying ‘this is my inspiration’ the view from your studio window but I wonder beyond that creative space what really influences you.

CP: Its always a very difficult that one Hannah, because you know as a painter yourself that it’s very hard to pin down what influences are and where they’re from. There are certain people, I would probably say some of the abstract expressionists and minimalists, Pollock, Agnes Martin, Sol Le Witt, Rothko, those sort of people, but funnily enough on the other end of the thing i’d probably say Ravilious and Nash, I sort of follow their English landscape, i’m quite interested in having all those influences mixed up. But then you look at a Turner or something, or a Seurat and you get very excited by seeing those so how do you know where you’re coming from in many ways, you pick up all these influences over your life and so i’m really not sure and I think that it pays not to have heroes anyway. In my opinion if you’ve got a hero and I mean a female or a male hero in some ways you can’t get past them so you’ve got to see them as mortal if you like. That’s the trouble with Heroes, they tend to be immortalised and you’ve got to get past that. But then I talked about the allanbank, there definitely are influences from landscape and where you live. But again I used to start the basis of a drawing on something particular so in the earlier works, the drawing behind me, well that’s about the year 2000 and at that same time I did several drawings which were influenced by the hedge if you like and trying to sort of make sense of the hedge but I think In many ways the one behind me was more successful than the ones where I was trying too hard so about that time I thought I should abandon any thought of representation because somehow I couldn’t do anything with it, in that sense I can’t cope with drawing in that way and i’m a great admirer of people who can in fact i’m rather jealous of their abilities but I feel its not a route that I can take. I remember when we were doing life classes, you know, I would plug away at them but in the end Hannah I don’t think I was that excited by it. But just starting with a pencil and just doing something, just sticking a pencil on paper and just going for it is, it’s a bit basic but there you are.


HH: You gave a wonderful talk as part of the last exhibition with us in Wiltshire in the long gallery about drawing and that sort of immediacy of it and the importance of it as an action, as a way of mark making and the kind of accessibility of it as well as the fact that its sometimes not seen as the highest of art forms when actually I think, what amazing about your work, and I don’t know whether it’s the scale or the detail or the way that you make them, there’s something about the mark making its almost like listening to music, there’s a lot to be absorbed by and I suppose what’s strange about this exhibition is that people wont be seeing your works in real space. They will be experiencing them virtually which is a sort of departure because artists want people to stand in front of their work and I wonder whether there was any advice we could give to people looking at your work and maybe experiencing it for the first time through a computer screen.


CP: well on the whole I prefer not to give advice because I thinks it’s a bad idea but you put your finger on it really I mean if they approached it like music because music in the end that’s instrumental it is abstraction and so if they can cope with the abstraction, you know, abstraction didn’t start in the 20th century in my mind it started long before and certainly in music, abstractions always been there but people haven’t talked about it like that have they. But its always been there with music I think, nobody know really, all these people tell you what’s its all about this music but I’m always sceptical about their claims because as in all the people who create things I don’t think they always know where they’re going because if you know where you’re going do you bother to do it so I suppose I’m thinking the only reason you’re going in a direction is because you don’t know

where it’s going to come out and that’s where the excitement is of creating anything. I obviously cant speak for anyone else but I do feel that that must be to a certain extent how it is because, in fact I remember someone recently who, she was doing something for the Tate, she said she’d got this great idea, and now she had to go an make it, well she didn’t really like the idea of making it. And it happens at colleges now, you’re meant to write it all down what you’re going to do and then you do it. Well that seems pointless. The great idea, to me, has to be modified by the physical facts of making and so if you just have an idea on paper and you totally translatephysical reality I’m not sure you’ve achieved very much, you might as well just have the idea on paper which is in other words just the concept. There’s nothing wrong with that, the conceptualists did that, but then im old school. You’re always taught that, you’ve got to let the material have some say in the matter when your making something.

HH: for a man who doesn’t like to dish out advice that is excellent advice. Because I think all the best artworks rely on the artists ability to use their materials well and you certainly do that.

CP: I forgot to say that of course I listen to music a lot with the drawing, I don’t let the music influence the drawing if you like but it does calm me and also I suppose its that parallel nature of it that I like. Though having said that it did influence me this morning, I was dancing to that, but then I just left the drawing and sort of danced around the floor. But then Ive always danced in some way, even in college id be the first one on the floor. No girl would ever dance with me because I was just too wild I would go on for hours, anyway.


Material Textile: Reassessing the Art of Mid Twentieth Century Screen Printed Textiles

by Mary Schoeser, renowned textile historian, curator & author

March, 2020

Sensationalised by the press as “surplus” women, the better appellation would be “enterprising” women, who, emboldened by the British arts and crafts ethos – itself promulgated by art colleges who took in increasing numbers of females – set about creating workshops, galleries and collectives that did much to define the artistic landscape by mid-century.



Pondering the topic of why women designers played such a prominent role in the provision of artistic patterns for printed textiles of the mid- 20th century, one can turn to four inter-related factors: demography, educational reforms, printing technology and publicity. All four came into play after WWI, when 700,000 deaths created a large gap between the male and female populations of people aged 25 to 34. With 1,158,000 unmarried women versus 919,000 unmarried men, according to the 1921 census, this discrepancy was not in itself a new phenomenon except for one feature: the higher social status of the women remaining unmarried as a result of the significant number of officers who had been killed. Sensationalised by the press as “surplus” women,[1] the better appellation would be “enterprising” women, who, emboldened by the British arts and crafts ethos – itself promulgated by art colleges who took in increasing numbers of females – set about creating workshops, galleries and collectives that did much to define the artistic landscape by mid-century.[2]

Nicola Woods ‘April shower’

Of particular importance was the rise of “self-made” printed textiles, as distinguished from the established method of large-scale production, namely engraved roller printing. From the early 1900s it was batik, stencilling, lino-printing and, by the later 1920s, hand-screen printing, that provided a means of mark-making entirely novel in its directness. Freed from the mediation of the highly technical transfer of designs to copper rollers, such methods were attractive to those who wished to control their artistic outcomes. In retrospect, it is clear that women took greater advantage of these possibilities, which did not require large premises or vast investments. This legacy remained when hand-screen printing was taken up in the early 1930s by firms already hand-block printing, as well as by firms newly established soon afterwards especially to produce artist-designed printed textiles, such as Allan Walton. By the early 1950s, despite the fact that the ratio of British men to women was still low – 92.5 to 100[3] – one cannot argue that the visibility of creative women was due solely to their single status, nor to a shortage of male competition. No, it was to do with their much closer involvement in the experimental developments surrounding hand-screen printing. That this technique offers a unique capacity to translate faithfully a myriad of small studio or “kitchen sink” artistic mark-making to cloth is borne out by the sensitive replication of batik (for example Nicola Woods, April Showers), oil, gouache and watercolour painting (Barbara Brown, Sweetcorn and Colbertaldo Dinzl, Orpheus and untitled), collage (Jacqueline Groag, Traffic Light), stamping (Mo Sullivan, Garland), sgraffito (Mary Warren, Nautilius) and mono-printing (Lucienne Day, Linden). In addition, screen printing could accommodate printing with surface pigments, as opposed to cloth-saturating dyes. Best known for using this approach was the newcomer in 1957, Hull Traders, who made sensitive use of pigments to create intense and flat expanses of colouration (Shirley Craven, Kaplan) as well as impasto-like effects (Althea McNish, Rubra)

How do we know? The evidence survives within archives, museum and private collections, but at the time was being made visible through influential media vehicles such as The Studio, founded in 1893 by Charles Holme and under his editorship from 1895-1919, and thereafter until 1964 maintaining an Arts & Crafts ethos of equality between media and methods. Founder Holme had been a silk manufacturer so it is no surprise that amid the mix of media, textiles received fair coverage. It sought to create an international means of communication, meaning that it was well illustrated, often showing work by women. This role might be said, certainly for textiles, to have been supplanted postwar by the magazine, The Ambassador. From 1946-72 (from 1961 a Thomson Publication), its founder Hans Juda and his wife, Elsbeth – responsible for much of the magazine’s striking photography – vigorously promoted British exports through their monthly publication in English, German, French and Portuguese. Its success demonstrated that publicity, more so through editorials and exhibitions than advertisements, was an essential component in the campaign to bring good design to the people. And judging from the number of women both depicted and represented as designers, ‘the people’ – that is the consumers – were understood as more likely to be women.[4]

Barbara Brown ‘Sweet Corn’ 1958

Overseas sales mattered and, as a result, overseas tastes. The taste in postwar America was for art, especially expressed through manufactured goods such as textiles. As early as 1946 the art critic Walter Abell was to conclude: ‘Today industry appears to have established itself as the largest single source of support for the contemporary American painter.’[5] Aware of this trend, both the Judas and organisations such as the Cotton Board’s ‘Colour, Design and Style Centre’ in Manchester sponsored exhibitions aimed at inducing British textile manufacturers to back the (pre-War) principle of ‘art into industry’. While the Style Centre’s export-focused 1941 exhibition, ‘Design for Textiles by Twelve Fine Artists’, was remembered for the inclusion of works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eric Ravilious and Graham Sutherland, by the 1950s their support for artists’ designs looked beyond the establishment. Its ‘Living in Cotton’ exhibition in late 1961 declared ‘Suddenly, British cottons have found a design hand-writing. …Perhaps the most significant feature of the fabrics is the new bold use of colour. Young designers have contributed largely to this.’ And the gender ratio had also changed. Of the ten Design Award fabrics featured, seven were by women, predominantly students (or graduates) at the Royal College of Arts and the Central School of Arts & Crafts.[6] Subsequent exhibitions – ‘Young Ideas’ and the ‘Inprint’ and ‘Texprint’ series which continued into the early 1970s– had a similar flavour. ‘Inprint Infact’ of 1964-5, for example, featured 35 furnishing fabrics by two men and nine women, including Pat Albeck, Barbara Brown, Colleen Farr, Natalie Gibson, Fay Hillier and Althea McNish.[7] A lively exchange between the Style Centre, the Design Council and colleges ensured a sustained promotion of young, talented women, all with “hands-on” experience. Barbara Brown, for example, had taught Zandra Rhodes at Medway College and encouraged Tom Worthington at Heal’s to take on the three designs the firm produced for their 1964 and 1965 seasons, including Zandra’s first, Top Brass.


Zandra Rhodes ‘Top Brass’, 1964

While exceptional roller-printing firms, such as David Whitehead Fabrics Ltd., had been producing artist-designed printed rayons since 1951, the majority were hand-screened on cottons, linens or (if scarves or for fashion) silk, and thus more costly – effectively limited editions. This changed once flat-bed ‘automatic’ screen printing was introduced by several printers, including Whitehead’s in 1958. Now, ‘they are able to offer “expensive” furnishings at roller-print prices. They can print small quantities for sampling and thereby incorporate more experimental designs and colourings; there is no need for the burden of the heavy run required by roller printing.’[8] This, just as Pop Art was emerging in Britain and then America, gave a convincing and quantitatively far more visible expression of artists’ engagement with new types of subject matter, as well as new ways of presenting it. Having emerged from interwar explorations of individualistic textiles – call them series or limited editions – these screen prints had a longer pedigree than serigraphy on paper. In addition, other ground breaking art-into-textiles movements had also occurred during the interwar years, notably the initiatives in France of Marie Cuttoli (1879–1973), who engaged artists with a new, simplified form of tapestry making.[9] Postwar, this entrepreneurial role was taken up in America by Gloria F. Ross (1923-1998), who ‘described her work as the translation of paint into wool’, from 1965-96 commissioning innovative weavers in France, the Southwestern United States and at the Dovecot Studios in Scotland.[10] Unlike Cuttoli, Ross commissioned women artists too, including her sister, Helen Frankenthaler. Although in all countries the tapestry artists were more often men, what mattered for our story was another textile-based confrontation of the supremacy of easel painting and validation of the series as a legitimate artistic enterprise. In addition, women had led the way from the late 1950s onwards in the emergence of experimental wall hangings, or fibre art – critically and once again made by their own hands rather than by others, whether in an atelier or industry – and within a decade, wearable art.[11] Thus textiles of several sorts were, from the 1930s at least, the site of the first post-modernist initiatives and within these women played a foremost role. Mid-twentieth century screen printed textiles, now rather taken for granted, need to be reconsidered in this light.

1‘surplus-women’-a- legacy-of- world-war-one/. Accessed 24 January 2020.
2  See Mary Schoeser, ‘Following the Thread’ and ‘Spreading the Word’ in Sylvia Backemeyer,Making Their Mark: Art, Craft and Design at the Central School 1896 -1966 (A & C Black: 2000)
3 › articles › overviewoftheukpopulation › february 2016. Accessed 24 January 2020.
4 See Chris Breward and Claire Wilcox (eds.), The Ambassador Magazine: Promoting Post-War British Textiles and Fashion (V&A Publishing: 2012)
5 Abell, W. ‘Industry and Painting’, Magazine of Art, March 1946, p.89, cited in Dilys Blum, ‘Painting by the Yard: American artist-designed textiles 1947-57’ in Schoeser and Boydell (eds.), Disentangling Textiles: Interdisciplinary Techniques in the Study of Design (Middlesex University Press: 2002), pp.109-110.
6 The Cotton Board Colour Design and Style Centre, Living in Cotton: December 14, 1961 to January 19, 1962, typescript catalogue, pp.1-2, collection of the author.
7 The Cotton Board Colour Design and Style Centre, Inprint Infact: December 15, 1964 to January 22, 1965, typescript catalogue, pp.1-3, collection of the author.
8  ‘David Whitehead Fabrics Ltd.: Automatic Screen Prints’, The Ambassador, 12:57, p.45.
9  See K. L. H. Wells, Weaving Modernism: Postwar Tapestry Between Paris and New York (Yale University Press: 2019).
10 See Ann Lane Hedlund, Gloria F. Ross and Modern Tapestry (Yale University Press: 2010) and Elizabeth Cumming, The Art of Modern Tapestry: Dovecot
11 See Dilys Blum, (ed.) Off the Wall: American Art to Wear (Philadelphia Museum of Art/ Yale University Press: 2019).


Material: Textile exhibition view

Top image: Shirley Craven ‘Kaplan’, 1961

Bridget McCrum

by Will Gompertz, BBC arts editor

Less is more, no fuss. Balance is all. A sweeping line fades and then reappears as you move around the piece, invoking the optical effects the artist experienced among the dunes of the Arabian deserts. And with this comes a sense of rhythm and dynamism, of an object in motion, as light and shadow and perspective generate a kinetic energy. Such things are in the DNA of a Bridget McCrum sculpture or painting or drawing.

A little while back, maybe three or four years ago, I was invited to speak at a sculpture exhibition in the west of England. My informal lecture was to be one of many over the course of a weekend celebrating an outdoor show of contemporary British sculptors. I can’t recall exactly what I spoke about (nor, I should imagine, can anybody in the audience) but I do vividly remember another talk given shortly after mine. It was by one of the exhibiting artists and was far superior to anything I could, or did, muster.

The speaker was Bridget McCrum, a sculptor whose work I knew, but not intimately.  Like most artists, she wasn’t exactly champing at the bit to stand up in front of a yurt full of strangers. She didn’t have any of the pro-speaker’s accoutrements. She was visibly nervous, there was a certain unfamiliarity with her slides (“now, why did I put that one in?”), and the talk was peppered with more “umms” and “ahhs” and “sorrys” than you’d hear at a Ryanair check-in. But you know what? It mattered not a jot. One hour later, we who had packed into the recently erected canvas tent until its seams creaked, were pleading for her to continue for another hour.

That didn’t happen. There were other talks planned. So, we mobbed her instead. Selfies, questions, congratulations, more selfies. We gushed, she blushed. For Bridget, it was the satisfactory culmination of a dreaded engagement. For me, it was a revelation.

I had heard a story about a woman who put her ambition to be an artist on hold until she’d raised her children. Who, in mid-life, made her first tentative steps in the art of carving stone, something she had wanted to do since the age of 5: an unusual aspiration for a little girl born blind in one eye. There was, she said, a fortuitous thread connecting her younger self – a war-time evacuee – to the artist she became thirty-five years later. That thread was Elisabeth Frink, the British modernist sculptor with whom McCrum enjoyed a life-long friendship. The two first met at school in Exmouth. Bridget was six, an exile from the Blitz in London; Lis was ten. They were horse mad, spending evenings drawing equine figures until it was time for bed.  They stayed in touch over the following decades, with Frink encouraging her old friend to try her hand at carving. And when Bridget did so, Lis continued to support, not only with words but also with deeds.

Bridget’s husband, Bobby, was more confident of his wife’s talent than she was herself. While she was away exploring the ancient landscapes of Somalia, he packed up two of her earliest sculptures and entered them for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Bridget would have been horrified. Who was she to be exhibiting at the venerated RA? Bobby knew better.  And, so did Elisabeth Frink, who, on seeing Bottom (1984) installed at the RA asked her old friend to carve her a version of the nude lower torso for her own garden. Lis made only one recommendation: make it bigger!

Although Bridget has since moved away from human figuration in favour of birds, Bottom (a bronze edition of which is in the Messums show) fits into the overarching aesthetics of her practice. There is the simplified form that allows the eye to comprehend the piece as a single coherent whole, like a passage in a Bach Cello Suite. Less is more, no fuss. Balance is all. A sweeping line fades and then reappears as you move around the piece, invoking the optical effects the artist experienced among the dunes of the Arabian deserts. And with this comes a sense of rhythm and dynamism, of an object in motion, as light and shadow and perspective generate a kinetic energy. Such things are in the DNA of a Bridget McCrum sculpture or painting or drawing.

In the years since Bridget gave that talk in a tent, I have come to know her work a great deal better. As with most art of note, the more you look, the more you see; to the point where the invisible becomes visible. It seems to me that whatever medium she is working in, Bridget is as interested in the negative space as she is in her own interventions in the act of rendering a figure. Study her charcoal drawings of birds in flight and you will notice that the raw surface of the paper is far more than a plane on which to place a picture – it is playing an active part in the illusion: a collaborator in the creation of an image of a bird swooping through space.

The same applies to her sculptures. That they are elegant and graceful and sensual is plain to see, but what of the space around them? It is not a disinterested bystander. It has become part of the art, a contextual protagonist: an altered environment. The relationship between carved stone and landscape makes you ‘read’ each differently. This is why positioning is so important to Bridget: the surrounding physical space is part of her sculpture.

This, she explained in her talk. She showed us photographs. Some were of her working outside in the grounds of her house, which sits high above the River Dart in Devon, giving the artist a bird’s eye view of the birds circling below. Her slides reminded of the photos of Barbara Hepworth carving stone in her wonderfully terse A Pictorial Autobiography. Clearly, Hepworth has been an influence and inspiration to Bridget as a sculptor and also, perhaps, as a woman working in what has long been considered a man’s world. Hepworth’s muse was the rolling hills of Yorkshire, McCrum’s, the ancient objects of Mesopotamia: both artists finding their voice from bringing together the very old with the contemporary.

The Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi pursued a similar path, albeit from a different starting point. Bridget was trained as a painter at art school, Brancusi was taught wood carving. He left for Paris, she for a life as a Navy officer’s wife. They eventually arrived at the same conceptual place, with Brancusi leading the way, leaving a barely trodden path to follow. It was Brancusi who made the direct carving of materials – stone, wood, marble – fashionable in the eyes of the Parisian Avant-garde at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. It was Brancusi who showed what truths could be revealed when ancient stylised forms were combined with modern abstraction. And it was Brancusi who made the streamlined figure of a bird in space a subject for contemporary sculpture. But it was Bridget McCrum that set the bird free.

Brancusi’s birds tended to be static, Bridget’s are in motion: a Merlin on the tip if its wing, a raptor bearing down on its prey. Even when not in flight, her birds harbour a sense of imminent action: an awakening, or nesting, or – in the case of her knife birds – extravagant stretching. Some surfaces are rough, others are smooth. Some have been ‘scribbled’ upon, others are left untouched. Your senses become enlivened by the constantly changing nature of the material. Energy abounds in her sleek silhouettes.

Bridget ended her talk with images of the inspirational pieces and places she had seen and been on her many travels around the Mediterranean. Archaic knives and age-old axe-heads, giant rocks of salt and endless hills of sand; Egyptian hieroglyphics and Somalian artefacts. They are all there to be discovered in her work, which she continues to make day-in-day-out, even though she is now in her mid-eighties.

I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with her once the crowds had cleared and the yurt was empty. She still looked a little worried. I was surprised, her lecture had gone so well. I asked what was troubling her. She said she had a lot of work to do for a big show in a colossal new space. Where, I enquired. In Wiltshire she said. Oh, what’s it called. Messums, she said.

She pulled it off, of course. And will do again. Welcome back Bridget.

Laurence Edwards ‘After the Flood’

by Fiona Gruber, journalist and ABC broadcaster

After the Flood: Laurence Edwards’ six-foot male figure has collected a carapace of debris. Tree branches, grasses, matter both vegetable and animal, man-made and natural, reshape him. He seems to have sprouted wings – strong protrusions spring from each shoulder and these flanks are fourteen foot in width.

After the Flood: Laurence Edwards’ six-foot male figure has collected a carapace of debris. Tree branches, grasses, matter both vegetable and animal, man-made and natural, reshape him. He seems to have sprouted wings – strong protrusions spring from each shoulder and these flanks are fourteen foot in width.

But this horizontal beam could also be a yoke, balanced on his shoulders, weighing him down. The figure’s arms are by his side, suggesting the burden is not of his choosing, and the rigid pose suggests both resistance and acceptance.

And bearing witness.

We tend to think of artists as devising work in a linear fashion and of that work being finished when it leaves the studio. But many artists retain relationships with their creations after that departure and sometimes their meaning can change; new experiences can flow backwards in time, adhering to the body of a piece already in existence as new ideas evolve in the mind of the sculptor.

This is the case with After the Flood. The original title of Edwards’ monumental work was The Catcher and from the start, adherence was central to the concept.

In its original iteration, Edwards saw his man as burdened by personal concerns; this changed after a visit to Australia in 2018, where he showed his work in Sydney and Melbourne; responses to his work were strong and time and again, viewers read his Catcher in the context of a shared disaster and a collective responsibility.

Edwards’ now imagined another role for his burdened man; the wingspan of accretions that defined his figure had shifted, he explains, to an exploration of the impact of natural cycles and man-made cataclysms.

The metaphors I was thinking through before were personal and psychological; now a whole environmental aspect reared its head.

Edwards’ experience of the southern continent’s outback and its vast river systems has had a profound affect on him. They’ve revealed the realities of a landscape shaped by drought and periodic floods, a parched terrain where rivers only flow for parts of a year, or even only a few times in a century but where ferocious cyclones can dump a deluge in a couple of days; once these waters flowed across the plains bringing life; now, they also bring death and destruction, drowning and destroying a land already wounded by over-use and manmade mistreatment.

This ancient terrain is very different from the geologically young and restless land of East Anglia and the North Sea, where Edwards lives and works.

Australia’s fossilised soils are among the oldest and least fertile on earth and the continent is also home to the oldest continuous living culture; for over 60,000 years humans have trod lightly on this thin crust of soil, but, since colonisation began in 1788, an Aboriginal philosophy of living with the land and being of the land has been superseded by one of dominance, trying to bend the land to human needs, often with disastrous results.

When white settlers first started grazing and farming Australia in the late 18th century they were struck by the well-ordered nature of the landscapes they found. They assumed the lightly wooded grasslands were natural, not realising that millennia of fire farming by its Aboriginal inhabitants had created ideal conditions for hunting and gathering.

The soil is ancient and friable; it hadn’t experienced hooved animals like sheep and cattle before. Add to that intensive agriculture and, two hundred years later much of the soil now has toxic levels of salinity; the change in the water table has destroyed fragile ecosystems that have thrived for thousands of years. And with climate change, rising temperatures are outstripping nature’s ability to adapt.

Edwards’ sculpture has now taken on a whole new identity. As with his previous travels to Siberia, he has been confronted with the harsh realities of a rapidly changing climate and ecology. He explains:

The idea of this character standing in the wake of an ebbing tide after a deluge intrigued me…this character could be a monitor, an evidence collector, a barometer even of our relationship to nature and in Australia at this time this seemed prescient.

Edwards’ man is a sentinel; his knowledge of climate change and environmental disaster is modern humanity’s urgent burden. But it’s also the weight of knowledge and impotence faced by those from ancient cultures who see their land destroyed and their wisdom ignored.

And there’s a duality to the Catcher. He’s looking both backwards and forwards at the flood that’s been and the flood to come; Edwards explains it this way:

I’m conscious of dynasties of indigenous peoples that have lived with the nature there, and this has helped to fine-tune the directions in which I want my work to go.

I look forward to further iterations of the sculpture developing with me through time– monitoring if you like this unfolding story.

The unfolding story is part of a deluge of ideas. After the Flood is the beginning of a dialogue with a new and very ancient continent.

Michael Flynn

by Paul Greenhalgh, director, Sainsbury Centre

Most of Flynn’s career has been based on human and animal forms, which he has interpreted through the ageless idiom of the ceramic figurine. Immediately, this implies a period other than our own. He outlined his eclectic outlook in a discussion I had with him some years ago, making it clear that “the basis to all my work is to look at the way ideas have been expressed historically”.

Virtually all of the great art of the past five centuries has been eclectic. This goes for all forms of artistic practice, from paintings,sculptures, and buildings to pottery, dresses,and cutlery design. The best things refer to, nod at, make comment on, and steal from the things that came before them. It isn’t really possible to do otherwise. Whether honouring or caricaturing the past, artists can’t really escape it. But some do eclecticism more than others, and with such majestic flair that they make the history of art their own, re-forming it after their own image. August Rodin, Pablo Picasso, and Francis Bacon were such artists.Michael Flynn is another.

Most of Flynn’s career has been based on human and animal forms, which he has interpreted through the ageless idiom of the ceramic figurine. Immediately, this implies a period other than our own. He outlined his eclectic outlook in a discussion I had with him some years ago, making it clear that “the basis to all my work is to look at the way ideas have been expressed historically”. And unlike so many ceramic artists who came to full maturity in the Postmodern decades, Flynn has never seen the point in using historical styles to poke fun at the past. He has always been interested in the Meissen factory, for example, especially in the seminal first decades of production in the early 18th century. For him, this interest is intense and serious: “I am not making fun of Meissen. I am not working ironically. I take images and ideas which have one meaning, one iconography, then I change the context by putting them into the 21stcentury”. It is as though the aim of his work is to eliminate the barriers between past and present, in order to say something universal about existence.

The artist came to national attention in the 1980s with his large figures, birds and animals, which broke new ground technically and aesthetically. The Rembrandesque surfaces of these works, mudded and painterly, were made possible by his radical use of the raku process. Invented in Japan, raku typically gives a crackled and grizzled surface, achieved through the rapid firing and cooling of clay objects.It trades on immediacy, and Flynn was the master of this elegant speediness. Into the 1990s, he somewhat bravely moved away from raku, which by now he was internationally celebrated for, and controversially migrated to porcelain. He has remained with this most enigmatic of materials ever since.

In some respects porcelain implies history before the artist does anything with it. Flynn acknowledges this, and that his idiom implies a certain vision of life:

“[my works] can be very slow pieces, slow to reveal themselves. This is not really in fashion. It seems to me now that the world is into immediacy. Quite a lot of art at the minute can be spoken, as it were. This is quite interesting, but I am into art as object, art that needs to be confronted, art as physical manifestation.”

He is right. He never really has been in fashion, and since 1750 neither has porcelain. His work is about the timelessness of human relations, as expressed through the interaction of bodies. This was also the central concern of artists through the Baroque and Rococo, and it was usually expressed through dramatic movement. It was about the dance of life, and it is this that is at the heart of Flynn’s output.

In some respects Flynn’s art is about the delicacy and wit of the Rococo modelers. He admires Johann Joachim Kaendler of Meissen, and Franz Anton Bustelli of the Nymphenburg factory, for example. Like them, he has a very particular and quite limited repertoire of characters in his work, most of whom are derived from Meissen. He told me that

“The subject matter interests me in Meissen –the Harlequin, the commedia dell’arte, in a way it has a low kind of humour, monkeys, parrots, Harlequins looking up women’s dresses and the like; I like the way it has been elevated to something high. Superficially you have this beautiful porcelain object, beautifully glazed and so on, but after that you can see it can be a strange, often jokey subject matter –you have one possibility, and it is subverted by another.”

But there is a far darker side to Michael Flynn. He has captured the human spirit by fusing this very fragile, witty elegance with a harsh cruelty. Bustelli and Kaendler might provide the movement and energy, but this is tempered by a darker iconography that owes more to Titian and Goya. More than anyone working with the figure at this time –and I include all media here –he captures the fundamental contrariness of life.

Swiss writer and museum professional Isabelle Naet Galuba recently summed up Flynn’s character and outlook in a book which accompanied an exhibition in France:

He is a cultivated man full of humour, passionate about literature and a polyglot. These aren’t his only qualities. His oeuvre exudes a sensuous richness, the possibilities of narrative, and countless philosophical threads. Interestingly, he himself delights in multiple interpretations of his work. [1]

A perfect summing-up of one of the most important figurative artists of our times, in any idiom.

© Paul Greenhalgh January 2020

[1] Isabelle Naet Galuba, Michael Flynn: Le spectacle de la vie, 2017, Geneva, Galerie de l’ancienne poste, p.3, translated by the author.

Ceramic Artist Thiébaut Chagué

by Tanya Harrod, design historian and co-editor of Journal of Modern Craft

In May 2012 I visited Thiébaut Chagué at Taintrux in north east France. Taintruxis in the Vosges, an area that has witnessed battles and bloody conflict over many centuries. The Vosges retains a secret fairy-tale quality and Chagué’s home is surrounded by meadows and encircled by small mountain peaks, dark with fir trees and with deciduous trees on the lower slopes, just coming into bright spring-time leaf. It is a good place for a potter with a wood-fired kiln.


In May 2012 I visited Thiébaut Chagué at Taintrux in north east France. Taintruxis in the Vosges, an area that has witnessed battles and bloody conflict over many centuries. The Vosges retains a secret fairy-tale quality and Chagué’s home is surrounded by meadows and encircled by small mountain peaks, dark with fir trees and with deciduous trees on the lower slopes, just coming into bright spring-time leaf. One surviving industry in this remote area is logging. It is a good place for a potter with a wood-fired kiln. Chagué lives in one of the austere farmhouses characteristic of the region, with windows and doors framed with red sandstone.

On that visit we drove to the nearby town of St-Dié, razed to the ground by German troops in 1944. It was rebuilt after the war as a place of parks, fountains and good housing. Chagué showed me the famous Usine Duval, a garment factory designed by Le Corbusier as part of this rebuilding process. At the nearby Musée Pierre Noel an exhibition dominated by fine African sculpture and masks included a monumental piece by Chagué, Béance, and a pair of massive pierced forms by Chagué’s friend, the Anglo-Nigerian potter Lawson Oyekan. Both artists looked at home in the company of these historic and contemporary sub-Saharan objects. Nonetheless neither Chaguénor Oyekan borrow directly from other cultures. They are not neo-primitivists.

The awe and wonder that Chagué’s work excites has more to do with being grounded in a place, or rather, a series of places. We visited the town’s metalwork shop where young apprentices are taught the skills of welding, cutting, raising and working metal. In this cavernous space Chagué’s L’Enfer dominated. It is a majestic conoid stoneware form, split open and secured with turquoise coloured epoxy putty, its surface dotted with blobs of melted earthenware body. L’Enfer was cradled within a steel frame, made with the help of Fabrice Perrin who teaches in the workshop. Perrin accepts the strangeness of the collaboration without question. Indeed, throughout the day I spent with Chagué I was struck by his role within the local community.

Nicholas Bourriaud’s term esthétique relationnelle, describing art that produces or prompts human relations, sociability and even conviviality, comes to mind. Of course, Chagué spends time alone in his studio, with its view of meadows and mountains. But his natural playfulness and gift for friendship have led him into communities of all kinds. He has worked alongside the women potters of the Gwari village of Tatiko in Northern Nigeria. He makes the firing of larger works performative and very public -most memorably in the garden of the Victoria and Albert Museum where in 2010 he created an improvised kiln around his mighty sculpture La Soif et La Source.

Chagué’s modus operandi unselfconsciously employs contemporary strategies of interactivity, just as his old teacher the great potter Michael Cardew embraced esthétique relationnelle long before the term was invented. Chagué once organised a community dinner and concert, with 250 people eating off his plates, each one playfully inscribed assiette en glaise. Like Cardew’s Wenford Bridge Pottery in Cornwall (carried on after his death in 1983 by Cardew’s son Seth but now completely gone) Chagué’s house is a collective where he, his children and his friends, students and helpers eat and discuss together at a long wooden table. Chagué’s particular choice of raw clay, is brought as dug from a village near the pottery town of La Bourne. At high temperature it acts temperamentally. Forms split and shapes sag. This is not a concern for Chagué, indeed he relishes the uncertainty of the ceramic process, finding uncertainty a useful provocation –in French a word that has powerful artistic associations. The clay is not purchased for its efficiency but for its tactility and materiality. He disregards conventional ceramic technology, and all his work is fiercely sculptural. It is therefore surprising to discover that all his pieces are built from thrown elements. The discipline of the potter’s wheel with its drive to repetition and symmetry appears remote from the dramatic, fractured nature of these complex objects.

In different ways, therefore, Chagué’s oeuvre recalls natural objects that are willed into becoming art objects –like the rocks mounted on wooden stands and placed by Chinese literati on their desks for contemplation. Today we do not really grasp the significance of Chinese ‘scholars rocks’. To understand the sources of Chagué’s inspiration is a challenge also. He directs me to Michael Cardew’s great essay The Fatal Impact in which Cardew writes on art and the child. According to Cardew ‘being aware that the world is overflowing with some tremendous significance the child has to do something –or rather make something –as a kind of acknowledgement of the mystery. He does it by making certain things mean something, by giving esoteric names, properties and meanings to certain stones, sticks, animals or places. He invests them with supernatural significance and potency’.

Most children lose that faculty with adulthood, but, Cardew goes on, ‘there are always a few who for some reason do not allow that to happen. I wonder what the reason is: were they specially happy in childhood, or specially unhappy?’ Nowadays Cardew’s conflation of the child and the artist, in which the child represents an innocent ‘other’ to which the artist should aspire, is dismissed as a form of Orientalism. But Cardew expresses the urgency and concentration of children’s creativity accurately. His imagery recalls Chagué’s own childhood, when he first encountered clay in his grandfather’s sculpture studio and was delighted by its ‘bonne odeur’ and when, fascinated with fire, he made ‘some memorable fires –one in a dustbin, and a remarkable one on the carpet in my bedroom’. Looking at the trajectory of Chagué’s work –towering and recumbent forms, small, utterly convincing tea bowls, torn, complex, honeycomb structures –is to encounter a continuing sense of urgency and daring, traceable back to those juvenile passions and transgressions.

In this exhibition we are both guided and playfully confused by the titles that Chagué has given each individual piece. Some come under the category Albarelle and indeed these upright forms faintly echo their namesake, the highly collectible Renaissance maiolica jars known as Alberelli. But these are jars turned biomorphic and matched by an equally haunting series that come under the rubric Blastoïde –a poetic reference to the fossils of long extinct seabuds, once anchored to the sea floor. Both sequences belong equally to the natural and made world. They are the work of Chagué’s hand while offering echoes of primordial growth during some remote period –Devonian or Silurian perhaps –long before humans walked the earth. At the same time these are highly sophisticated examples of ceramic facture that allow chance to play its part but which also testify to a long-learnt control over clays bodies and glaze materials. And of course they are remarkable because they braid ceramic and sculpture. Chagué’s work has deep roots in ceramic history –but that is not the whole story. Rainer Maria Rilke, writing in 1903, explained that sculpture was ‘a complete thing about which one could walk, and which one could look at from all sides.’ He concluded that sculpture also had ‘to distinguish itself somehow from other things, the ordinary things which everyone could touch’. Ceramics, of course, belongs in both worlds described by Rilke –that of the ‘complete thing’ and of ‘ordinary things’. What Thiébaut Chagué gives us are sculptures that everyone can touch.


Tanya Harrod is the author of The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture, Yale University Press, 2012

Material Narrative – The Inherent Eloquence of Clay

by Glen R. Brown, PhD, Professor of Art History and Associate Head of the Art Department at Kansas State University.

The plasticity of clay is key to its natural volubility: its inherent potential to speak materially and so to articulate narrative in the most elemental sense. An accommodating substance, clay moves easily under the energy of a compressive force, whether a disinterested force like gravity or one as motivated as the pressure of an artist’s fingertips as they strive to impart meaning to the world.

The plasticity of clay is key to its natural volubility: its inherent potential to speak materially and so to articulate narrative in the most elemental sense. An accommodating substance, clay moves easily under the energy of a compressive force, whether a disinterested force like gravity or one as motivated as the pressure of an artist’s fingertips as they strive to impart meaning to the world. The ability of clay to hold the shapes that it acquires under the influence of such forces makes it a faithful chronicler of events in a story of creation: a record of the physical genesis of form. Material narrative comes to clay so readily that some who work intimately with the medium feel obliged to allow it a significant degree of self-determination after imposing upon it only the rudiments of form. (Such restraint on the part of the maker in deference to the inherent narrative inclinations of clay is typical of some phases of the Japanese ceramic tradition, for example.) Other makers take the opposite tack, treating clay as a malleable tabula rasa on which to inscribe the full content of their intentionality. Clay has no preference between these polarities; it is amenable to any position on a spectrum from assertive presence to obedient vehicle, from material narrative to content narrative.

In the service of art, clay typically carries multiple, simultaneous narratives that relate to one another in ways calculated to compound meaning. Stories of transition between material states are unmotivated, fortuitous, arising from the natural tendency of clay to respond to the forces that act upon it, but they can be anticipated and even encouraged by the artist for aesthetic or discursive purposes. The result of such encouragement often appears more like a negotiation between clay and maker than an imperious forcing of the artist’s will upon a submissive medium.

Gravity and shrinkage – the latter of which can leave fine networks of fissures in the surface of clay while in the drying stage or even tear gapping wounds in that surface if the drying process is rushed – are two frequent instigators of unmotivated material narratives in ceramics. Their traces relate stories of creation that assert the independence of clay from absolute human control. More common as factors in this mode of material narrative are the consequences of kiln atmospheres, particularly those generated by wood-fired kilns. Flashing – a range of visual surface effects that arise chiefly from differences in oxygen levels as raw clay is transformed into ceramic through heat – and natural glazing, as wood ash settles on clay surfaces and vitrifies, were historically the most common atmospheric influences on material narrative. That these are not represented among the works of the exhibition can in part be attributed to the prevalence of gas and electric kilns today, but, more important, it may also signal a desire among many of the artists to move symbolically as well as literally beyond the vessel, to distance their work from the associations of clay with craft and its historical technologies, particularly the making of functional pottery in wood-fired kilns.

It should be noted that one of the most significant sources of material narrative in both historical and contemporary ceramics does not involve clay at all, except as a kind of stage for the actions of another material altogether. Glaze, a vitreous substance, has been employed since antiquity, to seal the porous walls of earthenware vessels and to enhance the aesthetic appeal of objects produced in all clay bodies. Glazes, particularly lead-based glazes, tend to flow as they melt during firing, creating visual effects more liquid than solid, more active than static. In the finished object, each gleaming rivulet of glaze is a record of a descending migration and each glistening drip marks the point at which molten glass cooled and thickened sufficiently to finally defy gravity. It is no coincidence that medieval Japanese connoisseurs of glaze often found in its effects intimations of the changing seasons. Glaze trails not only embody the physical traces of movement across space; they also materially record time.

Both the metaphorical possibilities and the more directly iconic potential of running glaze are exploited in Thomas Schütte’s Eierköpfe. The aqueous effects of glaze, its translucence and fluidity, readily conjure the albumen and yolk of a cracked egg and the bodily fluids – blood, mucous, and tears – of a human head. Rhetorically these liquids evoke the frailty and ephemerality of life, linking the Eierköpfe to a number of other melancholy narratives in the exhibition involving memento mori. Schütte’s eggheads are manifestly subject to external factors, the force of gravity and the weight of mortality. Though isolated ovoids bearing only the most rudimentary references to facial features, his Eierköpfe are quite different in effect from the similar form in Constantine Brancusi’s famous Sleeping Muse of 1910. The polished bronze of the latter, a material closely associated with the transcendent universals of classicism, makes it an inviolate monument to the persistence of ideal form across eternity. In contrast, Schütte’s Eierköpfe, in their slumping of clay and dripping of glaze, are more closely evocative of organic form, with its bonds to the cycle of life and its inevitable surrender to entropy.

In its raw state, clay serves naturally as a metaphor of the organic, evolving from molecules formed in a watery environment and remaining malleable only so long as that vital relationship with water is maintained. Raw clay and the human body are alike in this respect, with the former typically containing about 30% water and the latter roughly 50%. Despite this kinship, human interaction with clay has almost always resulted in a kind of death of the material. The drying and firing process through which water is removed and clay is ultimately converted to ceramic eliminates the potential for growth that an additive medium naturally embodies, rendering a plastic material effectively inert. Ceramic objects can, of course, acquire a different kind of metaphorical life through utility, passing through time and space and interacting with their environment in ways that both respond to and transform it, but that is life largely in its experiential sense rather than its biological essence. Ceramics as a field has for the most part contented itself with metaphors of this relational sort, but artists not bound to the traditions of a discipline in which function has been an influential, even governing, concept for millennia have felt freer to explore the aesthetic and symbolic possibilities of raw clay. In the early 1970s, for example, California artist Jim Melchert performed his famous Changes, in which he dipped his head in clay slip and allowed it to dry into a crusty second skin, and in the 1990s New York artist Walter McConnell began a series of large, plastic-sheeted terrariums in which mounds of raw clay sculpted into landscapes established temporary biospheres through evaporation, condensation, and precipitation.

Phoebe Cummings, The Fall, 2019

To use clay in this way is to do more than evade the term ceramic. It is to revise one of the oldest aphorisms in a long history of Western reflection on the nature of art: ars longa becomes ars brevis. As it dries, raw clay hardens and eventually sloughs away as dust, evoking the ephemerality of life in the singular: the life of an individual organism, whether a hyacinth or a human being. Raw clay from this perspective equates art and artist mortally rather than projecting the former into an infinite future as an undying surrogate of the latter. When Phoebe Cummings creates a narrative of nature in a raw-clay, site-specific installation she is aware from the outset that none of her efforts, not the mental exertion of envisioning a composition nor the physical labor of shaping the formless medium of clay into the mediated form of sculpture, will result in an enduring masterpiece, or even an artwork at all in the conventional sense. Raw clay differs temperamentally from stone, bronze, or steel. It is restless, constantly changing. Like the artist’s own life, each of Cummings’s installations has a beginning and an end, but in between there is no point of completion. Between the initial masses of raw clay and the terminal masses into which the installation must inevitably be dismantled, there is no stage at which one can say that a work is fully present, fully independent of a process of transformation. The artist ends her engagement of the material once her concept has been realized, but the material continues to transform, slowly desiccating until the day when it must be broken up and removed. Then, all that remains is an absence hinted at in memories and photographs. If there is melancholy in this mortality, there is also a message. Life in the singular is finite, and raw clay can reference this, but raw clay can also evoke life in the collective: the vitality that, like the nature that Cummings represents, transcends any single organism and endures beyond the unending stream of deaths. Raw clay may dry, shrink, and disintegrate into dust, but its remains can be recycled, reconstituted by the vital element of water, and returned to plasticity and the potential for creation.

This is, of course, not the case for clay as ceramic. Clay that has passed through the firing process has been deliberately removed from a cycle of change, has been chemically transformed through the burning off of carbon and sulfur, a breaking of bonds with molecular water, inversion of the crystalline structure of quartz, sintering of clay particles together, and, finally, vitrification of those elements capable of melting. Ceramic, particularly high-fired stoneware and porcelain, is more akin to marble ­­­– a metamorphic rock formed from sediment under intense heat and pressure – than anything organic. It is no accident that potsherds are the staples of archaeology; they endure across the ages, preserving their traces of human ingenuity and industry as persistently as documents in stone. Nevertheless, pottery, because it has infiltrated so many aspects of sociality, has acquired rhetorical associations with life. The most mundane evidence of this is reflected in the figurative terminology for the parts of a vessel – from foot to belly, shoulder, neck and mouth; less obvious, but more consequential, are the many ways in which humans have tended to reflect on the life of utilitarian ceramic objects in domestic service, to link them to rituals and rites of passage, and even to treat them as metonyms for those who possessed them in life.

Bouke de Vries ‘Cloud 2’

That which can live must inevitably die, and this accounts in part for the power of expression in Bouke de VriesCloud 2, a towering icon of an atomic blast articulated through a detritus of defunct and dismembered ceramic vessels and figurines. Ceramic is a frangible material, prone to shattering when under tension. When a ceramic object breaks, each sherd rings forever with the traces of destruction. The sherds themselves recall a once-whole form that no longer exists, and in this respect conjure material narratives of violence and death. Cloud 2 employs this association in synergy with the representation of an atomic mushroom cloud to decry the use of high technology for the most terrifying of human intents: the mass destruction of human beings themselves. At the same time, De Vries’ work is curiously complex, embodying antitheses in a metaphor of the cycle of life rather than simply emblematizing death. If the shattered plates and figurines embody destruction, the process of composing them into a new and meaningful configuration is surely one of resurrection, as if the artist looked upon the fragments of ceramic ruin and posed the prophetic question, “Can these bones live?” De Vries, in fact, has made a career of sculpting through resurrection, of salvaging sherds and giving them new life in reconfiguration, sometimes by connecting them with Perspex rods and sometimes through the Japanese technique of kintsugi, in which the sherds of a broken vessel are reconnected with a mix of lacquer and gold dust that not only restores the vessel to wholeness but imparts to it a beauty of experience that exceeds that of any material perfection.

The slumping of wet clay in response to the influence of gravity, the trails left by a glaze as it flowed in molten liquidity over surfaces during the transformation of clay into ceramic, the shrinking and cracking of raw clay as it surrendered its moisture to the surrounding air, the sharp edges of a sherd once part of a larger, now dismembered, form – these are all factors in material narratives that could be called disinterested, unmotivated by anything but natural forces acting on material objects. Such naturally occurring narratives can be exploited to complement narratives of other sorts, but material narratives in clay can also be of a more obviously motivated character. The distinguishing factor is consciousness: the impact of human intention on the physical form of clay. The simplest of such motivated material narratives arise from the process of modeling by hand: an immediate transferal of energy from the artist’s body to the clay body and a subsequent modification of the mass and surface of the medium at the artist’s will.   These kinds of narratives may be nothing more than an articulation of two discernable states or events and a moment, however brief, that links them in sequence: the maker’s finger rested here, and then it was dragged across the surface to there, leaving a faint rill in the wet clay. Such overt material narratives of the process of making are primordial; they have a history that dates back roughly 30,000 years, when Neolithic fingers pinched clay near the fire pits of Dolni Vestonice in Central Europe. At the same time, much of the history of ceramics has been given to reducing or even eliminating altogether these kinds of physical traces and the narratives of making that they convey. The cool perfection of Ching Dynasty imperial bowls, for example, seems to transcend the world in which human hands exert any influence over form, and the uniformity of product sought during the European Industrial Revolution gave rise to ceramic wares more evocative of machine technologies than the hand-working techniques of generations of previous potters.

Material narrative in clay never fully disappeared, despite the perfection of technologies for eliminating it, and in the second half of the twentieth century, it resurged as a deliberately cultivated trait diagnostic of modern ceramic art. It is no accident that this occurred at a time when material narratives in paint provided a sense of radical novelty for Abstract Expressionism. The drips in a Jackson Pollock painting, for example, each materially reflect movement of the artist’s body through space, and, in turn, adumbrate an internal struggle in which the artist’s very identity hung in the balance. In the field of ceramics, the work of Peter Voulkos, the central protagonist in what has been called the California Revolution in Clay, helped to popularize motivated material narrative by introducing to clay the equivalent of Abstract Expressionist painting. Groping, slashing, and pummeling clay and leaving the evidence of this manipulation obtrusive in the finished form, Voulkos created massive platters and “stacks” that subverted the functional nature of the vessel – for all practical purposes rendering it sculptural – and asserted that clay was a natural medium for both material narrative and, through its connotative potential, expressive narrative.

Jørgen Haugen Sørenson

The close relationship between these modes of narrative, the material and the expressive, is epitomised in Beyond the Vessel by the modeled sculptures of Jørgen Haugen Sørensen, which employ the idiom of fingers on a malleable surface to convey the testimony of a witness to the horrifying depths to which human nature can descend. Sørensen’s closest precursor in terms of his material narratives is not Voulkos, a paragon in the ceramic tradition, but rather the sculptor Rodin, whose roughly modeled maquettes in clay are some of the most materially expressive representations ever to have been fashioned in art. Sørensen’s Justizia IV reimagines the torment of Rodin’s Thinker, situating a despondent figure on a plinth from which to contemplate not a multitude of damned souls in the abyss of hell but rather a rising mountain of death manifesting a hell on earth. The rough marks of the artist’s interaction with clay relate more than a story of physical creation: they convey a powerful impression of violence, a scraping and tearing of the clay body, that reflects the presumed actions behind the mound of cadavers, but also, and more important, embodying the turmoil of Sørensen’s emotions while reflecting on the pervasiveness of brutality in the contemporary world. The deeply personal nature of the expression is confirmed, ironically, by the layer of glaze applied to the work as a kind of damper on the subjective. Wishing to create monuments testifying to the injustice still rampant in the contemporary world Sørensen enveloped his sculpture in a monochrome white with the intention of neutralizing some of the visceral material effects and elevating the narrative from the personal level to that of the universal.

Intimacy with clay through the direct actions of the fingers, or simple tools that serve as prostheses of these and largely preserve the immediacy of touch, is the primary avenue by which motivated material narrative is generated in clay, but other strategies are at the artist’s disposal as well. Christie Brown demonstrates that intentional storytelling in material terms is possible when using some of the very tools through which material narrative can be effectively reduced or even eliminated in the working of clay.   Brown’s sculptures are often assembled from combinations of handwork and mould-made forms. In general, moulds promote multiplicity rather than singularity; slipcast forms, for example, can be virtually indistinguishable from one another. Brown, however, utilises press moulds, or casting moulds, and takes particular interest in the physical deviations that can occur between multiples produced through this hands-on technology. Distended features, wrinkles, or cracks can arise and contribute materially to the formation of narratives when clay is removed from a press mould or when a moulded form is integrated into a larger composition. Like the traces of the incommensurable that some Surrealists found in simple details of surfaces – the veins of a leaf, or the raised grain of a wooden floor after countless scrubbings – material idiosyncrasies can be revelatory for Brown, whose most recent works reflect on the psychological implications of animal and human hybridity reflected in the persistence of ancient European folk rites in which participants still don animal attributes in ritualistic regression to an intuitive, instinctive relationship with the world.

Under the influence of artists such as Voulkos, motivated material narrative gained immense popularity as a sign of modernist expression in the artistic working of clay in the third quarter of the twentieth century, but the logic of the avant-garde dictated that eventually this quality should itself be negated through subsequent revolution. Such negation occurred as early as the Seventies in the experiments of Richard Shaw with slipcasting, a technique selected deliberately to agitate the emotions of hands-on expressionist potters and sculptors. Shaw, and other artists such as Marilyn Levine, went on to perfect a genre of trompe l’oeil ceramics that shifted the emphasis from the material narratives of real objects fashioned from clay to the simulated material narratives of feigned objects merely represented by the works.   Levine, for example, employed the natural fissuring of drying clay to convey the effect of cracking leather in her famous illusionistic renditions of handbags and briefcases, in effect directing the viewer to disregard actual material and the stories it bore of its own physical creation and focus instead on the simulation of such narratives. In this respect, material narrative became subtly fused with content narrative.

Bertozzi & Casoni ‘Autonno’

The Archimboldo-inspired allegorical heads of seasons created by Bertozzi & Casoni are tours de force of an ability to divert the viewer’s attention from the actual materiality of ceramic and glaze to the illusion of material in a cornucopia-like abundance of ersatz fruits, vegetables, grains, and flowers (and even the accumulation of litter that places Summer squarely in the context of environmental calamities that confront us today). Here clay might begin to seem incidental, though certainly it is essential to the surprise aspect of trompe l’oeil art. These sculptures would, after all, provoke a significantly different response were they composed of organic objects rather than fired clay, since the ability to instigate moments of epiphany would be lost. Bertozzi & Casoni achieve the power of illusion, like all conjurers, not by true miracles of transformation but rather through diversion of the viewer’s attention from the actual state of affairs, in this case the real materials comprising the allegorical heads. If this visual sleight of hand constitutes a significant evasion of the kinds of material narratives toward which clay is naturally inclined, it does not signify rejection of the ceramic tradition. On the contrary, Bertozzi & Casoni seem to pay conscious homage to the trompe l’oeil ceramics of the famous sixteenth-century French craftsman Bernard Palissy, whose distinctive “rusticware” simulated organic reality not only through its moulded-from-life components of fish, snails, eels, frogs, snakes, and the like but also through its skillful employment of enamels to complete the picture of unadulterated nature.   Bertozzi & Casoni may elaborate their narratives almost exclusively through content, but their works suggest a profound awareness of the history of ceramics as well as the general history of art.

Such awareness is reflected in the work of many ceramic artists today, just as many artists who work in clay maintain a deep appreciation for the narrative potential of the material. At the same time, contemporary ceramic art ­– whether in general or in the narrower sense of a discipline defined by a specific discourse and set of practices – often tendentiously separates itself from the history of ceramics and patently negates the material narrative natural to clay. The haunting Moss People of Kim Simonsson, for example, may be fashioned from stoneware, but the distinctive surfaces that link their materiality to their content – achieved through an accumulation of paint and nylon fiber – owe nothing to the material nature of clay. In fact, they camouflage it. That such substances as flocking, tool dip, fabric, and even sequins are regularly employed to cover every centimeter of surface in some contemporary ceramic sculptures only underscores the diversity of ways in which clay can be employed as a medium in art. In fact, with little difficulty one could construct a spectrum of contemporary works ranging from those in which clay as a material is eloquent and granted almost complete control over the narratives that it conveys to those in which clay as a material is rendered mute, its potential to elaborate material narratives entirely suppressed. While the relative position of a given work within such a spectrum would at one time would have carried definitive implications with regard to such categories as convention and rebellion or art and craft, today, as the varied work in Beyond the Vessel aptly attests, clay as a medium is arguably freer than it has ever been to simply facilitate creativity.