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.
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.
In Jon Clarkson’s lecture ‘The Metaphysics of Presence’ we discussed the painting above. A trend in dutch still life paintings was to dissect an object in the composition to depict not just what it looked like but to convey an essence of what the object was in different dimensions. For example, a lemon would be painted peeled, cut in half, sliced and whole all upon the same platter. Similarly bread would be shown as a whole loaf, cut in half and as breadcrumbs.
It might be argued that what the painter above is trying to explore is not a particular object but a more abstract idea of what roundness is. He does this by juxtaposing four different forms of roundness in the fruit/vegetables. First we have the quince, a fairly clearly defined and solid sphere. Hanging below we have the blurrier roundness of the cabbage, a kind of messy roundness wrapped up in leaves but with an underlying sphere as perfect as that of the quince nonetheless. Vegetables would often have been suspended like this in pantries to keep them fresher but here the hanging forms serve the double purpose of outlining a sweeping curve in the composition, a uniting roundness of form. The melon is a more complicated roundness. Lengthways it is oblong but cut across in sections you would have round sections. The cucumber is one step further – not round in any way lengthways but still hiding cross sections of roundness in its cylindrical form.
Why is this interesting to me then? Making forms on the wheel I am confined to roundness, at least until I remove the vessels from the spinning wheel and alter them. My composition for Llantarnam Grange plays with roundness in that I am exhibiting an open bowl, explicitly round in two dimensions since it’s a hemisphere. The jar beside it however is a more subtle roundness in that looking at it side-on it appears as a rectangle but from above it has a clear dimension of a circle. There is an interesting juxtaposition in Cotán’s painting between roundness as we come across it in nature and roundness that we make as humans. The sweeping curve of the composition could however also be implying a natural curve such as the alignment of planets in the solar system. It’s fascinating how universal the themes of roundness and cycles are so it feels significant to explore this on the wheel somehow.
Edmund de Waal’s work has parallels with Cotán’s painting in that both are drawing similarities to subtle differences by depicting forms that are very similar. De Waal works with very subtly different thrown porcelain cylinders in shades of blue and white which are almost indistinguishable. Perhaps making altered round forms such as oblong casserole dishes and photographing them beside round sectioned forms would create an optical effect similar to the slightly wrong angled still lives of Cezanne and by juxtaposing roundness with an almost-roundness I could comment more strongly on what it is.
Last Wednesday we visited the National Museum of Wales with Jon Clarkson in order to explore the still lives in the collection. While wandering the museum we came across a corner space dedicated to a collection of Gwen John paintings. I instantly felt an affinity with the hazy domestic interiors and muted colours as they reminded me of my own recent ceramics and their subtle palette of glazes. What interested me more though was the tension held in such quiet paintings of women in interiors. The paint seemed to be painted on extremely thoroughly and carefully with a very small paintbrush, in complete contrast to the expressive and dramatic brushstrokes in her brother Augustus’s paintings. Although her portraits appear on the surface serene and calm, the stippled application of paint infuses their atmosphere with a kind of tightness, a holding in of breath as if the subjects of her paintings are simmering with a bottled up force of power as yet unleashed. Critics have suggested that she painted many women reading because she wanted to show women as educated and independent but I would argue that placing them within the domestic scene suggests that women are still to some extent confined within the home and domesticity. The paintings of contemporary artist Shani Rhys James could be seen as a darker extension of this narrative.
Models who sat for Gwen have said that she often painted them to look similar to herself, as if every painting had an essence of a self-portrait in it. Was she using painting in order to investigate her own self-identity deliberately or can we not help painting our own image into other peoples’? If that is true then in the making of a ceramic vessel do we also put a little bit of our own self portrait into that? In my artist statement for Llantarnam Grange I mention how tensions and anxieties in my own mind bubble to the surface when I’m throwing on the wheel. While engaged in such a repetitive process it’s easy to let your mind wonder and I find that often what it wonders to are worries and negative feelings. Drawing attention back to the clay dispels this focus on the negative things but it is difficult to maintain focus for a long amount of time, just like meditation. So as a result the pots are a result of that place we all go to as a result of solitude, when our mind only has itself for company and often the niggly little problems and forgotten things that need to be done creep out of the cracks in the walls. Our mind isn’t always in the present then, it’s drawn into memories of the past and hopes for the future.
Discussing John’s paintings in the gallery it was suggested that they almost look like memories half forgotten, the colours and restrained forms clouded by a film of time.
I’m interested in extending the tension of forms thrown on the wheel to the surface qualities by applying glaze in the fuzzy way that John applied paint, tiny brushstrokes in every direction built up to form a thick and almost crusty layer. I want to try and find resonance in her forms and colours with the shapes I make. Perhaps finding a series of glazes which respond to the paintings – tenmokus and grey-greens and seeing how anthropomorphic I can push my vessels could be a way forward.
Now that we’re back from Port Eynon, the rest of the work we make will be exploring our memory of the landscape, extending our direct experience into the realm of fantasy. This is where exciting things happen, the boundaries blurred between imagination and reality to create what David called ‘mythological landscapes’. ‘Mythical space is… a conceptual extension of the familiar and workaday spaces given by direct experience. When we wonder what lies on the other side of the mountain range or ocean, our imagination constructs mythical geographies that may bear little or no relationships to reality. ‘ Tuan, Yi-Fu. (1997). Space and Place. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota. Pg.86.
Our first step was to unravel our drawing machines and stick up the realms of paper in a strata formation along the seminar space wall. These representations of our journeys were fascinating – although we had all been to the same places on the same trip, our experiences and documentations of these appeared as varied as if we had been travelling in different parts of the world. The tools, colours and forms we chose, the lines we made, were all unique to our own personal and individual subjective experiences of the landscape.
Next I cut up my long drawing and grouped the images together to try and tease out the recurring motifs in my work – simplified forms which are typical of my drawing style, Rocks featured heavily, in my photographs too. Perhaps working in ceramics, predominantly creating physical objects, I am drawn to the three dimensional, tangibleness of these formations. The play of dark and light and shadows in the cracks on their surfaces interested me.
We spent Thursday in the printmaking room learning how to create drypoint plates with monoprint on top. First we created textures on a sheet of plastic using a dremel, sandpaper, tape and scalpels, drawing shapes and using templates inspired by our five chosen motifs. Next we inked up the plates with a black soya based ink and used scrim to rub off the excess. On top of this we used a stickier oil based ink rolled out in a thin layer to draw into and create a monoprint. I used seaweed from Port Eynon bay to create an impression. I really like the contrast of the flat areas of white where the stencils are against the rest of the layered background. The sheet of paper was soaked for about 8 mins before being blotted and put through the printing press with the plate, to help lift off a more detailed impression of the ink. The intaglio print can be repeated over and over if the plate is inked up again but each monoprint will be unique. The fuzzy, messy look of this print captures my experience he wildness of the weather on top of the clifftops on the Gower.
Yesterday we learnt another technique – encaustic (or hot wax) painting which I was completely new to. This involves painting a gesso primed wooden board with glaze washes of coloured gouache before building up layers of collage and coloured beeswax. I impressed shells into the wax and rubbed oil paint into the crevices, similar to the drypoint intaglio process, which brought out a much more defined texture. Scratching back into the wax to reveal white lines of the basecoat was particularly effective. I preferred this process to the printmaking because the results with dripping wax are less predictable. It’s easy to go on changing the painting by re-melting the wax with a heat-gun which is completely different to the finality and precision involved with printing. The drypoint process was long and laborious to create a single print so I’m going to work with photocopies of the one I made to bring about three dimensional forms.
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?
Although originally I wanted to make a centrepiece that worked either as a marble run or a game, I’ve ended up making purely sculptural shapes. Such an interactive object would require planning and designing but I’ve been more interested in exploring the properties of clay and responding intuitively to the material, essentially making it up as I go along. As a result I’ve been continuing to develop the technique I used on the oil lamp project, throwing forms then cutting them up to handbuild with. The resulting forms have a tension and springiness when held that wouldn’t be possible to achieve with slabs. It’s as if they hold a trace of the energy and movement involved when throwing.
I’ve also been experimenting with throwing shapes that show signs of the material’s agency, which I explored in my recent constellation essay – vessels with ridges and throwing lines visible. I’m interested in showing the movement of the clay on the wheel and pushing the clay to the point it’s nearly collapsing to achieve a balance between what I want and what the clay wants. According to the Japanese philosophy I’ve been reading, balance is the way to achieve true beauty!
I find the throwing lines in the above ‘Wouter Dam’ inspired form aesthetically pleasing but they stop and start instead of flowing seamlessly through the sculpture. I want to find a way of letting the flow of clay on the wheel speak and uniting these sections together into an individual sculpture that flows as one. I visualise it as one giant jigsaw puzzle.
I used ‘Brighton rock’ coloured household paint from Wickes to colour this test piece, in order to see quickly how it would look with a uniform, flat bright colour. The collection of paint pot samples in the store got me very excited, as did the whimsical names the colours had – I’ve often wondered how people come up with such seemingly random names as ‘dusted fondant’, ‘nordic spa’, ‘desert wind’, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘sweet dreams’. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between colour and words and it’s something I’m interested to explore in future work.
This second week field project was an introduction to colour theory and the screen-printing process, and for myself an induction into the printmaking workshop.
We started with a colour mixing task. Each person in our group of six was given one of six primary colours in acrylic paint – phthalo blue or ultramarine, cadmium yellow or lemon yellow, cadmium red or magenta then we mixed the exact complimentary of this colour. So for lemon yellow which is towards the bluer end of the spectrum we would make a purple that was more red/pink. Next we mixed the complimentary colours together to get a third shade, and to get a black mixed all three primary colours into one.
Before beginning the screens needed to be cleaned with a water jet set on high and the aid of a cleaning agent. These were then left to dry by the radiator in the darkroom. Once dry a thin layer of emulsion was scraped up to form a rectangle in the centre of the screen using a trough and was left to dry for 45 minutes.
During this waiting time we cut shapes and patterns from black sheets of paper ready to expose the emulsion in the vacuum screen printing press. The cut out shapes were arranged on top of the glass box and the emulsion covered screen was put face-down on top, with a small tube placed inside to aid the vacuum. The screen is exposed to light for 2 minutes during which time the UV light burns away any unwanted emulsion to leave the stencilled shapes. Afterwards we used masking tape to tape around the edges of the screens, leaving a rectangle the size of the paper we were to print on in the middle.
Our acrylic colours were mixed with the same volume of printing medium and the screens attached to frames over vacuum printing beds. A taped down piece of acetate helped to gauge where to place the paper and then paint was pulled firmly through the screen using rubber squeegees held at an angle. Once we’d ran out of a colour the tape was removed and screen was washed again with the water jet (on a low setting to preserve the emulsion). We layered patterns from the two screens we’d exposed to create prints like the ones below on coloured paper…
The next step was to transform these 2D prints into 3D sculpture. We were shown a Powerpoint about how artists in the past have used colour theory and were particularly drawn to Victor Vasarely’s geometric op art forms. Our final piece is made of 8 separate components which can be seen below, together forming a space-ship shaped mobile. The placing of squares of colour on top of one another was inspired by German artist Josef Albers’s ‘Homage to the Square’ series.
The process of screen-printing feels quite laborious but once the emulsion has been exposed the screen can be re-used thousands of times. It’s also quite a fast printing process once you get going. I struggled with the technique of pulling down the paint and my first results were very uneven but I found moving to a lower table helped. There’s scope for me to experiment with screen printing slips or glazes onto acetate which can then be transferred onto rounded forms and clay vessels. Slabs could be printed onto in the same way we printed onto paper, then cut up and re-assembled. We used coloured paper and I could even add pigment to the clay itself in the same way to see if this changes the printed surface colours.