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Book Review by Alison Britton

Breaking the Mould: New Approaches to Ceramics

Edited by Ziggy Hanaor
216 pages
Black Dog Publishing 2007


I have seen this book on a number of student desks and as an immediately attractive book it seems it will be very popular with a young fresh audience. Its strengths are particularly graphic ones - the section title pages are witty and arresting with well-chosen images and coloured grounds, such as Robert Dawson’s beautiful tile panel for the final chapter on page 182. Sixty or so contemporary ceramic artists and designers have contributed. Some are a lot more contemporary than others; some are famous and some are barely out of college. The quality ranges a great deal, and this shows evidence of the need for a firmer editorial hand. A stronger, better informed selection of work would give this book some of the conviction it lacks.

The work is divided into seven categories with slightly clichéd titles such as

Earthly Inspirations and Surface Pleasures to cover pots, playing around with pots, figurative, nature-inspired work, sculpture, installation and decoration. Meaningless conjunctions, such as coming upon Jane Hamlyn and Grayson Perry on adjacent pages in the Vessel section, when their intentions could not be more different, are opportunities sadly missed for rational interpretation of the field. Some better categories could be imagined - what about ‘Satire’ for instance, which could bring together Richard Slee, Stephen Dixon, Carol McNicoll, Grayson Perry, to name a few?

The issue of what design is in contemporary ceramics is also not addressed at all, and various designers’ contributions are scattered through other sections. No conclusions are drawn from the international mix either, and what that signifies. The book will thrive on the power of some of its pictures - Phoebe Cummings’ staircase, Kjell Rylander’s hybrid forms, Clare Twomey’s blue birds infesting the ochre coloured Sculpture Court at the V&A, Keith Harrison’s Last Supper firing spectacle; another photo from the same evening event Clay Rocks held in that museum (and unmentioned in the captions). Robert Dawson’s tile patterns drifting in and out of focus, and Linda Sormin’s gutsy chaotic sprawl of raw and fired clay filling space, are also a visual delight. Many casual seekers for the current cutting edge in contemporary ceramics will be happy just to look at the pictures - but ‘new approaches to ceramics’ need to be described as well as shown.

What the text does give us is a vague and upbeat introduction, followed by three essays and their accompanying illustrations. The smaller significant details of captions with dates, size, country of origin, these categories and specifics for those who know more and want to enquire more deeply, are erratically provided.

The essays, all by makers, seek to carve up the territory in different and interesting ways, but this book is on the whole less satisfying to read than to look at. The essays begin well. Natasha Daintry’s The Essential Vessel explores the pot and containment through its two opposing two sections on formlessness and form, and is written with grace and style, a sort of elegant passion for the quotations she includes as well as her arguments, and the illustrations are well chosen, striking, and specific to her text.

Rob Barnard was a strange choice for the second essay The Idea of the New , when newness is really something he sees dangers in. His account of the development of post-war ceramics, a useful framework for a book such as this, is rooted in the wistful thinking of the seventies, and in American experience which was different from Europe’s in several significant ways. Artists at the cutting edge in the formative ‘New Ceramics’ period of the seventies and eighties never ditched the pot form in much of Europe, the UK Scandinavia and Holland for instance, to the extent that American artists did, where sculpture denoted ceramic modernity. The book has an international scope which is vague and unexplored but is predominantly European.

Regarding the development of the debate about ceramics’ aspirations as art almost half a century ago, I was irritated by Barnard not telling us what kind of work Rose Slivka is writing about in the famous essay of hers about clay and painting in 1961 Craft Horizons that ruffled so many feathers - it was Voulkos and his colleagues that had moved her to write it, and as we have already seen a picture of him in Natasha Daintry’s essay on page7, to omit this seems to erode meaning. Was he afraid of causing offence?

Barnard’s essay has an interesting three part structure in which he is critical of both the status-seeking arty ceramicists whose endless search for novelty is specious, and the die-hard orientalists tied at all costs to the functional pot and Japanese traditions in an American landscape. He argues instead for work to show a deep comprehension of ceramic language, with reference to Philip Rawson definition of this in his book Ceramics. This makes a good point - vitality is always what matters:

Rawson’s idea of a ceramic language gives us a way out of the dead-end approaches that modern ceramic art has clung to over the past 50 years. It does not pit the past against the future, the useful against the purely artistic and puts the technical aspects of ceramics into their proper perspective.

It is not clear however what kind of ceramics he does regard as ‘complete’ though it seems that timeless, poetic, and classic qualities are ones he endorses. The illustrations to his essay are less clearly attached to the writing, apart from a reference to Leach’s Standard Ware and a pot by Kazuo Yagi. While he writes well his slightly injured tone is reminiscent of the seventies, and I think the arguments have shifted. Culminating in quotes from British writers Rawson (Ceramics,1971) and Virginia Woolf (died 1941) seems not to be nearly new enough for a book of this title.

Clare Twomey’s essay Contemporary Clay is divided into five sections on objects, hybrids, sculpture, the gallery as context and site, and lastly tackles the important and relatively new territory of ceramic objects as installation, rather than discrete objects which could be shown anywhere. The installation field is where her own work resides with great aplomb. The different sections of her essay have potential overlaps and are not quite convincing - surely all of this can be called sculpture? She writes with a rambling and uncertain style, sometimes with the breathless enthusiasm of a press-release, especially in her awkward introductory paragraphs which would have been the chance to pull it all together. The illustrations though are well placed and all referred to in her text, even if some captions leave you hungry.

The categorization of new work is an area for fresh interpretation, and some imprecision and confusion is likely. How are we to discern the difference when Carol McNicoll puts her pieces on old furniture in a historic exhibition hall in Norway, which in my view, and I believe Carol’s, does not make it site-specific . And aren’t all exhibitions making use of the verb to install? Confusing too when Edmund de Waal, who is a key figure in the site-specific approach, and has for years been carefully placing porcelain pots in different buildings, is described but not illustrated. The Belgian Piet Stockmans, who has made installations in clay since the eighties if not before, appears in her Gallery as Context section as part of a new wave because they were not shown here until 1999.

But when we get to page 133 of the artists sections and see Clare’s bluebirds installation for the V&A Trophy in full performative action with some blurred outlines of people on the move and children wriggling on the floor, more is made clear of these nuanced distinctions between site-specific and installation works.

This book has valid ambitions, there are new things to be revealed and written about. Stronger overall editing with a real understanding of the contemporary clay scene and its recent past, and a better budget for commissioning essays, could have made this an important book.

(This is an expanded version of the review which appeared in the November/December 2007 issue of Ceramic Review)


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Dialogues with Tradition in the Ceramics of Eytan Gross

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Sankofa exhibition at Manchester, review

by Angharad Thomas

Sankofa exhibition at Aberystwyth, review

by Kathy Talbot and Louise Chennell

Searching For Beauty, Richard Jacobs, book review

by Conor Wilson

Review of the event 'Richard Jacobs and Jeffrey Jones in conversation in Cardiff

by Natasha Mayo

Breaking the Mould, book review

by Alison Britton

Kiln Building, Jo Finch, book review

by Tom Barnett

Book Review by Alison Britton • Issue 10