Breaking the mould

Something about contemporary ceramics seems to invite subversion. Caroline Roux finds a creative form turned on its head.

October 10 2009
Caroline Roux

If the word “ceramics” makes you think of crusty old pots, novelty ashtrays or the demise of Wedgwood, that’s all changing this autumn. It’s not just the £11.4m refurbishment of the Ceramics Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that is making us reconsider the art of clay. (Since its reopening last month, its seven consecutive, gloriously top-lit galleries on the museum’s uppermost floor display 3,000 exhibits from 2500 BC to the present day, from Islamic rarities to English 1960s tableware.) Nor is it the fact that Wedgwood found a buyer earlier this year in American private equity firm KPS Capital. It’s more about a whole new perspective on the creative art of ceramics.

Helping to dispel the homespun image was Jaime Hayón’s giant ceramic chess set, installed in Trafalgar Square for September’s London Design Festival. Then there is a new tea service courtesy of Alan Yau at Yauatcha, one of London’s most innovative restaurateurs, and a piece of kit by Jason Marks to enhance the sound of your iPod, which looks something like a beautiful clay conch shell. In November, Fredrikson Stallard’s Hot Rods, a series of porcelain vases airbrushed with alluring Vargas-style girls go on show at a chic south London gallery. Finish this off with a show of new work by Grayson Perry – the potter’s poster boy or, indeed, girl, depending upon the outfit – and it’s safe to say that by Christmas ceramics’ image overhaul will be thoroughly complete.

Among the patrons of ceramics is the hedge-funder Gerard Griffin, head of Tisbury Capital, and his wife Sarah. The Griffins have made generous donations to the V&A’s new galleries, while in their own home they have two installations by the British ceramic artist Edmund de Waal. No doubt the Griffins will be thrilled, then, to see another de Waal installation taking pride of place in the Ceramics Galleries: a 40m metal circle within the main dome decorated with “500 and something”, says de Waal, of his trademark cylindrical vessels with their pale celadon glaze.

The V&A paid £150,000 for the piece, which the museum’s director Mark Jones calls “art at the highest level. It’s a long way from rusticity and pots. De Waal is a significant contemporary artist and his apparently simple installations transform space.” Gerard Griffin is probably also considering how this apparently simple installation is transforming the value of his own investment in the artist.

Beyond the V&A’s hallowed halls is Fredrikson Stallard, a design duo best known for edgy, limited-edition furniture – a sofa carved from foam and finished in green, black or hot-pink flocking that looks like a mountain landscape and is called The Pyrenees; a glass table filled with white down and another internally painted in black and white (Unit #3 White and Unit #3 Monochrome). But Ian Stallard trained as a ceramicist at Saint Martins (where Patrik Fredrikson studied industrial design) and the pair’s first co-produced collection back in 2002 included their Ming vase – a white porcelain piece, classically Chinese in form, with the sort of plastic coating more usually found on a limited-edition Coke bottle.

Fredrikson Stallard’s latest series of vases, Hot Rods, goes on show in November at David Gill’s south London gallery and continues this blend of tradition and transgression. The 15 unique vases, from 50cm to 70cm high and as yet unpriced, are made in Jingdezhen in China (“It’s called a village, but it’s the size of Manchester and they’ve been making white porcelain there for 2,000 years,” says Stallard) and then airbrushed in northern England by an artist more used to customising cars and motorbikes. The imagery – hyper-glamorous blondes, brunettes and redheads wrapping their gleaming limbs seductively around the vases’ traditional Chinese forms – exudes a siren-like sexuality. “We feel like we’re beautifying a vulgar art form,” laughs Fredrikson, “but the challenge was to be neither jokey nor camp. The trick was to make sure the girl isn’t looking you in the eye, so the image has dignity and poise, and doesn’t look like, er… porn.”

If this work takes the haute design scene by storm, which it surely will, it won’t be the first time that the world of luxury has embraced the ceramic arts. In Chanel’s Los Angeles store, a Sèvres porcelain female torso encrusted with bisque roses rules over the jewellery department. It’s one of several artworks commissioned by the New York architect Peter Marino for the 14,700sq ft space that opened two years ago. The torso is by Johan Creten, a Paris-based Belgian who had his ceramic epiphany at art school in Ghent. “I kept noticing that one studio was not packed with students. Painting was crowded, sculpture was crowded, and the ceramic studio was empty. I realised there was a place to be occupied, both physically and in terms of the art world.”

Creten was taken on by Emmanuel Perrotin’s Paris gallery a couple of years ago, and next January will show new pieces there including three 2m-high works in ceramic. “They will look like squirrels, but when you get closer you’ll realise there’s something else going on,” he says mysteriously.

By contrast, the prolific Spanish designer Jaime Hayón doesn’t do mystery. Hayón does in-your-face exuberance – his work includes recent pieces for Lladró (Re-deco and Fantasy collections) which have taken the classic porcelain company away from pale young maidens to polka-dotted rabbits and crazy clowns (a new Clown Lamp, £1,100, has just appeared where the clown’s nose is the on/off switch).

By his own admission Hayón isn’t much of a chess player (“instant checkmate!” he says of his technique, and really you couldn’t imagine him sitting still long enough to finish a full game), but his giant chess set, installed last month outside London’s National Gallery, and supported by both the Arts Council and the Spanish government, proved irresistible to amateur and celebrity players who queued up to take part. The pieces’ 1m-high crowns, adapted from the London skyline, were hand-crafted at Hayón’s favourite ceramic works, Bosa, in the tiny village of Borso del Grappa outside Venice, which also made his now highly collectable Digital Mediterranean Baroque cacti several years ago. (These life-size spiny totems in candy colours are still available from Hayón Studio, from £6,000.)

Meanwhile, with partner Nienke Klunder, Hayón has devised a set of 60cm plates (£4,873 each) that form part of a show called American Chateau Room One at Spring Projects in London, where they appeared alongside sculptural furniture derived from American icons (until October 22).

Plates and porcelain are, of course, the perfect match. Nymphenburg, Bavaria’s most illustrious china house, and Carsten Höller, the biologist-turned-artist who made adults and children scream with fear-tinged glee when he installed tubular slides in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall back in 2006, is a more unlikely marriage. The union’s offspring, to be unveiled in January, is rumoured to be a set of black-and-white plates that create the illusion of colour when they are spun fast. “They are meant to be used,” says Clemens Weisshaar, a young German designer based in Munich, who enjoys brokering relationships between art, craft and technology and was the project’s midwife, “It’s a plate, not a gallery piece. But it’s very Carsten – he likes to mess with people’s minds and perceptions.”

Weisshaar’s own series for the company is called My Private Sky; upon receipt of a customer’s birth details, Nymphenburg produces a personalised constellation hand-painted on a set of seven plates with symbols derived from a custom-devised computer programme. The edition is limited to 100 and retails at €9,800 a set; launched in 2007, already half have been sold. “Porcelain isn’t really a consumer good any more. It’s cultural wealth nowadays. And this – My Private Sky – is entertainment,” says Weisshaar, who in a moment of democratic thinking is also working on a series of lower-cost products – key rings and USB keys based on the exquisite Nymphenburg figurine body parts. Out this autumn, these pieces will retail at €200, exclusively from

Metal, plastic and wood, make way. There is something about the properties of ceramic that make it right for the moment: there’s warmth and familiarity under that gloss. It’s a natural product that stands the test of time, yet it seems to invite subversion. Earlier this year Established & Sons, London’s coolest design gallery, showed Seattle-based artist Roy McMakin’s seemingly utilitarian and earnest-looking pots, whose super-clean lines and muddied colours betray the fact that, thanks to additions and subtractions (holes in the wrong places), they have become non-functioning objects (£3,400 for a set of seven).

“There is a childlike simplicity to McMakin’s ceramic forms,” says Established & Sons’ director Alasdhair Willis. “At first appearance they are conventional, but after closer scrutiny you find a level of subversion and dysfunction that questions what we perceive to be functional and ‘correct’.”

“Fragility, durability, hardness, shininess, history,” is how the artist Barnaby Barford sums up the clay world. Barford, known for his montages of kitsch figures (£4,500), which make political and social comments on anything from teen pregnancy to plastic surgery, has recently used figurines in an enchanting film called Damaged Goods about crossing social divides. In it, an upmarket porcelain lovely falls in love with a tacky, souvenir-shop boy. Scenes from the animation will be translated into 3-D vignettes later this year.

Make-up artist Mary Greenwell stumbled across Barford’s work seven years ago at an East End art show and immediately fell for a piece called Dear God in which a little boy joyously encounters a rabbit. She’s probably tripled her £1,200 investment by now and has acquired four more pieces. “He’s so witty and good on religion,” she says. “But it’s all in the names. The work looks deceptively cute and then he weighs in with a tough or humorous title.” (A piece from 2008 called Does Christopher Robin Know You’ve Got That? shows Eeyore and Winnie the Pooh seated, Pooh in an unmistakable state of excitement.)

It is, of course, the durability and shininess that ends up on our tables. And it’s no surprise that Yau, the brain behind the restaurants Wagamama, the de luxe, Christian Liaigre-designed Hakkasan, the price-conscious Cha Cha Moon and, most recently, the Italian stay-in or take-out Princi in London’s Soho, should launch a range of tableware called Yauatcha Atelier (from £16). It’s finally arrived in the shape of finely crafted china that, like Yau, channels both East and West, with sensous ovoid shapes and twiggy little unglazed handles. Yau commissioned the London-based, Munich-born Bodo Sperlein to design the range and it was made at a centuries-old Bavarian factory (never underestimate that Bavarian porcelain connection).

But in terms of usable goods, it’s Jason Marks’ Euphorn that might delight you. This glazed ceramic funnel will channel the sound perfectly from your iPod but looks like a large ornament – think of an old gramophone horn in groovy limes, reds or pinks. There’s nothing gratuitous going on here, though. Ceramic allows sound to be amplified with the least change or distortion, and the shape is the result of much research and computer-aided design. Marks, who completed his MA at Central Saint Martins in June, is trying to link up with the hi-fi market but in the meantime makes the Euphorn to order for £230, or £990 for the 1m-long statement version.

As Marks does the rounds of the hi-fi guys, Grayson Perry has been occupied by the production of six huge pots in his Walthamstow studio (not to mention the Walthamstow Tapestry, which at 15m x 3m will be worth its weight in marketing gold). He wasn’t really planning new work but what with the publication in the autumn of his first major monograph by Jackie Klein (Thames & Hudson, £35), “I rashly said I’d do a show,” he sighs (at Victoria Miro gallery until November 7).

The pots, though on his familiar territory of the relationship between religion, art and consumerism, and the business of what it’s like living in modern Britain, replete with words and imagery from divine to decadent, will be the most elaborate yet. “I’m wary of being the representative of the handmade,” says Perry. “But I do believe the art world has become obsessed with ideas, and I think you go to a gallery to look at things. I don’t mind as long as my work isn’t fetishised by the romantic nostalgists.” On that point, there should be no fear. The days of clay seeming quaintly retro are, it would appear, very firmly in the past.

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