Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal have long challenged preconceptions about art made in clay. And now a fondness for that most elemental and ancient of materials is increasingly shaping a new aesthetic. A generation of contemporary art ceramicists is emerging whose work is irreverent, playful and radical – but also beautiful – while established avant-garde ceramicists are gaining broader recognition. Major international art fairs such as Tefaf, PAD and Masterpiece now also give more and more prominence to contemporary ceramics, and new channels of discovery are proliferating. “The ceramics market is stronger than ever – particularly in the US, which has helped to elevate prices, but this has not generally brought them into the extremely expensive arena of paintings and sculpture,” says Alun Graves, senior curator of ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum. “There is a visual playfulness to clay, in that it responds to immediate gestures, which adds to its accessibility.”
Works by artists in this new movement are pushing boundaries both technically and ideologically. Using pioneering ceramic 3D-printing, Michael Eden is creating Wedgwood-inspired, urn‑like vases that would be impossible to create on a potter’s wheel. Arita Tureen (price on request) is one of his early attempts using the technique, which he is still refining. He hopes to make more such pieces in the next 12 months, available to buy through Adrian Sassoon.
Geoffrey Mann makes films in which the plates, bowls, cups and teapots sitting on a dining table ripple, warp and buckle in response to sound waves generated by people talking and arguing around them. Mann then turns the images of the crockery in their contorted states into sculptures using a 3D printer, digital animation and traditional ceramics techniques.
“As the confidence of ceramic artists has grown,” says Mark Piolet, director of leading ceramics gallery Adrian Sassoon, “so has the technical ambition and scale of works” – 3m high in the case of the pots of Felicity Aylieff, another artist the gallery represents.
Also creating monumental sculptural ceramics – such as 2.5m-diameter plates – is Norwegian artist Marit Tingleff. She and Phoebe Cummings – an installation artist who uses unfired clay to craft garlands of fossilised plants that disintegrate over time and revert back into a lump of earth, poetically expressing the fragility of the natural world – are two of the ceramicists being championed by Madeleine Bessborough, a pioneering art dealer and co-director of the New Art Centre sculpture park and galleries at Roche Court in Wiltshire. Bessborough has helped forge the careers of many major international artists, and recently started focusing on those working in clay. “Ceramics have moved away from utilitarian pottery into a much wider realm,” she says. “It’s not about craft but about making a new kind of object.”
Take American ceramicist Liz Larner, who paints thick slabs of clay, experimenting with glazes, stones and pigments to intense, lustrous effect, and hangs them on the walls like paintings. Shaped like Egyptian cartouches, they are coloured with shiny epoxy mixed with multihued pigments, creating such an effect you could almost imagine they are blooms in a Petri dish or striations of rock. “I use colour for its emotional qualities, to bring out something innate in the clay,” says Larner, who sells her panels for upwards of $80,000.
Danish artist Merete Rasmussen and Japanese-born Hitomi Hosono’s sculptures also defy traditional expectations of ceramics – so convolved and delicate are the works, it’s hard to believe the artists use just their hands to make them. Hosono reconstructs memories of nature from her childhood in Japan, recreating the complex beauty of various plant forms. Her ALarge Dancing Feather Leaves Bowl (£9,000) has all the tenderness of new sprigs unfurling. Meanwhile, Rasmussen says of her mesmerising, ribbon-cum-Möbius-strip-like works that range in colour from luminous yellow to indigo, “I want to create forms you can’t immediately understand.”
Indeed, some of the most imaginative and adventurous of artists working in clay hail from Denmark, building on the rich tradition of sculptural porcelain established by its Copenhagen figurines. Another is Malene Hartmann Rasmussen, who makes lusciously coloured, jewel-like tableaux of the forest floor (individual pieces from £450) – leaves and branches are studded with a rich ornament of snails, worms and spiders in works that look at first like toys but reveal a darker narrative.
Clay has also become a vehicle for polemic, wit and even orgiastic fantasy. Barnaby Barford and Rachel Kneebone tap into the heritage of porcelain with playful remakings of the kinds of figurines popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. From a distance, Kneebone’s cream-coloured sculptures (price on request) look like sumptuous piles of meringues. On closer scrutiny it becomes clear that they are truncated torsos, limbs and genitalia recalling poetic neoclassical sculptors like Antonio Canova, but also medieval frescoes of hell, or Hans Bellmer’s dolls.
Barford, whose works sell for upwards of £12,000, says the fact that ceramics are so commonplace and present in almost all aspects of life makes them the perfect medium for artistic expression. “People eat out of them, drink out of them and go to the loo on them – but they don’t expect to be challenged by them,” he says. Following in the tradition of William Hogarth and Charles Dickens, Barford broke new ground with his 2013 large-scale ceramic mirrors, Seven Deadly Sins (price on request). Made up of flowers and leaves decorated with, variously, banknotes (Avarice), menus (Gluttony) and porn images (Lust), the pieces address the complex role of so-called “sin” in contemporary society. Last year he exhibited at the V&A his 6m-high The Tower of Babel, made of 3,000 miniature shops, which poked fun at grabby, must-have society. Meanwhile his lifesize polar bear (price on request), created from porcelain flowers and leaves and currently being shown in Me Want Nowat David Gill Gallery, is an allegory of the “powerful and impressive” who are simultaneously “vulnerable and weak”.
The historic porcelain houses of Europe – such as Sèvres and Meissen – are embracing this spirit of vitality and irreverence by commissioning art pieces alongside their traditional dinner services and tableware. Sèvres, established in Paris with the support of Louis XV, now sells cooly contemporary gravy boats (€1,600) by Dutch artist-designer Aldo Bakker, as well as serpentine-shaped coffee pots (€2,500) and chalices (€3,500 each) that, being unglazed, are audaciously impractical yet cleverly rework the clean classical lines that made Sèvres porcelain so popular in the first place.
Meissen, the oldest porcelain factory in Europe, is revamping its image by commissioning a range of works by American artist Chris Antemann, who collaborates with a team of trained painters from the factory to create small sculptures that sell for €4,250-€39,900. Like vignettes from rococo paintings by Fragonard or Boucher, interacting characters form narratives that comment on domestic rites, social etiquette and taboos. Themes from the classics are given a contemporary edge as elaborate dinner parties, picnics and ornamental gardens set the stage for Antemann’s subversive tales. “I don’t care what my label is – potter, ceramicist or artist – I want to put another layer onto history,” she says.
Indeed, there is a fiery tension between the worlds of craft and contemporary art, and explaining how some artists enter the pricier realms of the fine-art world while others sit resolutely in the pottery camp is dependent “on the scope of their ideas” says Joanna Bird, one of UK’s preeminent dealers in contemporary ceramics, who sells works by classical studio potters but also some of the more conceptual ones too.
Until 2007 Bird represented Edmund de Waal, selling works for £3,000 that now change hands for between £20,000 and £400,000. “It’s all to do with the concept, and Edmund always thought big,” she says. “It helps that he is a brilliant wordsmith – but he always had a clearly defined idea. Ceramicists who cross over have to have an idea that’s got mileage and that relates to many different worlds.” From Grayson Perry’s Grecian-style urns (£90-£150,000) scored with pictures of the icons of our age – handbags, mobile phones and supermodels – to Sterling Ruby’s gory-looking ceramics resembling body parts that are at once cartoonish and menacing, “it has to be more than just a beautiful pot – it has to have a narrative,” says Bird.
Few places is this more in evidence than in the work of Theaster Gates. Ten years ago, the American sold pots for as little as $25. Now nominated as one of the 10 most influential artists in the world by ArtReview magazine, he sells grand-scale pots for as much as $165,000 at White Cube gallery. Gates saw that his ceramics needed to be put into a “magical context”, so he invented a story about a brilliant Japanese potter called Shoji Yamaguchi and arranged carefully choreographed dinners that centred around the life and work of his fictional hero. People started collecting the pots as mementoes of the evening and of the story, and Gates used the money to regenerate the rundown area of Chicago in which he lives.
In contrast to those emerging artists at the radical end of this new clay movement are those who are well-established but whose works have been given a boost in the light of shifting perceptions about the medium. Margaret O’Rorke was taught by the grand dame of studio pottery, Lucie Rie and, at 78, makes original and breathtaking ceramics (£25,000-£100,000), including striking curtains. Her works evoke the diaphanous wonder of sea creatures or seedpods – an effect accentuated by the fact that she often turns them into chandeliers and lights, a new collection of which launches in November. “The translucency of porcelain has driven me to find ways of lighting it,” she says. “There are plenty of porcelain lights but few have any feeling of the clay – they don’t do the material justice.”
When it comes to discovering and buying, ceramics are not only being embraced by contemporary-art galleries and design fairs, but also by brilliant online specialist sites including Cfile.daily from Garth Clark, one of America’s leading ceramic experts (he sold de Waal’s work before the artist was taken on by Gagosian), which showcases some of the most original ceramicists worldwide. Similarly, Marijke Varrall-Jones, former head of the contemporary ceramics department at Bonhams auctioneers, has set up Maak to cater to buyers looking for quality works in clay. She says the upturn in prices for “plinth pieces” sold as sculpture has been sharp in the past 15 years, citing works by Kenyan-born ceramicist Magdalene Odundo – who makes vessels so anthropomorphic their lines echo spines, stomachs and hair – that have risen from around €10,000 to as much as €195,000 during that period. “The audience is broader than it was,” says Varrall-Jones. “When one area goes very high – as the fine-art market has – it pulls up other areas, like ceramics.”
Instagram and Etsy too are rich sources. Interior designer Kelly Behun has a collection of about 40 ceramics, including works by Beth Goobic, that she particularly cherishes, many of which she found on the social-media platforms. Of her discoveries, she says, “The price point doesn’t have to be intimidating; you can pick up amazing things for anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand – I’m trying to get my private clients to think of ceramics as an area for collecting.” Behun’s all-time favourite ceramicist is Betty Woodman. “I don’t have any works by her yet. She is a late-career, highly regarded artist whose work, rightly, commands high prices,” she says.
And even the great outdoors can be a showcase for ceramics. Beyond Limits, the contemporary sculpture exhibition that Sotheby’s organises every September in the grounds of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire last year featured a temple (£495,000) by Sandy Brown made up of 5,200 handpainted ceramic tiles. Show co-curator Simon Stock, specialist in impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s says, “People’s perception is that ceramics are fragile and can’t be kept outside, but in fact they are very robust – even in the Sahara they won’t lose their colour.