[Paleopsych] TLS: Serious play's feat of clay

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Serious play's feat of clay
    Tanya Harrod
    23 July 2004
    A SECRET HISTORY OF CLAY. From Gauguin to Gormley. Tate Liverpool,
    until August 30

    A SECRET HISTORY OF CLAY. By Simon Groom. 107pp. Tate Publishing.
    £16.99. - 1 854 37557 1

    A Secret History of Clay: From Gauguin to Gormley is intended to be a
    groundbreaking exhibition that changes the way we look at art. It
    challenges the neglect of clay (fired, glazed clay in particular) by
    art critics and art historians. It is a hopeful show, which argues
    that artists are now turning to ceramics' messy materiality in
    reaction against the increasing virtuality of digital culture. In this
    brave new world Grayson Perry's 2003 Turner Prize, bestowed on a room
    full of pots, signifies a change of heart, an abandonment of the
    fustian hierarchies which have marginalized ceramics. But for all its
    polemical intent, A Secret History of Clay in practice tells a rather
    familiar story, in which artists' claywork is seen as inherently more
    interesting than anything made by ceramicists. Studio pottery, an
    artistic discipline born in the early part of the twentieth century,
    is almost excluded. A Secret History includes eighty male artists and
    a handful of women - no Ruth Duckworth, Viola Frey, Anne Krause, Maria
    Martinez, Beatrice Wood or Betty Woodman; no Ladi Kwali, Gwyn Hanssen
    Pigott, Dionyse Carmen, Lucie Rie, Alison Britton or Carol McNicoll.

    These names may be unfamiliar - because the real secret history is
    that of studio pottery where women rank as equals. Nonetheless,
    despite its essential conservatism, this is a pleasurable exhibition.
    Artists' forays into clay, and indeed into any kind of applied art,
    are invariably excluded from exhibitions and monographs, and are
    rarely displayed in public collections.

    The exhibition opens with "Fountain", Marcel Duchamp's famous
    ready-made of 1917. To be quite accurate, what we see is a 1964
    version, one of several authorized by Duchamp after the "original" of
    1917 was lost. For Simon Groom, the exhibition's organizer, "Fountain"
    encapsulates a central problem. It is one of the most recognizable
    icons of twentieth-century art. It is also made of ceramic, a fact
    that Groom believes has been "conceptualized out of existence". While
    it is true that, for most people, Duchamp's urinal is not primarily
    seen as a specifically ceramic work, there are more important reasons
    for making "Fountain" a curtain-raiser. The exhibition is dominated by
    vessels of various kinds, revealing that artists find the medium's
    family of shapes engaging at a deep level. In effect, jugs, platters
    and vases are shown here as ready-mades, offering a repertoire of
    familiar forms - as Kenneth Silver once pointed out in an illuminating
    essay on Picasso. Ceramics therefore have the capacity to act as
    inspirational objets trouves, ripe for re-representation.

    Making pots also once stood for a radical anti-academicism, an
    alternative to the stranglehold of easel painting and sculptures
    perched on pedestals. In A Secret History of Clay, this daring
    rejection of mainstream art is made manifest by Paul Gauguin's
    haunting hand-built vases, by a monumental gesturally decorated pot
    and platter by the Danish artist Thorvald Bindesboll, and by the
    Fauves' engagement with tin glaze decoration in the form of some
    glowing colouristic experiments by Georges Rouault and Maurice de

    Gauguin did not do well out of his foray into ceramics and was bitter
    about the way in which the public appeared to prefer safer kinds of
    experimentation in the pure forms of Auguste Delaherche's handsome
    neo-Oriental pots.

    Matisse, weakly represented in A Secret History, learnt new
    colouristic freedoms and new ways of organizing space from decorating
    pots, but his ceramics were and remain little discussed. Like Matisse,
    Picasso used ceramics to investigate painterly and sculptural space,
    returning with playful magnificence to ideas first addressed in his
    1914 domestic-scale sculpture "The Glass of Absinthe". But,
    notoriously, the post-war ceramics of Picasso and of Miro were
    summarily dismissed by an institutionalized avant garde led by North
    American critics and curators.

    Gravitas is evidently an issue. Serious play is hard to capture: see,
    for example, the ceramic activities of the CoBrA group in the 1950s.

    Ironically, the energy comes over best in photographs - of impromptu
    outdoor shows, of Asger Jorn driving his scooter over a bed of clay to
    create a mural. The outcomes look a bit stranded at Tate Liverpool,
    even if the intense chaotic quality of CoBrA ceramics stood for
    everything that was lacking in the encroaching technocracy and warrior
    politics of the Cold War.

    The exhibition includes expressively modelled ceramic sculptures by
    Lucio Fontana.

    When Fontana showed Brancusi one of his polychrome ceramics in 1937 he
    was told that it was not sculpture. And indeed at that date it must
    have seemed the antithesis of direct carving or of truth to materials.
    Fontana's extraordinary ceramic output is only becoming as well known
    as his famous cut-and-slashed canvases because of the diminution of
    surprisingly persistent formalist standards, such as those of

    A Secret History brilliantly registers the messy fluidity of clay and
    the way in which it demands our engagement. Halfway through the show
    we encounter three great piles of oil clay ("Phase of Nothingness", by
    the Japanese artist Nobuo Sekine): seductive masses which invite us to
    touch and handle them. The show does not include the more conventional
    modern Japanese masters of ceramics -Hamada Shoji or even Rosanjin -
    but it demonstrates that, even at their most iconoclastic, Japanese
    artists possess a heightened sensitivity to the medium. But the
    unforgettable image of Kazuo Shiraga naked and wrestling with a pile
    of clay in 1955 is matched by the American Jim Melchert's haunting
    video of his 1972 "Changes" performance piece, in which he and his
    companions dipped their heads in liquid clay and sat about while it
    dried into a series of melancholy masks. This part of the show
    suggests that ceramics demand visceral commitment; another video of
    2002 records a day that the young artists Roger Hiorns, Mark Titchner
    and Gary Webb spent together in a studio, fighting it out with a ton
    of clay.

    The show ends in a final underlit space in which the curator, Groom,
    confronts the spectre that haunts our appreciation of ceramics - that
    of a Victorian twilight zone of figurines and garnitures, cake stands
    and dusty souvenirs, half-glimpsed behind glass fronted cabinets. A
    job lot of Victorian furniture supports ironically framed ceramic
    works by Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Andrew Lord, Francis Uprichard and
    James Turrell. As an environment it works well for Uprichard's array
    of car-boot sale stoneware to which have been added sinister animalier
    lids. Edmund De Waal's Modernist variant on the eighteenth-century
    porcelain room looks less happy in this setting, and it fails to do
    justice to the other artists, even to Sherman's and Koons's
    historicizing exuberance. It is an odd finale, a return of the
    repressed; a reminder, too, that Freud's 1917 essay "On the Uncanny"
    is currently required reading for curators.

    The exhibition's subtitle - From Gauguin to Gormley - suggests a visit
    to Antony Gormley's "Field" on the floor below. It is one of several
    versions, this "addition" made in North America. Gormley's mannikins
    are always moving to contemplate, but what about the people who made
    them? An exhibition that begins with playful rebelliousness ends with
    something more authoritarian. "Field", in all its guises, is made by,
    typically, co-opted OAPs, house-wives and children. They are not there
    to express themselves, rather they are given the chance to experience
    the pleasures of mass production by hand. "Field" is almost an anomaly
    in the context of A Secret History as a whole - not as creatively
    humane as it looks, and ultimately remote from the anarchic,
    spontaneous engagements to be found in the rest of this
    thought-provoking display.

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