Seen and Unseen at The Mission Gallery

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.

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Sandy Brown and The Leach Pottery

On the 8th of October our final year BA Ceramics group took the bus down to Cornwall where we stayed overnight at the Penzance YHA. The purpose of the trip was to introduce us to St Ives and the surrounding area – a part of the UK which has been attracting artists to its beautiful coastline and unique light for hundreds of years. The vibrant community of artists on these shores have included Barbara Hepworth and even JMW Turner chose to paint here.

On our journey down we stopped off at the village of Appledore in Devon to visit the studio of Sandy Brown, a contemporary ceramic artist. Sandy’s brightly coloured, expressive ceramic forms range from domestic tableware to monumental abstract sculptures and ceramic chairs to be sat on. She showed us her current commission – an exploration of surface textures and colours on giant wall tiles and explained how she fires them standing up to prevent warping. There is a child-like joy to her making and an emphasis on playfulness and an abandonment of self-consciousness over precision and neatness. Interestingly, the high energy surfaces which have become characteristic of her work came about after she tried wood firing. The random and vibrant surface qualities you achieve from this kind of action-packed firing made her want to recreate similar effects but with the colours and patterns coming from her own actions instead of the kiln’s. Ironically, she wanted control over the randomness.

When asked if the landscape influenced her work she said that it wasn’t important, and that her memory of being in Australia and the vividness of the natural landscape there was more of an inspiration. However, she explained that she was drawn to being near water and spoke about the importance of stillness in her practice – not starting a piece of work unless she felt still and centred in her mind. Her colourful pieces don’t immediately strike you as to do with restraint, stillness and tranquillity as she suggests in her exhibition guide to Still Point, they lean more towards Jackson Pollock’s action paintings. However there’s a lot to be said about feeling in the right calm and ready mindset before beginning a piece of work. Speaking to porcelain artist Alison Graham at this year’s Made in Roath, she explained that yoga and breathing exercises help her get into a positive frame of mind for making. There’s a lot I can learn here as I often find myself battling against the clay when I’m in a frustrated or stressed mood and only making things worse when it doesn’t work.

Our second visit in Cornwall was to the Leach Pottery which was founded in 1920 by Leach and Hamada. Roelof Uys, head pottery at the Leach today showed us around and explained that about 20,000 pots are made on site every year, a third of which are sold in the shop there. The others go to a group of about 30 wholesalers including David Mellor who sell a selection of craft pottery and woodware by the likes of Svend Bayer and John Leach.

Apprenticeships at the Leach pottery are also sponsored by Sea Salt Cornwall, a local clothing company. As a beginner apprentice you are expected to make 600 eggcups on a kick wheel before you are allowed to progress on to other forms and an electric wheel. Roelof explained that pots don’t really sing until you learn how to make slowly. A kick wheel encourages this as you are forced to conserve energy, resulting in larger, more expressive throwing rings and a fluidity of movement. Tools he also explained, are not particularly important in the leach tradition – hands are all you need. In a more controlled way, it is the expressiveness that springs from spontaneity and freedom that the workers at the Leach are trying to capture in their own way, just like in Sandy’s work.  As Bernard Leach said in his essay ‘Towards a Standard’ ‘It is the uniformity of perfection that kills’.

The colour palette of the standard ware however is a lot more muted – an ash, dolomite and tenmoku glaze are used on most domestic vessels. Sandy, growing up with the Leach tradition taught to her as gospel, rebelled against tradition and started using brightly bough commercial glazes to challenge what was accepted as being in good taste at the time. For myself however, having never being taught glaze chemistry until university and coming from a secondary school where we only had the option of a few primary coloured shop bought glazes in gaudy colours, the Leach tradition glazes hold a charm and beautiful subtlety which I’d never encountered before.

Colour Compositions

After a conversation with Alice about Italian Still life painter Giorgio Morandi, I went searching for sheets of coloured card on which to experiment with photographing my series of sculptures from the ‘non-spaces’ project.  It’s fascinating to see how much the glare from the coloured card effects the objects. The dark blue which is my favourite gives a kind of softness and warmth to the glazes. The yellow is too sharp and harsh while the grey and light blue make everything look washed out.

It’s fun to take the shapes, forms and colours out of the context of the original project. Instead I’m simply working with their material properties in a kind of collage. This method has a lot in common with the work I saw recently at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm about ‘Concretism’. Concrete art ”accustoms man to a direct relationship with things and not with the fiction of things” by rejecting the creation of the illusion of space and three dimension on canvas. Similarly, I don’t want to create an illusion her. I am not interested in conveying any deep meaningful message, I’m only concerned with the balance of form, colour and of positive and negative space.

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In other news, I’ve started constructing larger sculptures using repeated press moulded sections in a white molochite stoneware. I’m really excited by the possibilities of working in this way. I like the control over the overall shape from the press mould. It restricts the decisions I can make so I only have to decide where to place them. This new clay is great to work with too – it dries quickly , supporting itself, and so far none of the joins have cracked. I want to see if it’s possible for the shapes to interlock and interact once they have been fired to form one larger piece.

 

https://www.modernamuseet.se/stockholm/en/exhibitions/concrete-matters/

 

Plaster casting and Mummified Space

Initially interested in how a vessel can hold light, this project has taken a turn and I now find myself investigating the space inside the vessel. Inspired by British sculptor and Turner prize winner Rachel Whiteread I have begun to cast plaster into my thrown constructions with the hope this will create an extra layer of distance from the original object, rendering the invisible visible and bringing form to something which was originally intangible.

In her 2014 essay ‘Loss and Melancholy in Rachel Whiteread’s Casts’ Sheyda Porter compares Whiteread’s work to Freud’s definition of ‘the uncanny’ because of the way  ‘it refers to something unfamiliar arising in a familiar context and vice versa. ‘ She goes on to explain how French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan defines the uncanny as ‘the very image of lack’ – and what better way to describe Whiteread’s work, turning the inside out and giving form to the void? I hope by using a similar technique I can turn my thrown objects, which show clearly how they have been constructed, into more intriguing objects of mystery which show the part of the vessel you can’t usually see. Porter quotes from Slovenian philosopher/psychoanalyst Salvoj Zizek ‘instead of the vase embodying the central void, the void itself is directly materialized. The uncanny effect of these objects resides in the ways they palpably demonstrate the ontological incompleteness of reality: such objects by definition stick out, they are ontologically superfluous, not at the same level of reality as “normal” objects.” ‘. The whole essay can be found here.

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‘One hundred spaces’ -resin casts of the space underneath chairs (1997) by Rachel Whiteread. Image source: https://www.wikiart.org/en/rachel-whiteread/untitled-one-hundred-spaces-1997

The process I used means lots of the plaster leaked out. As a consequence the negative form of the vessel’s void also has an inside and outside:

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Form constructed with thrown sections then supported with extra clay. Plaster was poured in the top.
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Once the plaster was set, I destroyed the clay shell around it, feeling like an archaeologist discovering a historical artefact in the ground. The original form is destroyed and the resulting object becomes a ‘memory’ or a ‘ghost’ of the original.
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The plaster form inside shows the throwing ridges that are a negative of the ones on the original thrown form. I’ve been told it looks like a component of a steam engine. 
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I didn’t leave the plaster to set long enough so the outgrowing plaster sections fell off
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The holes in the vessel introduce light into the dark interior.

I was disappointed when the smaller plaster sections fell off, next time I need to be less impatient and let the plaster dry properly before removing the clay. Large air bubbles in the plaster meant lots of the detail got lost too. Interestingly though, these smaller plaster casts reminded me a lots of fossils when I felt them in my hands. Sheyda Porter describes Whiteread’s sculptures as ‘mummified’ space. Similarly fossils are traces or impressions of something that was once living, the soft tissues decompose leaving hard bone and shell which are covered in sediment which hardens into rock over time. Once again, I find myself returning back to the theme of memory.

Vessel Project Development

Following on from my initial proposal to explore light and the vessel I began throwing forms (mainly off the hump) and constructing these together when leather hard. My discovery of the drying cabinet helped move the process along faster but I still made mistakes, misjudging the room temperature and not covering the clay enough or trying to construct the sections when they were too wet and would slump.
In my tutorial with David we discussed how I like the way the light hits the inside of these vessels, in a spotlight which almost looks like a painted brushstroke. The problem with the forms below is that it’s not clear that you are expected to look inside them, there’s nothing to draw the viewer in. How can I invite the viewer to contemplate the inside of the vessel?20180131_124709 (655x800)

At the moment the aesthetics of the outside form seems to be just as important as the inside effect, but I don’t think that’s something I want to lose. The way they look on the outside it important to me, not just how they work conceptually.

David suggest I try making simpler forms to see what is the minimum I need to create the kind of light effect I’m going for. After all, the tomb piece from the Potteries museum, the catalyst for this idea, is a simply made object. The museum emailed back about the piece with information that it dates from c.206BC-220AD and was acquired by the museum in 1937. It’s an unglazed earthenware piece made in China. I explained to David how I like the idea of light as a ‘material’ which is the antithesis of clay, ephemeral and weightless, but I don’t want to go down the traditional road of exploring light and clay through using translucent porcelain or making lampshades. He suggested I consider different ways these vessels can contain light, could light be emitted from them? Should they be displayed in a dark room?

Rather than exploring light though making simpler forms I decided to go the complete opposite way and construct much more complicated function-less vessels using the sort of components you’d use to put together a teapot. I felt I was getting hung up on the ideas side and not making much so I took a series of sketches I made while thinking of the idea of a ‘vessel’ last weekend and I’m seeing how these translate into three dimensional forms. I find I enjoy this way of working through ‘play’ a lot more. Following a trip to Brussels Musical Instruments Museum I began to sketch made up machines and musical instruments. I thought about how the first objects I made for this project (above) it on legs or a foot like telescopes or microscopes, and the idea that they look like they could be used for a certain function.

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Tests clays with coloured stain (made by MA student Emily)

I am still interested in working with the inside of the vessel though but I’m unsure how to go about it. How should the inside and outside relate? Should they be different colours? Back at college I a made a series of photos showing the inside of rubber gloves. They completely skewed your sense of the scale of the object, the photos looked like the insides of the body or colourful tunnels you could walk through. The same effect can be seen here:https://www.boredpanda.com/musical-instruments-photographed-from-inside/ with photos showing inside musical instruments. I’m thinking of ways the sculptures could be used as photographic devices, but if I used them as pinhole cameras or coated the insides in light sensitive emulsion, I would only get the view looking out. What I really want is to document the space within. I wish I could shrink to the size of an ant and explore these spaces from the inside.

One next step I’m keen to explore is to take these forms into the plaster room, I want to create moulds of them and stitch together the slipcast sections to create bigger, more complex forms. I also want to try casting plaster into the constructed clay form, then making a mould of that, a literal mould of the inside. It might help to find some other artists who explore light and ceramics or the inside space of the vessel.

The Beauty of Shadows

I’ve come to the realisation that much of my recent ceramic work has been concerned with ‘the vessel’ without myself being conscious of it. The deconstruction of traditional ceramic bowls and cylinders on the wheel and then reconfiguration of these recognisable vessel forms into a new form with openings that also contains space and holds volume has been central to these experiments.
Our seminar discussing the vessel threw up the question ‘Can’t anything be a vessel or a container?’. Everything is made up of something, even atoms contain a nucleus, electrons and forces of energy. Every sculptural three dimensional form with an inside or outside, despite serving no functional purpose contains in it connotations and metaphors, layers of meaning as well as air, space, darkness or light. Many of the traditional South American vessels at the archives on Tuesday were empty but their insides were a secret, invisible from the outside, guarded from view by the shell of the exterior. These forms contained darkness.
I keep coming back to the small tomb sculpture at the Potteries museum in Stoke-on-Trent. Something about this artefact and the way it holds light, containing a spotlight in the darkness of its interior resonates deeply with me. I recently read Tanazaki’s essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ in which he discusses Japanese laquerware and how it’s subtle beauty can only be appreciated in the dimness of candlelight : “I discovered in the gloss of this lacquerware a depth and richness like that of a still dark pond, a beauty I had not before seen”.

One of the ideas that interested me in the seminar was how objects and things can contain memory, both physically like a USB stick, metaphorically like an old heirloom or more abstractly like the brain and body. My intention though is to focus on something perhaps equally ungraspable  – light. Memories feel real and they’re how we navigate the world and construct our current realities but they are only the creations of a complex organ in the body. Light similarly feels concrete and controllable, but the more you think about it , the more magical and abstract it seems. How can I create vessels that hold light, not in the sense of lamps or candle holders but vessels that hold light and shadow in their form, that capture light (whether natural or artificial I haven’t decided yet) and play with the tones of shadow.

The idea isn’t fully formed yet and I expect to deviate along the way, but it’s a starting point. Light and darkness control our lives. I feel more of my attention will be drawn towards that here in Sweden where the hours of daylight are short in winter but the extreme opposite is the case in summer where up north you can even experience the midnight sun.

I feel especially inspired by an exhibition on at Gothenburg’s public library at the moment, ‘Daylight and Objects’ by Daniel Rybakken, which explores illumination. His collection of sculpture objects made from glass and aluminium that border the line between furniture design and installation art (perhaps like Donald Judd) reflect and diffuse the artificial light in the environment to create the illusion of natural light. His theory is: ‘A lack of natural light in a space can create a feeling of being enclosed. An illusion of daylight creates a feeling of an expanded perceived space by giving information about what lies beyond the physical space. The presence of daylight lowers the contrast between the indoor and the outdoor.’  This knowledge must be known by people who work with space – interior designers and architects. I’m particularly interested in the architect Renzo Piano as an advocate for the use of glass and the importance of buildings that let in light. Perhaps optical illusions with light is a path I should explore in the next weeks.

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Surface Daylight (2009-2011)

 

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Right angle mirror (2010) – the illusion of an object suspended in space

Frank Stella/Verity Howard

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La Penna di Hu

A sculpture is just a painting cut out and stood up somewhere – Frank Stella
David suggested I look at the work of American abstract painter Frank Stella. I’m particularly interested in his sculpture, in particular the series of monumental metal wall reliefs he made during the 1980s and 90s. The sculpture above is mixed media on etched magnesium, resin and fibreglass. It’s really hard to get a sense of what it’s like in life from the photo but the shadows behind make it float almost weightlessly. Wall reliefs are something I’ve never thought much about before but they’re interesting because they tread the line between painting and sculpture, 2D and 3D. I like this ambiguity.

My paper cut outs remind me of the work of ceramic artist Verity Howard who exhibited at ICF this year. She creates slab built work which is drawn and monoprinted onto exploring a sense of place. Verity’s mountain-like forms called ‘A Ley Landscape’ are a response to Victorian photographs documenting Alfred Watkins’s research into ley lines in rural Hertfordshire. The surfaces were monoprinted onto with grey slips which give the shapes a grainy, mysterious quality much like old black and white photos. She also created a series exploring windows and looking through them. A chiaroscuro effect is created by contrasting the dark clay body with porcelain inlays to suggest warmth and light inside buildings. I’m drawn to how her work conveys a sense of stillness and contemplation of the landscape.

I’ve been thinking lots about how the flat forms I am printing onto and constructing with are a lot like the painted scenery ‘flats’ for shows at the theatre. Painted sceneries are similar to the way the landscape of our everyday lives manifests itself in our memories and dreams. They are two dimensional and simplified and similarly, the landscape in our minds doesn’t exist in reality. It’s distorted and intangible, made up of two dimensional snapshots.

Images: http://www.toledomuseum.org
http://www.canwoodgallery.com
http://www.degreeshow.mmu.ac.uk
https://www.verityhowardceramics.com/

Throwing in porcelain

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Nick’s slab built box with my thrown form inside
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Distorting the inside of vessels

I’m throwing in porcelain for the first time. It’s getting easier with practice. At first I found it difficult to knead when it came from the bag but it softens up as you work it. Centering on the wheel is a challenge as it likes to come off, but perhaps this is also because I’m throwing with minimal water. Porcelain is a thirsty clay but using too much water will make it difficult to control so I’ve resorted to throwing with slip instead. I love the tones of light and dark created through these distorted inside forms but how well the light plays on them depends lots on the environment where they’re displayed.

Nick is going to create a plaster mould which we can sit these in and pour porcelain casting slip into to sit them in flat slabs. I found it more difficult to get expressive throwing rings in porcelain so had to use a stick to push them out. Unlike the stoneware bulging and rippling the porcelain wants to hold its form or just collapse completely, there is no middle ground.

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Collaborative drawing

Above are the results of our discussion with ideas for constructing a kind of porcelain igloo or box which you could go inside (or at least put your head inside). We talked about how sound might be distorted as it moves through the twisted vessel forms and how we could use boxed like the one above as bricks to construct a wall you look through. We recorded the discussions so I hope to upload those here soon.

Squares with Two Circles

Arising from our first theory/practice session last Tuesday I’ve identified the artist Barbara Hepworth as a key reference to my project, in particular a bronze work of hers called ‘Squares with two circles’ which I saw a couple of years ago at the Kroller Muller sculpture park in Holland.

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Image: https://krollermuller.nl/en/barbara-hepworth-squares-with-two-circles

I remember I was drawn to this sculpture enough that I sketched it – the simple geometric forms at a slightly jaunty angle and its pleasing sense of balance gave it a kind of purity of form. The fact the lines aren’t parallel gives it an organic quality that helps it fit in with the natural environment. On each side only one of the circles funnels out which gives the two circles different qualities of depth and the way the patina on the surface is lighter in the upper half makes it appear to be dissolving into the sky at one end and firmly grounded on the other. The original form was made in 1963 although copies were made later which explains why there is also one in the Yorkshire sculpture park.

I’m interested in Hepworth’s forms in regard to my current project because of the way they act as framing devices for their environment, the holes referencing windows. Her emphasis is on form and texture rather than colour. I’m interested in the ways the forms I make create different tones of dark and light by the shadows they cast, so how colour is created by the artist in collaboration with the environment.

In the sculpture park the work is displayed outside the Rietveld Pavilion, a building in which you are at once outside and inside. This is an interesting space because of the way it blurs boundaries, the architecture more a huge sculpture you can walk through really. Many more of Hepworth’s artworks are displayed here which is appropriate since her work explores inside forms with carefully constructed positive and negative space.

I found information about this work on the Tate website and it discusses the holes in the form: ‘The integration with the landscape – one of Hepworth’s abiding concerns – is made actual by these openings, through what she termed the viewer’s ‘sense of participating in the form’ (Bowness 1971, p.12).’
I want to explore this idea that the audience can ‘take part’ in the form. It’s almost as if the interaction between you and the artwork becomes a performance, because you are not just seeing the artwork but using it as a device to look through, to perceive the world differently through, like a telescope or pair of glasses.
Placement therefore becomes important because what the sculpture ‘reveals’ through the frame will depend on where you stand in relation to it. It was important to Hepworth that the sculptures were displayed in the landscape as she explains: ‘I always imagine the sort of setting I would like to see them in, because I firmly believe that sculpture and forms generally grow in magnitude out in the open with space and distance and hills’ (Warren Forma, 5 British Sculptors (Work and Talk), New York, 1964, p.15)
I believe she may be speaking about the powerful way the changing of natural light and weathering of the material (through the day and seasons) can bring a sculpture to life in a way placing it in a room in an art gallery can’t.

Hepworth quotes from: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hepworth-squares-with-two-circles-t00702

An Ideal Home: Creating Context

I identified last week that the spaces I wanted to consider in more depth were the tiny windows in the buildings at St Fagans. These are frames that reveal, to a limited extent inside and outside space. As I want to explore the throwing process further I decided to explore the inside of thrown forms. Carrying on from throwing tall, narrow jug forms the first week back, I threw some similar shapes but pushed them to the point where I nearly lost control of the clay’s direction so it bulges. These are thrown in White St Thomas – the photographs below showing the expressive folding landscapes on the inside.

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Nick and I have decided to work collaboratively on this project since we’re interested in exploring similar ideas around optical illusion (e.g. tones of shadow and light created by the form itself and throwing lines), changing perception of objects by subverting the ordinary vessel (such as displaying them horizontally on a wall or from above) and challenging how we engage with an artwork. The aim is to make ceramic objects that encourage people to think about their physical placement in relation to the artwork. By creating frames and tunnels for the audience to look through or into, they will have to move around in a kind of ‘dance’ with the object, getting closer to peer inside and explore this interior space from different angles. In a tutorial with Natasha on Tuesday she suggested thinking of the concept of mindfulness and the pace with which we engage with objects. How can a ceramic artwork make the viewer more mindful? Perhaps having the eye follow the spiral of the throwing wheel into the artwork, like an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole, they can be made to slow down the pace at which they’re gazing over the artwork’s surface.

Below are some rough sketches of my initial ideas, thinking about how a collection of these thrown forms can be brought together in a larger sculpture that can be looked through or into…

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