Ceramic artists: top trail-glazers breaking the mould
Contemporary ceramic artists are firing up the canon into a new age
Ceramics and art have a companionship longer than most. In a story that began in the Palaeolithic period, this potent fusion of water, earth and creativity has evolved through many modes. 21st-century artists are proving that ceramics has as much potential for concept as function, lured to the medium for its versatility, sensuality and role as a platform for provocation.
From artists upholding age-old techniques with a twist, to those unearthing radical ways to push materials to their limits, these are the trail-glazers, the mould-breakers and future-shapers on the cutting edge of ceramic art.
Over a four-decade career, the Kenyan-born British studio potter and revered educator has made a tangible mark on ceramic art. Her restrained, often asymmetrical sculptures allude to the curvature of the female human form and affirm the inextricable and profound link between humanity and clay. As a young artist, she travelled to Nigeria, New Mexico and China, immersing herself in various approaches to craftsmanship. The artist’s hollow vessels carry a catalogue of global histories, technical approaches and cultures: graphic design - which she first trained in - diasporic identities, British studio pottery, ceremonial vessels from Kenya and Nigeria and Ancient Greek and Roman techniques. In place of the potters’ wheel, Odundo makes use of a coiling technique to hand-build her vessels, which she fires and burnishes repeatedly. The resulting objects have a surface akin to satin, and range in colour from flaming orange to subdued black, and sometimes a combination of the two. 2021 is a big year for the artist with an intervention for Michael Armitage’s ‘Paradise Edict’ at the Royal Academy opening on 13 March 2021, and a show, ‘New Work’, opening May 2021 at Salon 94, New York. Odundo will also exhibit alongside Simone Leigh and Thaddeus Mosley in ‘Embodying Anew’, opening on 30 April at Maximillian William, London.
Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is just as famed for breaking ceramic art as making it. In 1995, in one of the most memorable and controversial moments of art-world theatre, he intentionally dropped an alleged 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty Urn, which shattered at his feet. A year before, Ai painted over another with the red Coca-Cola logo. This erasure of artefacts – and ergo cultural history - is a recurring theme in Ai’s work, with ancient ceramic vessels often his tools of choice to question who or what ascribes cultural value. In a different, but no less striking ceramic mode, Ai dominated Tate’s turbine hall with 100 million individually hand-crafted life-sized sunflower seeds sculpted and painted by specialists in Jingdezhen, China. It was an invitation to reflect on the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon, and more broadly, contemporary cultural exchange. Ai confronts the vast history of ceramic art, smashes it open and pieces it back together to astonishing, and explosive effect.
A mere whisper of the term ‘ceramic art’ is usually enough to bring Grayson Perry’s work into the conversation. The artist’s command of the medium as a storytelling device is nonpareil, chronicling scenes of contemporary British life with wit, poignancy and nostalgia. At first glance, these pieces are alluring, playful and spirited. A closer inspection often brings with it a change in mood, as his sgraffito surfaces reveal loaded stories of prejudice, injustice, desire, disaster, religion, mass media and power. His work – which also extends across cast iron, bronze and printmaking – is dense with autobiographical references and unflinching societal statements. Perry simultaneously flips ceramics on its head to question the social status of the medium itself – turning its purity into a vehicle for fiery allegory.
In the work of Brooklyn-based sculpture Genesis Belanger, nothing is quite what it seems. Demure pastel hues and mundane objects are skewered with sharp wit and cultural critique - ingredients that make for uncanny visual consumption. Unlike many ceramic artists, Belanger eschews glazes in favour of a matte surface. Colours use either the natural tones of the clay or involve blending pigments into the stoneware or porcelain. Often involving mid-century furniture, pills, food, telephones, candles, flowers and displaced body parts, Belanger’s ceramic compositions are smorgasbords of surprise and conceptual depth. Each piece is packaged like a surreal novella, bound up in contemporary realism: feminist critiques of contemporary America, vanity, excess, consumerism, and in a 2020 show at The Aldrich, grief and loss.
American artist Theaster Gates has a practice of many facets. Through his socially-engaged art, Gates delves into race, territory, and the history of objects. He trained as a potter, and maintains a deep affinity with clay. For Gates, the ceramic vessel is rooted in metaphor: a container of spirituality, ritual and universality, and architecture for shared experiences. Last year, Gates staged ‘Black Vessel’ at Gagosian New York, in which he created a space for contemplation through large-scale works in glazed and fired clay. The artist’s ability to unify age-old traditions and ceramic sensitivities with contemporary themes and aesthetics anchors him as a forerunner of contemporary ceramic art, and a great deal more. Read a full interview with Gates for our At Home With series.
The work of London-based artist Lubna Chowdhary is all about tensions and hybridity: between manual and industrial, East and West, minimalism and superfluity. Born in Tanzania to Indian parents, the artist creates vivid hand-painted tiles, three-dimensional objects and spacial installations that defy easy categorisation. Chowdhary’s interests lie in the malleability of clay, its relationship with the human hand and colour’s capacity to generate visual and emotional responses. Through her bold lashings of colour, lustrous surfaces and gridlike geometric constructions, the medium is imbued with wide-ranging histories, geographies and cultures. Her new exhibition at Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai centres on the concept of code-switching, the act of shifting between linguistic codes and systems. This, in the context of Chowdhary’s work, means an interchange between different modes of production, cultural references and media, conveyed through tiled ceramic work, paintings and collages on paper. ‘Code Switch’, until 27 February 2021, Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.
The Cape Town-based ceramicist’s titanic totemic works, vividly hued and often of variegated parts, are deeply rooted in her experience as a Xhosa woman. In 2006, Poswa co-founded Cape Town ceramic studio Imiso, a leap that allowed her to translate her training in textile design into the ceramic sphere. Her relatively recent success as an independent artist came after two decades of dedication to clay as a vehicle for expression, and as a business. Her stoneware pieces, ambitious in scale and often composed of different parts, draw on Xhosa rituals and textiles, the water vessels carried by Xhosa women, and African hairstyles. Texture plays a central role in Poswa’s work: course surface treatments are often juxtaposed with silky smooth appendages (or vice versa), and other striking embellishments that bridge the gap between tradition and modernity. ‘Lobola’, Poswa’s first solo show with Southern Guild gallery runs from 11 March - 4 June 2021.