Thursday 21 October 2010

Edmund de Waal: The Hare With Amber Eyes

I had no idea what to expect when I opened this book. I deliberately didn’t read any of the reviews. The only thing I had really absorbed was the image of the hare with its amber eyes which is on Edmund de Waal’s website. I still think it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

You can really lose yourself in the journey which forms back bone of this story and in the histories, the politics, the atmosphere and, above all, the objects, artefacts and interiors. It has been described as a memoir but it reads more like a cross between a thriller and a family saga with a hint of political journalistic travelogue thrown in. The chase is about objects, art objects, art history, collectors and collections. You’re panting your way across Europe from art dealer to salon to soiree to dressing room and at one stage, in the middle and, arguably, the heart of the book, we’re being lead through the cavernous rooms and corridors of a Viennese banker’s Palace, opulent to the point of vulgarity and crammed full of the, ‘accumulation of stuff from four decades of affluent shopping,’ (he’s scathing about their taste). All this is for the purpose of finding the netsuke, the hoard of 264 tiny carved creatures, human, animal and plant life. They are variously sexy, mysterious, malevolent, and much more, and we are introduced to them as the story proceeds. He holds back from really exploring the objects themselves until close to the end, which is perhaps why it feels so much like a thriller. The dénouement involves a brindled wolf, a hare with amber eyes, a tiger – who’s the star apparently, a monk with a begging bowl, a woman in a bath, a great many rats, some persimmon seeds and so it goes on.

It starts, if you read the preface, in Japan with de Waal’s great uncle Iggie who, when we first meet them, is the owner of the netsuke. Here too we learn that de Waal will be their next owner. The netsuke themselves also start in Japan, this is where they were made but several centuries earlier.

Part One, Chapter One starts with the writer as researcher in Paris, standing about on street corners looking at buildings and blagging his way into them seeking hard evidence about the Charles Ephrussi, his great, great uncle, who was a Nineteenth Century connoisseur, collector, art historian and aesthete and the son of Leon Ephrussi, the mighty grain merchant of Odessa. Leon was himself the son of the immensely ambitious Charles Joachim who changed his name to Ephrussi from something altogether more peasant-like and who developed the then modest agrarian business into a prodigious, global Empire. Leon continued the success and sent his sons to Vienna, the heart of Europe, the very pulse of Hapsburg Empire, to start a bank, be a magnificent and out do the Rothschilds.  Then they set about conquering Paris. There’s fantastic story in the first few pages and I wanted to know so much more about creaking grain carts and the shtetl in the Ukraine the thick black earth and all the rest of it. But we had to go in search of the caved beasts with their multi-coloured eyes, so that was it. We return to Charles who was the first member of the dynasty to own the netsuke.

In Paris, we get to know Charles, his milieu, his way of thinking about things and, especially, about collection and display. Simultaneously, we are becoming acquainted with the relentless, meticulous nature of the research process. This first part, as well as being a portrait of Charles and his astonishing art collection, which includes a procession of famous paintings now hanging in places like the Louvre and the National Gallery, is also an intimate portrait of research itself. It doesn’t happen on screen with search engines. The search engine in this case is de Waal himself ferreting through dusty boxes, lurking in doorways, nipping upstairs when no one’s looking and weedling his way into people’s lives to excavate, endlessly.

I have talked about one part of this epic journey. The rest is consistent. Although written in five parts, the story feels like it has three main stages, which are defined by the owners of the netsuke, Charles, Emmy and Iggie. The Emmy part is divided in two – the first half is the happy, social, glamorous time of parties, love, sex and shopping. These are the last heady days of the Hapsburg Empire before Nazification and war. The second half is the violence, dispersal, menace, and loss defined by the Nazi occupation and the holocaust and the extraordinary loyalty of Ana, Emmy’s maid, and the hiding and rescue of the netsuke.

This is a family of Russian Jews who become European Jews and then, in his words, 'had to encounter the Twentieth Century.' De Waal is dealing with very big stuff on a very intimate scale. At no point does he yield to nostalgia, nor is he afraid of this massive and complicated heritage. He does not romanticise this family or its story which would be extremely easy to do. He is critical of their behaviour where he feels they deserve it which allows him to write with real warmth about the people he loves – including the ones he could never have met. He winces palpably in the writing when Charles under pays one of his artist friends for their work but is full of praise for the way he cares about art. He doesn’t quite call the Vienna family a bunch of jumped up nouveau-riche plebs, but he does sort of suggest it – this is where he compares the ‘carefully calibrated,’ thoroughly well informed collection of Charles in Paris with the ‘accumulation of stuff from four decades of affluent shopping,’ in Vienna. At the same time, though, he loves Emmy and her love of clothes.

Weaving in and out of these minutiae of the family saga and the journey of the netsuke is a detailed discussion of anti-Semitism, what it is and how it works. He discusses the history from the ‘stinking hovel’ that defined the impoverished Eastern European Jews in the shtetl through the period of gaining citizenship and civil rights in Europe to the point where they were, realistically, able to own things and earn money. He then paints a graphic picture of the newly acquired wealth of some of the Viennese Jews as compared to the ‘proper Jews,’ the grindingly poor ones, who were grudgingly tolerated because at least they had the decency to be authentically poor.  What comes across with ringing clarity is the sense that wealth in Vienna was welcomed as long as it wasn’t Jewish wealth. Forget culture, writing, music, theatre, art, knowledge, anything that the Jewish population of Vienna at the time might have contributed, ‘they,’ the Jews, had got ‘above themselves,’ they were, ‘taking over.’ He traces the itinerary of anti-Semitism from a casual ‘given,’ where it was not just tolerated but normalised, showing how that created a fertile ground for the growth of the monstrous, politicised, paranoid, obsessive activism it became, culminating in the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

The view from the pages of this book is panoramic and global. From Europe descending into a state of savagery and eclipse we emerge slowly into lighter times, moving from the United States, to English suburbia with trim hedges and, finally, back to Japan. The last part of the book, the, ‘Coda,’ comes back to London with the writer and includes a visit to Odessa and, once again, I longed to visit Berdichev in the Ukraine, the shtetl where it all started but no, we stayed in Odessa on the promenade and imagined the black earth on the Eastern Ukraine border with Poland.

It’s a wonderful book. Just read it.

Sunday 19 September 2010

In Your Name: The Inconvenient Politics Of Palestinian Handicrafts

On the face of it, the ‘Justice for Palestine’ flag laid out on a stall selling plants and handicrafts seemed out of place at the fourth annual Tottenham Flower and Produce Show, an urban ‘village’ show with big white tents, vegetable competitions for allotment holders, a home crafts section, a dog show and various ‘side shows.’ The plants were local but the handicrafts on this stall were made by Palestinian women from a town called Azaria, divided in two by the accursed Israeli wall. Embroidered, stitched and crocheted objects jostled for position with olive oil, fragrant seeds and herbs and hand made soap. They were being sold by Haringey Justice for Palestinians, (HJP), a small local charity which does income generating projects with the people of Azaria which is now twinned with Haringey. The purpose of the stall was both to raise consciousness and therefore more support in the area and also to raise money - desperately needed income for families living ‘behind the wall,’ cut off from their work and even from family members, under siege in effect, by the Israeli occupation.

So, what was it about this stall that was still producing a sense of doubt and discomfort chewing at the edges of the otherwise pleasant experience of looking at the pretty, embroidered objects set out before me? 

In the current political context, groups supporting the Palestinians, including this one, must deal with an additional, increasingly difficult and demanding problem. Put very simply, much of the Palestinian struggle is ‘supported’ by Lebanese Hezbollah, and by Hamas, both of whom are in hock to the current Iranian ruling regime. Like it or not, all of these  campaigns supporting the Palestinians, including eminently sensible, practical ones like HJP, have the territorial scent markings of Iran sprayed all over them. They are inextricably linked. The violent oppression of dissidents in Iran, the mass rapes of Iranian women and men in prisons, the torture, the executions and the shootings and beatings on the streets, are all done, in the name of the Islam and, in particular, in the name of the Qods and of Palestine. The Palestinian women stitching those small bags and crocheting the flowers didn’t ask for Iran's support and certainly not for their slaughter, but they’ve got it and now their supporters must deal with it.

The problem for the Palestinians is twofold. The first and, for them, the most urgent, is that the Iranian regime needs dead Palestinians, as many as possible, especially women and children, to prop up its ailing government. The only support it has left in Iran is the hard core of Iranian Hezbollah who will continue to support them as long as Palestinians are dying at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Hence the necessity to ensure that they do go on dying. Bluntly, a dead Palestinian is worth far more to the Iranian regime than a living one. A prosperous, cheerful, independent Palestinian is no help at all and a prosperous, independent Palestine would spell the end of the Islamic Republic in Iran.

Tehran 2009: Police attacking protesters after the 2009 election

The second problem is that much of the support structure, in Britain and elsewhere in the West, is cheerfully burying its collective head in the sand and ignoring what Iran is actually doing in Palestine and, even more, what the same regime is doing in Iran itself – namely murdering Iranians at a rate and with a degree of impunity which would make any Israeli government green with envy.

HJP is affiliated to Palestine Solidarity Campaign, both of which have laudable aims. While both organisations carefully state their affiliations, their links, their patrons and their sources of support and what they aim for and what they do not support, (the latter includes ‘all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia’), there is a howling silence on Iran.

Iranian Street Protester: Tehran 2009

They must now declare their independence and condemn, unequivocally, the atrocities meted out to Iranian dissidents by the ruling regime. This must be clearly stated on their websites and, wherever possible, on their publicity material. They can no longer ignore what is happening in Iran. No longer can they state that it may not really be so, that it is just an invention of the Western press, (or ‘Zionist’ as some prefer), they cannot afford to risk colluding with a hard-core proto-fascist regime which celebrates the deaths of Palestinians as much as it celebrates the rape and death of its own dissidents.

Tehran 2009: Police attacking protesters

It is time for all of these groups to adopt another ‘not in my name’ badge, a second one. This one might have an electric baton, an image of the Iranian basiji beating the life out of one of the women protesters or a crane with a dead Iranian protester hanging by the neck. They need to do this as a matter of urgency, because it is being done in their name.

The thought and care put into projects such as those of HJP is fatally undermined by this cavernous silence. Maintaining silence, in effect sacrificing one set of lives, (Iranian lives) in order protect Palestinian lives is manifestly absurd. And who wants to buy a lovingly embroidered oyster card-holder drenched in the blood of Iranian street protesters?

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Ceramic Review: A conversation with the editor

Things are on the move at Ceramic Review. The much esteemed and now, 'former' editor, Emmanuel Cooper, is departing and has been replaced by Dr. Bonnie Kemske. For those of you, and you are many, who have been feeling that CR is, 'stuck stuck stuck,' relief is on the way. It will be slow. You will not detect changes immediately. The first issue in which Kemske has had any input at all is the next one, the July / August issue. She wrote the editorial but has had little, perhaps no other input.

We're in the office in Carnaby street and she's growling impatiently at the paper proofs, 'what's the point? Who still has paper proofs?' or words to that effect. Further indignation at the full-page, black and white image of a bearded Mick Casson on the back cover and some shamefully conventional photographs of Paul Scott's work on the front. 'Well, that's enough of Mick Casson for the next seven years at least,' she announces with a bold sweep a the hand, 'and these photographs!' She snorts her disapproval at Scott's blue and white subversions, barely visible in the format chosen. It's not the work that's the problem here, it's the picturing of it.

It's all music to my ears. I almost dared to feel cheerful. Perhaps I might actually enjoy working for this magazine again instead of dreading every assignment. I couldn't quite believe that here was someone, the editor of CR no less, ranting about how truly appalling the standard approach to photographing ceramics is. Goodness, it's only, what, seven years that I've been cheerfully holding forth to a brick wall on this subject. Every review I've ever written and almost every feature has included a critique of the way the work is photographed and almost every time I've explained why it really doesn't work. Not that I actually expect anyone to take the slightest bit of notice but it is deeply depressing to find ghastly, pompous, didactic demands in everything from grant application guidelines to articles in potters' newsletters to calls for contributions for books to guideline for exhibition submissions telling people exactly how their work should be pictured and, without exception, the photographer / artist must exclude, 'clutter', for which read, 'life.' I'm then expected to believe that ceramics is oh so accessible and close to human life and so tactile and embodied. And where is the human dimension? Eradicated, cleansed, sanitised, GONE. Just a pot, or something else ceramic, in a vacuum. Dead.

Over time, expect the imagery - the nature of the imagery - in CR to change. This is the moment to rethink your own photographs. Start breaking the cast iron rules. It's only when artists rebel that the establishment eventually catches up, lumbering breathlessly into line - by which time you'll be twenty steps ahead again, but never mind. And here's an interesting thing - expect the adverts to change. Kemske wants the entire look of the magazine to be different. How much of this can happen this year I dont know. I do know that the layout will stay the same for at least a year but the intention is to change that as soon as finances allow. Finances, since we're on the subject, are dire and they have to change offices which in itself will take up time, energy and scarce resources.

I would like to have asked what the five and ten year plan would be. I know it's going to include practicalities such as raising the number of subscriptions, retrieving the student and adult education market, and making sure CR appears in the academic search engines. It will also include introducing at least one longer, chewier, more analytical article per issue as soon as possible. I know that articles which chat amiably about the potter's studio, what the weather was like that morning, how many times the kiln was checked, and whether of not the maker has a cat, will be discouraged - removed in fact. The really big question that remains unanswered is: 'what about marketing and audience research?' Marketing, I learnt, has not been a part of anyone's job description since the day the magazine began. Shocking but true and wholly unsurprising. Kemske knows that has to change. but how it can change has still to be worked out. I say this is the big question because, without it, the other changes become almost irrelevant because the magazine would struggle to survive long term.

We will have a magazine more conversant with the blogosphere, the internet, with e-books and online publishing of all kinds. We will also find out who the contributors are - something which has always been lacking. In short, CR is about to become a good deal more professional. I have been worried for a couple of years now that, in a harsher economic climate, such as the one we now have, CR could not survive. I'm happy to say that I'm a good deal less worried now.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Quilts at the V&A

Quilts 1700 - 2010 is a mesmerising collection of stitched, appliqued and variously decorated bedware all gathered together in several rooms at the V&A with explanatory texts, very little lighting, (such is the problem with displaying textiles), and freezing cold jets of air. That latter may be because the dimmed lights and dormitory of beds upon which the said stitchery is displayed, is enough to reduce even the most hardened exhibition goer to a stupor and induces a desire to just kick off your shoes and climb in. Just as you're about to submit, out rushes the cold air-shower and you remember where you are.
It's much more fun to listen to the frighteningly well-informed audience than it is to read the explanatory notes. I never know what to say about quilts. They're gorgeous, all of them - well apart from a couple of horrible contemporary deconstructed 'interrogating the quilt' type offerings - god I wish they'd just go home and watch the telly. This authoritarian desire among contemporary craft makers to interrogate things and people and expose their weaknesses is repellant.

Contemporary Quilts
Apart from the one or two of those, the contemporary work enlivens the show considerably. Two memorable paper quilts, one made entirely of old and new Chinese bank notes, the other from news print - thousands of tiny squares - roughly equal in number to lives lost among Iraqi civilans. In among them, a few tiny painted portraits of dead British soldiers. Works well - something about the background, 'wallpaper' feel of quilting itself, repetitive, detailed, boring in some senses, certainly in terms of the work involved, combined with the extreme intiimacy of the object itself, that vivifies the statement being made such that it goes well beyond vacuuous rhetorical statement. You sense the maker cares. That is one of the great strengths of domestic craft. The bank notes one is more conversant with the 'show off,' display aspects of quilting, which has always been a part of it's identity - 'darling- we must get the x's over and show them the new conservatory,' is just the updated version of 'darling we must get the x's over and show them our new quilts.'

Fantastic quilt done by prisoners at Wandsworth, (men's) prison. Really excellent, this one, and the film that goes with it with the voices of the makers and what they think about it. Grayson Perry's Right to Life quilt is there - excellent idea and works very well indeed, especially in this context - come to think of it, it works better here than I've seen it anywhere before.

Censorship again...
Tracy Emin did a lovely quilted, appliqued bed in 2003, it seems - and it is gorgeous. She's sewn some writing on the to bottom sheet which we're not allowed to see. I stood on tip-toe, put on my long range glasses and gazed into the deliberately obscured gloom, 'I'm not weird it's the hole fucking thing that's weird...' then it gets hidden under the bed clothes. I haven't remembered this correctly unfortunately, but it's something about 'wierd sex' and it's not her at fault. Feels like a protest and I didn't take kindly to not being unable to see it. It is work that we should be able to walk round, but we got only one view. Inexcusable.  I know I'm rather sensitive about these things these days, but I suspect the censorious hand of the public sector again, and I'm getting mightily pissed off about it. It's what gets censored as much as that it is censored that is really starting to make me angry. Ok for Primark and Accessorize to proclaim the joys of sexual attraction for seven year old girls, but not ok for adults to protest about sexual abuse... something doesn't make sense here. If we stick to gallery / museum art, fine for Grayson Perry to do whatever he wants but not for Tracey Emin apparently...

Quilts and meaning is very old hat for most craft makers, especially feminist ones, but I'm delighted that it hasn't become worn out and deconstructed to oblivion, (except in one or two cases).  Artists are still using quilts to great effect and not only about matters of intimacy and sex. Very good indeed to see to prisons and the people in them, war, and the people touched by them, and international finance entering the quilting frame too.

Monday 19 April 2010

Possibilities And Losses: Transitions In Clay

Possibilities And Losses: Transitions In Clay is the catalogue for the exhibition of the same name held at Middlesboro Institute of Modern Art, (MIMA), in Summer 2009. Published by the Crafts Council in partnership with MIMA, it follows a conventional exhibition-catalogue form: it’s a big, more or less A4 size, book of shiny photographs with two essays. I did not see the exhibition itself and, of the four works represented in this book, I know only one, so I write about it here only as a literary representation of ceramics. I’m not commenting on the work itself. It does not claim to be a new approach to publishing, nor does it claim to break new ground as a model of discussing craft. The two essays, one by Glenn Adamson, the other by Jorunn Veiteberg, discuss and, on balance, promote the work. If one was feeling both churlish and excessively disinclined to scrutinise, one could just dismiss it as more / (mere), Crafts Council (self) promotional literature.

However, what makes this catalogue production different and worthy of comment is that, firstly, it follows the standard format with considerable flare and, secondly, and here perhaps it does do something new if not revolutionary, both of the essays are critical - in the sense that they discuss and critique contemporary ceramic work and current trends and developments in a way that allows the reader to think, scrutinise the work, even if only in picture form, and then form his/ her own opinion. The nature of the writing opens up discussion, rather than closing it down. This does mark a tangible progressive development: catalogue essays usually take the form of an introductory essay by the curator or other representative of the host institution, followed by an essay which discusses only the work in the show, usually with little other context, and which is invariably a positive appraisal rather than a serious discursive essay. The result amounts to an exercise in marketing and propaganda rather than an intelligent introduction to new work.

Publishing Ceramics

How ceramics is discussed, either in the pages of a book, in journals, in lectures and presentations, and now, increasingly in the blogosphere and on social networking sites, is a subject close to my heart. The lack of a proper publishing infrastructure for this discipline is something I’ve referred to many times – most recently in my review of Confrontational Ceramics, (Ceramic Review, 235:26). Increasingly, academics and researchers are turning to catalogue essays, as the major source of literature on ceramics, rather than to books which consistently lack substance and concern themselves only with visual representation. There is some freedom of movement in the catalogue form which is not dependent on the commercial demands of a publishing corporation or the weighty history of an esteemed publishing house. Moreover, small institutions, and relatively speaking the Crafts Council and MIMA are minute, could, in principle, take more radical decisions about what constitutes excellence in the field of literary representation of ceramics. They could mobilise digital technology to improve the visual representation, all being well that will materialise with the advent of e-books. Poss and Loss is still stuck with magnificently perfect still photographs, taken from a single angle without much human context. There are many photos so the angles are taken care of – sort of – but, even so, they remain detached from human intervention. There is so much more that could be done.

A Tale Of Two Essays

Glen Adamson’s essay discusses the work in the show, one artist at a time, Jorunn Veiteberg’s discusses the show as a whole in the context of related developments in contemporary ceramic practice. The exhibition was curated by Clare Twomey, who also edited the book and her choice of writers is faultless. Both are immersed in craft, but one, Adamson, is a slight outsider to ceramic work, just enough that he is able to keep a distance and interrogate the work of the four artists, and the other, Veiteberg is very much immersed in ceramic practice but, in the UK at any rate, she is not beholden to any institution or strand of thinking or developments in practice that are grounded in this country. There is just enough detachment in both of them to escape that vexatious sense of cosiness that persists in writing on ceramics.

Outsider Artists

Adamson characterises the four artists firstly as, ‘outsiders’ to the studio pottery model of ceramic practice, while acknowledging that two, Twomey and Keith Harrison are thoroughly grounded in that practice through their art college training and Brownsord, who initially trained in the industry, also migrated to studio practice via the Royal College of Art. Secondly he ascribes ‘typologies,’ to each of them: Brownsord is the historian, Harrison the alien, Sormin the immigrant and Twomey the curator. He then introduces the work as operating in a context imbued with pathos. Referring to the collapse of the ceramics industry in Britain accompanied by the slow eradication of discrete ceramics courses, he sets up a theme of exponential degradation, ‘the ‘medium feels more fragile than usual… news is bad… slow motion collapse… abandoned…downgraded… mounting wreckage…’ etc etc. That sets the scene for the phoenix from the ashes or rather the ‘punk concert in a tea room.’ He then builds the bad-boy metaphor into a mildly rapacious declaration of war against MIMA’s ‘chaste galleries,’ and, by implication, against studio pottery, which the exhibition, ‘takes by storm, possibly by the throat.’ Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted I’m not the only one who refers to the highly problematic notion of ceramics a ‘virtuous female,’ it’s just I’d rather constitute the achievements of this show as emancipatory rather than as violation. After all, all four have training in ceramics, three in a very orthodox sense and, for all I know, Sormin’s training may also have been very orthodox. They themselves chose to disrupt the virtue of the discipline, they didn’t come under attack.

That said, it’s a fine essay and immensely helpful to the many of us who did not see the show. As a general comment, I’d say he sounds assured about Brownsword and Twomey -  he has a clear sense that he knows who they are and what they’re up to. He sounds uncertain and, possibly, unconvinced about Sormin’s work and is amused and also entranced by Harrison who he perceives primarily as a performance artist using the tropes of ceramics and Marxism in his performance rather than having any real attachment to either of them.

Continuity or Collapse: Ceramics in a post industrial era

Jorunn Veiterberg is an altogether more sober writer and more immersed in contemporary ceramic practice – certainly in contemporary studio practice. She takes as her starting point, almost as a given, the understanding that the industry has migrated to the studio and that studio potters are now deeply immersed in industrial as well as 20th century studio practices. Her essay is a survey of contemporary practice related to the industry and to collaborative, or community, non-individualistic practices. Thus the essay ranges from the work of groups like We Work In A Fragile Material and Temp, both Scandinavian groups who work collectively with what ceramics means as well as with what it does, to Marek Cecula, based in the USA and very much the individual studio artist practitioner, but one who designs for industry as well. The latter is not a new model. Cecula’s is the traditional model. Studio practice alone is very unusual indeed and probably took off only when the growth in arts schools meant that artists could teach. Otherwise artists of all kinds have always worked for public institutions, be it frescoes for churches or portraits for monarchs and their courtiers.

Veiteberg discusses the rise and rise of the readymade as a material in individual studio ceramic practices and ends with Christin Johanssen’s ‘Feminoir,’ the urinal for women which operates, according the artist, ‘in the borderland between industrial design and fine arts.’ Johanssen makes work in the studio that imitates industrial design. She sees this area of practice as a way to ‘question and discuss function and design,’ which Veiteberg seems to agree with. I hope that ceramics, as it reinvents itself in what Veiteberg calls, the ‘post-industial’ age, won’t be quite so po-faced that artists feel obliged to be ‘questioning and discussing function and design,’ all the time. I’m slightly concerned that this is going to be virtue reinvented. It’s a bit clean and worthy sounding – which is funny, when you consider how witty and un-worthy ‘feminoir’ is.

Veiterberg’s writing produces ceramic practice as an immensely self-conscious process - this is in some contrast to Adamson, who has a brief love affair with something he perceives as mad and dangerous, in the positive sense of those words, but then extricates himself. The book is a good read about current practice and is illuminating and hard working – by which I mean that a relatively small amount of writing about one exhibition with a finite number of images does an enormous amount to inform and gives the reader a clear sense of an expanding practice at an exciting point of departure.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Ceramic Art London, 2010

Here is the 6th Ceramic Art London at the Royal College of Art. It looked tired. Only six years old and tired already. It’s not so much that the work itself looks tired, it’s the overall curation of the event that is the problem. I would suggest parking restrictions. I mean a simple rule – you can park your pots here for two consecutive years, but no more, and no return within two years.  That would help to refresh the show a bit but it needs more than that. I don’t know who is on the selection panel or on what basis they select, but it is clear they are not keeping the look of the whole in mind. If they need a wider variety of makers to apply for selection then they need to say so. At the moment it looks like they’re short of applications. There are far too many people who have been showing year after year. There were very few new faces. The inclusion of two makers of table ware in bone china, (Lowri Davies and Maria Lintott) was very welcome indeed and another, slightly over complicated, but nonetheless appealing collection of work by Solomia Zoumaras, (there for her second year), was also a welcome change.

CAL is not a survey of contemporary ceramic practice, no single show or art fair could achieve that and certainly not in that format – it is the standard approach to art fairs with a single small, kiosk type space for each maker. Susan O’ Byrne took over two spaces to show her troupe of dancing vermin, (one muntjac, ( a small deer), a pack of galavanting foxes and a gathering of crows,) but apart from that, it was one space each and set out your pots as tastefully as you can. Apart from O’Byrne, and the three named above, there was really nothing fresh, experimental, progressive, or thought provoking, - not the right space for contemplative or thought-provoking work anyway – but only these four made me stop and look again and want to see and know more. For a show this size, and this established, it isn’t enough.

Looking over the CAL catalogues for the last six years, the buzz and excitement of the launch in 2005 is barely recognisable as being part of the same event. It is difficult to discern if this is a gradual fade or a sudden collapse. The 2005 catalogue includes a collection of commentary from Grayson Perry, contributions from Edmund de Waal, Louise Taylor, (then head of the Crafts Council), as well as something from a collector, Michael Evans and from Jack Doherty, chair of the CPA which, with Ceramic Review, hosts the event. Variety breathed life into the show. Perry is, of course, a bona fide celebrity and can’t fail or, at that time, couldn’t fail to bring a sprinkling of stardust to almost any occasion. Edmund de Waal is the kind of star whose writing means something. In this otherwise unassuming catalogue, he writes a response to Stephen Bayley’s article published a year earlier in The Independent on Sunday, (Feb.15th 2004). The title of the article was: Pottery: The Evil in Our Society. While, according to de Waal, Bayley berates potters who, ‘did not know their place any more,’ de Waal himself responds by making the simple observation that they never had: ‘As to making installations, they were the currency of European Modernism,’ he remarks, after a brief discourse on the less functional aspects of Bauhaus.

The point is that there was lively debate, a sense of boundaries being broken, a sense, in short of a kind of renaissance in craft and, in particular, in ceramics. If commentators like Bayley and also Germaine Greer could get sufficiently steamed up about it to write articles in broadsheet papers, then we were certainly doing something right.

Now we are in a different phase. Ceramic work in mainstream and blue chip art galleries is becoming commonplace. It maybe tokenistic or only a brief flirtation, a kind of cultural tourism – let’s give this a try while we’re in recession. It doesn’t much matter, the danger for ceramics now is complacency. Where are the new voices, the new stars? Well they certainly weren’t at CAL. I’m not talking only about the work in the show, I’m almost more concerned about the ‘Discovery’ section – these are lectures and demonstrations. Whereas in earlier years we have had Clare Twomey (2009) talking about installation and Jeremy Theophilus talking about the forthcoming Biennial, both with a strong sense of mission and future developments, it seems we have now returned to a round up of fairly standard makers doing picture shows and demonstrating making techniques - tried and trusted, or maybe just tired and musty. Closer examination of the six catalogues I now have reveals that the seed of this is there right at that start. De Waal is recycled three times, the makers who give their presentations and demonstrations are the ones we’ve seen a thousand times before. Where is ‘the Discovery’ exactly? Is it not usual for London shows to curate new work rather than established work? How on earth can a public develop any sense of discernment, any experience of looking and deciding, if they are never presented with new work to consider and respond to?

In his 2005 essay, de Waal issues the following warning concerning the ways we might respond to Bayley’s attack: ‘There are other options, of course: bunkering down is an option, preaching to the converted is an option, talking to ourself is an option.’ This year’s CAL is disappointing because it has not heeded that warning. In responding only to the desires of the known and established ‘collectors,’ bringing in only the ‘tried and tested,’ it is, above all, talking to itself and people who talk to themselves  quickly become boring. CAL cannot afford to look this dull again. The visitors and buyers will depart and with them will go much of the good will and enthusiasm that has been built up over the past six years.

For a different angle, please take a good look at the coverage of this event at Sliponline. You will find vast numbers of excellent pictures and probably some lively commentary - it says 'from Tuesday,' I guess this means Tuesday, March 9th or 16th.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

Reflections and Spectulations: The last 3 months and the next 3 days in Iran

These days I spend far too much time on facebook. I’ve come to rely on the constant flow of news from Iran, accompanied by comment and spontaneous calls for action in response to the most recent outrage. Last week the Iranian Green Movement and its supporters and friends were in action on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, (x2) and Sunday. Thursday saw some action at the Centre for Promotion of Persian Language and Literature, which hosted a dinner party for Iranian government officials, entitled, according to my source, ‘Standing Up To World Arrogance.’ Not a trace of irony was detected unless you count the presence of Yvonne Ridley, who always seems to be some kind of site-specific ironic self-parody. Friday was the 40th day after the deaths of the 8 people shot in the Ashura protests on December 28th. Saturday is the day people usually gather for an hour or so in Trafalgar Square in solidarity with the mothers of the murdered protesters. There were also people outside the Chinese Embassy protesting the continued support that the Chinese government gives to the regime. Sunday was a quiet gathering in front of the embassy, something which is now happening weekly again.

One of my facebook contributors has been counting down to Thursday 11the February, with mounting excitement, as though expecting a sudden bang which will indicate, unmistakably, the sound the departing regime leaders and their stooges. Everyone expects that the end is nigh, but I’m still not clear what comes next. ‘Go on, what’s your best guess?’ asks an English friend but I’m useless in response. I mutter darkly with another Iranian friend at the Sunday demo – he like me has fears, ‘It’s just so dangerous at the moment.’ I do fear that Thursday 11th will result a blood bath. I do fear Tiananmen Square all over again. I don’t want any more ‘martyrs’ and I don’t want the gathering of mothers in mourning that takes place in Tehran and other Iranian cities weekly to grow any bigger. I don’t want any more mass graves, Iran has enough of them already, many dating from the early 1980s. 

Anyone doubting the organisational capacity of the Green Movement, should probably think again. Here is the film they have sent out to the Iranian armed forces. It’s bilingual. So they want you to know they’ve done it.

A Message from the Green Movement to the Armed Forces of Iran: 
The embedded video caught a nasty virus. Will upload again when the coast's clear. Apologies for irritating ommission. Claudia

Riding Authority
The tone and register of both the organisation of the protests and the reports on them by the Green Movement has changed markedly over the moths, which I’m going to look at in the next post and show various video footage I’ve been collecting. I think it’s getting more positive by degrees now. Time was when it seemed to be about working out how best to protest. As the opposition built, partly in response to the sheer brutality of the crackdown, the show trials, the reports of deaths, torture and, especially of the first hand accounts of rape, the people began to ‘ride’ authority, ‘piggy-backing’ on government approved demonstrations such as ‘Qods Day,’ ‘13 Aban,’ (the anniversary of the occupation of the US embassy by Iranian students in 1979; ‘Students Day,’ (anniversary of the shooting of 6 students on Tehran University campus by the Shah’s police force); and culminating in Ashura Day, 28th December 2009, when the gloves come off the current regime and they shot another 8 protesters including the nephew of Mir Hossein Mousavi. This was followed by the execution of two political prisoners, one arrested before the elections for campaigning for Mousavi and one arrested during the post-election protests  - the latter was 19 years old. A further 9 have now been condemned. There is a great deal more to say about these but the government has now issued 3 entirely conflicting statements about the two who were executed. Initially, it announced, they were involved in the Ashura demonstrations, but both were in prison at the time, then it changed to a ‘monarchist group,’ until it was pointed out that no such group existed either in Iran or anywhere else, now they are part of the Mujahideen e Khalk, (who exist only outside Iran). We’ve had the ‘foreign powers’ story trotted out a couple of times as well. No doubt they’ll be Israeli agents next.

Constructing History In Advance
For the first time since the disputed elections of the 12the June 2009, the opposition leaders are actively encouraging the protesters to go out and confront the regime. The regime has demonstrated its willingness to shoot to kill whenever it pleases and shows no compunction. It has established that it is capable of conducting a ‘reign of terror,’ and, with the show-trials, the executions and now the announcement of the next 9 due to be executed, we could say that it has already begun. The Green Movement has also gathered considerable force and has the support of the much of the Iranian diaspora, but is not armed, unless the armed forces respond to that video. As far as I can tell, that’s pretty much it. I have no ‘best guess,’ and I’m not about to hazard one now. For now, I will just leave you with some of the calls to action and some of the imagery emerging in the last few days and weeks.

Movie trailer style, schmultzy accents:

Stirring stuff and Human Rights :

The last word in optimism:

The End:

Friday 5 February 2010

Tableware Migrates And A Call For Action

Crockery shop in Green Lanes Haringay, everything is imported from Germany.

The wobbly brown pot, once much prized by aficionados of domestic studio tableware, has more or less departed. It has yielded to the prevalence of the wobbly white pot. If this is starting to sound like an investigation of the dominance of the grey squirrel over the red, well it’s not dissimilar. Time was when wobbly domestic pots were brown, stoneware and made in rural studios and industrial pots were white, straight, and made in urban factories. Now they’re all playing musical chairs and it’s a struggle to keep up, taxonomically speaking, with who’s doing what, where and why.

Still Alive
The condition of the British Ceramics Industry looks terminal and needs a revolution in design, in working practices and, above all, in the attitude of management and marketing to survive. There are numerous graduates of ceramics and / or design courses, many of whom are skilled in the kind of craft and design needed for industrial production or collaboration, but many, I suspect will end up working in either Germany or Scandinavia. Both Origin and the British Ceramics Biennial, (BCB), indicate that, although the making of tableware is not the dominant discourse in ceramic practice anymore, it is alive and well and there are many who work steadily producing ware that has that distinctively hand-made, uniquely studio look which is still immensely appealing to many of us – to me anyway. 

Feral Parrots: Urban and Rural

To wit: Stoke on Trent, once the beating heart of the industry, has become small-town and quasi-rural – it’s certainly poor enough to count as rural and it’s the only place I’ve ever found where the ATMs dispense the money in fivers. Moreover, if the BCB, which it hosted at the end of 2009, is anything to go by, then it’s rapidly becoming more ‘studio’ (rural), and less ‘industrial,’ (urban).  To confuse matters further, urban sophisticates now like to buy hand-made ware from urban studios, classed, by ‘The C Word; as ‘Terraced Industry.’ The latter now replaces the old ‘cottage industry,’ and those distant rural lands, once the home of the original, ‘cottage’ industries, have instead become home to an interesting clutch of quite exotic, almost colourful, stoneware makers, urban migrants to rural settlements who, like feral parrots, produce what Debbie Joy calls, ‘urban rustic.’  Step forward: Claudia Lis, James and Tilla Waters, Nick Membery, and Debbie Joy herself.

Claudia Lis with her work at Origin 2009

Parrots in Flight
Almost colourful – Lis’ work is very very sleek, almost-shiny-but-not-quite stoneware in a huge variety of luminous greys – ah yes, but not ‘Camberwell greys,’ forget Alison Britton, Lis makes grey into a highly complex colour. Think Corot and his 20 tones and you’ll be nearer the mark. J and T Waters also produce sleek stoneware for domestic use, also in colours, - a tad prim perhaps – but then urban stuff always is – that, after all, is what ‘urban’ means, now I come to think of it. Membery’s stoneware is a good tough colour and unbelievably well thrown. It’s what happened when stoneware, in the 60s and 70s sense of the word, went contemporary. He sells in kitchen shops – swanky ones, and you can buy on line too. It’s sort of butch but with added colour, definitely not prim, and it’s for POSH urban kitchens whose inhabitants want to look like they spend their summers in rural France and changed the colour scheme to blue, to remind them of the blue blue sky and the Med. When I say posh though, it’s not at all expensive. It’s brilliant value and looks fabulous. Debbie Joy makes a stoneware and porcelain mix, much chunkier than the work of the other four, but she dips it in glazes which look exactly like Italian ice-cream – there’s green, pink, blue and yellow - and then puts little bugs on in transfers. The overall effect is edible, child-friendly, and gorgeous.
James and Tilla Waters: Origin 2009
It’s interesting to note that none of these five makers are living or working in England now. Three are in Wales and one in Scotland. Studio rents are considerably cheaper and both Scotland and Wales take an enlightened view of supporting ‘rural ‘industries.’ (sic)

A Tale of Three Cities

Back in England, meanwhile, Chester and Bristol - which is almost Liverpool and Bristol - each have a domestic tableware potter: Rachel Holian and Hanne Rysgaard.  Liverpool, Bristol and London were the three cities which hosted the development of blue and white ‘delftware’ pottery, particularly tea sets, in response to the expansion in commodities, - tea, coffee, chocolate and sugar – in the 18th Century. These two ‘heritage’ cities probably support more than one tableware maker each but these are the two whose work I’ve encountered. Both might be considered, ‘rustic urban,’ urban in essence but with a rustic tilt, rather than, as with Joy’s work, rustic in essence but with concession to urban desires. They reference industrial ware – it’s white and uses transfers and has much added colour, but the work is hand-made, complete with the all-important wobble. It seems apt that these cities, inheritors of innovation in tableware, should now be supporting the same.

Left: Hanne Rysgaard's milk carton and bottle jugs and wincyette teapots

Holian says she has difficulty selling in Chester itself. It’s very much a tourist town and a county town for horsey types who, in my experience, want either an ‘authentic’ wobbly brown rural pot for their chunky, stripped pine, kitchen table, or a proper Spode or Wedgwood dinner service for the mahogany dining table. The sort of bisexual, transnational, bi-lingual smart-ass stuff that Holian makes demands a slightly more, dare I say it, aesthetically heightened consciousness.  She sells in Liverpool instead. The same is true of Hanne Rysgaard’s work. Rysgaard’s forms much more obviously reference industrial production – the carton jug is a fine example, but similar reference can be found throughout, from lustre rims on the ‘china-ware’ through to the teapot that looks like a reshaped winceyette nightie.

Terraced Industry: The Theory

So, if the ‘uban-ware’ is made in the Scottish and Welsh mountains and the ‘trans-ware’ in middle England, what’s happening in London? The clue is in the first paragraph. While the uban potters have migrated to the countryside, the rural potters are thriving in the heart of the metropolis. Akiko Hirai, Kaori Tatebayashi, Sophie MacCarthy, Linda Bloomfield, Chris Keenan, Louisa Taylor, all form a part of the complex of Terraced industries which can be found in all manner of side streets and olde cobbled courtyards across London.  Two more – John Butler and Yo Thom have scuppered this neat little theory by escaping the city and settling in rural areas – although, to be fair – both are users of wood kilns so, arguably, need the extra space and appropriate planning laws which will accommodate such equipment. John Butler is a lesser-spotted maker of proper, warm toasty brown, wobbly wood fired pots. Yo Thom’s work is tawny in essence, but she has indigo tendencies, and her tableware, though splendidly wonky, has a little chic urban touch to it.

Terraced Industry: Who’s Who

In the urban terraced, classic studio model, The Chocolate Factory N16, which really was a chocolate factory and now has a courtyard, geraniums and studio cat, you can find the great-crested Sophie MacCarthy who makes elegant patterned table ware, stupendously well thrown and turned, (the latter is a rare thing these days) and Akiko Hirai – a gas kiln user, who dwells in a twilight cave of a studio and makes magnificently glazed stoneware which the cat treads on from time to time, adding new and unexpected wobbles to the plates. Linda Bloomfield works in shed at the bottom of the garden in Chiswick, and makes ‘rural pottery’ in every sense, except that it’s all pink underwear and satin petticoats. Her tableware is certainly more milkmaid than noble peasant but, happily, this is a milk-maid of extremely dubious moral virtue.  Kaori Tatebayashi  works in Wandsworth making what one of her galleries describes as ‘artfully wonky’ tableware – whose aesthetic is an oddly successful mix of Habitat and William Morris reproduction with Japanese ‘authenticity.’

Linda Bloomfield: Origin 2009

Chris Keenan produces ‘genuine’ habitat – his work is all thrown tableware and celadon glazes – more proper than this it doesn’t get. He designed a set for Habitat and makes very perfect ware, no wonkiness here – but he can get away with it because he is a rare user of the notorious Tenmoko glaze – the shiney black one, which is one of the original, authentic-wobbly-brown-pot-glazes. Most people’s work looked like big shiney turds, but Keenan makes his look like it wasn’t just a ghastly accident. It has an earnest frown to it, but at least you can take it into the kitchen without calling the environmental health.

Do You Stack Or Are You Gentry?

From Camberwell to Deptford and to the studio of Louisa Taylor, winner of the BCB batch award and a maker of impressively eccentric looking lego tableware. Taylor is concerned with stacking. Everything, even the Teapot, is stackable, which must make storage considerably easier and adds an interesting twist to the matter of display – which, let’s face it – is all part of the hand-made tableware aesthetic – how it looks after you’ve washed it up or even before. Taylor’s work is clearly rooted in rural, hand thrown studio tableware but, like Holian and Rysgaard, references industrial concerns. She too has taken the white option and her concern for functionality, such as the stacking, reveals a holistic interest in design for living.  Taylor’s work is somewhat ‘straighter’ than the potters of Chester and Bristol though.

Crockery shop, Green Lanes, showing tea sets,samovars and assorted domestic china

Back To The City: Tableware Migrates
Talking of design for living, I’d like to return to North London, to Grand Parade, Green Lanes, Haringay. Here is a kitchenware shop – not the swanky King’s Rd type where you’ll find Nick Membery’s work, nor indeed the ‘aga saga’ kitchen shop of the Shires, this is a down at heel, semi-suburban, dinner sets, tea sets, saucepan sets and samovars outlet. Run by a Turkish family, with the various Turkish speaking communities of the area in mind, this shop thrives on the sales of matching dinner services, tea glasses in multiples and all things food-related which extend hospitality and help define an identity in terms of ethnicity, class and family values. ‘I have arrived, I have made my way in the world, I have a ‘normal sized’ family; a very big family when you put us all together; and a vast community of friends,’ it says. This is what is used when family or important visitors come to visit. This is middle class immigrant Wedgwood, except that it isn’t Wedgwood. Every last piece of china in this shop and numerous others like it has been imported from Germany. The ‘original’ English tea set, (or European tea set) did not include tea glasses with matching double-story teapots of the sort required for Turkish, Balkan, Eastern European, (sometimes), and Middle Eastern tea.

Turkish tea glasses, made in Germany, selling in London 2010

Meeting Migration
Edmund de Waal commented on Wedgwood’s long history, ‘not only of creating markets but also of incredible social commentary,’ in Crafts Magazine (217: 17).  The five contributors to this article suggest that a combination of weak marketing and a failure to recognise the changes in the shape and behaviour of the ‘British family’ are two reasons, among others, why the company failed. The argument was that these changes meant that the multiple-piece dinner service was no longer relevant. This does not appear to be the case, it’s just that the giant family dinner service for special occasions has ‘changed hands.’ It is intensely frustrating that a company, like Wedgwood, with socially progressive origins was so unwilling to recognise and respond to the enormous changes in demographics that have occurred in this country over the last thirty years. The people who migrated here in the 50s, 60s and 70s have settled, prospered and developed their own brand of ‘British middle class,’ These cultures are still family - orientated. The family does come round to dinner and matching dinner-ware is expected and produced. Moreover people who migrate understand both price and value. They are not going to pay ludicrous prices for domestic china for family dinner. As the example of the Turkish shop above so amply illustrates, German industries seem to have cottoned on to this and produced the required goods at the right price in the right locations.

Engish tea things, made in Bristol by Hanne Rysgaard, selling in London 2009

What Happens Next And a Call To action
Of necessity, studio potters are responding to their markets. I am anticipating that the hand-made, ‘local potters’ will mainly be concentrated in urban centres, with the large centres such as London and Birmingham being able to support numbers of them, working out of sheds, as Bloomfield does, and supplying their locales. I would imagine most of these will be mature adults pursuing this craft as a second career. As long as the work is made and the desire for such ware is met, it doesn’t matter much who makes it. It does matter, however, that they tap into all their potential markets. We need ‘china,’ either factory or hand made, for Chinese New Year, Pesach, Ramazan, Rosh Hashana, Eid, Diwali, Now Ruz, the list goes on and on, to say nothing of accoutrements for shisha pipes, handsome receptacles for vodka and other delightful dalliances. Both the industry and the craft sector need to bring in new designs and develop new markets accordingly and they need to do this by noticing who lives here and what we use. In the case of the industry, I just hope it does so while there is still and industry left to respond.

Until February 13th 2010, Contemporary Applied Arts is showing, Domestic Contemporaries, 'focusing on the functional aspects of tableware within Ceramics.'

Links to websites of featured artists or sites with images and contact details:
Claudia Lis  Debbie Joy  James and Tilla Waters,  Nick Membery John Butler, Yo Thom Akiko Hirai   Kaori Tatebayashi Hanne Rysgaard Rachel Holian Louisa Taylor Sophie MacCarthy  Linda Bloomfield Chris Keenan

Friday 15 January 2010

Many Iranian Diplomats Seek Political Asylum

Many Iranian Diplomats Seek Political Asylum
Probably the shortest post I've ever written, but do click on the link and read the article - it's short, succinct and revealing. I was prompted to follow it up myself after news emerged that the Iranian diplomatic representative in Norway resigned his post and petitioned for asylum there.
The Persian 2 English site is an excellent way of getting additional information about the situation in Iran in English.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Comparatively Speaking: Reviewing The Reviews

There’s something insanely decadent about eating eggs on toast and drinking really classy champagne for supper – I guess breakfast would be more decadent but then I’d just fall over on the ice. Anyway, perhaps this just tells you what a simple soul I really am underneath all the artspeak.

So, it’s January and my sciatic nerve’s still complaining but with nothing like the ferocity of previous months. I write / type standing up – sitting down is still an endurance test – but if it was good enough for Virginia Woolf, it’s good enough for me.

East End / West End
I was asked to write a review of Charlotte Hodes work at Marlborogh Fine Art. First the White Rabbit asks me to write about those four artists – Rebecca Warren, (Maureen Paley), Rachel Kneebone, (White Cube), Renee So, (Kate MacGarry), and Klara Kristalova, (Alison Jacques) – who feature this month’s Ceramic Review; then he asks me to review Hodes’ work, at a gallery in Cork St; now I’m to write about Judy Fox, another artist working in clay who is represented by PPOW gallery in New York – doesn’t look especially blue chip but seems to be a fairly standard fine art gallery – also represents the highly esteemed, (by The C Word anyway), Carolee Schneemann, who hales from the 1970s feminist art movement and did some extraordinary performances cleaning floors with her hair among many others.

So, The White Rabbit’s got very interested in artists who work in clay and show in swanky or moderately swanky art galleries – which is fine by me because it means I get a troll around London finding out about all this stuff, at least 50% of which I probably wouldn’t get to otherwise and I find that I’m still fascinated by what’s going on, or not going on, in these old West End joints.

The Great Divide
They appear to have frozen in time. I get the impression that the brash, oh so nouveau riche, (perish the thought), YBA, Saatchi / J. Jopling cohort burst into action in, say, 1989, eclipsing Cork street and it’s cohorts forever. They, Cork Street, responded by carrying on just as they always had. They still are. Some are, shall we say, renewing the stock; in other words they’re adding to their collection of artists. Marlborough certainly seems to have a number of dead artists on its lists. It represents highly established and still living artists like Paula Rego, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Frank Auerbach and Maggie Hambling as well as ‘the estate of RB Kitaj,’ Uglow, Pasmore et al. In addition they have an artist by name of Catherine Goodman, with whom I was a student at Camberwell. Imagine my surprise to find that she was still producing EXACTLY the same work she did at Camberwell on the painting degree course 25 years ago.

So they are still representing, ‘nice painting.’ Nowt wrong with that, you may say, but no point pretending it’s groundbreaking, exciting work with something new or different or especially incisive to say about the world. If Goodman’s work is representative of what they show, then it’s safe to say that they stock, well, ‘safe’ work: sellable, domestic, well-made, - the precise, painting equivalent of Alison Bitton. Sound - Camberwell Grey - 2nd eleven - inoffensive; a nice, moderately flattering mirror in which the bourgeoisie can view themselves. Well, why not? If there’s a market – flog it. Silence, you in the back row, no one mentioned dead horses!

Charlotte Hodes
So where does Hodes fit in? And how? Well she’s more up to date, I’ll give her that. Faultlessly crafted. No problem there either. Intellectually rigorous –can’t ague with the stuff, it’s absolutely rock solid. Thank goodness you don’t have to like it – but whatever you do, don’t go and see this stuff with a hangover. Or if you must, take a bucket or a lot of alka seltzer, because it IS nauseating. The morning-after-the-night-before colours really don’t help – it’s even got lumps floating about it. Grotesque. And, I’m sorry, but it really is vastly over-crafted. I could find no justification for it. It was, in Love Jonssen’s words, ‘a manifestation of wasted time.’ A harsh judgement, perhaps, but there seemed to be no discernible story, or not one that I really cared about- the faint-hearted feminist narrative is one we’ve seen a thousand times before – and is insipid at best anyway and beyond that – what? There’s no particular beauty either. It’s just ever so well crafted. I did try to convince myself it was some kind of spoof on Donatella Versace and might look well alongside some kind of high fashion home-ware collection, but I didn’t succeed.

Psiche Hughes
This is all in immensely sharp contrast to Psiche Hughes work that I bloggged about some time ago. Hughes shows at Francis Kyle gallery down the road, same neighbourhood. No claims can be made here about virtuoso exercises in ceramic materials. It isn’t ‘well crafted,’ but it is exactly as well crafted as it needs to be to say what she wants to say, and it’s not without skill – she certainly understands the difference between colour, local colour and tone – these are old fashioned craft-painting concerns – you see? I’m a wee bit conservative myself as well as being a simple soul. Hughes’ work is not made up of ‘museum pieces,’ forget that, but it is well observed and funny. If I had to choose, yes, I’d take Hughes imitation still-life, ‘bananas in a bowl,’ home with me long before I gave house room to one of Hodes confections.

East End
And what of the others, the four who graced the blue-chip East End galleries? I’d love one of Rebecca Warren’s terrifying women in my front room, by the window – that’d give upstairs something to think about. Kistalova’s work I just love, I’d take it with me anywhere and everywhere. The other two I can leave alone. So’s work I found just slightly too pedestrian – predictable somehow and Kneebone’s was just vastly over heated – almost too desperate – ‘look, I am a proper artist, I know all about the Renaissance and Roccocco and I wouldn’t dream of working in anything other than porcelain.’ It protests it authenticity too much – but it’s very early days in her case, she may yet become much more fluent and less self-conscious.

What was interesting to me about this little crop of artists who showed in 2009, is that it seems that the concerns and, in particular, the problems of artists working in clay seem to be broadly similar to those of potters working with clay –not when they make pots so much, but when they depart form making pots and start to produce work which suggests they might become part of the wider art world. They have exactly the same struggles with authenticity – but this time it’s ‘art’ authenticity that’s at stake; predictable ways of thinking about something, resulting in a too predictable narrative; and an over-concern with being authentically ceramic and designed, in the case of Hodes. The three who, I felt, had very much found their own voices, namely Kristalova, Warren and, although far less developed, Hughes, were able to identify a way they needed to work with the clay and, in turn, make it work for them. Certainly Kristalova and Warren are absolutely fluent in the ceramic dialect of their choice and it serves them fully, whereas Kneebone, Hodes and So are still, to some extent dominated by it. Kneebone, in particular, is too close to the grammar book and dictionary, but give her another five years, and I hope we’ll see something much more expressive – unless, of course, she becomes increasingly pedantic. Hughes is working with clay in her retirement, so is an entirely different matter. Still, I can’t help feeling that her very extensive understanding of language and of the particular demands of the art of translation give her a very astute and fully understood aesthetic sensibility.

Love Jonsson, ‘Conquered Time,’ 2009, in Skill, (Think Tank 05, 2009): 34.