Today we took a coach to Swansea to visit Ingrid Murphy’s exhibition ‘Seen and Unseen’, part of the Language of Clay curated by Ceri Jones at the Mission Gallery. This was my first visit to the gallery and although a small space, the shop and exhibition were very thoughtfully laid out. Ingrid’s technological collaboration with Jon Pigott ‘The Campanologists Teacup’ had a perfect location in the old church’s apse. The installation consists of a series of ceramic horns with life size ceramic ears (3D scanned, 3D printed and slipcast) attached. When a member of the audience pings a teacup on a plinth in front of them, rubber balls suspended on strings inside the horns bounce around in a random series of movement to generate a 30 second or so sequence of sounds.
Interaction is a key theme of the exhibition. Some of the pieces require the audience to participate, to touch the palm of a ceramic dipping former in the shape of a hand which subsequently lights up inside with a ghostly radiance (and at the same time lights up a copy of the hand in Ingrid’s home), to place a terracotta plate on a turntable so the splatters of lustre vibrate the needle to create sounds, or to scan QR codes on our phones to reveal moving augmented reality models. Other pieces employ interaction by considering the interactions of the people involved in the making of an exhibition such as the series of replicas of traditional ceramic figurines superimposed with the faces of the artist, gallery director, filmmaker, curator etc.
My favourite piece stood out since it was the only artwork without a label or description of how the work was intended to be interacted with. A series of white ceramic plates onto which transfers of distorted imagery have been applied and on which sit gold lustre decorated teacups and pots is presented on an antique wooden table. It’s only by crouching down to view the work from an alternative perspective that you realise the images are anamorphic photographs of architecture from Wales to Jaipur which become clear in the reflections of the vessels. I was instantly reminded of the mirror in the Arnolfini portrait in which the scene of the couple we look upon is echoed back from a different perspective, both eerie and slightly voyeuristic. It’s interesting to note that in an exhibition that has such a pronounced emphasis on sound and touch the thing I was most drawn to was an optical illusion.
This morning, after nightmares of flooded glazes, collapsed shelves and shattered kiln elements, I opened the gas kiln to reveal the first batch of my exhibition module work that’s made it through to be glazed. I have mixed feelings about the results but seeing the finished coloured vessels is a huge aid in understanding how I want them to look, even if I haven’t quite reached the point where I’m happy yet. The vessel above has been sprayed with three layers of shino over three of tenmoku. Although oxidising atmospheres are necessary for oil-spot glazes to form in iron rich glazes, by layering these two glazes I found I could recreate a very similar effect. More different to my original tests however is the pink vessel (see below) which I expected to be a slate-like blue from a thin oxblood over a shino. I think perhaps the copper oxide didn’t reduce so much in my test since it was so small. Putting such a feminine, glossy, vibrant pink glaze on an almost violently disfigured, masculine form is a striking juxtaposition. I originally did think of juxtaposing the Peter Voulkos style slashed and punched vessels with delicate, child-like pastel colours to create an unexpected clash. I then chose instead, based on my prior research into reduction glazes to use more traditional, recognisable japanese style tenmokus, shinos and ash glazes so that there was some link to the familiar ‘humble’ functional vessels like the ones we saw at the Leach pottery and that you find in so many studio ceramic collections. I hoped deconstructing these vessels and patching them up would be a metaphor for my own deconstructing and redefining what it means to be a potter and to be part of this long tradition.
The spherical vessel form above is so far, for me, the most aesthetic of all the vessels I’ve made. Perhaps something about the three sections conforms to the golden ratio or perhaps it is simply something to do with the notion of perfect roundness which I’ve often mused about on this blog. Either way, my next stage is to make more of these round forms, some narrower, some larger. The construction is very simple – two bowls stuck together with a thrown and spliced collar. Cutting and sticking back together the pieces as much as possible is also something I must do. The brown vessel below shows what happens when I keep the manipulation to a minimum – there is nowhere for the glaze to catch and pool or break on the edge to a thin wash. The top vessel here however has a beautiful quality of lines which reminds me of the patchwork tarmac in the pavements of Cardiff that I walk on my way to university and back each day. Scars and layers speak of the passing of time.
Since I usually pour or dip glazes, I found it difficult to know how many layers of glaze to spray. Six layers is perhaps not enough although I do like the even coverage achieved with the spray gun. Also unpredictable though is the way the glazes will behave in the gas kiln, even if they’ve been tested many times before. The shino on the jar below was poured on but unlike the orange metallic sparkles like on my previous pieces, this one only turned a crackled off white. These deformed jars are another shape I want to play more with and that will be quick to mass-produce. Since time is becoming of the essence and I’m struggling to control how the glazes look, I plan to mix up six or so oxidation glazes with matte or satin surfaces to layer and test next week. These firings will give me more control of colour and also a quicker turnaround. I’m drawn towards the ridiculousness and humour of these bulky, awkward vessels decorated in soft pinks or baby blues. I like the sleekness and oily voluptuousness of the fake oil spot vessel too though. Hopefully by the end of this week I will have more clarity about the surfaces qualities I want and what they should communicate.
This week I’ve began extruding with crank and constructing what I’ve started to think of as frames or scaffolding onto which my vessels will sit. I’m interested in the contrast between precise and imperfect, soft and sharp, human and inhuman. The grounded quality of pots is something I wish to challenge. Their humble nature lies partly, I believe, in the fact they have a solid footing in their surroundings, growing almost like plants from the matter of daily life itself. By elevating them and subjecting them to forces of gravity I hope to highlight the way the material slumps and flows slowly, almost like a liquid over time, to fill the gaps in the containers of its environment. While the grogged crank’s strength makes it great to hand-build with, I’ve chosen to continue throwing with a St Thomas stoneware to save the skin on my hands.
Thinking of my extruded pieces as frames or plinths brings me to Adam Silverman’s 2017 exhibition at Los Angeles’ Cherry and Martin Gallery. A circular section is cut in a gallery wall through which a long beam of dark timber protrudes, supported on breeze blocks. Silverman’s training as an architect is bought to the forefront in his manipulation of the gallery space and the vessels become monochrome components or metaphors in the installation space. The round hole references the openings on the vessels and frames the gallery space as a vessel in itself. It may also reference the circular wheelhead on which the forms all originated. It feels almost as if the vessels aren’t been celebrated for their clayness and individual qualities though, only for their power through repetition in a wider narrative.
Another interesting example of framing is Silverman’s piece for the 2015 exhibition Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better. A composition is placed in what looks like the bottom section of a toploader kiln. While I’ve become interested in showing traces of making and process in my work I’ve never thought to directly include the tools and equipment I use in the finished piece itself, they have always been the back of the canvas, the scaffolding that supports the outer facade. Writing my dissertation I came across the chapter in Tim Ingold’s Making that discusses how we think of things as either objects or materials depending on the context. Kilns for me have always been objects but to a scrap metal dealer they are materials. Silverman has used them in the same way with parallels to the circular frame in Ghost.
Silverman’s technique of joining thrown sections together on the wheel is an avenue I haven’t explored yet. As seen in the vessel above I always throw and join them together separately. My vessel above is terracotta, thrown and stuck together and sat on extruded legs. Later as it dried, the base fell out so I may have to create a new pair of legs with a more stable connection. This form took on a lot of personality in the making. It slopes with attitude and the sections stuck on look like hands posing on hips giving it an air of sassiness. The images above show the progression as I manipulated the surface over a period of a couple of days. I’ve become much more patient with the vessels, allowing them to dry more before cutting into the surface. The extruded cross section in the hollow cone looks almost like a cartoon plaster. Patching up and mending is as much part of what I do to these vessels as deconstructing and cutting.
The thrown sections on the bats in the image at the top here were made into the vessel below. Unhappy with the asymmetry, I pushed a dry terracotta section made by connecting extruded tubes into the tall body. Reading this then as a kind of handle, I added a spout to the opposite side, making the more familiar form of a jug. If the structure hasn’t collapsed by Monday I plan to work more into the body to unite the sections better, not hiding the joints but drawing them together as part of a whole. I’m beginning to get a feeling for when they are finished, once I have paid attention to every little part of the surface. At the moment the making is very spontaneous and improvised. Perhaps to make more complex structures with parts sitting on top of one another and extruded frames and plinths, I will need to work from preliminary drawings in a more design focused manner.
Last week I took part in one of CSAD’s open house workshops to learn how to build a plinth in preparation for the exhibition. We used 12mm MDF boards with 2.1 x 2.1mm structural bars on the inside. The first step was to use gorilla glue to stick the first structural bar about half a millimetre shy of the outer edge of the first board. Making sure it’s not overhanging means that the other boards can sit flush at a later stage.
The wooden pieces are clamped together for 10-15 seconds to allow the glue to stick then, turning the sheet of MDF over and supporting it flat with a section of structural bar, five screws are drilled in at regular intervals to secure the pieces together. Three drill-bits were used for this. First a pilot hole goes through the MDF but not through the structural bar and then a counterbore is put in so the screwheads are sunk into the surface. The 25/30mm screws are put in next. A second structural bar is screwed to the opposite length of the MDF.
Next, the first board is propped up vertically and the second board placed horizontally on top, supported by a third board. The stabilising bar is placed slightly further on the second board and after gluing them together, the MDF boards are screwed together with the next line of screws to the left or right of the first line put in. The steps above are repeated and you end up with two corner sections each made from two boards. These are then screwed together in the same manner.
Smaller stabilising bars are then glued and screwed on top and the top square is cut and screwed on. Nigel also showed us how to use the nail gun which is a lot faster and neater than drilling. To finish the plinth a soft car body filler can be used to fill any gaps and a watered down 4:2 PVA solution is applied all over the boards to seal them. A few layers of matte emulsion can be rollerred on afterwards with sanding in between.
I’ve come to a point this week where I need to start bringing some of my forms through to completion in order to know what glazes I should develop and which clay works best. I want to focus on traditional reduction glazes for now. As well as being glazes with depth, richness and variability, they offer a familiar base from which to draw narratives and play on tradition. I am eager to see the effect a Leach style tenmoku or a Phil Rogers ash glaze would have on a thrown and distorted/reconfigured vessel. Last week I tested a couple of new glazes from Swedish potter Anders Fredholm’s glaze book. The shino was almost identical to the one I have been using up to now except that it had a slight green tinge (perhaps due to containing lots of Potash Feldspar which the other didn’t have). The oxblood was very successful however, unlike the Derek Emms reduction red I’ve tried using before. The recipes are almost identical except that Anders replaces flint with quartz as a source of silica, uses a standard frit instead of a high alkaline one and substitutes copper carbonate for half the quantity of copper oxide (because it’s a stronger colourant). I like the idea of using this red on the inside of some of my vessels, a metaphor for the inside of the body and a way to highlight the cracks and lines in the form.
I’m starting too to think critically about the place of pots in the modern world, in particular in relation to words like ‘post-human’ and ‘transhuman’. We can think of many of us in the today’s world as being almost bionic people in some sense. We wear contact lenses, glasses, hearing aids, braces to strengthen our teeth, have birth control implants and titanium prosthetics, not to mention having our phones at our fingertips as direct and immediate extensions of our knowledge and communication. We extend into our environment just as the environment and materials in it extend into our body. The pot is easily thought of as a metaphor for the body – it has a belly, neck, foot, lip, skin and takes up a volume of space. How far can I push the familiar pot/vessel before it is no longer recognisable as one? One defining feature of functional pots seems to be that they have a flat base, designed to sit stably on a flat surface. After Jon’s lecture about parergons I’ve began playing with ways the underside of the vessel can be rethought, for example balancing on supports (above). Balancing the forms this way creates a tension and play of positive/negative space. I want to play more with how gravity can change the form, making plinth-like structures from extruded sections then squeezing vessels over the top. What would my bionic pot look like, something along the lines of the aliens from War of the Worlds?
After thinking further about how my vessel forms will be decorated, I started this week working in terracotta with the hope of high firing the forms or even firing them at a lower temperature in reduction (I predict the high iron content of the clay would turn the body a very dark colour). I thought about using coloured slips but I’ve decided it’s actually better to touch the outside of the vessels as little as possible (and with clean hands) in order to preserve the expressive throwing lines. I press out only from the inside to preserve the clay’s cracks and traces rather than smooth over them and leave traces of my own fingers. Perhaps rubbing in oxides after bisque firing would better accentuate the grooves and hollows which give the pot fluidity.
Constructing thrown sections in this way with terracotta proved to be very difficult. The first two sections looked good – the base a round bowl and the top an inside out cylinder. The bottom shape holds tension but the top one having been turned inside out flops and loses structure but creates a pleasing asymmetry. Although the thrown sections had been left overnight to dry, in my impatience to build bigger I added another narrower section on top to the one shown above and when I came back to it later it had collapsed into a pile. It was disheartening but an important lesson in how far I can push the clay. Once the thrown bowls and cylinders have been left to dry overnight, I want to build something in the morning to completion. I keep adding pieces on, tweaking, fiddling and overworking the clay but I need to learn to be patient. My plan is to work not on one or two vessels at once but to have many more at different stages of completion so that I don’t get tempted to rush one.
Rather than reclaiming the broken pot, I decided to slice it up into postcard sized sections and play with surface texture and pattern on these flat slabs rather than on a curved form. It was much more difficult to push out and manipulate the clay from behind without the tension of the three dimensional form holding it up. Throwing and hand-building with the terracotta alone has been difficult, but I plan to combine the stoneware and earthenware clay I have to create a red coloured clay body with more strength.