Building Bigger

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The images above show my first attempt at making a larger composite form. I threw two bowls (approx 3 kg each), a 4kg ring and a 2kg cylinder with the aim of making a kind of narrow necked bottle shape. However, I made the mistake of not covering the clay overnight because I thought this would leave it at a leather-hard state for me to construct with in the morning. The sections dried too much but I manage to just about salvage them by spraying lots of water over the surfaces and wrapping them tightly in plastic for a couple of hours. Although they were workable, they split easily and it was a battle to get them to join together at all. The bottom bowl had too much weight on it and started to bend and split, leaning the pot to one side. This jaunty angle, although initially unintended, does lend the pot character and life. It speaks of the struggle of making and the active nature of a material in constant flux.

I spent yesterday going back and forth, altering the pot little by little over the course of the day – pushing out cyst-like lumps, gouging, slicing with kidneys and pin tools. I added on more protruding thrown clay sections, trying to find a pleasing balance in the asymmetry.  Today I decided that what the vessel requires is a foot-ring to elevate it. The form is in such a precarious state I was worried that lifting it up to work on the base would destroy it completely. Jasper suggested I make separate ‘feet’ for the pot to balance on, much like plant pot feet (below) so I’ve thrown a thick ring of stoneware clay which I plan to cut up into sections tomorrow. I hope having space underneath the pot will give it a sense of weightlessness and elegance which will juxtapose strangely with the pot’s warty, scarred and slumping appearance.

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Source: http://www.rhsplants.co.uk

I intend to bring up the issue of glazing in my tutorial tomorrow because I don’t know if I want to carry on gas firing for this exhibition module. On one hand, I have already tested many reduction glazes, am familiar with this clay and I like the variation in effects from reduction – it’s more exciting. On the other, the gas kiln has broken down a few times in the past months and could cause problems closer to the exhibition deadline, and firings can only take place a few times a week so it might take a long time to get larger work through. As well as this, gas kilns are hard to find outside of university so it may be a while before I have access to one after I graduate.

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The Underside: A Ceramic Parergon?

This afternoon Jon Clarkson introduced us to the idea of the parergon. This can be thought of in art terms, as something subordinate to the completed work of art, an embellishment of sorts. A frame is a parergon to a painting, a plinth to a sculpture. It is something which is an integral part of how we experience the artwork but at the same time almost completely hidden from view as our focus is directed elsewhere. Some artists in the past have drawn attention to these invisible elements of the artwork. Howard Hodgkin is famous for continuing his paintings onto the frame, literally thinking ‘outside the box’. As a result of treating the wood inside the frame and the wood of the frame in the same way, we start to interpret ‘object’ as ‘material’. Constantin Brancusi also created ambiguity in his stacking of plinths, creating a conversation between finished, unfinished and not even started sculptures. In my past post I mentioned how the base and the rim of the pot are two of the most important parts to think about since they define the start and end points making up the line of the object’s profile. How can I begin to make use use of the base of the vessel, a part which is so often overlooked?

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Howard Hodgkin ‘Indian Sky’ 1988-89 Source: https://howard-hodgkin.com/artwork/indian-sky

Gareth Mason / Mudfondler

Of all the contemporary artists whose vessels follow the principle of form follows function, Gareth Mason’s hold a special place in my heart. His 2015 demonstration at Aberystwyth’s biennial International Ceramics Festival was the turning point that led me to decide to pursue ceramics at university. Under the stage name ‘mudfondler’ he regularly updates his avid Instagram followers with close up details of his pots’ varied surfaces, videos of the bold and labour intensive making process and, er, seemingly random photos of polished apples. While the photos of his amorphous, tension charged vessels are undoubtedly stunning, interestingly the poetic, stream of consciousness style of his writing which accompanies these images shows there is a lot more here than meets the eye.

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Gareth Mason ‘Tricolour’ 2006-2013

In terms of thinking about time in making, Mason’s work is a perfect illustration of the layering of different durations. Viewing his work on display in the online catalogue for the Jason Jaques gallery, it becomes clear that many of the pieces have been created over a period of about five or six years during which his vessels are made, remade, broken and remade again, sometimes fired multiple times. Working as a production potter making terracotta garden ware at Franham Pottery for three years, he learnt the tacit knowledge required for his current practice. He also spent a while focused on traditional functional ware inspired by Leach and eastern traditions, the chuns and copper red glazes of which can still be seen in his work now.

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Gareth Mason ‘Mammon, Tarnished’ 2010

He states that his pieces stem from a rejection of the pretty but that he continues to value skill. It is after all, the base from which he works up. Interestingly he writes about how not every thrown form he makes goes the right way and he has had experience of vessels collapsing in public demonstrations (I’ve read this happened to Peter Voulkos at times too). I admire the way he pushes the porcelain to its very limits while throwing in his videos. It shudders and warps dangerously but it is this sense of vitality in the material being pushed so far that gives his work so much life. I hope I can be as courageous in my own throwing.

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Gareth Mason ‘Insulator Flask’ 2010-2014

Mason’s vessels sometimes incorporate lots of different clays and found objects. In a recent firing he used a broken break pad which melted, eating away at the pot. Inspired by Henry Hammond’s pottery philosophy that “it’s the rim and foot that are the main thing. The middle will take care of itself”, he takes into careful consideration how the vessels leave the ground. With my own current experimental vessels, I need to start carefully considering the same thing. I’ve been thinking recently about the masculine nature of the work of ceramic artists like Voulkos and Gareth Mason. The vessels are large scale, thrown with huge quantities of clay that are difficult to control and require brute strength. There is a violence to the mark-making too, of the piercing and scratching in defacing the surface.

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My own slab built vessel

I hadn’t thought of my pots in terms of masculine or feminine before until Yixia pointed out today that a slab construction I was working on looked very masculine with it’s rectangular building blocks. Without the thrown forms which act as a base, I struggled with this construction. There were no marks or textures to respond to and the form lacks a visible tension.

Artists working with deconstruction of Vessel: Glenn Barkley, Kathy Butterly, Nicole Cherubini, Babak Golkar, the Haas Brothers, King Houndekpinkou, Takuro Kuwata, Anne Marie Laureys, Gareth Mason, Ron Nagle, Gustavo Pérez, Ken Price, Brian Rochefort, Sterling Ruby, Arlene Shechet, Peter Voulkos, Jesse Wine and Betty Woodman

Gareth Mason photos from: http://www.jasonjacques.com/contemporary/gareth-mason

Statement of Intent for Exhibition Module

My work so far has been concerned with the functional vessel. However, as a result of my dissertation research into the relationship between ceramics and time, I am interested in turning my focus away from the object to the material itself. The vessel form will still be central to my work but I want to better communicate duration and transience, and to celebrate the unique quality clay has of preserving traces. I want to juxtapose two times of making in my work. Firstly, the process of throwing on the wheel and secondly the hand-joining together of these thrown elements. Throwing on the wheel as the first stage of the process is important to me because it enables me to start with a controlled, symmetrical shape. I also like the tension held in thrown vessels. I plan to re-work into the pots at different stages of dryness in order to build up a chronology of traces made at intervals in time. Jasper has suggested setting time limits on my actions such as allowing myself only 20 minutes on a pot or only 5 seconds to draw a line in the surface.

I have experience of sculpting with thrown sections before and know it is a challenge to get the timing right, so I plan to invest in a heat gun. It may also help to research additions to clay bodies so I can create a strong clay, smooth enough to throw but strong enough to be altered and built on top of afterwards too. In terms of technique I am very inspired by the work of Jo Taylor and Bryan Newman. However the aesthetic qualities I’m searching for are the lack of self-consciousness, spontaneity and bravura characteristic of the works of Peter Voulkos, Gareth Mason and Wayne Clark where lines are blurred between making and performance art. I want to see how far the traditional vessel can be deconstructed and reconfigured, stratifying layers of time in the making. I find I am interested in how our personalities shape what we make and whether the art we make can, vice versa, shape our personality. I would like to see what happens when I decide to address my character traits of perfectionism and self-consciousness and discard any previous prejudices about what I think is a ‘good pot’.

I intend to begin by somewhat imitating the styles of work I admire with the hope that an embodied, tacit knowledge of the mark-making involved will help guide me to find my own visual language. Slivka and Tsujimoto’s book ‘The Art of Peter Voulkos’ will be my starting point but I would also like to see Voulkos’ work on display in the V and A at some point. I find I can spend a very long time contemplating the photos in the book. The lines of cuts, fractures and joints lead the eye on a journey over the surface of the form. The flashes of ash on the wood-fired surfaces complement the forms well but I will have to think of alternative ways to decorate my sculptures.

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This week I began with a couple of basic moon jar style vessels, connecting together two thrown bowls. I decided to sketch the first of these in order to pay closer attention to understand the form and from this exercise, realised that I hadn’t pushed the disfigurement far enough. I want to achieve a similar looseness of quality that’s in my drawings, in my vessels. While gouging, squeezing, slicing and punching the pot’s surface I try my best to touch the outside of the pot as little as possible. I think this was advice from Gareth Mason when he demonstrated at ICF a few years ago.

At the moment my throwing isn’t thin enough so the pots are a lot heavier than I want them to be so I need to get better at throwing larger quantities of clay. I don’t feel what I’ve made this week is dangerous enough. I need to feel a bit of a sense of trepidation that the thing might collapse. Perhaps I could attempt to build a vessel in the spirit of Johnny Vegas’s one minute teapot challenge to really encourage a sense of immediacy. Alexandra Engelfriet approaches her markmaking without pre-thought or self-consciousness in a complete of the moment response to the material and this is the kind of state of mind I aspire to too. At the moment these vessels still feel too careful, too contrived.

L6 Constellation Learning Journal (PDP)

Over the past three years Constellation has been a huge aid to my subject area, encouraging me to ask myself more critical questions surrounding my practice e.g. what does it mean to say I make something? Martyn Woodward’s ‘New Materialisms’ study group in the first year was a catalyst in igniting my interest in the material I work with (clay) and making me consider the theoretical discourse surrounding materials which led to the topic of my dissertation. In my second year I found that I could begin to see the value of ideas from Constellation feeding into my subject modules, drawing closer ties between my research and practice. This year however, my dissertation topic has somewhat overtaken my subject work in the sense that there seems to be a bigger gulf than ever between the ceramics I make and the theories I have been writing about at the start of level six. I expect this is because most of my writing was done over the Christmas holidays when I wasn’t making. I don’t see this as a negative though, in fact, my dissertation research into how the different temporalities of materials, humans, objects and the environment impact our sense of time has provided me with many new routes of approach to my practice and I look forward to making new work based on these ideas for my exhibition module. Writing about the ‘live ceramics’ of Keith Harrison has made me think about the power time-based objects have over us through creating temporal anxiety and tension. From past Constellation reading I’ve made work which is intended to arrest the viewer’s attention, slowing down the interaction with artworks through elements of surprise, familiarity or disruption in the field of vision. Writing about time recently has made me think about the different times embodied in different ceramic processes such as throwing and hand-building and how I can juxtapose these for effect.

In preparation for my dissertation I began to identify topics of interest, pinpointing the themes of memory, time, speed, mindfulness and slowness. Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space and Arden Reed’s Slow Art were also important books in developing my ideas. However, I struggled with writing my literature review on how slow art can subvert the hierarchy of space since I realised the entire concept of slow art was so subjective I couldn’t define it. Unsure how to progress, I was encouraged by my dissertation tutor to write about my own perspective of time from my experiences of making and firing ceramics. This exercise helped me identify the three modes of time which were to make up my dissertation. In order to broaden my investigation into the relationship between ceramics and time I used the keywords I identified in Metsearch to find some short articles on the topics to begin with. I was introduced to some of the key philosophers that are concerned with our experience of time, namely Henri Bergson, E.H. Gombrich, the film analysis of Giles Deleuze and the phenomenological approaches of Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger. Moving on to larger texts, I found Heidegger’s Being and Time the most difficult and had to focus on bite sized sections related to temporality, with the help of study guides to make sense of the ideas. As a result of being unable to find many texts that discussed ceramics from the point of view of time, I instead looked into time and art in a broader context and learnt that the 60s was a period of important experimentation in this area. In Pamela Lee’s Chronophobia I found theories that equally applied to ceramics. The main difference with my argument is the emphasis on material agency and the different temporality clay possesses.

Reading Writing at University: a guide for students came the understanding that there are many different ways to write an essay and that I identify very much as a “diver writer” (Creme and Lea, 2008, p. 73) since I have to do a lot of writing, even if none of it is relevant, before I can even begin to think of putting a plan together. It’s valuable to recognise the writing approach I take so that I know I must start well in advance to start getting ideas down on paper. I also find I’m a “patchwork writer” (p. 74), using a collage approach of cutting and pasting paragraphs to alter the structure as I go along. I encountered a few technical difficulties along the way using Microsoft word, mainly with inserted images disarranging the format and difficulty indenting quotes, but managed to sort these with help from friends and the internet. I will consider using google docs next time I write an essay so I have backup copies saved automatically.

In regard to the writing itself, I was aware that the tone of my dissertation draft submission was fairly casual and descriptive so I made an effort to make the final draft more academic and analytical. Reading Tim Ingold’s Making, David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous and Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space I’ve learned that I respect academic writing which is able to ground theory in vivid and beautiful descriptions of everyday experience. I find I easily get carried away with such descriptions e.g. of wood-fired pots or the throwing process unless I reign myself in. How to connect together chapters to enable the essay to flow was a challenge but I found getting a balance between working on individual sections and reading over chapters and the entire body as a whole was a help here. One weakness I feel needs to be addressed with my dissertation process was that, while I could think through my ideas fairly clearly on paper, I felt a lack of confidence explaining them verbally. This meant that I had difficulty talking through my ideas in group tutorials and bringing them up with friends and colleagues. In any future academic writing I have decided I will be more verbal about my research topic because hearing the opinions of others can be extremely valuable.

 

Bibliography

Creme, P., & Lea, M. (2008). Writing At University : A Guide For Students. Buckingham: McGraw-Hill Education.

 

Time and Ad Reinhardt

The realisation that over the next handful of months I’ll be making my final ever body of work at university is very daunting. I’ve spent the holidays working on the dissertation, an investigation into the relationship between contemporary ceramics and time, which has introduced me to a number of artists, philosophical concepts and ideas that I hope will act as a springboard for this term’s work. Some of these different aspects of time are listed below:

  • Material temporality and how it’s different from human time causing an instability in human-thing relationships.
  • Phenomenological explanations of non-linear time
  • The dichotomy between lived time and the homogenous time of the clock
  • How our experience of a static image is temporal because it takes place over a duration
  • The dichotomy between impermanent raw clay and long lasting fired ceramic
  • Indexical marks as visual traces of time
  • Keith Harrison’s ‘live firings’ make us feel the presentness of real time
  • Clay’s immediacy as a means of us experiencing ‘presentness’
  • How time can be transformed in a state of creative flow

One artist I don’t write about but who has captured my attention is the American abstract artist Ad Reinhardt and his series of black squares. At first the paintings appear uniformly black. It is only through contemplating the painting for a duration of a few minutes that it starts to reveal itself to the viewer – as a grid of very subtly different shades of very, very dark blues, greens or purples. In Arden Reed’s book Slow Art he argues that this is what he means when he describes a painting as a moving picture quoting the sculptor Robert Smithson’s remark that ‘each painting is at once both memory and forgetfulness’. In the past it was generally agreed that paintings could not show time because they were static images and seen in single instant (punctum temporis) in which change could not take place. However E.H.Gombrich in Moment and Movement in Art (1964) argues that we take in an artwork not in an instant but over a duration, building up the ‘reality’ of the artwork in our head partly based on guesswork, expectation and memory. Perhaps, following in the steps of Reinhardt, what I need to focus on is how surface can impact our relationship with time instead of form.

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Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, 1963, oil on canvas. Source: uk.phaidon.com

Currently in CSAD’s reception space is a pop up exhibition by some of the school of art’s technical demonstrators. With Reinhardt’s paintings in the back of my mind I was instantly drawn to Dallas Collin’s Behold (2018) – a wall panel made from 576 individually coloured oak cubes on which we see a pixellated image of a NASA project showing light from a distant galaxy when the universe was only 800 million years old (in perspective, it’s now 13.8 billion years old). The moment in time depicted doesn’t exist anymore – but then neither does five minutes ago or this moment now.  As Gombrich explains, we build up an image from a succession of tiny in focus dots which the pixels here are suggestive of. The two layers of the image below – the mathematical grid and the superimposed fuzzy space photograph might speak of the two kinds of time we experience – the objective time of ‘clock time’ and our subjective, lived experience.

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Dallas Collins Behold (2018)