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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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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