by Catherine Milner
Last November a record price for ceramic – £240,000 – was set for a pot by Magdalene Odundo, one of a group of ceramic artists that Messums are showing in March.
The clay pot has been a means of human survival for thousands of years; its decorations, engravings and embellishments offering an intimate record of how people have lived.
And although the market for the finest of ceramics still lags way behind that of the ‘fine art’ market and artists like Jeff Koons whose stainless steel Rabbit sculpture sold a couple of years ago for $91 million, the fact that they are being valued increasingly highly tell us a great deal about the seismic shift our culture is undergoing.
One might have expected a humble vessel made simply of clay to have become artistically obsolete with such a wide variety of technical innovations and novel materials available to artists.
But quite the contrary.
To generations brought up within an education system that prioritises working on computers rather than with their fingers and imagination, clay can seem exciting – almost anarchic.
Clay vessels reconnect the viewer with the ground beneath our feet; perfect ciphers for our new awareness of the fragility of the earth that like a pot itself, must be handled with care.
Over the last five years Messums has been tracing the evolution of this new movement with as many as thirty exhibitions and festivals focused on clay, culminating last year in Beyond the Vessel, one of the biggest exhibitions of contemporary clay sculptures to have been held anywhere in the world.
Shown firstly at the Mesher Gallery in Istanbul and then at Messums in Wiltshire, the exhibition brought together thirteen sculptors from seven European countries – each expressing different aspects of European myths and folklore in clay.
This exhibition brings us back to the vessel and highlights the pivotal role that the Royal College of Art in London has played in leading the renaissance of art using clay. Almost all the artists in it went to the RCA in the 1970’s ; a place that coupled the teaching of stringent technical disciplines with lively intellectual debate resulting in works that are exquisitely executed with compelling narratives to boot.
Having been educated in Kenya, the ‘narrative’ of Odundo’s work lies more in the shape and style of her works than any explicit drawings or words but a narrative is there nonetheless.
All her pieces, including the two we have on display, reveal the natural shapes of the human body – the pot belly, the curves of the spine, the hair – abstracted, burnished and formed into vessels.
A perfect piece of abstract art embodied in the most ancient form of utility.
‘Using the human form is a very natural way of sculpting with clay’ she says. ‘After all, the Bible says that God took clay and used it to form man. It’s something that is within our culture. The first thing you do as a child is get a piece of clay, squeeze it into your hand, add bits and pieces, then draw an eye or a mouth on to it. Clay automatically lends itself to making. It is embodied into the motion of making a body, a person.’
There are elements of human form in the works of Alison Britton too. Not only in the jug eared handles of her platters or the jaunty arms of some of her pots but in their uneasy stances; their craning necks or lopsided shoulders making them studies in the awkwardness of human beings for which clay acts as such a wonderful simulacrum. Not for her symmetrical forms and mathematical precision of some of the other pots in this show, but intuitive ‘flicks, squirts and slips.’
‘An unfired pot is naked; its needs something happening to it, like a body needs a dress,’ she says, challenging herself to make the painting on a pot in an unpremeditated fashion, less like patterning and more like an abstract painting in which the canvas is slabs of clay.
In Japan and Korea, ceramics represent a zenith of cultural expression, thanks to their ability to convey unique styles, customs, and politics within their form.
The Confucian ideals of frugality and purity has become a defining symbol of Korean and Japanese potters and running in tandem with our show of pots by British makers are works of the most exquisite perfection by Korean master Ree Soo-Jong and next month, by the Japanese artist, Makoto Kagoshima. A British equivalent is the work of Martin Smith, whose early works were large raku bowls which were precise and geometric, departing from the tradition of Japanese raku but keeping nonetheless their sense of purity.
His works in this exhibition play with perspective and reflection, surface and depth. Inspired by architecture they turn away from the malleability of clay, forcing it instead into angles of geometric precision.
Smith is Senior research Fellow of Ceramics at the RCA, where he is investigating
the ‘Potential of the Digitally Printed Ceramic Surface,’ and many of his works mimic other materials like wood, silver or gold in a way that clay objects have for centuries been skeuomorphs.
Although Steven Dixon has made several research trips to Japan, his way of working could not be more different, manifesting one of the enduring characteristics of British art – satire. From Hogarth to Spitting Image; Gillray to Grayson Perry, the British have always used wit to puncture authority and lampoon social vices.
He is currently working on a project that traces the history of Majolica; the type of tin-based glaze that is best known as coming from Italy but in fact originated in North Africa which spread throughout Europe until it appeared in England in the shape of English Delftware; using this trajectory of travel as a metaphor for the journey undertaken by refugees.
On one of his plates Mona Lisa brandishes a Kalashniko; on another, Michaelangelo’s David is woven with images of Palmyra after it was ruined by terrorists; totems from both ‘the highest and lowest points of civilisation,’ he says.
There are also a series of magnificent oil cans by Dixon made of clay, each standing at least 60 cms high and therefore actual size. They were made in the 1990’s during the time of the Iraq Wars and expose the hypocrisy of the West as it created a Frankenstein’s monster in the shape of Saddam Hussein and turned The Holy Land into a group of basket states.
Closer to home are the satirical works of Carol McNicoll, which include a ‘Non Socially Distanced’ Toby jug plastered with images of her friends, dancing, abseiling and sitting in the pub. She has also made a vase dedicated to the area of North London in which she lives called The Heath which subverts its reputation as a place for gay men to congregate by featuring an image of a bewigged and stockinged 18th century courtly gentleman bowing in front of a lady.
Back in ancient Greece pots recorded all sides of life from drinking games to gladiatorial wrestling matches to combing your hair. Thousands of years before that, they told us how Neolithic man worshiped, cooked and travelled around meeting with other tribes.
It is this ancestry of pots; their familiarity to us as domestic ally coupled with them being the nearest equivalent to our own bodies as vessels for our souls, that makes them particularly compelling at such a time of threat.