At the entrance to Frieze London 2016 last October, in pole position, just through the ticket barrier, was the powerful international art dealership Gagosian. Here, ready to greet the world’s contemporary art collectors, was Gagosian’s first London solo exhibition of new work by British artist Edmund de Waal. A ceramicist who understands the alchemy of materials, de Waal had carefully arranged his familiar porcelain vessels – some milkily pale, others glazed a matte rust as if they had been burnt or dug from the earth – together with squares of alabaster and fragments of porcelain, graphite and silver, on the shelves of large vitrines, imposing their own stillness on the hubbub of the art fair.
With their subtle variations in hue, the pots, placed rhythmically in clusters of heterogeneous size, play on our senses, each vitrine offering an almost musical composition of small differences, each summoning, for de Waal, memories about his great-grandfather and the poet Paul Celan, or places – Odessa, Czernowitz and Paris – familiar to readers of his bestselling memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes. Standing before Everything You’ll Ever Need I and II (price on request), a pair of vitrines containing mostly white, cream and yellow vessels, and contemplating their eloquent disposition, it becomes clear that part of their resonance is owing to a faint halo of gold emanating from behind some of the clusters of pots and alabaster. Closer inspection reveals one or two dishes with gold undersides, or a barely perceptible gold rim, or a broken fragment of porcelain inside another dish, with a dash of gold along one side. Rarely directly visible, the gold does not flaunt itself. Instead it is sensed through its reflection on other elements – a diffused splendour. The effect is powerful.
In his 2015 book The White Road, the story of a homage to porcelain, de Waal describes his primary material as “white gold”, the name given to it by Europeans when they were first introduced to Chinese porcelain by Dutch merchants. For him, as for many throughout history, this white translucent material has had an irresistible allure, appealing to sensibilities for which gold in all its vulgar glory is too direct and brutal. For some time now, though, he has used delicate touches of gold as a way of underlining the prestige of the much-prized clay. This is an approach that draws on kintsugi, an ancient Japanese tradition of repairing valuable ceramics with gold. It also reflects a very contemporary sensitivity to materials, in retreat from minimalism but suspicious of rampant display.
Over the past century, many artists and designers have waged war on gold. Associated with confident plutocracy, gold hardly captured the prevailing mood of a period that saw two world wars and a sequence of stock-market crashes. But, aside from the worst atrocities of dictator chic or bourgeois bling, it is an ethereal, delicate material – malleable, warm, its merest hint capable of transforming the ordinary into the precious. Depending upon the quantities of other metals with which it is alloyed, gold can range in colour from greenish, through rose and white, to pure yellow. Used sparingly, or in novel ways, it is increasingly finding its way back into not just fine art but also the most sophisticated objects and designs.
Related to the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, or the valuing of things that are old or imperfect above the immaculate, shiny and new, kintsugi uses gold dust to restore honour to damaged objects. The repair celebrates the qualities of the broken ceramics but also glitters with its own intense fire. Today Japanese artist craftsmen use gold, in discreet quantities, in different ways, to signal the virtues of the non-precious materials they are using and to draw attention to details of form.
Kenji Io, the son of a metal artist, and trained in gold‑ and silversmithing, has been looking for a way to reinterpret traditional Japanese craft for a contemporary audience. The simple forms of his Breeze vases (price on request) are forged from iron, their sides inlaid with delicate gold and silver patterns that transform otherwise sturdy objects into something elegant and playful. Koji Hatakeyama creates simple geometric lidded cast-bronze boxes (£2,000-11,000) covered with swirling landscapes of elaborate patination, their richly coloured surfaces sometimes edged with gold leaf, setting the wildness of the decoration against the crisp decorum of the gold. Both Io and Hatakeyama are represented in Britain by Katie Jones.
Young glass artist Akane Yamamoto is a mistress of kirikane, a technique imported to Japan from China during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907), which involved using tiny segments of gold leaf to decorate the surface of Buddhist statues. Yamamoto, who is represented in Britain by Adrian Sassoon, creates her sparkling geometric forms, for instance, Stardust (£3,500), by placing tiny, petal-shaped pieces of gold between sections of coloured cast glass.
Of course, it is not only the Japanese who have a feeling for gold. Carlo Repetto runs the Repetto Gallery in London, specialising in works by Italy’s arte povera artists, and at PAD London in October he showed Fausto Melotti’s beautiful gold-splashed ceramic bowls (€5,000). Melotti is best known for inventive sculptures made of brass and steel, plaster and iron, that have been compared with the work of Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti. But, during the second world war, and like his contemporary Lucio Fontana, he developed a strong interest in ceramics, making a variety of sculptures from terracotta and earthenware. And after the war, as if wishing to affirm the value of ordinary human life and the domestic scale, he created these bowls, their incredibly thin sides enamelled in rich, painterly colours and, splashed by the fluid gleam of gold, lifted to another realm.
Robin Best, an Australian-born ceramicist who works in Jingdezhen, the capital of porcelain manufacture in China, uses touches of gold to create historical connections. Fascinated by cross-cultural pollinations, she has made a series of white Chinese porcelain vessels (£1,900) decorated with cobalt-blue pencil drawings combining eastern and Australian motifs and topped off by 24ct-gold-leaf-wrapped stoppers that nod towards the Chinese migrants who came from Canton to southern Australia during the Gold Rush of the 1850s.
Trained as a fine artist before taking a masters degree in glass at Edinburgh College of Art, Andrea Walsh completed a residency with the Minton brand at Wedgwood. She creates beautiful yet unshowy small boxes and vessels (£1,650-£4,700) out of ceramic and glass. Either circular or asymmetric, with chamfered edges, they are meticulously constructed, she explains, to celebrate “the qualities that these ancient, alchemic materials share, including their clarity, purity and translucency”. Walsh has added alchemical precious metals to her repertoire, too, producing boxes that combine the nuanced pleasures of smoky glass with the warmth of burnished gold on ceramic. The boxes – which require multiple processes for their individual manufacture and make magnificent containers for jewellery or other minute valuable things – sit in the hand like treasure.
The beautiful gilded cork bowls (£985) of Pedro da Costa Felgueiras, a paint and lacquer expert who also restores antiques for museums and private clients, can be found at that tempting Mayfair emporium The New Craftsmen. Made from parts of mature cork trees that have grown over old cut branches, or from deformities on the tree’s trunk naturally producing a bowl shape, da Costa Felgueiras then works the inside of the vessel with pigments found in British soil – Oxford yellow and English red – which he grinds in oil and applies in multiple layers. Finally, he lines the inside with 24ct gold leaf to create a finish designed to wear gently like the old Japanese lacquered monastery tableware.
Gold can create delicate miracles even on a larger scale. French artist Béatrice Casadesus, who works with textiles and paintings, has pieces available at decorative arts specialists Dutko Gallery. She recently exhibited a series of highly textured abstract paintings (£30,000-£65,000), where rich colours derived from Italian Renaissance art and the atmospheric masterpieces of JMW Turner are interwoven with gold acrylic paint streaks running the length of the canvas. Titled Pluies d’Or (Rain of Gold), the gold makes them glow and vibrate.
Even furniture makers are tempted by the shimmer of gold – on this scale, however, achieved through the medium of highly polished brass. Alex Hull, a designer who shows at Gallery Fumi in London, has a passion for natural materials, organic forms and traditional cabinetmaking. His Blaze Cabinet (£55,200) is an essay in contrasts between the dark, lustrous tulipwood cabinet case and the flickering flame pattern of inlaid brass on the exterior and between the strict rectilinear geometries of the door and the brass interior. The Brass tables (price on request, available at Galerie Gosserez) of German designer Valentin Loellmann, who is inspired by haute couture, also marry the brilliance of brass with the sensual softness of wood. Pieces of brass plate are hand-cut and fitted around the wooden top by using bending and welding techniques. They are then “dressed” with wood, either warm walnut or dramatic charred oak, creating, as Loellmann says, “fine and dynamic lines, leaving no sharp edges behind”. Loellmann adds: “The realisation refers to the creation of custom-fitted clothing – haute couture.” Both wood and brass surfaces are then polished to achieve a soft but gleaming finish, in contrasting materials.
Vincent Dubourg, represented by Carpenters Workshop Gallery, is an iconoclast, a magician who works principally in black but has also been experimenting with bronze. For his cabinet Insideer Bronze (limited edition of eight and four artist’s proofs, price on request), a wonderfully sculptural piece with its front doors broken into large fragments, he has created a densely textured blackened surface, like a landscape scorched by fire, its edges lit by the shine of highly polished bronze, like catastrophe trimmed with glamour. And when you open the door, it is lined and glows with gold-bright bronze. It is as if Dubourg has taken a French 18th-century treasure chest and, hiding the burnished bronze in a simulacrum of burnt wood, turned it inside out – showing how, for all its historical and cultural associations, gilding can also be modern and playful, taking off from the past into the future.