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Tim's Ceramics Blog

Musings on what I'm making, seeing and thinking

Material Language: New Work in Clay

This is my newsletter emailed out on 27th July 2016.

Last weekend we had a friend down from York, and decided to make the most of the sunshine by going to the New Art Centre just down the road from us. If you haven't been before, it is well worth a visit, with sculptures by major artists set out in the lovely gardens, and two interior gallery areas for smaller or non-weatherproof works. We just caught the exhibition Material Language: New Work in Clay, showing works by nine contemporary ceramicists (I daren't use the word potter in this bastion of fine art).

Three of these caught my eye. First off, Phoebe Cummings, with beautiful delicate, small scale fired sculptures in the Artist's Gallery, and a much larger floral bouquet of unfired clay in an open fronted stone pavilion outside (see below). This piece I found fascinating: the colours of the foliage reduced to the featureless pale grey of clay, so you engage with the form of the piece and its components much more; and also the temporary nature of unfired clay in an outdoors environment, moving slightly in the breeze, whereas normally you associate clay with something rigid, and so durable that it forms the bedrock of archaeology.

Phoebe Cummins - unfired clay

The other two artists are Annie Turner and Neil Brownsword - quite different styles of work but each in their way challenging the division between art and craft, particularly in the light of discussions with one of the staff at the exhibition. Annie's works are wall mounted or free standing forms of ceramic mesh, finished with textured slips ranging from white to rust brown. These are evocative of her childhood on the River Deben in Suffolk, with its fishing nets and derelict jetties. They are both beautiful to look at, and technically challenging in the making. In contrast, Neil Brownsword's interest is in the decline of the commercial ceramics industry in Britain, and he had three works on display. Two were collections of small components for larger porcelain pieces, in various stages of production, and including failures, wired to display boards in an organised manner, resembling bleached bones in some Victorian naturalist's collection. The other showed a number of pieces that the studio or commercial potter would have deemed failures, and thrown out: pieces that had over heated and slumped in the kiln; glazes that had run; wares welded themselves to kiln shelves.

Annie's work was described to me as just craft, and so relatively inexpensive - yet many (other than the cognoscenti of fine art) would choose her work in preference to Neil's, and it is definitely well beyond the work of many studio potters that is either functional or at least work whose forms are rooted in functionality. Neil's work can be seen as referencing the failure of the manual mass-production methods developed by the likes of Wedgwood that have largely been replaced by much more automated processes and cheaper production in countries such as China and Indonesia. This shows how art can recycle, and add significant commercial value, to items discarded by both craft and industrial production. Or does it? What if Neil's work was made by him specifically for these works? And if so, does it matter?

On to my work. I have a busy time coming up with 3 exhibitions almost back to back. First there is Southern Ceramic Group's annual exhibition in the grounds of Chichester Cathedral, beginning this Saturday for 2 weeks - I'll be there on Saturday 13th. Then comes Hampshire Open Studios (20 - 29th August) where I'm exhibiting with Tom and Anne Paine of Cotton and Clay, who produce functional ceramics and fabric items, along with my partner Monica Wilson's silver jewellery (I'll be there at the weekends and Bank Holiday Monday, except the 28th). Finally there is the Wallop Artists exhibition on 23 - 25 September, mostly paintings but with some 3-d works. Whilst all this is going on, I've been lucky enough to get onto a masterclass with Akiko Hirai in a couple of weeks' time. For those familiar with her work, you'll see the appeal to me of her loose, organic forms and glazes.