“I think of them as anarchists,” says curator Catherine Milner, talking about the artists in her new exhibition at Messums Wiltshire. She also refers to the 12 European ceramicists exhibiting in Beyond the Vessel: Narratives in Contemporary European Ceramics as “clay sculptors”, who are rethinking ceramics for the 21st century. “They are very articulate in their ideas and have an amazing facility for making objects that are breathtakingly beautiful.”
This new school of creatives are using clay to tell stories and comment on contemporary issues. Italian duo Bertozzi & Casoni are represented by sculpted heads of fruits and flowers (from £70,000) – the 3D porcelain descendants of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s paintings ; British artist Phoebe Cummings creates unfired, exotic and stylised flora, exploring themes of fragility and decay (from £650); while Utrecht-born, London-based Bouke de Vries’s haunting tablescape of finely crafted porcelain echoes the Hiroshima explosion (£60,000). There is also work from 2018 and 2019’s V&A Ceramic Artists in Residence: Malene Hartmann Rasmussen will present a part-playful part-sinister installation that centres on a totem pole of trolls’ heads (from £3,850); and Sam Bakewell’s luscious clumps of clay look almost edible (from £3,500).
The show opens in Wiltshire on February 22, but it has already made its mark in Istanbul; when it debuted at the Koç Foundation there last year it drew a record 65,000 visitors. The appeal, says gallery director Johnny Messum, lies in how the ancient, utilitarian material of clay is being thoughtfully manipulated – “by artists who are expressing human emotion with the greatest degree of subtlety”.