At a recent seminar (21st April 2015), it was posited that perhaps the Modernist period of the 1920s and 30s was the closest ceramics came to true recognition within the world of Fine Arts, when Bernard Leach, William Staite-Murray and Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie were in their prime. The new Tate Britain display of pottery in the 1910-1930 room supports this view. I’m intrigued, the Tate web-site also includes a forum for debate on When is craft an art? introduced by Kirstie Bevan (in 2011) who opens the piece with an explanation that it was the rise of artists such as Grayson Perry and publication of works such as Richard Sennet’s The Craftsman (2009) that has prompted the “resurgence” of interest. However the pervading view seems still to suggest that pottery and “ceramics” are not truly at home as art – or certainly not fine art? It was interesting that the display case in question is poorly lit and the pots on display, whilst maybe fine in their own right, look insignificant and slightly dowdy, almost cementing the point that these are pots, not art? When I arrived at the Tate that morning, I asked at the information desk where the display might be found (I had only heard a rumour of it’s installation!). The lady at the desk was very helpful, but her first response was “pots, pottery…..no, I don’t think so!” She then looked through her guide and reference books – to no avail…. Guerrilla ceramicists active within the Tate curatorial division – I wonder? These “silent pots” ( see de Waal 2004 ) do not convey any meaning on their own, they are pots; vases, bowls, jars. Perhaps it is the concentration on form and material within Modernism – which fits with part of the Tate’s own definition of the movement – Modernism refers to the broad movement in Western art, architecture and design which self-consciously rejected the past as a model for the art of the present, and placed an emphasis on formal qualities within artworks and processes and materials…… that justifies their presence. De Waal, E. (2004) Speak for Yourself. Interpreting Ceramics. Issue 5. http://interpretingceramics.com/issue005/speakforyourself.htm
Last week I visited a First School in Redditch (Worcestershire) that I may do some work with this Autumn – linking work with clay as a material to themes in sustainability as they work towards their Eco Schools Green Flag Award. The children (8-9 year olds), were fascinated by the stuff I brought in…. “Is this the clay part?” (referring to the coarse base of a bowl), “What’s this shiny stuff?” (wondering about the glaze…)… They were intrigued to think that the material the bowls were made of, might be similar to clay under their school (a quick reference to the UK Soil Observatory website had confirmed before my visit that then geology beneath the school was mudstone / claystone – which was promising). Whilst the class did PE, I dug a couple of trial pits in an area of rough grass in their school grounds, and having gone through a shallow topsoil and stony layer, found the profile change to one with a higher clay content. The ring test didn’t work out in the field – by this time the children were over with me and quizzing me on what I had found. They were full of questions about treasure (had I found any?) and the soil itself. Having taken a couple of small samples in sample bags, we retired to the classroom to add a little water – and things looked more promising still, as the samples became stickier and more plastic. Having returned to my studio, I sieved the sample first through a kitchen sieve (to remove grit / stones), and then through a 60 sieve (to remove the larger sand / silt particles), and the result, dried on a plaster slab, was a wonderful plastic material – with a successful ring test. I’m hoping the school may want to take this investigation further, but that’s entirely up to them. It was however, great to see the children’s fascination….
I am drawn to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becker, who made an impact on the contemporary art world particularly after the 1990 series of exhibitions and publication of Typologies. Their use of “documentary photography” (Romain, L. 1990) to catalogue a wide range of structures in industrial / post industrial, rural and urban landscapes is a fascinating record of changes in our landscapes, offering a unique and fresh set of perspectives linked to industrial archaeology and architecture. I am intrigued by their precise methodology, only photographing on cloudy days, in black and white, mostly with a direct, front-on view, mostly “portrait” page layout….. I need to consider far more consistently a methodology in my landscape photography that aims to capture changes, details and palimpsest observations (Hoskins 1970 – see below) in the 21st century landscape.
Becher, B. & H. (1990) Typologies. München, Schirmer/Mosel
Romain, (1990) quoted in Typologies, Bernd and Hilla Becher (see above)
Hoskins, W.G. (1970) The Making of the English Landscape. London. Penguin (Pelican edition)
In March, following the visit to the Ikon Gallery, we visited the Balke exhibition at the National Gallery. Pedar Balke (1804-1887), was a Norwegian painter and social activist, painting landscapes both on an epic and miniature scale. I am drawn to him because of the beauty of his paintings, his involvement with wider society, and the fact that his work is hugely inspired by walking through Scandinavian arctic landscapes, sketching and recording as he went, (particularly as a young man in the early 1830’s), making a link for me with contemporary artists such as Richard Long. As a family we were particularly captivated by the final wall of miniature landscapes, mostly Balke’s later works, with his use of black and white paint where brush and finger tip strokes are all evident. This may well transfer itself to my own experiments with slip, clay and other materials over the next few weeks…. The painting below is Northern Lights over a Coastal Landscape (1870).
In February I was lucky enough to catch A.K. Dolven’s amazing installation, Please Returnat the Ikon Galery . It came just after finishing our last practice based module, as I started our penultimate module, Analysis of Contemporary Context, which was perhaps ideal timing. In challenging myself to think where my deepest connections with the world around me stem from, I have been thinking a lot about W.G. Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape (1970 – original print 1955) which I read during my last year of school in 1980. it’s impact on me was profound. Inspired by my uncle, Richard Westmacott’s work for the Countryside Commission at the time and his work on New Agricultural Landscapes, I was struck by Hoskins’ central concept of the landscape as a palimpsest, layer upon layer of evidence from millennia of human impact and management. In many ways, I suppose this led ultimately to my degree in Archaeology, linked with my passion for the environment, MSc at Bangor (Rural Resource Management) etc… And of course to my making connections between landscape and my current ceramic work. The issue of rapid change, across environment and society, is perhaps the most fundamental linking feature, and challenge of our age. It is a theme that I need to explore further, artistically and in my educational work. Dolven’s beautiful installation, focusing on her responses to a trip to the antarctic, with it’s combination of image, video and artefact, for example Pedar Balke’s wonderful miniature nineteenth century arctic landscapes, (e.g. Balke’s Stormy Sea 1870), really struck a chord with me. Seeing this wide-ranging, multi-media approach to place completely captured my imagination and I found myself reflecting on the beauty, isolation and fragility of the changing polar landscape with fresh perspectives.