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Art & Culture / This is so Contemporary


Laura McLean-Ferris pinpoints emerging themes in contemporary art and asks where they come from and where they are going

Peach Blown Vase, 1886, Hobbs, Brockunier & Co.
Peach Blown Vase, 1886, Hobbs, Brockunier & Co.


Oh ceramics! Smashing!


Although I have to say I’m a little surprised you are starting this column new themes in contemporary art column with ceramics.

Oh really?

Yes! I was expecting Internet stuff. Fluorescent GIFs and Vine videos. Slimy animations of gunge? Gradients!

No, none of that. Well, not for the moment anyway.

Okay.  Let’s hear it then. What is so contemporary about ceramics?

Well, several artists have been turning to pottery, stoneware and suchlike over the past couple of years, to create important sculptural elements in their work. As, of course, artists have done throughout history.


Are you really going to carry on with that?


Aaron Angell, for example, is a young London-based artist, who recently had a show at Rob Tuffnell. Angell creates clay tabletop environments as an ongoing part of his work – sculptures populated by slumped toadstools and pots that appear to borrow from other eras as though the past were some folksy woodshed hiding off the grid. But these forms turn up messy, sludgy and drunk: out of step with the contemporary. That being said, they have beauty to them. Puddles of glistening glaze, coloured patterns like the costumes of Morris Dancers and jesters.

And you’re telling me this is contemporary?

Yes! And then there is Peles Empire, who currently have an exhibition, Formation, at Cell Project Space in the East End of London. Peles are Katharina Stoever and Barbara Wolff, who have been using the various rooms of a real 19th century Romanian castle to create an ongoing exploration into the evolution of imagery over different spaces and times. In this show they have created a depiction of the castle’s ‘armory room’ using photocopied images of the original space and abstract black and white ceramic sculptures. They have used an unusual mixture of white porcelain and a type of clay called grog, which is often used for architectural projects.


The black grog and the white porcelain distort each other in the firing process, creating mutated, distorted shapes that echo the black and white photocopies, whilst conveying the pressures that buildings and images can have on one another.

These potters all sound drunk. What’s this about?

Our new wastelands of online imagery might send artists looking for a different kind of sludge. The materiality of objects might be granted a new type of status. Or outdated styles and processes may seem more appealing.

So this is about the Internet.

Only in as much as artists create work in response to the current conditions in which they work.

So it’s contemporary by being not contemporary?

That’s one way of thinking of it. Artist might convey a certain sense of their existence with the materials that they find do this best. The American artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins has just opened an exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire. As well as sofas and messy canvases of bloody browns and grimy greys draped over ladders, were several large, lumpen pots filled with drippy, dirty looking glazes. They convey a physical sense of domestic mess, perhaps trauma, which seems to call in the aesthetics of the 1990s. Jackson Hutchins’s sculptures, lumpy and mutated, sit on furniture like bodies, both fragile and heavy, in a mixture of pale pastel shades, such as yellow and green, which blends with ominous, darker tones.

Which leads us to Dan Flavin!

Does it? The American minimalist sculptor of neon tube lights?

Flavin’s untitled (to the "innovator" of Wheeling Peachblow) (1968), which is currently included in Light Show, at the Hayward Gallery, London, is dedicated to the creator of Wheeling Peachblow glassware, a style of table ware in which rich deep raspberry tones move into pale yellows, creating a peach tone in the middle. Flavin’s light sculpture blends the light behind it on the wall to create a similar effect.

But you said Wheeling Peachblow is a glass.

Indeed, but it was invented to mimic the effect of a famous 18th century Chinese ceramic – the Peachblow Vase.

Well there you have it. The return to ceramics is eternal.

See also: Hannah Wilke; Jesse Wine’s recent exhibition at Limoncello; Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos at the Serpentine Gallery; The Granchester Pottery


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