Interpreting Ceramics | issue 11 | 2009
Articles & Reviews
Ceramics Without the Ceramics: Material Exploration in New Territories
Jane Webb reflects on conversations with Stephen Dixon
Stephen Dixon has been creating a range of large slab-built ceramic sculptural vessels, modelled figures and moulded plates, decorated with a complexity of images from abstract marks to detailed figures, for a number of years. Having studied fine art at Newcastle-upon-Tyne University and then ceramics at the Royal College of Art in London, Dixon explores contemporary politics, evoking both the traditions of flat-back Staffordshire ceramic figures as well as contemporary political cartoons. But despite the richness and success of an output that has resulted in many exhibitions and in his work being purchased for public collections in Britain and America, the artist has been feeling that his affiliation to ceramics alone has become ‘a monkey’ on his shoulder, restricting his practice for a number of years.3
It is difficult to identify the exact cause of Dixon’s sense of restriction and, in his case, it seems to have been a combination of both public and personal pressures. In some ways Dixon felt he was allowing himself to become typecast by audience expectation and approval but, like many makers, had not found the time or discovered the means, by which to shift from an established mode of making. Though Dixon had an inkling that any shift may come about by embracing other materials, he was unsure how or even whether to tackle such experimentation. An important factor in this indecision was also the traditional role of material within the crafts in Britain where there has been an emphasis on an intimate and longstanding relationship between maker and material. In the wake of Bernard Leach, a man who made the processing of ceramic material a very personal ritual, there is still widespread difficulty in relinquishing the demand for a lifelong apprenticeship with a single material within craft philosophy. If one looks at any number of the current obituaries of makers from Leach’s period and even later, there is very often an enduring emphasis on the importance of the mastering of one material. Indeed it would seem that the very notion of craftsmanship, of skill, is difficult for the British to conceive of without this single-mindedness, and is perhaps why there are still so few British forums for craft practice that are not material specific. Journals in particular are largely organised by medium.
Thus it was through both personal and traditional restraints that Dixon’s inertia could only be resolved by being removed from his everyday practice and situation. Almost immediately in travelling to the other side of the world to undertake his residency at the JamFactory, and despite being based in the ceramics studios, Dixon felt freed from the trusted modes and materials of his creative practice. Anthropologists note that this change comes as a result of a feeling of neutrality because one is effectively neither at home nor in a new permanent home.4 The neutrality that Dixon felt was added to by the guidelines of the HAT 2 scheme which did not require the maker to produce any finished outcomes but asked the participant to simply engage with the location. Furthermore, Dixon had created a formal research question for an AHRC5 funding application that helped him financially during his residency. These again required the examination of his social and historical environment in a way that is usually not as formally required of artists on residency. As such, though surrounded by incredibly inspiring ceramicists in the JamFactory studios, Dixon felt compelled by his environment rather than by his material, and was free to follow his more ‘wilder moments’.6 These included making an orange fruit box copy of Ned Kelly’s birthplace, collecting images of punishment masks and Ned Kelly’s home-made body armour contained in museums, and gathering wire soap dispensers from Op Shops.7
Yet still in telephone and email discussions during the residency, Dixon described these experiments as ‘foolish notions’8 and allowed them to sit only on the margins of his practice.9 Dixon’s reluctance to acknowledge these as central, new practices indicated that there was still a personal barrier for the artist to overcome and this seemed to derive from what appeared to be two conflicting thoughts. During a post-residency interview, the artist commented that ‘it’s the idea and moving the idea on that’s more important than the material itself’. Yet in the same conversation, Dixon also stated that he could not develop work without making it, a comment suggesting that for him, the idea and material were still very much intertwined.10 Though this seemed to be a contradiction, even in some ways to Dixon himself, the conundrum these comments produced does provide a hint as to the artist’s later understanding of his own practice outside, or rather alongside, the use of ceramics.
In his introduction to The Persistence of Craft (2002) Paul Greenhalgh suggests that the shift from a homogenous concept of craft into many different craft practices, should be understood as a shift in the meaning of the term ‘craft’ from a relatively standardised practice into a word suggestive of many genres, in the same way that the terms ‘literature’ or ‘film’ describe a diversity of activity.11 By using and developing Greenhalgh’s ideas on genre, it is possible to resolve Dixon’s separation of idea from material, on the one hand, and his reliance on the material for the idea, on the other.
Just as fine art has been traditionally considered through genres, the crafts could be considered in a similar way, providing a clearer theoretical channel by which to appreciate the diversity of craft practices. One might argue that the exploration of the still-life genre is as pertinent to Gwyn Hanssen Pigott as it was to Giorgio Morandi because a genre is not simply determined by the superficial classification of material or the subject of the finished works, but by the reasoning and processes involved in the creation of that object/image. In the case of still-life the technical elements making up the practice of this genre could include the examination of the formal qualities of composition, light, shade, and volume, the use of iconology, and the evocation of human presence and memory. Understanding Dixon’s work, not as that of a ceramicist, but as that of a satirist, aids the resolution of the artist’s comments as well as an insight into the way that his work developed while at the JamFactory. Interestingly, during Dixon’s residency, Stephen Bowers, the director of the institution identified him as a satirist, wondering how the artist’s ‘satirical eye’ would be turned onto Australia.12
Satire derives from an imprecise Latin word meaning simply ‘a medley’, but this notion of a gathering of diverse elements is highly appropriate for Dixon’s work; in his case indicating the collection of objects and graphics that are used not simply to ridicule but to provoke through the often surreal juxtapositions of usually unrelated images. Satire encompasses many forms of creative practice including literature, film, theatre, print-making and caricature, and it is the breadth of the genre across many disciplines that allows one to transcend the limitations of media and to consider the technical elements that make up the creation of ‘satire’. In beginning to understand his practice as a satirist, Dixon himself commented how this was an ‘attitude to making’ in general, and not simply an attitude to the making of ceramics.13
In her essay on Dixon’s work for his solo show at the Manchester Art Gallery in 2005, Diana Donald referred to Ernst Gombrich’s thoughts on the work of the satirical cartoonist. Gombrich explained that the demands of depicting abstract ideas required the artist to employ visual metaphors, political bestiaries, and to personify countries and political ideas.14 Gombrich’s list of satirical visualisation can be extended to consider the more general techniques that are part of a satirical attitude to making such as the satirist’s need to adopt the role of the observer or outsider in society, the use of popular imagery alongside that normally associated with ‘high’ culture, the construction of a symbolism that is both personal and yet understandable (in part) by a collective audience, the employment of narrative, order and sequence, and importantly the intention to ridicule and reveal the hypocrisy of the establishment (in whatever sphere that is). If we consider these activities in the analysis of Dixon’s residency work, then we will see that far from breaking away from his former ideas, Dixon’s residency simply, though crucially, gave him the freedom and time to understand his practice as satire, realigning his relationship to ceramics. From the characteristics of satirical practice listed above, this essay will focus more specifically on the satirist as observer and on the use of narrative order and sequence in Dixon’s residency and post-residency work. However implicit within all of Dixon’s work is the use of popular imagery, the construction of a set of symbols and the intention to reveal the oppression of established order and as such the essay will contain information pertinent to these practices, though they are not focussed on directly.
As a commentator on current political issues, most recently the policies of George Bush and Tony Blair, Dixon has had to place himself outside of current politics and instead consider each new event by looking backwards at history and forward into the future. By doing this, he has mapped the longevity and impact of ideas and decisions, transcending and ridiculing the short-term memory of modern day political doctrine. Dixon makes monuments of throwaway news, revealing the reasons for the occurrence of apparently unprecedented events and demanding that we heed their seriousness. Like all satirists, Dixon is therefore a wandering flâneur, wondering at the news and making us aware of the brutal realities and the uncomfortable truths we try not to see.
As noted previously, the outsider’s stance often adopted with a feeling of neutrality, is inevitably the natural position for an artist-in-residence or for an anthropologist doing fieldwork, and therefore one might imagine that Dixon found himself in Australia on familiar territory philosophically, though on unfamiliar territory geographically. Yet as a Westernised country Australia, and in particular Adelaide, was strangely familiar and this created a dilemma for him. Adelaide could have tempted Dixon into adopting his habitual satirical stance, yet his unfamiliarity with the political situation and the complexity of the internal cultural politics in Australia, meant that Dixon was bereft of the powerful understanding he has developed as a long-time observer of Anglo-American relations. This underlying cultural difference, despite superficial similarities, also suggested to the artist that he must explore the neutrality he was feeling, and engage with his own position as a privileged visitor from the ‘old country’, able to ‘drop’ into another society and seemingly given the right to scrutinise it. In order to resolve the ethics of this, Dixon chose to explore the workings of colonialism itself. He focused on the passage of people from Europe to Australia through either enforced relocation or emigration, and in this way concentrated less on specifics and more on the broader themes of colonial power and punishment that affected every Australian, whether indigenous or not. Simultaneously, this focus acknowledged the artist’s own position as stranger and privileged visitor. Thus in effect Dixon exploited his usually adopted ‘outsider’ role to address the more abstract notions of control and resistance in which his own practice was implicated. This research into power structures, and defiance in the face of them, became symbolised for Dixon by pitting the ephemeral material culture of make do and mend within both settler and indigenous nineteenth-century Australian society, against the permanence of colonial and post-colonial monuments.
During the residency, the artist began to search for a new personal alphabet, focussing on the objects that suggested control, resistance and that had accrued meaning through the very action of movement across the globe - the objects themselves symbolising the artist’s own transitory state. Some examples of this type of object were found in preparation for the residency where Dixon researched the tokens that were given to loved ones by convicts about to be transported to penal colonies in Australia. The love tokens were filed-down coins which were then re-engraved by hand with symbols of love and travel, as well as verse. As such, these objects represented a small gesture of defiance by the convicts who mutilated and symbolically defaced a monument to Britishness, capitalism and ultimately the authority by which they had been captured and imprisoned. These tokens also allowed a brief voice to be heard within a punishment system that was determined, not only to make the criminals silent, but also to make them disappear from Britain altogether. For Dixon, the love tokens were an important symbol of the enforced migration of objects and people across the vast distances separating Britain and Australia, and their principle of subversion and adaptation inspired Dixon’s many Op shop visits.
Over the period of his residency, these Op Shops provided the artist with a series of ceramic plates that had largely been produced in Stoke-on-Trent and then exported to Australia. They evoked for Dixon, the insidious and subtle means of colonial oppression through their quasi-traditional homely Britishness evoked in shape and border relief. Bringing them back to England, Dixon created Stack by recasting and glazing them in a ‘fleshy’ finish (Fig.1), creating a minimal form of decoration that intensified their basic stylistic characteristics. To accompany each plate, the artist constructed a series of stamps from ceramic and pewter. These were constructed from the alphabet of images built up before, during and after his residency, and included the image of a ship sampled from a hand-made love token. As well as being part of the exhibits themselves, these stamp images were used to imprint the centre of each plate creating a relief of the same image. Through this branding of anonymous objects, Dixon aimed to refer to the officialdom as well as punishment associated with colonialism, whilst creating a sequence of objects that posed questions about how individuals lose their distinctiveness within the cogs of colonial administration. With the inclusion of pewter as an addition to ceramic, Stack marked an important step for Dixon because he was beginning to incorporate alternative materials meaningfully, as well as images, into his vocabulary. The pewter on the base of the stamps referred to the first European mark of ownership of Australia as, in the 17th century, a Dutch sea captain engraved a ship’s pewter plate before nailing it to a post, heralding the start of a European invasion. Though this use of new material was radical to Dixon himself, it was however not the pewter that was of interest, and in part concern, to some observers.15 Rather it was the nature of the ceramic body - kangaroo-bone china - that created the strongest statement of Dixon’s adopted outsider role and sense of his own neutrality.
It had not been simply objects that Dixon had collected during his residency, but materials which included kangaroo and emu bones. Though the artist was carefully respectful of the sacred nature of animal bones within the reserves of the indigenous Australian population, he was advised that it would be possible to collect some kangaroo and emu bone that had been road kill and were scattered over many of the highways in the Australian outback. Familiar with the history of British bone china and the use of ox bone, Dixon experimented with kangaroo and emu bone as a method of producing a bone china that would signify, through its composition, symbols of Australia that are familiar to the rest of the world. This consideration of the nature of the ceramic material represented another development within Dixon’s shift to appropriate materials within his work, and also satisfied his desire to achieve a more minimal use of decoration.16 Yet by the very action of removing material so central to Australian identity, Dixon was also evoking a more uncomfortable history of British acquisition and classification of Australian natural history and society. In doing so he implicated himself within the mechanism of physical and intellectual colonialism. It is perhaps this difficult edginess, in which questions are created and left to provoke, rather than be resolved, that has made this seemingly quiet piece one of the most successful examples of Dixon’s post-residency work. Furthermore, though Stack is mainly constructed from ceramic, its strength lies in the choice of a specific type of ceramic, available to Dixon only through his sense of freedom to explore other materials.
One of the main techniques of the satirist is to establish a narrative that employs a sequence of events or images that will create meaning. On most occasions visually-based satire also incorporates text to accomplish this. Though ‘narrative’ is a phrase more usually associated with literature it is equally applicable, and has had a long tradition, within the visual arts. Just as literary forms have a structure that makes them what they are, for instance prose requires a far different physical structuring of words than certain forms of poetry, so do artistic genres. In both cases the creative tension comes between the idealised form of the genre and its appropriation by an individual writer or artist. Narrative is also a crucial part of caricature where cartoonists will appropriate and parody metaphors or figures of speech, established works of art or everyday situations as a method of structuring narrative.
As a satirist whose work has often been related to caricature, Dixon’s pre-residency work has similarly required the establishment of a narrative sequence to construct meaning for an audience. But working in three-dimensions, the artist’s method involves not only a narrative within the representation on the surface of his objects, but also between that representation and the various three-dimensional forms of his work. An example of this is one of Dixon’s 21 Countries plates from 2003 (Fig.2). In order to create understanding, the artist uses a range of different mark-making techniques. These include washes of single colour or abstracted, simple patterns to create what he terms ‘mood’ or context, abstracted and gestural marks inferring direction and emphasis, and a series of hand drawn or appropriated imagery, differing in scale and density of colour.17 In this example, Dixon’s main subject is the famous Classical Laocoön sculpture, which is represented as a line drawing laid over a printed image of Britney Spears from her performance at the Grammies with a live snake. The placement of the print beneath the drawing suggests that a contemporary event – in this case Spears’ support for George Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq - has a complex and historical context. This is inferred by the Biblical symbolism that Spears herself created by using the snake - a symbol of the devil and sexual knowledge. However Dixon draws her actions into a broader question by creating a visual analogy between Spears’ snake and the one strangling Laocoön and his sons. Laocoön was being punished for trying to prevent the Trojans taking the dangerous wooden horse inside the city walls, so attempting to prevent Troy’s defeat. Spears’ views can be seen in relation to this as she was a supporter of Bush, so favouring the political interpretation of the President’s that in order to prevent ultimate defeat, he had to take proactive steps in invading Iraq. As such, these two attempts to pre-empt defeat give further significance to the snake that Spears parades. But in the light of the Laocoön image, Britney’s snake begins to appear less under her control, perhaps with the potential to punish her for this publicised support.
Though the Britney image is more contemporary, the plate actually refers in its imprinting of the words Granada and the date 1983, to the bombing of that island by the United States. This, in turn, deepens the use of narrative structure within the piece by utilising the three-dimensional form of the object. Although much of the plate is used as a canvas, with little reference to it as a specific object, the narrative structure also partly employs the tradition of commemorative plates within the ceramics industry. Thus the irony of the plate is that it should commemorate such an event and it utilises the narrative devices created by the rim of the plate on which the date and place of bombing are imprinted, as well as a suggestion of a traditional border, using transfer prints of sunflowers to establish this. This employment of form as a method of structuring narrative is used to even greater affect on Dixon’s slab-built pots in which basic two-dimensional images are accompanied by a single modelled figure, almost like the figure-head of a ship. Dixon’s pre-residency work used this overall form of the object, which in the case of his slab-built sculptures were derived from an oil can (an overarching symbol of the underlying cause of much contemporary political wrangling in his opinion), to create a meaningful narrative. Different emphasis on collected imagery was further indicated by the utilisation of the form’s lids, spouts, handles, walls, constructed joints and sprigs.
Clearly Dixon had established a confidence in using the narrative of the vessel and plate forms pre-residency but, alongside an emerging alphabet in Australia, there were new challenges in the way that narrative was to be constructed. Because of a shift in focus, the artist no longer had familiar forms to work on, but began instead to utilise readymade objects as a way to create a narrative structure for his new alphabet. Dixon identified this subtle change in the form of his work, from self-constructed to readymade, as an important shift that occurred in his residency.18 An example of this emerging practice was the use of enamel ware again found in Op Shops. Dixon was able to re-fire these and used what came to hand, letting the found object shape the narrative. Superb Blue Wren (Fig.3) is the name of a piece created from a small enamel tin mug found in such a location. The tone and scale of the mug’s material and surface offered a playful connection between settler culture and one of the main aspects of Australian wildlife that initially struck the artist.
During his residency, however, Dixon more commonly used the enamel plate as a way of drawing and developing ideas, finding their connection to settler culture and the qualities of the material energising and inspiring. These initial plates offer an interesting insight into the development of Dixon’s emerging alphabet and many of them show the use of these new symbols in which the narrative structure afforded by the form of the plate is utilised to great effect. The plates’ centres indicate the main subject, whilst the rims and borders suggest the title and overarching theme. One example of such a plate depicts the silence hood used to isolate prisoners decorated with a chintzy pattern that, when combined with the worn and over fired enamel surface and the word ‘silence’ printed on the rim, makes a disturbingly direct and simple statement. (Fig.4) The niceties of nineteenth-century British domestic life are transformed into the hardships and power struggles of the settlers’ new life in Australia. Though Dixon had used plate and vessel previously, these examples suggest a change in his personal relationship to narrative. Firstly, in using enamel, found plates, Dixon is not trying to represent his imagery, as he did with the oil cans, but rather he provides the actual object for us, collapsing the distance that we might have felt between ourselves and the subject. Settler life is not symbolised, it is immediate and physical. The style of the narrative is also transformed through a new bold simplicity of image and text. Rather than the ‘jigsaw’ or riddle of meaning that Dixon has created over many years, building up layer upon layer of symbolism like a Homeric epic, the simplicity of the new image/text combination offers an equally dense but more succinct statement – a minimalism akin to the concept of haiku poetry, a Japanese literary form requiring the poet to use only 17 syllables to construct a scene. Using the same simplicity but in an alternative method to narrative structure, Dixon has created two pieces since his return that, alongside Stack, he feels begin to resolve his ideas and thoughts about his residency, as well as his relationship to ceramics. These two sequential pieces – Caged and Desert Fruit, were also both finished this year.
Caged (Fig. 5) comprises of a set of three wire soap holders, bought from an antique shop in Adelaide. Dixon had never encountered such objects before and was interested to note that many of his Australian colleagues did not recognise the objects either. Remnants of the make-do and mend life of many settlers, the soap holders were used to contain fragments of bars of soap which were then employed in washing by being swished around in water, so making use of every last piece of soap. As well as aesthetic appeal, the holders also signified for Dixon a life that demanded ingenuity simply for survival and spoke of the hardships of settler life, irrespective of whether that life was chosen or enforced. Furthermore, these objects became a metaphor for the entrapment of people within the judicial British system. As such Caged offers a narrative from left to right that reveals the metaphorical transformation from (on the left) a soap holder containing its original soap fragments, (in the middle) a soap holder containing the casts of soap fragments in kangaroo-bone china and (on the right) a soap holder containing the kangaroo-bone china figure of a Galah (pink cockatoo) contained within its now gilded cage. This metamorphosis in turn evokes a deeper narrative that begins to ascribe blame for criminality (jail birds) on the power and oppression created by poverty within a colonial capitalist society.
In a similar method, Desert Fruit (Fig.6) offers a thoughtful comment on the difficult situation and status of indigenous Aboriginal Australians within Australian society. Dixon visited the Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal homelands and collected three drinks containers from rubbish that had been thrown on the floor. Shaped as fruit, the artist saw an immediate irony in the plastic imitation, an unhealthy and sugary drink masquerading as a healthy option, or at least one that suggested some relation to real fruit. Whilst Dixon was in Australia, he became aware of the concerns for the health of many of the Australian Aboriginal population in which the rapid rate of diabetes development was being blamed on poor diet. These objects seemed to evoke the enforced fracture of the Aboriginal populations from their traditional, ritual homelands and territory that had resulted in the adoption of a sedentary lifestyle. As such Dixon felt compelled to use the cartons. In Desert Fruit, they have been filled with (left to right) desert sand, calcined (ground and fired) kangaroo bone and lake salt, collected on the journey to and from the Pitjantjara lands. As such these plastic containers ironically become both containers that enclose a precious material whilst trapping it and preventing the natural substances from being removed and freed. The packages are sealed with a red wax that evokes both the red Poisonous seeds of the jequirity plant, used as decoration on aboriginal artefacts, as well as the red wax on Australian fruit to denote that it is organic. In this way, though complex in narrative via material and sequencing, the aesthetic remains minimal.
As part of the original breakdown of the satirist’s art, there was listed ‘the act of ridiculing or highlighting the hypocrisy of the establishment’. As was noted at the beginning of the essay, this has been a constant part of Dixon’s pre-residency work which, during his residency, was focused on a more abstracted notion of the arsenal of Western power. Within the work, there was one further powerful authority that Dixon was self consciously exposing – the understanding of his own ceramic practice. This is visible within the artist’s emerging visual vocabulary.
Dixon collected images of many types of masks from the prison silence hoods to Ned Kelly’s home made armour and helmet, representative of the persistent themes of control, defiance and adaptation within his residency research. It is illuminating that, alongside these punishment and defence masks, Dixon associated another one found within the JAM factory itself – the kiln visor. The kiln visor was drawn and printed on several plates during the artist’s residency and it is evident that it formed a self-conscious expression of Dixon’s realignment with ceramics during that time. In one ceramic plate, the kiln visor is depicted with the word ‘ned’, i.e. Ned Kelly, in the centre of the plate. Above there is an Australian butterfly, colourful but seemingly pinned to the rim, accompanied with numbers at the base suggesting scientific classification. Thus, though the plate is incredibly minimal, within a few simple images there is a complexity of meaning that offers a sense of Dixon’s feelings of restriction and his metaphorical identification with the bushrangers who challenged the authority of the state. This plate offers the suggestion that, like Ned, the artist wanted to escape from his current identity as a ceramicist but like the specimen butterfly he was trapped. Crucially however the entire statement remained in ceramic, and this ceramic base was to form a new relationship with the material for Dixon that he has since developed.This essay has explored both the new work done after Stephen Dixon’s residency in Australia, alongside some completed during his stay. The discussion has attempted to reveal how Dixon’s escape from personal and professional restrictions in his work allowed him to develop a new alignment to ceramics, a shift that can be understood theoretically through the concept of the genre of satire. The discussion of this satirical practice has been focussed on the role of the outsider, the concept of neutrality and the development of narrative specifically and has been used to explore the artist’s most recent and challenging work.
© The copyright of all the images in this article rests with the author unless otherwise stated
Ceramics Without the Ceramics Issue 11