Cultural Differences between Sweden and the UK: Holistic Ceramics

“I think for Swedes, art and design and craft—woodwork, furniture, textile, lighting, ceramics, glass, architecture—very much inform one another,” …“There is not always crossover, but it’s a symbiosis; you can’t have one without the others.” – Saskia Neuman, Global Art Manager at Absolut, Stockholm.[1]

A couple of months ago my course visited Borås Museum of Modern Art to see something I was surprised to find in a modern art museum. Not one, but two exhibitions showcasing artists working in clay. The first was by contemporary Swedish artist Eva Mag and the second a retrospective of work by the more traditional potter Kerstin Danielsson. Clay and ceramics, often designated to the realm of ‘craft’ as opposed to high art worthy of a white wall contemporary gallery space, are something I’m not accustomed to finding at a modern art museum. This surprise encounter led me to think about the role of ceramics in Sweden in contrast to the British scene and ponder the more holistic attitude towards art that seems to be present here.

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Figure 1

Eva Mag’s multimedia work consisted of a film alongside life sized ‘body-forms’ made with clay filled fabric skins, wood and wax. In the video ‘Directions and shapes in a woman’s body’ (2013) Mag very physically manipulates blocks of clay into human form, constructing, deconstructing and finally wrapping the broken off clay pieces in the fabric of her dress. Through the film, the process of moulding the clay is shown to be more important than the final piece itself. Another artwork in her exhibition was a block of clay encased in a sewn fabric shell, suggesting the form beneath but hiding all surface. The design tenet of truth to materials is turned on its head. Like in Jone Kvie’s current ‘Metamorphosis’ exhibition at Göteborgs Konstmuseum where aluminium mimics cardboard, concrete and wood, in Mag’s work the materials are mysterious, disguised as other.

But it wasn’t just Mag’s work that made me question the traditional way I know of working with clay, on my course at HDK I have encountered a similar attitude of openness to other materials. I am surprised by the acceptance of mixed media approaches and alternative decorating techniques to glazes. Third year graduate Sara Kallioinen Lundgren often sprays her distinctive pop art style creations with bright spray paint. Others incorporate concrete, thread and fabric into their work and it seems common to introduce elements other than ceramic in displays – earth and gravel, photographs, video and sound. On our recent ‘Room’ course, one of the ceramics students worked exclusively with weaving and fabric. We have also collaborated with students from the jewellery and textile department to work on performance art pieces. There is the attitude that working things out in a different material first can be valuable.

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Figure 2

Back at my home university however I feel there is a more ‘purist’ and perhaps snobbish attitude to ceramics regarding surface in particular. Glaze chemistry and research is something we are encouraged to master while exploring ceramic surfaces through paint, collage and other techniques is perhaps seen as a ‘lower’ form of decoration as it requires less skill and knowledge. This desire to define ceramics according to more traditionalist attitudes appears to extend to the UK ceramics scene in a wider sense too. In contrast to Sweden, Britain has a huge selection of Ceramic festivals every summer – Art in Clay, Potfest, International Ceramics Festival, Earth and Fire and Ceramic Art Wales to name a few. These are exclusively ceramic fairs that typically last over a weekend. While these, alongside the popular TV show ‘The Great Pottery Throwdown’ have helped bring ceramics to a wider audience and give makers a great platform for selling their work, it may be that they are also contributing to the wider society seeing ‘pottery’ as something distinctly separate from other forms of art. As an example to illustrate this rift in thinking about ceramics, I can take the names given to the BA courses both here and in the UK. In Cardiff I study on an undergraduate course called BA in ‘Ceramics’ while at HDK the course’s title is ‘Ceramic Art’. The names alone suggest less division between ceramics as a craft and as a fine art in the Swedish art world.

After further research I discovered I’m not the only one to feel that Sweden has a more holistic art scene than the UK. Stockholm based artist Stuart Mayes (originally from London) in an interview with ‘The Local’ (Sweden’s English language news website) explains: ‘I find the Swedish art world to be more holistic, academic and sustainable. Swedes have a much more inclusive and open attitude towards art. I think the English government has quite a conservative perception of art; they don’t really value it as something important and that doesn’t empower me as an artist.’[2] Mayes isn’t a ceramic artist but his observations may also be true for the ceramics scene. To some extent though, the conservative attitude towards ceramics in the UK and desire to hand down pottery skills in the tradition of the British godfather of ceramics Bernard Leach, can be seen as something positive. Schemes like ‘Adopt a Potter’ in which potters are assigned apprentices to learn their ‘trade’ make sure that traditional skills live on and that the sloppy craft of ceramicists like Rebecca Warren and Grayson Perry have something to contend with.[3]
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Figure 3

As a result of working in what feels like a more interdisciplinary environment, my current work has evolved. I have begun to experiment with wrapping fired clay in thread as a form of surface decoration. Our text seminars have encouraged me to look at ceramics in a wider sense too. In these discussions we are each invited to choose a text to explore the theme of the course, however these texts can be anything ranging from a poem to a legal document to an exhibition review. After discovering an article about Rachel Whiteread’s concrete casts during our recent ‘Vessel project’ I began working with plaster in a different way to how I have before – creating plaster casts as the finished piece instead of moulds from which to slipcast. The unspoken rules to which I’ve stuck to in the past have been broken. However, since the casting of these forms wasn’t possible without the original clay moulds, isn’t this still ceramic art? Like in Eva Mag’s video, I am still working with clay but it isn’t the final outcome. I find myself eager to explore new ways of making which challenge the idea that a ceramic artist is exclusively a maker of clay objects.

 

Images

Figure 1. Detail from How Much Does a Mountain Weigh?’ by Eva Mag. Source: http://www.evamag.se/works.html

Figure 2. Artwork by Sara Kallioinen Lundgren. Source: http://sarakallioinenlundgren.com/

Figure 3. Detail from sculptural piece I made for the Vessel project. Ceramic and thread.

 

 

[1] Van Straaten, L. (2017, November) An Insider’s Guide to the Stockholm Art Scene. Retrieved from: https://www.departures.com/art-culture/stockholm-art-scene-travel-guide#intro

[2]  “The Art Scene in Sweden in Less Competitive” (2010) Retrieved from: https://www.thelocal.se/20150209/my-love-for-stockholm-has-no-limits

[3] Read more about ‘sloppy craft’: Adamson, G. (2008, March/April) When Craft Gets Sloppy, from Crafts no.211, 36-40

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Aliens

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To keep away the Wednesday blues I decided to work from my recent train doodles, enlarging them and working into the drawings with pastels, oil pastels, gouache and marker pen. Perhaps the next step is, how do I transform these drawings into three dimensional objects?

Enamelling

In a similar way to how glaze powder is fused into glass on ceramic, enamel powders are fused onto copper. The temperature however is a lot lower, any higher than 800C and the enamel starts to discolour, as I soon found out.
Before and after shaping the copper needs annealing and then plunging in cold water to cool. Gum arabic is painted onto the back of the shape after cleaning, then backing enamel is dusted on top and the copper placed in a small kiln. When opened the kiln temperature plunges and you have to keep an eye on it as it gradually climbs back up to 799C. On the opposite surface different coloured enamels are fused on in separate firings, although the process is a bit more difficult than I expected. The colours don’t behave as planned, burning out before the kiln reaches optimum temperature or leaving speckled textures (which can look nice – a bit like a dusting of snow).
I’d like to know if these copper enamels can be used on top of bisqued or glazed clay. Alternatively, perhaps panels of enamelled copper (maybe a maker’s mark) could be inlaid into the clay after firing by being stuck on, although I’d have to contest with shrinkage.

 

Collect ’17

On Saturday I visited Collect 2017 the ‘international art fair for contemporary objects’ at the Saatchi gallery in London – an impressive and richly diverse display of ceramics, textiles, metal, jewellery and glass by makers from 37 of the world’s leading galleries. Of all the incredible objects on display I found myself drawn to the quieter, smaller scale artworks, especially the enamelled stoneware sculptures of French artist Chloe Peytermann (www.chloeterre.com). The upturned bottle shapes are called ‘atolls’ which I’ve learnt are kinds of ring shaped reefs or islands formed on coral. This accurately describes the ring formations of glazes on the flat surfaces that bubble in thick dollops of colour.

I like this idea of using the base of the vessel, the part that’s usually hidden from view, as the focal point. It’s a good flat canvas to work with glaze flow and thick application. The forms look like they were thrown and I expect they’re open at the other end but I was too afraid to pick them up since they cost £300 each! This is the one thing that frustrated me at Collect, the prevalence of ‘do not touch’ signs when so much of the work looked irresistibly tactile. Accompanying the Atolls series on her website is the quote by French author Maylis de Kerangal I like the idea that the experience of memory, in other words the action of remembering, transforms the place into a landscape, metamorphoses the illegible spaces into narrative. ” The idea of the experience of memory and how it differs from truth is a thread I’m interested in pursuing in the Cafe society project and leads on from trying to replicate the shape of a mug I remembered from home.

The colour scheme of speckled pastels with patches of vibrant pink and blue reminded me of the work of Ben Fiess who makes functional jars with cork and elastic band stoppers. I like the effect of juxtaposing eye-popping colours which conjures up memories of the candy colours of jars on the shelves of old fashioned sweet shops. For me they evoke childhood camping holidays to the New Forest where the arduous bicycle expeditions through hornet infested woodland were amply rewarded with a visit to Lyndhurst sweet shop. When I think of it I always think of Roald Dahl’s account of the sweet shop he and his friends always visited on the way back from school, funnily enough, in Llandaff.

Ben’s website www.bfiess.com is well worth a visit, he’s got a quirky selection of mixed media drawings as well as an ongoing database of research into glaze recipes and clay bodies.

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Chloe Peytermann’s ‘atolls’
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Atoll
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Ben Fiess
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Ben Fiess

Images: http://www.bfiess.com

Hot melt rubber molds

I took part in my first ‘open house’ workshop today where I learnt how to use the hot melt vinyl compound Vinamold/Gelflex to make flexible moulds. Much cheaper than silicone, it can be used to cast all sorts, from plaster to wax, resins and ceramic material.However it does have some drawbacks, namely that it shrinks over time and when used with plaster or wood they have to be soaked first in water.

The Vinamold is first cut into sugar-cube sized chunks which is a bit of a challenge but is easiest done with a stanley knife and scissors. The texture is similar to that of tough meat. Next it’s heated in the microwave to around 150C which took around 6 minutes for  a full Pyrex measuring jug, a little longer for larger quantities. It’s best to check the consistency every 3 minutes or so in case it begins to burn. The objects we wanted to make moulds of were placed onto sheets of clay with a cottle to give a gap of about two fingers width in between. When the compound was of a runny, soupy consistency it was poured into the moulds and left to set for about an hour. It was easy to release the objects from inside and every tiny detail is captured. The process is so much quicker than making a plaster mould.

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Headless chickens

In today’s print workshop we decorated manufactured fired ceramic tiles. First the tiles were wiped with mentholated spirits to remove dirt and grease. On this first one I used open stock decals of chickens and red rectangles which are applied by soaking the cut shape in warm water for a few minutes then flattening them down on the tile’s surface, using a rubber kidney to remove excess water. A red onglaze powder was mixed with universal water based medium and then painted on and scratched through.

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For the next tile, I tried a different technique, rolling out printing medium onto a sheet of acetate in an even layer. The plastic was taped onto a glass board for support. Next I placed the coated acetate face down on my tile’s surface, placed a sheet of paper on top and drew onto it. The printing medium stuck to the tile wherever I pressed my pen. Finally I dusted powdered onglazes on top with cotton wool, working from the darkest to lightest colour. The result is a very crisp line but with a sensitive quality because it responds to how hard I press.

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I liked the effect of line quality when painting the onglaze then scratching through so decided to experiment with spontaneous patterns on this next tile. I also like the different colour intestines and the way the glaze pools on the shiny surface. Drawing directly using the printing medium made the lines look contrived and flat in comparison.

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Chris Taylor is a British ceramic artist who’s work I find stunning. His terracotta vessel forms are decorated with layers of slip, underglaze prints, decals and lustre in bright, cheerful colours and floral patterns. I like how busy the surfaces of the forms are with layers like peeling wallpaper and I’d like to experiment with using decals, underglazes and onglazes to a similar effect.

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Chris Taylor

Image source

Garden Fairy

While I was on the art Foundation course back at the start of last year I took part in a project themed ‘Balance’. I was experimenting with mixed media and made a wire armature into the shape of a dancer based on a photo shoot of a friend. I then glued tissue paper and PVA all over and coated the whole skeleton in air drying clay. Once this had dried (and cracked as it contracted onto the form) I then painted the entire thing in white acrylic paint to seal in order to see how these materials worked together. I didn’t know what to do with the figurine so it disappeared into a box in the garage. However when I came back home for Christmas I was surprised to find what looked like an unusual fungus growing from the base of a tree in the garden. It turned out to be the little dancer. She’d undergone an exciting transformation.

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The paint and clay had broken down and weathered to leave a strange patina like quartz veins or lichen on a stone.  Fallen leaves and vegetation have morphed with the clay over time. This decomposition reminded me of a series of ink drawings I left out in the rain (can be seen here). This interaction of material and environment also made me think of Phoebe Cummings’s ‘Vanitas’ installation (2012) in which clay was left to change in enclosed glass micro-environments.

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Underneath the tree the model was fairly sheltered and the breaking up of the surface has been caused by water dripping from the branches above. It would be fascinating to watch this decomposition in a time lapse film. I’m eager to experiment with this idea on a much bigger scale and see how the clay would fare in different environments.

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Creative Strategies

On Monday our task was to attempt to identify the kinds of creative strategies we use when exploring materials. Available for us to use was paper-clay, red terracotta, black slip and green paper towels which we were free to play with for about an hour and a half.

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Dipped paper-clay in slip

From the very start my instinct was to combine the materials, so I experimented with rolling the two clays together and dipping them in slip. A reciprocal aspect emerged to my making, the forms began responding more and more to one another and sharing similar characteristics. I began repeating forms and patterns I enjoyed making or thought looked attractive.

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Vessel forms holding slip

I planned from the start that I would make a series of objects, whereas I realise some of my classmates were much more interested in the process and sensation of playing with clay and less concerned with any final outcome. Despite this, I don’t feel there was an element of pre-design to what I did. I responded to the material and the shapes took on a life of their own, growing as I added on pieces I thought would look balanced. I considered myself to be working slowly, taking time to think what my next move would be. I chose to work on quite a small scale, maybe out of some concern of wasting material, probably because I liked being able to abandon one experiment if I felt it was going nowhere and move on to another quickly. It’s interesting to see at which points I considered a form to be ‘complete’.

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Rolling the clays together

At first I found the paper-clay much too plastic to mould. I felt frustrated that it wouldn’t hold its shape so began mixing in strips of green paper towels to make my own version of paper-clay that was stronger and had a marbling colour effect. I also mixed and reinforced it with the red clay. Although I tried to impose my own ideas onto the material in this way, the material acted equally on me and I had to adjust to the forms slumping and not sticking together. I wasn’t concerned with keeping the clay pure, which might reflect my interest in the work of multi-media artists like Gillian Lowndes.

The environment I was in probably had an effect on my making. In front of me were a collection of vessels I had thrown recently and almost all the models I made included vessel forms. I worked at my desk which at the time was very cluttered. Perhaps seeing all my tools and equipment balanced precariously, subconsciously influenced my work because most of it during that hour was concerned with the theme of balance.

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Numbered in order of when made

 

 

CoCA Project – The Dancing Bears

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‘The Dancing Bears’ Kerry Jameson

From my childhood obsessions with the Jonathan Creek series, reading Patricia Cornwell and religiously watching Tim Burton movies, it seems I’ve always had a quiet fascination with the macabre. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that when deciding on a piece of work to write about from the Coca York ceramics collection, there was no question in my mind it would be one of Kerry Jameson’s creepy creations.

The one piece in particular I’ve chosen is ‘The Dancing Bears’, a 2010 work from her dark and disquieting series ‘Collect’ which also features a frenzied fox and a crying monkey. It’s a pair of standing bears, the tallest about 30 cm high holding a red concertina and with a rope tied around its neck (although hanging loose as if he has just broken free); the shorter one leaning on a gnarled walking stick. Both bears are covered in a mangy, matted, woollen texture which looks as though it would be rough to touch. They peer at you from terrifyingly animated glass eyes. Something about the fur reminded me of an old teddy I used to own, threadbare and worn from years of use. I expect the piece was made in the artist’s windowless west London studio although according to her website she currently she lives in Singapore, teaching at the school of arts there.

Jameson’s absence from social media and the lack of personal information on her website adds to her sculptures’ intrigue and mystery. However lack of information also means I don’t know exactly how the bears were made but I hazard to suppose they’re most likely hand built from earthenware. I’d like to know what kinds of supports she uses when building. Might there some kind of armature to begin with? Despite the sharp claws and gaping mouths I thought the smaller bear looked almost comical with his squat legs, too small to support the bulky body. His fur stops halfway down, below which is a sgraffito texture made with angry looking marks to give the impression of fur with what looks like black and red slip. This gives him the appearance of wearing a pair of high-waisted trousers (could this in fact be a caricature of Simon Cowell?!)
What I find most exciting and unique about Jameson’s work is that to her, the process of firing is just the beginning of a piece. Rather than despairing over unexpected cracks and things gone wrong she sees these ‘failures’ as opportunities to create something new so her sculptures become collages of fragments stuck together. To re-assemble them she uses a mixture of kaolin (china clay) and glue. The breadth of materials she incorporates into her work is astounding: seeds, buttons, stones, shells, glass eyes, feathers, canvas, hessian, jute (a course material derived from vegetable fibres), clay cement, lead glazes, oxides and acrylic to name a few. There’s an immediacy and spontaneity in the way she decorates without too much deliberation which gives the work life. It’s interesting to see so many sketches on her website. It seems drawing is an important part of her thinking process and there’s a fluidity and child-like nature to her large, expressive ink drawings which is reflected in her making and decorating.

Other pieces by her in the museum included a series of big pots illustrated with people being chainsawed and having their limbs pulled apart by wolves, in a slip-decorated technique that reminded me of red and black figure panting on Greek vases. There was also a series of six terracotta figures on horseback, swords brandished in the air and a curious headless statue holding six tiny kittens in each arm. Maybe I’m particularly drawn to the surrealism in her work and the humour this brings. There are definitely undertones of violence throughout much of it though. But then who doesn’t enjoy being unsettled once in a while? Why else would we watch horror films?
In Ceramic Review issue 267 (2014) Jack Tan draws parallels between Jameson’s work and a particular Dr Who episode ‘The empty child’ In which a boy in a gas mask haunts the streets of the London Blitz at night calling ‘Are you my mummy?’ He argues it’s this juxtaposition of familiarity or nostalgia (dressing the sculptures up in a ‘soft’ material skin like a teddy bear) with horror (distorting the figure and gluing on sharp teeth and piercing eyes) that gives the sculptures their power and appeal. In ‘A Time before Wolves’ (Ceramic Review 271, 2015) Andy Christian aptly refers to her work as ‘cuddly toys that bite’.

I was surprised to discover that Jameson first studied ceramics at Central St Martins before completing an MA at the Royal College of Art in 2009. Her work is so darkly unorthodox and peculiar, it’s easier to believe it sprung out of some grotesque nightmare than that it was the result of years of hard work and experimentation. Images from her degree show suggest an interest in myths and legends (Romulus and Remus), religious iconography, museum artefacts and themes of death and fear but with animal imagery throughout. A large proportion of her earlier works were dog sculptures in buff grogged clay, covered in an opaque white slip with colour on top.
Her work took a new turn in 2010 after she visited the exhibition ‘The Sacred made Real’ at the National Gallery in London, a collection of religious art from the Spanish golden age which included polychrome wooden sculptures. Artists like Gregorio Fernandez (1576-1636) wanted to achieve the same level of realism in sculpture as they could on canvas so they added details like glass eyes and human hair to their works. ‘The Dancing Bears’ have a definite visual reference to traditional salt-glazed stoneware bear jugs that were popular in England in the 18th century when bear baiting was still a legal sport. African fetish figures are another major influence– idols worshipped for their magical powers often with staring eyes, gaping mouths and decorated with nails and shells. Her choice of sombre and earthy colours reminds me of prehistoric and aboriginal art.

When first introduced to the ceramics course, we were each asked to choose from a selection of ladybird picture cards which most appealed or best described us. One of mine was the ladybird ‘Story of clowns’. Something about the fine line between the humorous and sinister had resonance with me. It must have too with Anthony Shaw who’s recently become an avid collector of Jameson’s work.

Bibliography:
Ceramic Review 254 (2012) pg.30-36
Ceramic Review 267 (2014) pg.24-25
Ceramic Review 271 pg.36-42
Ceramics and Perception 60 (2005) pg.13-16
Ceramics and Perception 98 (2014) pg. 12-14
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/the-sacred-made-real
http://www.kerryjameson.com/introducing-written-material.php
http://www.kerryjameson.com