Friday 6 March 2009

Klara Kristalova: Where The Owls Spend Their Days

It’s not often I walk into a ceramics show and feel a burst of joy followed by a sigh of satisfaction. In fact it’s extremely rare, but it happened last week. Things have happened since then which have left me feeling oppressed, bruised and sorely in need of something to lift the spirits. So I sneaked into Alison Jacques Gallery again today, to see if Klara Kristalova’s show was really as I’d remembered: fabulous – in all senses of the word. I sidled nervously past the first figure who stands alone elevated on a plinth in the entrance, surveying the audience with sunken face and long dark cloak, Dickensian and a bit threatening. In the main gallery a vast, dark cupboard looms out of a dimly lit space baring its contents, a collection of strange, yet instantly recognisable creatures. They’re magical and other-worldly, like toys but also like dreams or nightmares, visions or fantasies.

That sense of excitement and wonder was still there and it does offer relief to the spirit, in spite of the hint of anxiety lurking among the creatures in the cupboard.

Lets start with the top shelf of this over-sized toy cupboard. There are four joined heads, called ‘Family;’ a pansy; a woman with a very white face, black hair and the vestige of a lacy veil (?) across her eyes; and then another sunken face. All these are ceramic ‘figures’, white, black and colour, all saturated – it’s a bright white, a deep, inky black and a sweet, pansy-like purple, if it’s there at all. I might have added that with my own memory of the flowers. The imagination gets to work in a show like this. The way it’s been displayed invites it as does the work itself which seeps into the threads of your own memory. There’s a donkey on the next shelf down, sitting upright on the shelf, human-sitting pose, its (back) legs dangling over the edge of the shelf – front legs are ‘arms.’ Just looked at the picture, it is a human with a donkey head. Then there’s a girl with an owl head and shoulders– a Stoke on Trent type owl. There are lots more things. Go and see it. There’s ‘Dog-Friend’ on the bottom shelf and ‘Gluttony’ – a small girl devouring enormous grapes bigger than her, very very greeeeen grapes.

Room three has heads covered in moths on plinths. The moths are huge and congest the sight and nose and mouth of the head, you can sort of feel them in your own mouth – it’s all a bit unpleasant and furry. The moths’ wings are beautiful in a slightly clumsy ceramicy sort of way, thick wings, lines drawn a bit shakily – thick puddling glaze making bubbles and big crackle marks: gorgeous if worrying – the creatures not the crackles.

The show, entitled ‘Where the Owls Spend Their Days,’ is fables and fairy tales, not menacing exactly but provoking just enough anxiety to meet your own and feel like you’re among friends. I guess that’s where the sense of relief comes from. It also deliciously made, heavy-ish, visceral, painterly, almost sumptuous. I can’t think of anyone else working in this material who turns black and white into colour as successfully as she does. It is immensely impressive.

Kristalova joins a proud group of makers working with the figure / figurine and storytelling. I don’t want to list them here because I want to leave this post to her, but I will say that I think this strand in ceramic thinking and practice is probably the strongest at the moment. This show is certainly a joy to behold, and, curators, please go and see it – make it a priority, and see ceramic work displayed brilliantly. Thank you.