Sunday 12 July 2009

Ceramics Degree Show, Camberwell College of Arts and New Desingers, 2009

If you want to get completely lost in a Degree Show, this is the place to do it. Camberwell always was a warren and it hasn’t changed. Once you’re in, it’s near impossible to find any way out.

But here I am and none the worse for it. Camberwell ceramics degree show was an optimistic affair. The only dedicated ceramics undergraduate course left in London, it marches on regardless. This was the final year for that spirited group known as Buff, (see labels on the right for commentary of the Buff Extravaganza Spring 2008). Their degree show, though individual now rather than a group endeavour as before, very much fulfilled the promise suggested by Buff.

Mud Larks, Party Frocks and Headless Chickens and Well'ard Angles.
Julia Kubik had become a mud lark and collected Thames detritus in the form of clay-pipe stems, washed up on the pebbly shores of the mighty London river. (Btw, these are tabacco pipe-stems for that archaic act of smoking.) These she had threaded singly so they all hung from the ceiling in a carefully graded, bristling mass, from charcoal grey to almost white, like a cloud, recalling the smoke from the pipes and the mist over the Thames. Philip Li had moved on from curling eyelashes and white cups with water-melon pink liquid to well-‘ard, block rocking, angular lumps of fired clay arranged on steel shelving in a cavernous recess all set about with dials and instruments of industrial might. A photograph called Statue shows him on a plinth with fired clay shoulder addition, surrounded by lights. This looked like the lab or den in which he, the statue, was constructed, slightly frankensteinish and fiendish.

Rebecca Fairman’s journey through the less charming side of family life continued and developed. The bed appeared again, but is context made it appear completely different, more benign, more innocent perhaps. At the end of the bed hung a slinky gown constructed of hundreds of tiny ceramic pieces – the top made of mottled glazed ceramic orange peelings, shrivelling at the edges, and the skirt of very smoothly glazed, blistering red peppers. The acidic, bitter, burning apparel in orange and red suggested a glamorous but distant, maybe slightly vicious character, less innocent-looking than the bed anyway.

Some inverted chickens with gold legs and their heads in layers of foam / fibreglass or similar, sprinkled beneath with blue dropping was both funny and slightly horrifying. And there was much much more. Degree shows are a moment of concentrated anarchy and a moment when the students get a chance to show their work as they want it seen, before the curators and institutions get hold of them and start of mould them in a career-shaped candidate.

Which leads me neatly on to New Designers.

The first impression of New Designers is one of an overdose of very nice clean stuff. I looked only at the ceramics and that was nice and clean too. This, I think, is my highly inexpert, defining word for Design – with a capital D - Clean, and Tidy. The exhibition spaces are, as someone put it, ‘like little shop fronts.’ It suits some stuff, but really doesn’t suit the stuff which isn’t design – or that’s manky or just needs a dirty space. Fairman’s bed is a perfect example of this, incidentally. I’ve seen it in three contexts now and it definitely isn’t a product – it’s a story, or rather it’s many stories, and quite literary ones at that. It thrives in an entirely different context. ND is for products. Nothing else really works. The Westminster and Camberwell shows did not, this year, specialise in products and, in most cases, the work suffered in this somewhat stifling environment. Much of it could hold its own, but I’d seen it look so much better elsewhere. See labels in right hand column, ‘Rebecca Fairman’ and ‘Buff’ and you’ll see what I mean. Perhaps it’s time for the New Designers stranglehold on craft disciplines to be broken.

Socially very fully engaged practice.

I’m not overly interested product design, not even product design that’s been reinvented as art, Lamp-Kebab notwithstanding, so I’ll select the one work that really grabbed me. Step forward Laura Masson, . Laura works directly in consultation with children in the development of her work. Her entire degree, show included, was a collaborative project with various children’s groups and organisations. The results and the thinking that is part of it are stunning. Firstly, not only are children allowed to play with porcelain, PORCELAIN, - don’t you just love it? – they’re actively encouraged to take part in the design and development of these things. Then they play with them to their hearts’ content, while contributing to further design developments. Risk is encouraged, breakage not a cause for anxiety, and their own care and manual dexterity is developed along the way. Having spent much of an afternoon involving myself with the social aspects of craft at the Jerwood do, here was an object lesson in how to do just that, as well being the only example I’ve ever seen of porcelain as a voice for one of the world’s most marginalised social groups– now how subversive is that?!

Saturday 11 July 2009

Jerwood Contemporary Makers, 2009

JCM, version 2.0

Enter: Lamp Kebab, Phat Knitting, Furry Flock Floor tiles, climbing up the wall like a strange virus culminating a in a pattern vaguely resembling a map of the London Underground, a spikey light hanging from the ceiling, a sort of woven maze, and some bits and pieces dredged up from the bottom of the sea with carefully made ceramic bits added.

This year’s Jerwood show was satisfyingly different from last year’s. Next year will be the last in the run of this version of the Jerwood prize for the applied arts and, by then, an overview of sorts will have been achieved. Last year the theme of ‘touch’ was explored by the selected makers, which was a ghastly idea but produced some tremendous work (and some not) and, arguably, deployed one of craft’s more potentially problematic fixations, namely that of the skilfully hand-made. This year it’s gone social, plural, industrial-in-conversation-with-studio, collaborative – possibly. and altogether less fetishistically hand-made. It is certainly more socio-politcally positioned / aware / questioning, in terms of the actual approach to making and for that reason alone, makes for a healthy addition, building on last year’s selection.

I recall last year that I announced, rashly, that I’d lost interest in textiles, or something similar. I certainly recall that I found last year’s textile work a crashing bore. This year’s fared much better, perhaps being more responsive to the pluralistic, social approach. The giant woven textile maze – which wasn’t a maze, that ‘s just how I experienced it – was impressive, if inexplicably so. I didn’t like the feeling of being trapped, suffocated in this giant, very tightly woven wall with things scrawled on it, so I got out and didn’t go back. Linda Florence’s flock tiles were appealing initially as her work always is, (click on Linda Florence label in right hand column for a review of her work at the V&A), and the idea was beautiful but somehow didn’t quite work in that annoying way that beautiful complex ideas often don’t. Her written statement works better. That’s just the way these things go sometimes. The social knitting was, I thought, and absolute triumph and prompted me to remember that I have a particular love for knitting – fond memories of a crafts council show in the 80s about the knitting of Gansey jumpers – a sort of social history of fishing in wool. Anyway, this kitting escapade was by Rachel Matthews and involved people sending her bits of unfinished kitting which she rescued and remade or completed, or rearranged. Each had its own story. There was some heroic look-what-I-can-do-with-wool type knitting which was excessively fanciful in a WI, village flower show sort of way, which I enjoyed very much and cheered the Jerwood Space up no end – eg floral knitted spectacles frame, and an exemplary jumper that was like a woolly wall with roses growing up it.

And there was the Lamp Kebab: a pink lampshade supported by various household objects, including a pink boxing glove that might have been an oven glove, threaded up the pole like a kebab. Then all the other rejected objects were arranged on a table next to it. This was by ‘Committee.’ I wont say their names, because anonymity in an industrial mass-production sense is presumably part of the point. Here, is a selection of four of the works. One of the dominant impressions of this year’s show was of things that were appealing, public spirited and good natured. The spikey lamp especially so, all very very environmentally well thought out. It wasn’t the kind of art that moves you especially, (although there were some very sweet and moving moments in the knitting stories and in Florence’s written commentary), nor was it the kind of Craft that makes you gasp at its virtuosity, but it did make me laugh – even when it didn’t quite work. Full marks for that. A girl needs a laugh in these days of voluminous atrocity. Will someone make me a Lamp Kebab please?