Sunday 7 June 2009

Francis Kyle Gallery: Psiché Hughes Ceramics

Had these works been made with any greater hand-work skill, craftsmanship, or ceramic technical knowledge, they would simply have been unspeakable. They would have resembled the worst kind of meretricious ceramic ‘kitsch’ associated with the craft shoppe, and from which the oh so tasteful craft connoisseur recoils, nay cringes, with embarrassment, appalled at the unholy image of craft that mocks him from the mirror frame. Psiché Hughes’ work confronts us – (the ceramics audience at any rate), with questions concerning the social construction of taste accompanied by a question of what constitutes skill – dare I say it – a question of epistemology. What counts as skill in ceramics is far from a given, although you could certainly be forgiven for thinking otherwise given the extent to which the word is used wholly uncritically and without interrogation in most of the writing, talking and teaching related to Ceramics.

Family Tree
We acquire skill with which to manipulate clay, this slippery, muddy stuff, at once pliable and compliant in some ways but, as Grayson Perry once observed, remarkably intolerant of amateurs. So the work gets shiny and accomplished, a little too accomplished perhaps, its absurdity becoming just too evident, embarrassing, so we rush to theorise and call on irony, for how else can we escape the worst excesses of our own bourgeois associations? It’s a bit like having embarrassing relatives – we think our own practices to be sound and appropriately knowing/ tasteful (or ironic – delete as applicable), / (in)authentic/ (post) modern – you can take your pick, but what about those others? Those others that aren’t us? Those makers of wobbly brown pots, or wobbly white pots or makers of uber-designed not/pots or makers of (my own particular pet hate and designated ‘other,’) the makers of ‘the female form’ - bleeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaagh!!!

East End Boys and West End Girls
Then, every so often, along comes an artist like Psiché Hughes and blows the whole ghastly edifice apart – almost certainly without meaning to which is, of course, the only way it can be done IF – and this is important - you’re going to do this way, that is without irony. And it gets worse. She’s done it in public in, wait for it, a Cork street gallery - actually it’s not, it’s Maddox St, but same difference – and since this bit is all about context, let’s take a couple of lines to examine that. Now I didn’t know these places still existed. I sort of did, but I freely admit I took absolutely no notice of them. I have no idea if anyone else does, but I was under the impression that the East End ruled, that the whole Cork St. thing had been blown clean out of the water 15 years ago by the Three Graces and that the West End was finished. I thought that Cork St was old money, Fine Art of the fiiiiinest variety and, bluntly, redundant. Old. And for all I know that may be right. Waddingtons is still there though. And it’s all looking pretty much the same as it did 25 years ago. What I don’t know is whether that is its strength or its weakness. Now that the East End is unquestionably the Establishment – (see Saatchi Gallery – gone West End) – will we turn round and regard the West End with some lingering respect? I honestly don’t know.

New Becomes Old Becomes New
I do know it will have to reinvent or at least refresh itself – it needs to be demonstrably alive but the interesting thing, potentially, is that these were the dealers of ‘fine art’, in other words craft, as in Camberwell School of Art and Craft. They were the dealers of paining, printmaking and drawing on paper. Old fashioned crafts by anyone’s estimation. So will they invigorate themselves by dealing in art that contains contemporary craft practices? Countless thousands of artist paint, draw, reproduce things on paper, and in clay and use lens-based media to make highly crafted films and photographs. So, let us hope that these dealers engage themselves with these practices. If they do, then we are in for an exciting time –but they should be warned that this space is not just vacant – Jay Jopling’s White Cube is doing exactly that and has been doing for some months now.

Study Collection
So let’s get back to the artist and translator who generated all this: Psiché Hughes. A small collection of her work, distributed among the pigeon holes of a white display case resembles the results of the curious empirical enquiry of a botanist or natural historian of another age materialised in clay. It even more closely resembles a study of ceramic types, like a series of approximations which seek to imitate or even ‘perform’ ceramics – like someone who attempts to perform gender, doesn’t do it very well so tries it in numerous different ways until finally ‘coming out’ as transgendered – and proud.

Performing Ceramics
At first glance, the collection of objects presented in their white pigeon holes, look like someone’s collection of pottery but instead of buying the original object, they decided to make copies. Thus we have: the Lucie Rie, the Gabby Koch, the imitation souvenir from Morocco, the shell and the faux fruit and veg – the sort you get from a semi-posh kitchen ware shop to put in the fruit bowl in the absence of real fruit. The ‘Moroccan Souvenir’ should be symmetrical with flat lid, but it’s wonky, it flops a bit to one side. It would be cleanly, faultlessly re/produced by a Properly Trained Designer, but it would also be ‘knowing’ and ‘ironic’ in some way, a ‘comment’ on the souvenir industry. Hughes, however, does not concern herself with such predictable nonsense. Why should she? As a translator of Spanish American literature she has more understanding of satire in her little finger than the average clunky designer can amass in a lifetime of attempted ironic comment - comment which is rarely, if ever, backed up with any understanding at all of what satire actually is, what it’s for, or how it works. No, this is a carefully but imprecisely made study. It’s not a ‘quotation,’ it is a performance. The wonky lines on the Rie pot and its all-round wonkyiness, the pretend ‘designer’ fruit all deliver the same message. They’re a careful, loving study, tender and wholly unselfconscious.

I wonder, for a while, if this is a ‘knowing’ execution, even though there is clearly no attempt at irony. Then I see the oranges in the fruit bowl and the penny drops. They are not oranges in fruit bowl exactly, they are a ceramic rendering of a painting of oranges in a fruit bowl. They are arranged to the point of seeming to be almost flat. They are certainly not trompe l’oeil but they are oddly convincing because they can be comfortably believed as a version of a painting of an arranged still-life which itself signifies an ordered version of real-life. The orange and lemon skins are not rendered in glaze – why bother - all that kerfuffle and for what - just to prove that the maker can make orange peel glaze? Not only is the image clearly articulated by acrylic paint, it also clarifies the intention. These are not meant to be ‘proper’ ceramics. She is – well – translating – as she has always done.

Hughes makes clay objects with the eye of a painter. What painters constitute as important, valuable, and as skill is categorically different from the way potters assess these things. Painters see, collect and show and make ceramics completely differently from potters and, in the UK at least, the differences between these ways of seeing and comprehending is enhanced by the difference in the original training. The vast majority of artists working in clay in the UK have trained as potters and what they constitute as skill, as proper making, is largely concerned with material finesse. The joins must join, the glaze mustn’t have bubbles – you can’t concern yourself with how the bubbles look, if they look right – it’s just not – well – pottery – by definition they DON’T look right. You can’t let things break and then glue them back together again, unless its done in a proper way – raku or something. That’s permitted breakage. Potters have rules of engagement – a sort of haram and halal approach to things. And painters do too, and this is what potters don’t get. Take colour, for example. Tone, saturation, local colour, distribution of weight, the visual equivalent of sentence stress – it all matters, but not to potters who tend to just jumble it all up in a firework display of dreadful virtuous glaze technique. Oooooooooooh – look how clever she is! Look at those crystals! Will you just LOOK at those finely controlled drips! That RED! And so on.
Painter: ooooooOOooo. That’s intesting, Fine tonal variation, there, sort of cloudy looking.
Potter: It’s CRAWLED. Snort. That’s against the rules. We don’t concern ourselves with the way things LOOK. Only if they’re properly done or not.
But then again you see, that’s not quite true either. The problem is that the seeing of the potter, the potter’s gaze if you like, is so obsessively trained that all they see IS the crawl, not the colour variation.

Avoiding Conclusion
So, who’s right? Darned if I know. I’ve become too much of a hybrid myself over the years. Well not quite, not yet. I’ll always despise virtuosity even if I can be persuaded it’s there for a reason. I do know that I greatly enjoyed Hughes adventure through planet ceramics and her lovingly made ceramic fruit and veg and, perhaps most of all, I loved the imitation paintings, with very lovingly ‘painted’ banana skins and fennelly looking fennel. It’s not just the passion and love and tenderness and curiosity, all of which can be admired, it is that she is developing her own material visual vocabulary which works. It resembles the rendering of a language that you know but the speaker is laying the emphases – the sentence stresses - in unfamiliar places. For this reason, you find it difficult to understand. Slowly you realise you do know all these words and that the construction of them is also correct, but you just didn’t recognise it as first because of the unfamiliar rhythm.

A Note On Think Tank
I’ll just add here that Think Tank has produced a collection of papers on the subject of Skill. It’s not bad at all, in fact it’s a good start, but it is only a start. It comes across as a collection writing from people – albeit intelligent, thinking people, who have only just woken up to the fact that skill isn’t either uncontested or uncontestable. This may be because the only maker among them is unfortunately absent from this collection of papers, or it maybe they really haven’t been thinking about it for long. I’ve read almost all of it, and when I’ve finished, I might attempt to review it…

House of Words: Part 1 - musings on dictionaries

I collect dictionaries. It’s a vice I speak of rarely. I didn’t mean to and I’d like to say that it just happened but of course it wasn’t like that. It all started when I decided to learn Farsi – or Persian if you prefer. The problem is – and maybe collecting is always started by a problem of some sort – the problem is that Persian English / English Persian dictionaries are dreadful. At least they are for the English student. They’re not so bad for the Iranian student of English but they’re still pretty ropey. The source of that problem, as I see it, is that they are all written either by Iranian lexicographers with no input from any native English speakers, or by an English lexicographer, with no input from any native Farsi speakers. The result is some pretty weird translations one way or another. For the English student of Farsi, it’s a nightmare. There’s no indication of pronunciation. The phonetics support the Iranian learner, there are none to help the English learner.

Backwards and Forwards
Example – Judge ‘(juj)’ it says, helpfully, like I don’t know.
Then comes the Farsi, but nothing in Latin script to indicate how I should pronounce the word – and you’d think that the English pronunciation for the Iranian student ‘juj’ should ideally be in Farsi script anyway. The only dictionary that does provide this kind of support for the English student was published in 1953. It’s got some great words in it, but not much you’d hear on the average Tehran street now.

Then comes the usage problem. Few dictionaries provide examples of how the word is used. Only very rarely can you change an English word into a Persian word directly. They don’t translate like that. You have to rethink the entire sentence. So when faced with seven different possibilities for ‘through,’ I have no idea which to use because there is no example of a sentence using the word. Then comes Dr. Aryanpour. He produces a fine beast of dictionary, so heavy it sits on my living room table and is never moved. I had to get a shopping trolley just to transport the thing home from the shop in Golders Green to my flat in Tottenham. It’s my pride and joy. But I have noticed that the beast in question is directed towards Iranian students who are translating English, not for English students writing in Farsi.

Fence,’ for example, deploys many column inches explaining in dense Farsi to the unsuspecting Iranian student, all the different ways those pesky English speakers might be using this word and what it is. You don’t really have fences in Iran as such - not in Tehran – they don’t do terraced housing with gardens and fences - and Aryanpour is Tehrani and Tehrani, like Londoners, are loath to leave the capital and in the rural areas – oh, look, you get the problem. Anyway, this splendidly dense section is rounded off as follows:
The teacher fences awkward questions.’
I wonder what with and how? The English mind boggles and god help the Iranian student. ‘Fencing,’ the verb meaning sword fighting, is said: ‘shamshi baazi’ meaning sword play. It’s one of my favourite words. Just thought I’d add that for good measure.

Thus I grew to love dictionaries. To my fevered, nerdy mind, they are a source of endless entertainment. Now I have shelves full of them. Mostly they are Persian English / English Persian but I also have Hungarian English / English Hungarian, Turkish, Italian, Spanish, French, Modern Greek, and that’s all I’m willing to confess to for now.

House of Words: Part 2 - a highly personal review with some extra bits

Shall we start again?

House of Words

This is an exhibition of contemporary art which is on show now until August 29th 2009 in Dr. Johnson’s House, in Gough Square, just North of Fleet St. in Central London. It’s a good idea to abandon public transport somewhere around High Holborn so you have time to get involved in the tangle of streets on the north side of Gough Square and transport yourself back to 18th Century London. At least that’s what I did. And then I did it again four days later. Upon reflection, I’m not so sure that it is a good idea because I kept wondering what all these weird bits of ‘modern art’ were doing hanging around. And this is the problem that both the curators and artists have to deal with.

Oh England
What defines England? Well if you were to list five of the most important things, surely the English language would appear somewhere on almost anyone’s list – wouldn’t it? And who has defined the English language? Well, again, many things and many people, but Dr. Johnson’s dictionary must be among the most significant. So producers of contemporary art are either working with or competing against 300 years of the history of the English identity. Foolhardy you might think.

Getting to Grips with 'Modern Art.'
It was an uncomfortable, slightly fractured experience at first. I kept on finding that I was ignoring the art and absorbing myself in the stuff of the house. The second time I went, things fared a little better. I got much more absorbed in the work of the two of the artists, namely Jane Prophet and Caroline Broadhead.

The brilliantly named Prophet did unspeakable things to unsuspecting dictionaries, which I loved. British literary culture is deeply suspicious of people who do stuff to books. We are nauseatingly precious about the damn things. Ludicrous when you think how many are pulped each year, how much we over-publish, - a very good thing from a literary point of view because it means we have a fighting chance of actually producing and READING some quite good stuff – and how much dross there is in print - also when you think how many books rest politely on people’s shelves unread. So the Prophetess took her laser thingy whatever it is and these dictionaries were lacerated and their pages made to produce shapes of butterflies and umbrellas and trees that turned out to be flames and so on. One included a woman’s profile being sick or breathing fire or with trees coming out of her month. She picked pages with related words which made you realise how many words meaning something similar are constructed from or grow out of the same etymological root and how many words in the English language refer to sex, sexuality or bodily function or are just plain rude. It sounds a bit obvious, but it worked and it was delicate and beautiful and followed an approximately sequential narrative which pleases nerdy people like me. And there was a gorgeous one hanging in a cupboard – reminiscent of the paper artist’s work in ‘Spectacular Craft’ at the V&A.

The other work I grew to love was Caroline Broadhead’s chair which was actually the repeated ghostly apparition of Johnson’s chair, or so it was claimed. The chair was a strange shaped thing with a very long seat with a ridge at the edge, so it looked really uncomfortable. It’s reputed to be his chair at the pub, and someone has suggested that it may be that you’re supposed to sit on it backwards, leaning forwards against the back, one leg each side of the chair, which makes sense of its narrowness I suppose. Anyway, this apparition reappeared in several different places, at one time on top of a door in miniature and made of bronze, again behind a wooden window shutter, imprinted into paper and again as a 3-d ‘drawing,’ here it’s constructed out of what looked like piano wires, in many very straight parallel lines – as though it had been ‘drawn’ with a ruler.
I’m advised by the curator’s notes that this alludes to the repeated uses of language and the way it mutates with use. I liked the repetition because I like it aesthetically. I wasn’t overwhelmed by too much stuff. If there is a fault with the exhibition it is perhaps that - too much stuff. I’m not sure it matters though, and I’m damn sure Johnson wouldn’t have minded.

Come to think of it, houses of that sort like clutter. They respond well to it. It’s contemporary art spaces that don’t. So on second thoughts- bring on the clutter. I might have found those annoying little books and the ‘found text’ stuff irritating, but it doesn’t mean you will.

Pourism: a mixture of English and Iranian words. This is one of the words suggested by a visitor for a new dictionary of English being compiled as an ‘interactive’ exhibit. It had turned up when I went the second time. You write down your word and its meaning on paper and, for no apparent reason, it might appear on a screen built into a cupboard. As a piece of art it’s cumbersome – putting it mildly. As an idea it’s quite cute. If more words like these turn up then the idea will have proved itself even if its articulation as artefact really isn’t convincing. The word, I guess, is a reference to the vagaries of ‘Farlish,’ which means the same kind of thing. I would imagine Pourism is gag at pour old Aryanpour’s expense. Farlish is used by both Iranians and English speakers who use each other’s languages and fiddle about with them but particularly when you try writing Farsi using English / Latin script or English using Farsi script.

5.00am Sunday May 31st 2009 at Mum's and her garden later the same day