Shying away from showing his work publicly in his life time, Brian Taylor’s work is seldom seen. This remarkable body of sculpture and rare drawings are indicative of Taylor’s unparalleled observation of animated volume and we are delighted to be showing this collection of sculpture and drawing in Messums Wiltshire.
Brian Taylor studied at the Slade School of Art in the mid-1950s and his prowess as a sculptor of the human figure was so impressive that he gained a covetable three-year scholarship to Rome. The artworks Taylor encountered there stimulated him enormously, ranging from classical sculpture right through to early twentieth-century modernism.
‘Italy called him back in 1971, and he could not resist an impulse to visit the Serra di Burano. This alluring rural area, not far from Umbria, enabled him to study horses – in particular an unusually large and well-built animal strong enough to run even when pulling a very hefty cart. Although this pugnacious creature threatened to bite Taylor, he insisted on studying the mighty horse at close quarters. He cunningly distracted the animal by flinging wet clay onto its nose. And while the horse licked off this muddy substance, Taylor took detailed measurements of its head and body without suffering any assault at all.’ Art Historian & Critic, Richard Cork
Taylor’s interest in sculpting animal form has pervaded his work ever since and we are delighted to show a selection of stand out bronze works focussing specifically on Taylor’s obsession with the characters and forms of animals.
“Brian had always been fascinated that I was related to Gabo,” she recalled. “Gabo kept a place in Connecticut and had a quiet studio there and after he died, my grandmother loved people to work in it.” There was a beautiful flower garden surrounding the house created by Miriam, which inspired Brian to start drawing the things he saw around him there, as he had been doing in Italy ever since he bought the house near Gubbio in the early 1980s.
Following two shows in Messums Wiltshire, and online, Charlie Poulsen has lately been preparing for a new collection of drawings debuting in Messums Yorkshire, Harrogate.
To bring Charlies character to the fore and to shine a light on the artist behind his collections we talked to him about his working day, his creative practice and his inspirations.
Drawing has, in recent years, been Charlie’s primary means of expression however it is only one of many. As Lynne Green says, ‘that Poulsen is also a sculptor is important. He works with the solidity of wood, the weight of lead and the malleability of wax (in 3D drawings). Moreover, he is a gardener – or rather a sculptor of growing form – whose preference is for order, repetition in planting and colour, and the training of tree branches and shrubs in to unaccustomed geometries.’ Charlie’s many projects of all shapes, sizes and materials are a large influence on his abstract drawings.
In this transcribed interview with our Head of Programming, Hannah Hooks, Charlie discusses the essential collaboration between the physical making process and the concept, as Charlie Says; ‘The great idea, to me, has to be modified by the physical facts of making’.
HH: Good afternoon Charlie, thank you for taking the time to talk to me this afternoon.
I thought we should start with.. You’re up there in your studio in the Scottish boarders, it’s a beautiful spring day, and so what does a typical day in your studio look like.
CP: At the moment I’m in the middle.. well I’ve started another drawing. I’m in the middle of the first stages where mostly the first stages are pencil work which is very quick and very busy, it’s a very active time where I’m really buzzing. And in some ways, you ask that question about automation, and in some ways yes, I’m in automation role. Because you stop thinking, the whole aim is to stop thinking really and just do and react to whats in front of you. Obviously I have done some small preparatory drawings but they’re a guide and I try not to be too strongly guided by them if I feel the drawing is going another way because in the end it’s the big drawing that counts not the small one.
The drawing is the quickest part of the time and that might be a matter of a day or two only, and then you’re doing the other processes which is adding a layer of wax and gouache and so on which gives more depth to the painting, to the drawing, and at the end you can go back to drawing because the pencil lines, because I use a very hard pencil it creates a groove in the paper and when you apply the gouache the gouache will go into the grooves and so in a sense it becomes a bit like a print if that makes sense.
Especially if, a lot of the drawings, just before I put the final layer of gouache on I run a layer of wax on the
whole surface so what that means is that the gouache only goes in the lines, it just picks up the lines. I suppose the wax must glide over the top of the grooves. So on the final stages I’m trying to emphasise various parts of the pencil line and various parts of the drawing. It comes to a point where I’ll even use a very very fine number one paintbrush to actually paint in individual lines if I had to. At that point then, at that stage of the drawing, it slows right right down, and I can be messing around for several days, trying to get it adjusted. I suppose i’m trying to get to.. stillness or something, yes I’m trying to get a sort of calmness and stillness within the drawing even though its very busy I suddenly want to control that business, I’m not quite sure why but that feels right anyway.
HH: So is that what satisfaction in a painting looks like or feels like to you? Its arriving at a point of stillness?
CP: Yes I think so. Stillness is important and I don’t really know why but in some ways my role is not to ask the question why my role as I see it is just to do.
HH: What’s interesting about your drawing practice it that you’ve been an artist for many many years but you haven’t always made drawing a primary means of expression but more recently you have, for something like ten years?
CP: Yep, I think partially I got very frustrated with sculpture because if you’re not selling it or showing it a lot the damn stuff just sits there and if its quite big you keep having to move it and I get really fed up with it. And also its very slow work and in some ways because I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I wasn’t for years really with sculpture I suppose, and so I decided when, well this would have been 2010, that I was going to concentrate on drawing because one, you can get through ideas very quickly and in some ways its more me in my head, in some ways it’s a bit like.. lets put it like this on a musical thing.. it’s the difference between a big concert piece and a chamber work, something classical, and it’s the chamber work which is more personal, more introverted if you like but I find that more interesting and the sculpture was the more public side of things so i’ve turned to drawing as a way of getting through ideas faster and maybe finding myself more. Because about fifty I suddenly realised you’ve got to stop getting frustrated at not getting anywhere with this work, you’ve just got to do it for yourself. And I think I thought sculpture wasn’t doing it for myself so much. As well as.. it just took too long really. I’m inpatient. The older you get the more impatient you get. You can sort of see the departure lounge you know.
HH: So the date that you give as the title on the work has always interested me because I’ve never known whether it was the start of the work or the end of the work.
CP: The end. Very much so. There doesn’t seem much point in putting the date where you begin because you might never finish. In some ways you make a decision that its finished, it isn’t, its never really finished, there’s always something you can do but I think in some ways also you can lose the freshness of it and that sort of thing and that’s a sort of decision you make somehow that you’ve got as far as you’re going to go with that piece of work.
HH: I think that’s what is really captivating about your work is that energy you’re able to harness within the framework or the constraint or outline of the square so you start always with the square and then you’re working within that each time but there’s this sort of containment versus this sort of freedom or energy that I think, that kind of push and pull creates a really interesting practice.
CP: Yeah, because, you mention the word restraint and you meant the square. It is a restraint but also it makes decision making a lot easier, otherwise theres always all those different sizes you can do. You can have a rectangle in all sorts of different proportions but there is a convenient side of things because as a maker of things, i’d rather call myself just a maker of things, as a maker of things there are so many choices and its actually quite important to reduce your choices. But there was a logic behind reducing choices to a square, well you’ve got the classic thing about the portrait and landscape isn’t it. Painting is always in a proportion of landscape or portrait but a square in neither so it has that great advantage, it is a very powerful structure and virtually nothing will break it down really so I’m constantly trying to break it down to a point where it just.. sometimes it may nearly disappear altogether but its got that nice tension about seeing how far you can go with a drawing. In terms of extending the drawing, not beyond the boundary and yet its still feels like a square even though the drawing escapes right the way to the edge of the piece of paper, you’ll still feel the square when it’s finished, I hope.
HH: You mentioned a few moments ago your changing concerns or a sense of being impatient as you feel time is against you and I wonder if your inspirations have changed and who and what they were to start with. You sent me a beautiful picture this morning saying ‘this is my inspiration’ the view from your studio window but I wonder beyond that creative space what really influences you.
CP: Its always a very difficult that one Hannah, because you know as a painter yourself that it’s very hard to pin down what influences are and where they’re from. There are certain people, I would probably say some of the abstract expressionists and minimalists, Pollock, Agnes Martin, Sol Le Witt, Rothko, those sort of people, but funnily enough on the other end of the thing i’d probably say Ravilious and Nash, I sort of follow their English landscape, i’m quite interested in having all those influences mixed up. But then you look at a Turner or something, or a Seurat and you get very excited by seeing those so how do you know where you’re coming from in many ways, you pick up all these influences over your life and so i’m really not sure and I think that it pays not to have heroes anyway. In my opinion if you’ve got a hero and I mean a female or a male hero in some ways you can’t get past them so you’ve got to see them as mortal if you like. That’s the trouble with Heroes, they tend to be immortalised and you’ve got to get past that. But then I talked about the allanbank, there definitely are influences from landscape and where you live. But again I used to start the basis of a drawing on something particular so in the earlier works, the drawing behind me, well that’s about the year 2000 and at that same time I did several drawings which were influenced by the hedge if you like and trying to sort of make sense of the hedge but I think In many ways the one behind me was more successful than the ones where I was trying too hard so about that time I thought I should abandon any thought of representation because somehow I couldn’t do anything with it, in that sense I can’t cope with drawing in that way and i’m a great admirer of people who can in fact i’m rather jealous of their abilities but I feel its not a route that I can take. I remember when we were doing life classes, you know, I would plug away at them but in the end Hannah I don’t think I was that excited by it. But just starting with a pencil and just doing something, just sticking a pencil on paper and just going for it is, it’s a bit basic but there you are.
HH: You gave a wonderful talk as part of the last exhibition with us in Wiltshire in the long gallery about drawing and that sort of immediacy of it and the importance of it as an action, as a way of mark making and the kind of accessibility of it as well as the fact that its sometimes not seen as the highest of art forms when actually I think, what amazing about your work, and I don’t know whether it’s the scale or the detail or the way that you make them, there’s something about the mark making its almost like listening to music, there’s a lot to be absorbed by and I suppose what’s strange about this exhibition is that people wont be seeing your works in real space. They will be experiencing them virtually which is a sort of departure because artists want people to stand in front of their work and I wonder whether there was any advice we could give to people looking at your work and maybe experiencing it for the first time through a computer screen.
CP: well on the whole I prefer not to give advice because I thinks it’s a bad idea but you put your finger on it really I mean if they approached it like music because music in the end that’s instrumental it is abstraction and so if they can cope with the abstraction, you know, abstraction didn’t start in the 20th century in my mind it started long before and certainly in music, abstractions always been there but people haven’t talked about it like that have they. But its always been there with music I think, nobody know really, all these people tell you what’s its all about this music but I’m always sceptical about their claims because as in all the people who create things I don’t think they always know where they’re going because if you know where you’re going do you bother to do it so I suppose I’m thinking the only reason you’re going in a direction is because you don’t know
where it’s going to come out and that’s where the excitement is of creating anything. I obviously cant speak for anyone else but I do feel that that must be to a certain extent how it is because, in fact I remember someone recently who, she was doing something for the Tate, she said she’d got this great idea, and now she had to go an make it, well she didn’t really like the idea of making it. And it happens at colleges now, you’re meant to write it all down what you’re going to do and then you do it. Well that seems pointless. The great idea, to me, has to be modified by the physical facts of making and so if you just have an idea on paper and you totally translatephysical reality I’m not sure you’ve achieved very much, you might as well just have the idea on paper which is in other words just the concept. There’s nothing wrong with that, the conceptualists did that, but then im old school. You’re always taught that, you’ve got to let the material have some say in the matter when your making something.
HH: for a man who doesn’t like to dish out advice that is excellent advice. Because I think all the best artworks rely on the artists ability to use their materials well and you certainly do that.
CP: I forgot to say that of course I listen to music a lot with the drawing, I don’t let the music influence the drawing if you like but it does calm me and also I suppose its that parallel nature of it that I like. Though having said that it did influence me this morning, I was dancing to that, but then I just left the drawing and sort of danced around the floor. But then Ive always danced in some way, even in college id be the first one on the floor. No girl would ever dance with me because I was just too wild I would go on for hours, anyway.
The conversation below between Nicola Wood and Ashley Gray took place on 31 March 2020
Thank you so much for talking to us and I am delighted that your textiles are included in this important exhibition, Material Textile: Modern British Female Designers with Vibration from 1964, April Showers from 1965 and from the same year Armada in fiery reds and oranges.
Can I take you back to early days as your journey as a designer and artist has been quite unique. It was your very earliest drawings that were spotted by one of your teachers that set you on your life’s journey?
Yes, absolutely, Mr Aspdidge at Forefield Lane school in Crosby. I didn’t know that he thought I was a good artist. I lived near to the school. I could see the school yard from my bedroom window. In the summer holidays I would take a tennis racket and play against the wall in the school yard. He encouraged my mother to send me to Southport School of Art. I was 15.
How did you find Southport?
I worked at the cinema in Southport when I was at the Art School there in the early 50s. I used to sell the ice creams in the interval. The films were mostly American, and they shone with resplendent landscapes of sun, beaches, swimming pools, palm trees, and chrome-laden automobiles; nothing was rationed; all was colour ‘opulence’. I loved them. At Southport, the training was strictly ‘classical’, life drawing and anatomy, attention to ‘the line’ was embedded in my classes: lines of the human body, the cut of clothing, the contours of landscape, and the lines of architecture.
Were you able to specialise on the course?
Yes, I was told to do Fashion and Textiles. I wanted to be in the Painting School but was told – “no, no, no, Fashion and Textiles, you’re a girl, you should do Fashion and Textiles.” I was young, I did not object of course. I couldn’t, I had always been told what to do and I did it. I did not like cutting patterns. I saw the Textile department were splashing paint around so I transferred to Textiles so I too could splash paint around.
That was a good move. When I think of your later textiles for Heals – Vibration and April Showers – it is their wonderful painterly quality that gives them their vitality. So painting was freedom for you?
Absolutely, yes, yes. I can remember one thing that I did there, looking through a microscope at a cut-up bumble bee – all the colours and abstractions in that inspired me. You can imagine a bumble bee just the wings – extraordinary abstract shapes. I would just look in the microscope and do a painting.
It was around this time that you first visited the Royal College of Art in London?
Yes, I had heard about the Royal College, that it was the tops, the place to aim for. I had heard about London and I was curious. When I passed my intermediate exam at Southport, I don’t know how I did this! I went to London for the first time on the charabanc. A 9-hour journey, to see if I could get into the Royal College of Art. Not knowing you had to apply formally. I found myself on Tottenham Court road not knowing where I was going to live and I just asked people and finally a policeman’s wife took me in. I must have been about 17.
Did you get to the Royal College?
Yes, indeed. Textile Professor Robert Nicholson took me into his office one day and the only sentence I remember him saying to me was: “It’s pointless teaching women art, all they do is get married and have children”. I get goose bumps thinking of that moment.
Yet in this exhibition we see living proof that it was women designers who changed the cultural face of Britain. Bringing your designs into people’s homes that radically changed the way that people felt about their, and lived, their lives.
Right! But I still got First-Class Honours from the Royal College. During the period I was at the Royal College I designed a lot, I was very inspired by the Thames & Hudson book published in the late 1950s or early ‘60s, Art since 1945, which covered Abstract Expressionist paintings from America and I got involved with Abstract Expressionism and really went to town on it. It was wonderful. I made a lot of designs and sold a lot that had this abstract feeling. It was the key inspiration of this period of my life. I was discovering texture and abstract shapes as opposed to conventional flowers that had always been very popular. We did I now realise change the course of design history. Tom Worthington of Heal’s who bought these and produced them to begin with was the instigator of all of this.
Your work at the RCA was recognised by the visionary Sir Robin Darwin, one of the most revered figures in the RCA’s history?
Yes, prior to graduation, Sir Robin introduced me in the Senior Common Room, announcing that I was to be a Fulbright Scholar to the Parsons School of Design in New York. I was only 21 and had never been to New York.
How did it contrast to your experience in London?
Oh, it was contrasting. I showed up to class wearing trousers and was told to go home and change into a skirt. The world was behind London when it came to the 1960s and the mini skirt. Everything was changing, fashion changed, textile design changed, painting changed, everything was in change. It was exciting. When I got to Parsons School, they put up a big exhibition of my abstract textile designs in the lobby of the Art School, which was very nice. I had a wonderful teacher called Emil Antonucci a graphic designer, a magnificent creative man and he believed in me. He taught me how to do book jacket design and how to set type.
You won commissions in New York?
Yes, I had more work than I could handle, and I was supposed to be only studying. Endless book jackets like the 1st edition of Tennessee Williams Night of the Iguana. Full page advertisement artwork for CBS TV. It never occurred to me that I might be a graphic designer.
So, when the scholarship was completed, how did you feel about having to return home to London from New York after having achieved so much?
I did not want to go back; I was not finished. I was living in Greenwich Village on Bleeker Street, which was the hub of whatever was happening with the youth in New York. All the artists hung out down there. I had the most wonderful time and I did not want to go back to England. But I had to go. I was dating a man who I had fallen in love with. He came back with me on the Queen Mary. We were married at the Registrar’s Office in Chelsea on the Kings Road. He got work as a copy writer at an advertising agency. I still have the trunk that we used for the crossing with the Cunard Line stickers all over it.
What of your fellow Royal College classmates?
Dereck Boshier, Pauline Boty destined to be icons of the Pop Art movement, Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney and Jane Percival, Zandra Rhodes were classmates and friends. We all saw ourselves as ‘one and the same: artists’. We all lived in Notting Hill Gate – Zandra, Hockney, Ossie Clarke who lived a couple of doors down from me. Michael Hastings the playwright lived upstairs.
Where you conscious of it being such a unique time?
No, no. It was just life. If I had been conscious of it, I would have respected it more. I would never have guessed that the people I was at college with would become so famous. We were just all so involved in our own work.
So, the commissions started to come in from Heal’s, Liberty’s, John Lewis and Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba.
Oh yes, but Heal’s had already discovered me while I was at the Royal College. They bought work from my diploma show. I remember later walking back to my studio on Blenheim crescent and seeing to my surprise and delight my designs on the curtains in a window of a big house. Vibration, the one in the exhibition, was an early one from 1964, Tom Worthington, the Heals buyer and later Managing Director, even sent staff to New York to try and get me to give them more designs.
Who else commissioned your designs?
I had a runaway hit with Rasch in Germany. I did not realise how successful it was until I got a cheque in the mail. I didn’t know if it was for £1 or £100. I took it to Barclays and asked them to deposit it and the lady said, “Oh it’s for £1,000!” My designs had sold so well for them that they put me on a royalty agreement. I was exclusive with them so I couldn’t design for any one in England any more. They advertised me and the work all over Germany.
I am still in touch with the family, we talk as if I was family. After all they commissioned me for over 25 years. I only stopped when I started painting my oil paintings in L.A. I still visited Germany twice a year.
So, in 1978 you flew across the Atlantic and settled in Southern California?
I was invited to LA for a while and I liked it so much that I kept putting off going back and I stayed. I continued sending designs to Germany, I had wanted to become a poster designer. Then in 1984 in the middle of painting, I glanced out a window of my apartment in Hollywood, and caught a glint of sunlight reflected off the chrome of a car parked on the street below. The car was a 1959 Cadillac. I grabbed my camera and raced downstairs to photograph the car feeling as if its gleaming chrome and swoopy contours were magnetic forces pulling me. I knew I had to paint the car and that I would no longer be a textile designer. That was my artistic epiphany. From that moment everything changed.
25 years as the only woman member of the Automotive Fine Arts Society in the United States?
Yes, the renowned Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles exhibited a selection of my paintings in which the actual automobile featured in each painting was staged with my painting of the car. That exhibition was sponsored by Cadillac. I was commissioned by other automobile manufacturers to create paintings of their cars; Aston Martin being one of those firms. So, all those American Movies, featuring American cars and American landscapes, the films I used to watch in Southport, they never went away.
The conversation below between Barbara Brown and Ashley Gray took place on 17 April 2020 –
Hello Barbara, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Can we talk about your experience of art school prior to the Royal College?
I was at school in Ashford first of all and travelled to Canterbury by train each day to attend the Art School there before finally finding digs in the town. I did the Intermediate and the National Diploma and wanted to be a sculptor but they said to me “you cannot be a sculptor because you are a woman!” It was very much like that in those days. They said, “you can do textiles” so I did textiles. I did what I was told as that had always been my background. Sculpture was really my first love, Textiles were my second. There were very few of us doing Textiles at Canterbury.
Yet it was textiles that brought you to the Royal College?
It was wonderful, I loved the Royal College. The atmosphere, everything, Humphrey Spender who taught there influenced me.
He designed for Alistair Morton’s Edinburgh Weavers too?
Yes, Humphrey Spender was lovely, I got to know him very well and we became great friends. We taught at the Royal College together later. I taught for twenty years there.
The earlier textiles like Sweet Corn were more painterly?
I was really mucking around in a way, having a good time. Trying to get away from very recognisable things. It was not until later after I left the Royal College that I started doing the very abstract things. Those are the things I still respond to – the abstract things.
You met Tom Worthington, a legendary figure at Heal’s whist at the Royal College?
Yes, he would come to the degree shows and bought what he saw at that time. Later he commissioned things from me.
What was your next step after the Royal College?
I went to teach. First at Medway where Zandra Rhodes was one of my first students.
She told me you were a great influence on her.
She has always been so nice about that, she was a fantastically hard worker, she never stopped. She was one of my first students. I got quite a few students into the Royal College at that time. I also taught visual research at Hornsey. This meant looking at different ways of drawing using microscopes and all sorts. I had a wide range of different students, painters, sculptors, everything. I was teaching in the same way also at Guildford.
Was this a time of evolution for you personally in your own work, I know you were interested in Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley and others?
Yes, I was very influenced by them and I was looking at things in a very different way. I loved American art at that point too.
This influence also seems to have allowed you to work on a much larger scale than previous designers.
I never thought of these things as hanging in somebody’s front room. I always saw them as something for big spaces, to the extent that one of the big black and white ones was bought by Manchester University and put in their lecture hall. Apparently, all the students complained because it was so strong that they could not focus on the lecturer! It was much too commanding and distracted them all.
A great example of Op Art!
I always knew that the cloth was 48 inches wide so I always tried to work at 48 inches. I used to make the repeat to the full width so when you joined them up it became even bigger. I was interested in making images. That’s why I was never very good at repeat.
Was it the fact that you were not a traditional textile designer that drew Tom Worthington at Heal’s to your designs?
He came to my flat after the first view and saw what I was drawing. Bits of paper I was playing around with and he would say “I like that, or I like that” and I would develop them from that. He did not arrive and say, “I want to see some textiles”.
He was a powerful force in bringing Modernism into the home.
He had a really wonderful vision, he was a brilliant man at his job. He really did know what he wanted and what he was going for. It shows in the sort of things he picked.
He seemed to have that genius of moving and leading trends at that time.
Very much, he was very much the leader of it all, he picked all sorts of strange things that were wonderful. He did not go for pretty flowers in repeat! He had a lovely vision.
In 2017 there was the wonderful retrospective of your work at the Whitworth in Manchester. What was your reaction to seeing that work shown on such a grand scale?
It was great, I liked it a lot and I very much liked the way they had hung them. You got the feeling of what I was after in terms of the scale of them all.
Let’s discuss a few of these key textiles, but am I right in saying that the titles were actually given by Heal’s?
Yes, that’s right.
So, starting with the first for Heal Fabrics; Sweet Corn 1958, tell us a little about this piece?
This was the first one that I ever sold. It came from my degree show at the Royal College and Tom Worthington from Heal’s came and bought it. There was more than one colour way even then I did not like colourways!
Recurrence 1962 – very diffident to the painterly quality of Sweet Corn!
This is the first of all my abstract ones, very geometric and I like it a lot. It was also done for ceramics for Midwinters, Recurrence and Reciprocation with smaller circles was from the same time. Recurrence I liked best because it was very simple and I like them when they are very simple.
Frequency 1959, a very different approach tells us about this design.
I became very interested in geology and earth movement. Here you get the strata and the folds in the rock. Heal’s photographed it really well and hung it with chimneys above it – it was rather wonderful, it became part of the landscape. It is very much about strata and mountain moving.
Spiral rather later 1969, again for Heal’s, was very dynamic. Tell us about this.
This one I really like a lot, there was one similar to this one called Automation. They were very much about engineering drawing. So this one is a great big screw and Automation was from the idea of a building. I was very pleased with these and I particularly like them in black and white because it makes more sense and I like the scale of them.
So, we enter the early 1970s here with Ikebana.
This is very much about movement, these two big blocks of white coming from the left are moving the balls. So, like frequency it is about earth movement and how it is affected by water. You get the water bubbling up between the rock. It’s very much about earth movements again but in a very geometric way. You see these great huge white lumps coming through which move the water.
Barbara, Thank you so much.
by Mary Schoeser, world-renowned textile historian, curator & author
Pondering the topic of why women designers played such a prominent role in the provision of artistic patterns for printed textiles of the mid- 20th century, one can turn to four inter-related factors: demography, educational reforms, printing technology and publicity. All four came into play after WWI, when 700,000 deaths created a large gap between the male and female populations of people aged 25 to 34. With 1,158,000 unmarried women versus 919,000 unmarried men, according to the 1921 census, this discrepancy was not in itself a new phenomenon except for one feature: the higher social status of the women remaining unmarried as a result of the significant number of officers who had been killed. Sensationalised by the press as “surplus” women, the better appellation would be “enterprising” women, who, emboldened by the British arts and crafts ethos – itself promulgated by art colleges who took in increasing numbers of females – set about creating workshops, galleries and collectives that did much to define the artistic landscape by mid-century.
Of particular importance was the rise of “self-made” printed textiles, as distinguished from the established method of large-scale production, namely engraved roller printing. From the early 1900s it was batik, stencilling, lino-printing and, by the later 1920s, hand-screen printing, that provided a means of mark-making entirely novel in its directness. Freed from the mediation of the highly technical transfer of designs to copper rollers, such methods were attractive to those who wished to control their artistic outcomes. In retrospect, it is clear that women took greater advantage of these possibilities, which did not require large premises or vast investments. This legacy remained when hand-screen printing was taken up in the early 1930s by firms already hand-block printing, as well as by firms newly established soon afterwards especially to produce artist-designed printed textiles, such as Allan Walton. By the early 1950s, despite the fact that the ratio of British men to women was still low – 92.5 to 100 – one cannot argue that the visibility of creative women was due solely to their single status, nor to a shortage of male competition. No, it was to do with their much closer involvement in the experimental developments surrounding hand-screen printing. That this technique offers a unique capacity to translate faithfully a myriad of small studio or “kitchen sink” artistic mark-making to cloth is borne out by the sensitive replication of batik (for example Nicola Woods, April Showers), oil, gouache and watercolour painting (Barbara Brown, Sweetcorn and Colbertaldo Dinzl, Orpheus and untitled), collage (Jacqueline Groag, Traffic Light), stamping (Mo Sullivan, Garland), sgraffito (Mary Warren, Nautilius) and mono-printing (Lucienne Day, Linden). In addition, screen printing could accommodate printing with surface pigments, as opposed to cloth-saturating dyes. Best known for using this approach was the newcomer in 1957, Hull Traders, who made sensitive use of pigments to create intense and flat expanses of colouration (Shirley Craven, Kaplan) as well as impasto-like effects (Althea McNish, Rubra).
How do we know? The evidence survives within archives, museum and private collections, but at the time was being made visible through influential media vehicles such as The Studio, founded in 1893 by Charles Holme and under his editorship from 1895-1919, and thereafter until 1964 maintaining an Arts & Crafts ethos of equality between media and methods. Founder Holme had been a silk manufacturer so it is no surprise that amid the mix of media, textiles received fair coverage. It sought to create an international means of communication, meaning that it was well illustrated, often showing work by women. This role might be said, certainly for textiles, to have been supplanted postwar by the magazine, The Ambassador. From 1946-72 (from 1961 a Thomson Publication), its founder Hans Juda and his wife, Elsbeth – responsible for much of the magazine’s striking photography – vigorously promoted British exports through their monthly publication in English, German, French and Portuguese. Its success demonstrated that publicity, more so through editorials and exhibitions than advertisements, was an essential component in the campaign to bring good design to the people. And judging from the number of women both depicted and represented as designers, ‘the people’ – that is the consumers – were understood as more likely to be women.
Overseas sales mattered and, as a result, overseas tastes. The taste in postwar America was for art, especially expressed through manufactured goods such as textiles. As early as 1946 the art critic Walter Abell was to conclude: ‘Today industry appears to have established itself as the largest single source of support for the contemporary American painter.’ Aware of this trend, both the Judas and organisations such as the Cotton Board’s ‘Colour, Design and Style Centre’ in Manchester sponsored exhibitions aimed at inducing British textile manufacturers to back the (pre-War) principle of ‘art into industry’. While the Style Centre’s export-focused 1941 exhibition, ‘Design for Textiles by Twelve Fine Artists’, was remembered for the inclusion of works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eric Ravilious and Graham Sutherland, by the 1950s their support for artists’ designs looked beyond the establishment. Its ‘Living in Cotton’ exhibition in late 1961 declared ‘Suddenly, British cottons have found a design hand-writing. …Perhaps the most significant feature of the fabrics is the new bold use of colour. Young designers have contributed largely to this.’ And the gender ratio had also changed. Of the ten Design Award fabrics featured, seven were by women, predominantly students (or graduates) at the Royal College of Arts and the Central School of Arts & Crafts. Subsequent exhibitions – ‘Young Ideas’ and the ‘Inprint’ and ‘Texprint’ series which continued into the early 1970s– had a similar flavour. ‘Inprint Infact’ of 1964-5, for example, featured 35 furnishing fabrics by two men and nine women, including Pat Albeck, Barbara Brown, Colleen Farr, Natalie Gibson, Fay Hillier and Althea McNish. A lively exchange between the Style Centre, the Design Council and colleges ensured a sustained promotion of young, talented women, all with “hands-on” experience. Barbara Brown, for example, had taught Zandra Rhodes at Medway College and encouraged Tom Worthington at Heal’s to take on the three designs the firm produced for their 1964 and 1965 seasons, including Zandra’s first, Top Brass.
While exceptional roller-printing firms, such as David Whitehead Fabrics Ltd., had been producing artist-designed printed rayons since 1951, the majority were hand-screened on cottons, linens or (if scarves or for fashion) silk, and thus more costly – effectively limited editions. This changed once flat-bed ‘automatic’ screen printing was introduced by several printers, including Whitehead’s in 1958. Now, ‘they are able to offer “expensive” furnishings at roller-print prices. They can print small quantities for sampling and thereby incorporate more experimental designs and colourings; there is no need for the burden of the heavy run required by roller printing.’ This, just as Pop Art was emerging in Britain and then America, gave a convincing and quantitatively far more visible expression of artists’ engagement with new types of subject matter, as well as new ways of presenting it. Having emerged from interwar explorations of individualistic textiles – call them series or limited editions – these screen prints had a longer pedigree than serigraphy on paper. In addition, other ground breaking art-into-textiles movements had also occurred during the interwar years, notably the initiatives in France of Marie Cuttoli (1879–1973), who engaged artists with a new, simplified form of tapestry making. Postwar, this entrepreneurial role was taken up in America by Gloria F. Ross (1923-1998), who ‘described her work as the translation of paint into wool’, from 1965-96 commissioning innovative weavers in France, the Southwestern United States and at the Dovecot Studios in Scotland. Unlike Cuttoli, Ross commissioned women artists too, including her sister, Helen Frankenthaler. Although in all countries the tapestry artists were more often men, what mattered for our story was another textile-based confrontation of the supremacy of easel painting and validation of the series as a legitimate artistic enterprise. In addition, women had led the way from the late 1950s onwards in the emergence of experimental wall hangings, or fibre art – critically and once again made by their own hands rather than by others, whether in an atelier or industry – and within a decade, wearable art. Thus textiles of several sorts were, from the 1930s at least, the site of the first post-modernist initiatives and within these women played a foremost role. Mid-twentieth century screen printed textiles, now rather taken for granted, need to be reconsidered in this light.
1 http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/unconventionalsoldiers/‘surplus-women’-a- legacy-of- world-war-one/. Accessed 24 January 2020.
2 See Mary Schoeser, ‘Following the Thread’ and ‘Spreading the Word’ in Sylvia Backemeyer,Making Their Mark: Art, Craft and Design at the Central School 1896 -1966 (A & C Black: 2000)
3 www.ons.gov.uk › articles › overviewoftheukpopulation › february 2016. Accessed 24 January 2020.
4 See Chris Breward and Claire Wilcox (eds.), The Ambassador Magazine: Promoting Post-War British Textiles and Fashion (V&A Publishing: 2012)
5 Abell, W. ‘Industry and Painting’, Magazine of Art, March 1946, p.89, cited in Dilys Blum, ‘Painting by the Yard: American artist-designed textiles 1947-57’ in Schoeser and Boydell (eds.), Disentangling Textiles: Interdisciplinary Techniques in the Study of Design (Middlesex University Press: 2002), pp.109-110.
6 The Cotton Board Colour Design and Style Centre, Living in Cotton: December 14, 1961 to January 19, 1962, typescript catalogue, pp.1-2, collection of the author.
7 The Cotton Board Colour Design and Style Centre, Inprint Infact: December 15, 1964 to January 22, 1965, typescript catalogue, pp.1-3, collection of the author.
8 ‘David Whitehead Fabrics Ltd.: Automatic Screen Prints’, The Ambassador, 12:57, p.45.
9 See K. L. H. Wells, Weaving Modernism: Postwar Tapestry Between Paris and New York (Yale University Press: 2019).
10 See Ann Lane Hedlund, Gloria F. Ross and Modern Tapestry (Yale University Press: 2010) and Elizabeth Cumming, The Art of Modern Tapestry: Dovecot
11 See Dilys Blum, (ed.) Off the Wall: American Art to Wear (Philadelphia Museum of Art/ Yale University Press: 2019).
view Material: Textile exhibition
Top image: Shirley Craven ‘Kaplan’, 1961
Edited in 2020 from an introductory essay by Laura Grace Simpkins, September 2018
Photography has always been a process defined by its fluctuations, possibly more so than any other means of artistic expression. In little over 150 years photography has journeyed from nineteenth-century calotypes and ferrotypes to twenty-first century digital DSLR cameras and has recently embraced our mobile phones. In doing so, photography has gone from being in the palm of the expert to the hands of the masses.
Whilst an image such as that of Alfred Hitchcock taken by renowned fashion photographer Norman Parkinson in 1956, might concisely encapsulate ‘observation’, it is becoming increasingly clear that who we look at and how we look at them changes with time, as much as the medium in question. From the cult of the celebrity, identified by photographers working in the 1950s and 60s to the modern-era of the Instagram meme, photography has become increasingly invasive, penetrating and unforgiving.
Parkinson’s work pre-empts the proverbial explosion of fashion and celebrity photography in the twentieth century, correspondent with the rise in consumerism and advertising in the post-war years. The cultural interest in acquiring ‘things’ anticipated a collective interest in the objectification of the public individual, and by extension, their lives. Such a postulation is articulated by today’s obsession with social media and reality television.
Figures at the centre of media interest have always enjoyed a cult status throughout the years, but with the appetite for the commodification of a life, the desire to survey and stalk those in the public eye developed from the 1960s onwards. With few laws to hinder the paparazzi, the existence of the private space was relegated to a place in the past. From Mick Rock’s explosive 70s rock n’ roll photography we notice how public figures attempted to control and ultimately deflect constant surveillance via the twofold mechanism of humour and theatricality.
When the public acclimatised to, and became weary of, images of celebrities, photographers turned to making the mundane intriguing. The large-format polaroids of Neal Slavin, a world respected photographer and film director, demonstrate that you do not have to capture a famous face to make a glamorous picture. Instead Slavin uses humorous group stagings to satisfy the viewer’s socialised taste for the theatrical.
Britons, Slavin’s series commissioned by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television and published in 1986, encourages viewing collections of people – artists, lifeguards and nuns – as representative of one identity. His image of Stonehenge is pertinent to our proximity to this world-famous monument. Through his strategic design of thirteen security team members, Slavin is able to explore the paradox of taking ‘iconic’ images of anonymous people. Through the meteorological drama; Caravaggio-esque, chiaroscuro light; tone and the aforementioned experimental composition, Slavin has created some of the most ambitious and thought-provoking works of any of our photographers, without us knowing, or indeed caring about, any of the subjects.
Now, of course, image sharing apps such as Instagram have revolutionised the distribution of fine art photography. The skill of the modern photograph lies behind the camera and after an image has been taken, demanding an enquiry into what a finished photograph actually is, and what it looks like. All adjustments can occur in post-production, with photographers no longer needing to manually learn about aperture, shutter-speed or white balancing. Even composition can be cropped into place on a computer. The laptop has become the new darkroom.
But the legacy set out by Roland Barthes in his remarkable Camera Lucida (1980), that great portraitists are excellent story-tellers, remains and the taken image is still one of the most powerful, immediate and telling methods of human communication.
Top Photo: Norman Parkinson ‘Alfred Hitchcock’, 1956
by Tanya Harrod, design historian and co-editor of Journal of Modern Craft
In May 2012 I visited Thiébaut Chagué at Taintrux in north east France. Taintruxis in the Vosges, an area that has witnessed battles and bloody conflict over many centuries. The Vosges retains a secret fairy-tale quality and Chagué’s home is surrounded by meadows and encircled by small mountain peaks, dark with fir trees and with deciduous trees on the lower slopes, just coming into bright spring-time leaf. One surviving industry in this remote area is logging. It is a good place for a potter with a wood-fired kiln. Chagué lives in one of the austere farmhouses characteristic of the region, with windows and doors framed with red sandstone.
On that visit we drove to the nearby town of St-Dié, razed to the ground by German troops in 1944. It was rebuilt after the war as a place of parks, fountains and good housing. Chagué showed me the famous Usine Duval, a garment factory designed by Le Corbusier as part of this rebuilding process. At the nearby Musée Pierre Noel an exhibition dominated by fine African sculpture and masks included a monumental piece by Chagué, Béance, and a pair of massive pierced forms by Chagué’s friend, the Anglo-Nigerian potter Lawson Oyekan. Both artists looked at home in the company of these historic and contemporary sub-Saharan objects. Nonetheless neither Chaguénor Oyekan borrow directly from other cultures. They are not neo-primitivists.
The awe and wonder that Chagué’s work excites has more to do with being grounded in a place, or rather, a series of places. We visited the town’s metalwork shop where young apprentices are taught the skills of welding, cutting, raising and working metal. In this cavernous space Chagué’s L’Enfer dominated. It is a majestic conoid stoneware form, split open and secured with turquoise coloured epoxy putty, its surface dotted with blobs of melted earthenware body. L’Enfer was cradled within a steel frame, made with the help of Fabrice Perrin who teaches in the workshop. Perrin accepts the strangeness of the collaboration without question. Indeed, throughout the day I spent with Chagué I was struck by his role within the local community.
Nicholas Bourriaud’s term esthétique relationnelle, describing art that produces or prompts human relations, sociability and even conviviality, comes to mind. Of course, Chagué spends time alone in his studio, with its view of meadows and mountains. But his natural playfulness and gift for friendship have led him into communities of all kinds. He has worked alongside the women potters of the Gwari village of Tatiko in Northern Nigeria. He makes the firing of larger works performative and very public -most memorably in the garden of the Victoria and Albert Museum where in 2010 he created an improvised kiln around his mighty sculpture La Soif et La Source.
Chagué’s modus operandi unselfconsciously employs contemporary strategies of interactivity, just as his old teacher the great potter Michael Cardew embraced esthétique relationnelle long before the term was invented. Chagué once organised a community dinner and concert, with 250 people eating off his plates, each one playfully inscribed assiette en glaise. Like Cardew’s Wenford Bridge Pottery in Cornwall (carried on after his death in 1983 by Cardew’s son Seth but now completely gone) Chagué’s house is a collective where he, his children and his friends, students and helpers eat and discuss together at a long wooden table. Chagué’s particular choice of raw clay, is brought as dug from a village near the pottery town of La Bourne. At high temperature it acts temperamentally. Forms split and shapes sag. This is not a concern for Chagué, indeed he relishes the uncertainty of the ceramic process, finding uncertainty a useful provocation –in French a word that has powerful artistic associations. The clay is not purchased for its efficiency but for its tactility and materiality. He disregards conventional ceramic technology, and all his work is fiercely sculptural. It is therefore surprising to discover that all his pieces are built from thrown elements. The discipline of the potter’s wheel with its drive to repetition and symmetry appears remote from the dramatic, fractured nature of these complex objects.
In different ways, therefore, Chagué’s oeuvre recalls natural objects that are willed into becoming art objects –like the rocks mounted on wooden stands and placed by Chinese literati on their desks for contemplation. Today we do not really grasp the significance of Chinese ‘scholars rocks’. To understand the sources of Chagué’s inspiration is a challenge also. He directs me to Michael Cardew’s great essay The Fatal Impact in which Cardew writes on art and the child. According to Cardew ‘being aware that the world is overflowing with some tremendous significance the child has to do something –or rather make something –as a kind of acknowledgement of the mystery. He does it by making certain things mean something, by giving esoteric names, properties and meanings to certain stones, sticks, animals or places. He invests them with supernatural significance and potency’.
Most children lose that faculty with adulthood, but, Cardew goes on, ‘there are always a few who for some reason do not allow that to happen. I wonder what the reason is: were they specially happy in childhood, or specially unhappy?’ Nowadays Cardew’s conflation of the child and the artist, in which the child represents an innocent ‘other’ to which the artist should aspire, is dismissed as a form of Orientalism. But Cardew expresses the urgency and concentration of children’s creativity accurately. His imagery recalls Chagué’s own childhood, when he first encountered clay in his grandfather’s sculpture studio and was delighted by its ‘bonne odeur’ and when, fascinated with fire, he made ‘some memorable fires –one in a dustbin, and a remarkable one on the carpet in my bedroom’. Looking at the trajectory of Chagué’s work –towering and recumbent forms, small, utterly convincing tea bowls, torn, complex, honeycomb structures –is to encounter a continuing sense of urgency and daring, traceable back to those juvenile passions and transgressions.
In this exhibition we are both guided and playfully confused by the titles that Chagué has given each individual piece. Some come under the category Albarelle and indeed these upright forms faintly echo their namesake, the highly collectible Renaissance maiolica jars known as Alberelli. But these are jars turned biomorphic and matched by an equally haunting series that come under the rubric Blastoïde –a poetic reference to the fossils of long extinct seabuds, once anchored to the sea floor. Both sequences belong equally to the natural and made world. They are the work of Chagué’s hand while offering echoes of primordial growth during some remote period –Devonian or Silurian perhaps –long before humans walked the earth. At the same time these are highly sophisticated examples of ceramic facture that allow chance to play its part but which also testify to a long-learnt control over clays bodies and glaze materials. And of course they are remarkable because they braid ceramic and sculpture. Chagué’s work has deep roots in ceramic history –but that is not the whole story. Rainer Maria Rilke, writing in 1903, explained that sculpture was ‘a complete thing about which one could walk, and which one could look at from all sides.’ He concluded that sculpture also had ‘to distinguish itself somehow from other things, the ordinary things which everyone could touch’. Ceramics, of course, belongs in both worlds described by Rilke –that of the ‘complete thing’ and of ‘ordinary things’. What Thiébaut Chagué gives us are sculptures that everyone can touch.
Tanya Harrod is the author of The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture, Yale University Press, 2012
by Glen R. Brown, PhD, Professor of Art History and Associate Head of the Art Department at Kansas State University.
The plasticity of clay is key to its natural volubility: its inherent potential to speak materially and so to articulate narrative in the most elemental sense. An accommodating substance, clay moves easily under the energy of a compressive force, whether a disinterested force like gravity or one as motivated as the pressure of an artist’s fingertips as they strive to impart meaning to the world. The ability of clay to hold the shapes that it acquires under the influence of such forces makes it a faithful chronicler of events in a story of creation: a record of the physical genesis of form. Material narrative comes to clay so readily that some who work intimately with the medium feel obliged to allow it a significant degree of self-determination after imposing upon it only the rudiments of form. (Such restraint on the part of the maker in deference to the inherent narrative inclinations of clay is typical of some phases of the Japanese ceramic tradition, for example.) Other makers take the opposite tack, treating clay as a malleable tabula rasa on which to inscribe the full content of their intentionality. Clay has no preference between these polarities; it is amenable to any position on a spectrum from assertive presence to obedient vehicle, from material narrative to content narrative.
In the service of art, clay typically carries multiple, simultaneous narratives that relate to one another in ways calculated to compound meaning. Stories of transition between material states are unmotivated, fortuitous, arising from the natural tendency of clay to respond to the forces that act upon it, but they can be anticipated and even encouraged by the artist for aesthetic or discursive purposes. The result of such encouragement often appears more like a negotiation between clay and maker than an imperious forcing of the artist’s will upon a submissive medium.
Gravity and shrinkage – the latter of which can leave fine networks of fissures in the surface of clay while in the drying stage or even tear gapping wounds in that surface if the drying process is rushed – are two frequent instigators of unmotivated material narratives in ceramics. Their traces relate stories of creation that assert the independence of clay from absolute human control. More common as factors in this mode of material narrative are the consequences of kiln atmospheres, particularly those generated by wood-fired kilns. Flashing – a range of visual surface effects that arise chiefly from differences in oxygen levels as raw clay is transformed into ceramic through heat – and natural glazing, as wood ash settles on clay surfaces and vitrifies, were historically the most common atmospheric influences on material narrative. That these are not represented among the works of the exhibition can in part be attributed to the prevalence of gas and electric kilns today, but, more important, it may also signal a desire among many of the artists to move symbolically as well as literally beyond the vessel, to distance their work from the associations of clay with craft and its historical technologies, particularly the making of functional pottery in wood-fired kilns.
It should be noted that one of the most significant sources of material narrative in both historical and contemporary ceramics does not involve clay at all, except as a kind of stage for the actions of another material altogether. Glaze, a vitreous substance, has been employed since antiquity, to seal the porous walls of earthenware vessels and to enhance the aesthetic appeal of objects produced in all clay bodies. Glazes, particularly lead-based glazes, tend to flow as they melt during firing, creating visual effects more liquid than solid, more active than static. In the finished object, each gleaming rivulet of glaze is a record of a descending migration and each glistening drip marks the point at which molten glass cooled and thickened sufficiently to finally defy gravity. It is no coincidence that medieval Japanese connoisseurs of glaze often found in its effects intimations of the changing seasons. Glaze trails not only embody the physical traces of movement across space; they also materially record time.
Both the metaphorical possibilities and the more directly iconic potential of running glaze are exploited in Thomas Schütte’s Eierköpfe. The aqueous effects of glaze, its translucence and fluidity, readily conjure the albumen and yolk of a cracked egg and the bodily fluids – blood, mucous, and tears – of a human head. Rhetorically these liquids evoke the frailty and ephemerality of life, linking the Eierköpfe to a number of other melancholy narratives in the exhibition involving memento mori. Schütte’s eggheads are manifestly subject to external factors, the force of gravity and the weight of mortality. Though isolated ovoids bearing only the most rudimentary references to facial features, his Eierköpfe are quite different in effect from the similar form in Constantine Brancusi’s famous Sleeping Muse of 1910. The polished bronze of the latter, a material closely associated with the transcendent universals of classicism, makes it an inviolate monument to the persistence of ideal form across eternity. In contrast, Schütte’s Eierköpfe, in their slumping of clay and dripping of glaze, are more closely evocative of organic form, with its bonds to the cycle of life and its inevitable surrender to entropy.
In its raw state, clay serves naturally as a metaphor of the organic, evolving from molecules formed in a watery environment and remaining malleable only so long as that vital relationship with water is maintained. Raw clay and the human body are alike in this respect, with the former typically containing about 30% water and the latter roughly 50%. Despite this kinship, human interaction with clay has almost always resulted in a kind of death of the material. The drying and firing process through which water is removed and clay is ultimately converted to ceramic eliminates the potential for growth that an additive medium naturally embodies, rendering a plastic material effectively inert. Ceramic objects can, of course, acquire a different kind of metaphorical life through utility, passing through time and space and interacting with their environment in ways that both respond to and transform it, but that is life largely in its experiential sense rather than its biological essence. Ceramics as a field has for the most part contented itself with metaphors of this relational sort, but artists not bound to the traditions of a discipline in which function has been an influential, even governing, concept for millennia have felt freer to explore the aesthetic and symbolic possibilities of raw clay. In the early 1970s, for example, California artist Jim Melchert performed his famous Changes, in which he dipped his head in clay slip and allowed it to dry into a crusty second skin, and in the 1990s New York artist Walter McConnell began a series of large, plastic-sheeted terrariums in which mounds of raw clay sculpted into landscapes established temporary biospheres through evaporation, condensation, and precipitation.
To use clay in this way is to do more than evade the term ceramic. It is to revise one of the oldest aphorisms in a long history of Western reflection on the nature of art: ars longa becomes ars brevis. As it dries, raw clay hardens and eventually sloughs away as dust, evoking the ephemerality of life in the singular: the life of an individual organism, whether a hyacinth or a human being. Raw clay from this perspective equates art and artist mortally rather than projecting the former into an infinite future as an undying surrogate of the latter. When Phoebe Cummings creates a narrative of nature in a raw-clay, site-specific installation she is aware from the outset that none of her efforts, not the mental exertion of envisioning a composition nor the physical labor of shaping the formless medium of clay into the mediated form of sculpture, will result in an enduring masterpiece, or even an artwork at all in the conventional sense. Raw clay differs temperamentally from stone, bronze, or steel. It is restless, constantly changing. Like the artist’s own life, each of Cummings’s installations has a beginning and an end, but in between there is no point of completion. Between the initial masses of raw clay and the terminal masses into which the installation must inevitably be dismantled, there is no stage at which one can say that a work is fully present, fully independent of a process of transformation. The artist ends her engagement of the material once her concept has been realized, but the material continues to transform, slowly desiccating until the day when it must be broken up and removed. Then, all that remains is an absence hinted at in memories and photographs. If there is melancholy in this mortality, there is also a message. Life in the singular is finite, and raw clay can reference this, but raw clay can also evoke life in the collective: the vitality that, like the nature that Cummings represents, transcends any single organism and endures beyond the unending stream of deaths. Raw clay may dry, shrink, and disintegrate into dust, but its remains can be recycled, reconstituted by the vital element of water, and returned to plasticity and the potential for creation.
This is, of course, not the case for clay as ceramic. Clay that has passed through the firing process has been deliberately removed from a cycle of change, has been chemically transformed through the burning off of carbon and sulfur, a breaking of bonds with molecular water, inversion of the crystalline structure of quartz, sintering of clay particles together, and, finally, vitrification of those elements capable of melting. Ceramic, particularly high-fired stoneware and porcelain, is more akin to marble – a metamorphic rock formed from sediment under intense heat and pressure – than anything organic. It is no accident that potsherds are the staples of archaeology; they endure across the ages, preserving their traces of human ingenuity and industry as persistently as documents in stone. Nevertheless, pottery, because it has infiltrated so many aspects of sociality, has acquired rhetorical associations with life. The most mundane evidence of this is reflected in the figurative terminology for the parts of a vessel – from foot to belly, shoulder, neck and mouth; less obvious, but more consequential, are the many ways in which humans have tended to reflect on the life of utilitarian ceramic objects in domestic service, to link them to rituals and rites of passage, and even to treat them as metonyms for those who possessed them in life.
That which can live must inevitably die, and this accounts in part for the power of expression in Bouke de Vries’ Cloud 2, a towering icon of an atomic blast articulated through a detritus of defunct and dismembered ceramic vessels and figurines. Ceramic is a frangible material, prone to shattering when under tension. When a ceramic object breaks, each sherd rings forever with the traces of destruction. The sherds themselves recall a once-whole form that no longer exists, and in this respect conjure material narratives of violence and death. Cloud 2 employs this association in synergy with the representation of an atomic mushroom cloud to decry the use of high technology for the most terrifying of human intents: the mass destruction of human beings themselves. At the same time, De Vries’ work is curiously complex, embodying antitheses in a metaphor of the cycle of life rather than simply emblematizing death. If the shattered plates and figurines embody destruction, the process of composing them into a new and meaningful configuration is surely one of resurrection, as if the artist looked upon the fragments of ceramic ruin and posed the prophetic question, “Can these bones live?” De Vries, in fact, has made a career of sculpting through resurrection, of salvaging sherds and giving them new life in reconfiguration, sometimes by connecting them with Perspex rods and sometimes through the Japanese technique of kintsugi, in which the sherds of a broken vessel are reconnected with a mix of lacquer and gold dust that not only restores the vessel to wholeness but imparts to it a beauty of experience that exceeds that of any material perfection.
The slumping of wet clay in response to the influence of gravity, the trails left by a glaze as it flowed in molten liquidity over surfaces during the transformation of clay into ceramic, the shrinking and cracking of raw clay as it surrendered its moisture to the surrounding air, the sharp edges of a sherd once part of a larger, now dismembered, form – these are all factors in material narratives that could be called disinterested, unmotivated by anything but natural forces acting on material objects. Such naturally occurring narratives can be exploited to complement narratives of other sorts, but material narratives in clay can also be of a more obviously motivated character. The distinguishing factor is consciousness: the impact of human intention on the physical form of clay. The simplest of such motivated material narratives arise from the process of modeling by hand: an immediate transferal of energy from the artist’s body to the clay body and a subsequent modification of the mass and surface of the medium at the artist’s will. These kinds of narratives may be nothing more than an articulation of two discernable states or events and a moment, however brief, that links them in sequence: the maker’s finger rested here, and then it was dragged across the surface to there, leaving a faint rill in the wet clay. Such overt material narratives of the process of making are primordial; they have a history that dates back roughly 30,000 years, when Neolithic fingers pinched clay near the fire pits of Dolni Vestonice in Central Europe. At the same time, much of the history of ceramics has been given to reducing or even eliminating altogether these kinds of physical traces and the narratives of making that they convey. The cool perfection of Ching Dynasty imperial bowls, for example, seems to transcend the world in which human hands exert any influence over form, and the uniformity of product sought during the European Industrial Revolution gave rise to ceramic wares more evocative of machine technologies than the hand-working techniques of generations of previous potters.
Material narrative in clay never fully disappeared, despite the perfection of technologies for eliminating it, and in the second half of the twentieth century, it resurged as a deliberately cultivated trait diagnostic of modern ceramic art. It is no accident that this occurred at a time when material narratives in paint provided a sense of radical novelty for Abstract Expressionism. The drips in a Jackson Pollock painting, for example, each materially reflect movement of the artist’s body through space, and, in turn, adumbrate an internal struggle in which the artist’s very identity hung in the balance. In the field of ceramics, the work of Peter Voulkos, the central protagonist in what has been called the California Revolution in Clay, helped to popularize motivated material narrative by introducing to clay the equivalent of Abstract Expressionist painting. Groping, slashing, and pummeling clay and leaving the evidence of this manipulation obtrusive in the finished form, Voulkos created massive platters and “stacks” that subverted the functional nature of the vessel – for all practical purposes rendering it sculptural – and asserted that clay was a natural medium for both material narrative and, through its connotative potential, expressive narrative.
The close relationship between these modes of narrative, the material and the expressive, is epitomised in Beyond the Vessel by the modeled sculptures of Jørgen Haugen Sørensen, which employ the idiom of fingers on a malleable surface to convey the testimony of a witness to the horrifying depths to which human nature can descend. Sørensen’s closest precursor in terms of his material narratives is not Voulkos, a paragon in the ceramic tradition, but rather the sculptor Rodin, whose roughly modeled maquettes in clay are some of the most materially expressive representations ever to have been fashioned in art. Sørensen’s Justizia IV reimagines the torment of Rodin’s Thinker, situating a despondent figure on a plinth from which to contemplate not a multitude of damned souls in the abyss of hell but rather a rising mountain of death manifesting a hell on earth. The rough marks of the artist’s interaction with clay relate more than a story of physical creation: they convey a powerful impression of violence, a scraping and tearing of the clay body, that reflects the presumed actions behind the mound of cadavers, but also, and more important, embodying the turmoil of Sørensen’s emotions while reflecting on the pervasiveness of brutality in the contemporary world. The deeply personal nature of the expression is confirmed, ironically, by the layer of glaze applied to the work as a kind of damper on the subjective. Wishing to create monuments testifying to the injustice still rampant in the contemporary world Sørensen enveloped his sculpture in a monochrome white with the intention of neutralizing some of the visceral material effects and elevating the narrative from the personal level to that of the universal.
Intimacy with clay through the direct actions of the fingers, or simple tools that serve as prostheses of these and largely preserve the immediacy of touch, is the primary avenue by which motivated material narrative is generated in clay, but other strategies are at the artist’s disposal as well. Christie Brown demonstrates that intentional storytelling in material terms is possible when using some of the very tools through which material narrative can be effectively reduced or even eliminated in the working of clay. Brown’s sculptures are often assembled from combinations of handwork and mould-made forms. In general, moulds promote multiplicity rather than singularity; slipcast forms, for example, can be virtually indistinguishable from one another. Brown, however, utilises press moulds, or casting moulds, and takes particular interest in the physical deviations that can occur between multiples produced through this hands-on technology. Distended features, wrinkles, or cracks can arise and contribute materially to the formation of narratives when clay is removed from a press mould or when a moulded form is integrated into a larger composition. Like the traces of the incommensurable that some Surrealists found in simple details of surfaces – the veins of a leaf, or the raised grain of a wooden floor after countless scrubbings – material idiosyncrasies can be revelatory for Brown, whose most recent works reflect on the psychological implications of animal and human hybridity reflected in the persistence of ancient European folk rites in which participants still don animal attributes in ritualistic regression to an intuitive, instinctive relationship with the world.
Under the influence of artists such as Voulkos, motivated material narrative gained immense popularity as a sign of modernist expression in the artistic working of clay in the third quarter of the twentieth century, but the logic of the avant-garde dictated that eventually this quality should itself be negated through subsequent revolution. Such negation occurred as early as the Seventies in the experiments of Richard Shaw with slipcasting, a technique selected deliberately to agitate the emotions of hands-on expressionist potters and sculptors. Shaw, and other artists such as Marilyn Levine, went on to perfect a genre of trompe l’oeil ceramics that shifted the emphasis from the material narratives of real objects fashioned from clay to the simulated material narratives of feigned objects merely represented by the works. Levine, for example, employed the natural fissuring of drying clay to convey the effect of cracking leather in her famous illusionistic renditions of handbags and briefcases, in effect directing the viewer to disregard actual material and the stories it bore of its own physical creation and focus instead on the simulation of such narratives. In this respect, material narrative became subtly fused with content narrative.
The Archimboldo-inspired allegorical heads of seasons created by Bertozzi & Casoni are tours de force of an ability to divert the viewer’s attention from the actual materiality of ceramic and glaze to the illusion of material in a cornucopia-like abundance of ersatz fruits, vegetables, grains, and flowers (and even the accumulation of litter that places Summer squarely in the context of environmental calamities that confront us today). Here clay might begin to seem incidental, though certainly it is essential to the surprise aspect of trompe l’oeil art. These sculptures would, after all, provoke a significantly different response were they composed of organic objects rather than fired clay, since the ability to instigate moments of epiphany would be lost. Bertozzi & Casoni achieve the power of illusion, like all conjurers, not by true miracles of transformation but rather through diversion of the viewer’s attention from the actual state of affairs, in this case the real materials comprising the allegorical heads. If this visual sleight of hand constitutes a significant evasion of the kinds of material narratives toward which clay is naturally inclined, it does not signify rejection of the ceramic tradition. On the contrary, Bertozzi & Casoni seem to pay conscious homage to the trompe l’oeil ceramics of the famous sixteenth-century French craftsman Bernard Palissy, whose distinctive “rusticware” simulated organic reality not only through its moulded-from-life components of fish, snails, eels, frogs, snakes, and the like but also through its skillful employment of enamels to complete the picture of unadulterated nature. Bertozzi & Casoni may elaborate their narratives almost exclusively through content, but their works suggest a profound awareness of the history of ceramics as well as the general history of art.
Such awareness is reflected in the work of many ceramic artists today, just as many artists who work in clay maintain a deep appreciation for the narrative potential of the material. At the same time, contemporary ceramic art – whether in general or in the narrower sense of a discipline defined by a specific discourse and set of practices – often tendentiously separates itself from the history of ceramics and patently negates the material narrative natural to clay. The haunting Moss People of Kim Simonsson, for example, may be fashioned from stoneware, but the distinctive surfaces that link their materiality to their content – achieved through an accumulation of paint and nylon fiber – owe nothing to the material nature of clay. In fact, they camouflage it. That such substances as flocking, tool dip, fabric, and even sequins are regularly employed to cover every centimeter of surface in some contemporary ceramic sculptures only underscores the diversity of ways in which clay can be employed as a medium in art. In fact, with little difficulty one could construct a spectrum of contemporary works ranging from those in which clay as a material is eloquent and granted almost complete control over the narratives that it conveys to those in which clay as a material is rendered mute, its potential to elaborate material narratives entirely suppressed. While the relative position of a given work within such a spectrum would at one time would have carried definitive implications with regard to such categories as convention and rebellion or art and craft, today, as the varied work in Beyond the Vessel aptly attests, clay as a medium is arguably freer than it has ever been to simply facilitate creativity.
What does a day in the studio look like?
I start every day at 7am – when the world is still relatively quiet. The inspiration for my work comes from my background as a restorer and I still do some restoration for a few clients I have worked with for a long time. I always start my day with any restoring there is in the studio before doing my own work. As I use a lot of resins with varying drying times I am always working on several pieces at the same time, which makes the work very varied. I am fortunate to have my studio in the garden of my home, so usually have lunch in the house with my partner. I generally work till 4.30pm and then go to the gym and do another hour or so of work after that.
What is your first memory of ceramic?
A large blue and grey antique German salt- glaze jug my parents had, which had to be turned into a lamp after my brother and I broke it while playing.
What was your first use of clay?
I made a few small figures out of hand- rolled clay in kindergarten, which my mother kept. I still have them.
What is the most challenging element to your practice?
Finding good-quality broken pieces to work with. It is important to keep to the standards I have set myself. Finding good things is difficult but exciting.
What is your favourite fable?
Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau, of course).
Are you an artist or a ceramicist?
Artist. In my view a ceramicist is someone who makes ceramics. I don’t. I use existing ceramics as a tool to express myself.
What is the argument for learning / honing technical skills in today’s world?
For a long time, technical skills were regarded as irrelevant but things go in waves and there is now a time when technical skills are being re-evaluated. The nature of my work requires these skills (which I have been able to develop during my decades as a ceramics restorer). There is definitely a renewed appreciation of such skills.
Have we moved beyond the need to make with our hands?
Never. As with everything, when new methods of making things come along it is always claimed that what went before is irrelevant and will disappear – but it never does. There is always reason for people to work with their hands. It seems dexterity is integral to human life.
Name a book that everyone should read and why?
The Sioux by Irene Handl. Surprise!
Why is your studio where it is and what does it mean to you?
My studio is in my garden and it’s my sanctuary. It’s never a chore to be in there. The 20-second commute and the door I can lock at night are important – to keep that work part separate from my home life.
Why do you think ceramics has endured from ancient times?
Because it is such a versatile material, what it can do is like magic: what begins as the basic raw materials of the world, earth and water, infinitely manipulate-able, becomes something very durable by the alchemy of fire, an amazing and primal technological advancement. You start with rudimentary storage vessels. These get decorated. Then glazes are discovered… and it has never stopped. It’s amazing how every culture has developed their own styles of ceramics and we can still identify these cultures by their ceramics.
Who would be in your ceramics collection?
Grayson Perry (he already is LOL).
What would you make if money were no object?
If I wanted to make something and it would cost a lot of money I would find a way of raising a lot of money.
Beyond the Vessel exhibition page…view details
Beyond the Vessel exhibition catalogue…buy now
What does a day in the studio look like?
It starts early in the morning after morning walks with the dog and I prefer every day to be the same, the radio is on a network with only talking people, I don’t listen really, it is just a murmuring sound. I work and sometimes my assistant comes for glazing, she works mostly silent. I want it to be quiet. Dog is snoring under the table.
What is your first memory of ceramic?
I come from a family of artists, there was always all I could wish for to work with. Friends of my parents were artists too and I remember how in the sixties I was in the studio of Rosemarie van Oort, a friend of my mum’s and she worked with clay. She always gave me high praise for my attempts. Sometimes she would ask me to make something, a duck or a pussycat and she would fire it and give it as a present to someone’s birthday, this I do not remember but my mum told me.
What was your first use of clay?
At home and at the studio of this friend of my mum’s, also in art school I have made several clay pieces but I studied graphics so I did not do much with clay at that time. In 1996 I started at the European Ceramics Working Centre in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands as an artist in residence for a three month working time with clay. It changed my life.
What is the most challenging element to your practice?
When a piece has hair or small holes, I have to keep my concentration to stay on it, it takes a long time to finish these pieces.
What is your favourite fable?
It is about a scorpion and a man who have to cross a river and there is only one boat. The man offers the scorpion a place if he promises that he will not sting the man. So they agree and they set off to the other side. When they arrive on the other side however the scorpion stings the man anyway and the man asks him why. The scorpion says, because it is my nature.
What is the relevance of myth today?
Myths and other old stories, fairytales and biblical stories can make you see a point of view that is not necessarily your own. Most of these stories were not only told because they were fun but also to educate and to tell right from wrong.
Are you an artist or a ceramicist?
Artist, I just use clay and glaze and such because I can make the things I want with them. Normally in the morning I have a small hesitation before I stick my hands into the clay, I am not fond of the consistency and the dampness, but once I have started it does not bother me anymore.
What is the relevance of ceramics today?
It seems that more artists with no ceramic training are beginning to make works in clay, it is good to see what boundaries they push and cross being not bothered by ceramic conventions that trained ceramicists sometimes have.
What is the argument for learning / honing technical skills in today’s world?
Technical skills make it easier to achieve what you want. If you are constantly held back in making something because you have no technical skills, that is irritating. For me, it is not something I think about much, I invent as I go along. It is nice if you are not clumsy and have an open mind to possibilities and solutions that are unconventional.
Have we moved beyond the need to make with our hands?
I see more and more how artists are returning to the ‘old’ techniques. But also very exciting developments where clay is being 3D printed or designed by a computer, I like both. Important is what you do with it.
Why do you think ceramics is becoming popular amongst today’s youth?
That is also because a lot of contemporary ceramics are very exciting. I always say that there is nothing I cannot make from clay, it has no limits for me.
Why do you think there is such an international vogue for ceramics today?
Because there is such a lot of exciting ceramics, both in art and design.
Who is your hero or heroine?
Bertozzi & Casoni and funnily enough they look at me in the same way.
Name a book that everyone should read and why?
Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, a story that keeps turning around and around, a lot of horrible details and beautiful images are being depicted. Unusual way of telling a story, surreal.
Why is your studio where it is and what does it mean to you?
We had our house built about ten years ago to the size we needed. My husband is an artist as well and we have two large working spaces and a modest space to live that is adequate for two people and two dogs and the best roof terrace for miles around with stunning views. We live in a very small village just beside Maastricht. From my studio I can see into the garden, it is quiet.
What technological or other advances have made you able to push the boundaries of your material / practice?
Having a large kiln and a device to lift heavy sculptures. Working with larger galleries and knowing that transport is not my business.
What is the biggest problem or challenge you see with ceramics today?
Transporting the works and getting the sculptures to their destination in one piece.
Why do you think ceramics has endured from ancient times?
It is a material that can serve any artist or craftsman to make what they want. And the result is mostly beautiful, I am a sucker for beautiful things.
Who would be in your ceramics collection?
Bertozzi & Casoni, Simone van Bakel, Malene Hartmann Rasmussen, Claire Partington, Katsuyo Aoki, Bouke de Vries, Phoebe Cummings.
What would you make if money were no object?
The same as I am making now. I don’t think that ceramics materials are very expensive and thus see no limits.
What is your philosophical approach to making?
It is not very difficult to like my work. Everything shines and glitters, is adorable and the details of eyes, tongues, noses and ears are endearing. People love that kind of refinement, it can bring back memories of precious Meissen porcelain. That’s just the way I like it. I want people to love my sculptures. I want them to lose their hearts to it and I use all I can to make them do so. At the same time, I want to make this loving not too easy. It’s painful, fragile, unfulfilled and sometimes dangerous. Where are the boundaries? Where does innocence become guilt? Life become death? That is what my work is about. The tension brought by emotional dilemmas, trying to separate right from wrong where everything evolves out of clumsiness, coincidence and misunderstanding.
In my work these dilemmas exist as a complicated knot of conflicting messages. I think that the turning point where seriousness becomes melodrama, beauty turns into overkill and love becomes hate, makes a subtle balance that is very annoying and at the same time very interesting. Humour sneaks into my work when I am making it, I never make sketches before I start, I need it to be an adventure. The highly detailed works allow my thoughts to wander and combine several things that sometimes are not very logical together but do make sense in the end. When I am working in my studio, I go from one work to the next, combining several thoughts and fascinations. I love cabinets of curiosity, Wunderkammer, scientific collections, museums with devotionalia. All these collections contain images that are related to art, but also to other areas. They show the exceptional, the strange, the rare, to secure the scientific order. They lift up the supernatural to restrain the whims of nature. They suggest order and security. At the same time they warn us for chaos that will occur as soon as we let go of this proposed order. They are images that scare us and also restrain that fear. The ambivalence makes us look with admiration and disgust.
Beyond the Vessel exhibition page…view details
Beyond the Vessel exhibition catalogue…buy now