200 words #26 / Shoji Hamada

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Shoji Hamada – Bowl / 13 x 21.5cm / private collection UK / image – Michael Harvey, Oxford Ceramics

I have long enjoyed the variously attributed quote that observes – ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ Its pithy truth about the perpetual failure of the intellect to come up with anything meaningful to say about an artwork occurs to me when I hear many artists try to speak about their work. Potters though, seem in general to suffer from no such trauma of expression. A potter will mention specifics – clay bodies, glaze recipes, firing ranges and multiple failures leading to modest successes. I like to think that this concentration on the medium and the skills involved in pottery allows for slow and meaningful innovation.

In 1953 ceramic artists Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach delivered a lecture tour across the US. The tour contributed to the shift in American pottery from being a staid and functional craft to an artform. At the same time in the States, Anni Albers, through textile weaving, was showing a healthy disregard for any debate around functionality and art. For Albers, coming from the Bauhaus, and for Hamada, one of the leading potters of the Mingei movement in Japan, there had never been any question of a distinction between craft and art – enough said.

Shoji Hamada at work – YouTube video

The Mingei Film Archive Project – watch

Shoji Hamada current exhibition at Leach Pottery

Shoji Hamada at Oxford Ceramics

Toshiko Takaezu

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Toshiko Takaezu / #8 Closed Form, 1970-1979, Salt-glazed stoneware, 9 x 8 1/2 inches (22.9 x 21.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of the artist, 2007-68-8, © Toshiko Takaezu

When potters are learning essential skills on the wheel, they will often use a gauge – perhaps no more than a chopstick held in place with a lump of clay – to ensure that a series of pieces reach the same height and diameter. And to develop an awareness of the vessel as a 3-dimensional object, and to ensure uniformity of shape, they might use a mirror held in place to reflect the side which is out of view as the piece is being formed. In short, everything the potter does reminds her of the form and volume of the object she is making.

For several decades the American artist Toshiko Takaezu (b. Hawaii 1922, d. Hawaii 2011) taught the skills involved in forming pottery on the wheel, teaching first at the Ceramics Department at the Cleveland Institute of Art in Ohio, and then at Princeton, where she helped to develop the visual art program. She herself had studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Michigan under the influential Finnish ceramist Maija Grotell – a training which would give her a solid yet experimental approach to the unique challenges and problems of ceramics.

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Toshiko Takaezu throwing a ceramic pot / Toshiko Takaezu papers, 1937-2010. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Wheel formed pottery’s unique challenges are tied to the demands of the medium and the skills involved in handling and forming it. This is a factor which often leads to more subtle shifts and developments over time than might be registered in another artform, such as painting. Another factor which influences the way the potter thinks about her medium is the serial mode of producing vessels on the wheel. In Japanese pottery this repetition, and the natural impulse to try to produce identical objects, was harnessed and made central to the creation of such objects as Chawan – tea bowls thrown off the hump – a method of repeat throwing in which the potter forms a series of vessels one after another from a single large hump of clay on the wheel. In Japanese pottery the subtle inconsistencies and imperfections which necessarily result from any attempt at identical repeat throwing are embraced rather than rejected.

Toshiko Takaezu was maturing as a potter and artist in the 1950s – a period when artists such as Peter Voulkos were exploding the very form of the vessel itself. Voulkos, like Takaezu, was an immensely skilled potter. He took his experiments to a large scale and chopped up and reassembled his colossal pots so that they relinquished all functionality and now looked more like modernist sculptures. To me they recall the wobbly urns and jugs that Braque painted in his patient 1940s reworkings of Cubist still life. Voukos’ rupture with the integrity of the vessel looked dramatic on the scale at which he carried it out and was in tune with concurrent developments in painting. On deeper reflection however, Voulkos’ innovations might equally appear as radical reworkings of the kind of openwork ceramics being produced in Korea in the 5th century AD which often featured ventilated bases and angular protrusions. So, the idea of a complete rupture with tradition in ceramics is one which disregards the knowledge and skill which the serious artist will have acquired in order to be able to make even the slightest shift in what he produces and how it looks.

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Toshiko Takaezu / Enclosed Form, 1980; ceramic wheelthrown white clay vessel form with small hole at apex. Gift of MaryAnne Normandin. Credits: Photo by Hannah Finegold. Rights: All Rights Reserved. Image: https://mimi.pnca.edu/

Takaezu’s rupture with the idea of functionality in ceramics was, on the face of it, subtler than that of Peter Voulkos. At the end of years of wheel forming open ended vessels, manipulating subtle shifts in elegant necks, and experimenting with glazes, Takaezu’s revolutionary break came in the moment she decided to close the form completely, sealing it at the top with a steady and patient hand. It is the kind of shift which one can imagine happening in a single unplanned moment following thousands of near repetitions of thrown pots on the wheel, like waves lapping the shore until one finally covers the last visible rock. It was a radical shift very much in keeping with the artist’s personality. In the same way that there is no distinction made in Japanese culture between the status of a painter and a potter, Takaezu saw no distinction in her life between the activities of pottery, cooking and gardening. To her the attention and patience required by each were essential to ensuring any degree of mastery.

From this tidy gesture of sealing the top of her vessels, the artist proceeded to elaborate on the forms which could be produced now that the functionality of the object had been reduced to a memory. As she became further drawn into the formal properties of the sealed form, she produced objects of larger scale and more ambitious technical challenge. Like Braque’s pots which seem to emerge from the camouflage of the densely patterned canvas, and with a steady, humming energy like that of Giorgio Morandi’s painted arrangements, Toshiko Takaezu’s vessels from this point on were objects pure and simple, with all the mystery and beauty that this implies.

Toshiko Takaezu documentary on YouTube

 

 

 

Josep Grau-Garriga @ Michel Soskine Inc. Madrid / 13 Sept -24 Nov, 2018

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Josep Grau-Garriga / Cada Día, 1992, Tapestry, 300 x 180cm, Image courtesy of Michel Soskine Inc.

An odd fact at the heart of painting is that it retains such a widely unquestioned status above so many other forms of visual art despite its debt to, and sometimes yearning for, certain qualities of those other media. In commentary, the infinite contortions of the painted surface are routinely spoken about in the borrowed vocabulary of other media. A painting’s presence as object might become so determinant to the way it is interpreted that it is spoken of as being sculptural. And in describing the interaction of motifs on a painting’s surface, such as Piet Mondrian’s experiments with lattices of coloured adhesive tape in his late New York paintings, we might understandably think of tapestry and opt for the word weave. Of course, the term painterly is equally applied across other media when describing a certain trace of fluidity in motif, surface texture, or colour. I would argue however, that what is painterly in painting is that which is evocative to us of the physicality of many other media.

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Josep Grau-Garriga / Textures Fan Mar, 1977, Tapestry, 220 x 225cm, Image courtesy of Michel Soskine Inc.

Tapestry, by virtue of its relative flatness and the range of pictorial possibility available to it, is perhaps more prone than many other art forms to direct comparison with painting. Whilst there is nothing odd today about tapestry occupying the gallery wall, as a stand-alone art form in Europe it has not always been viewed as a medium independent of and equal to painting. The Catalan artist Josep Grau-Garriga (1929, Catalonia – 2011, Angers) speculated that the very practicality of tapestry, in that it is relatively light and easy to roll for transportation, inspired the shift in painting studios around the 14th century from painting on wooden panels to painting directly onto prepared fabric. Whether or not this transition in painting was as straightforward in origin as the artist describes, painting did go on to experience many other transformations across the centuries, whilst the art of tapestry largely remained the remit of artisans until as late as the early 20th century – a factor which served to insulate it from harsh, transformative creative forces.

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Josep Grau-Garriga / Personatge Blau, 1992, Tapestry, 200 x 80cm, Image courtesy of Michel Soskine Inc.

Whilst artists such as Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies – also Catalan incidentally – used fabric and rope with great inventiveness, they did not go down the same route as Grau-Garriga of allowing the material to speak for the entire piece. In their work, fabric typically remained either a support for paint or simply another component within a sort of assemblage involving the two as distinct elements. Grau-Garriga made the transition from painting to tapestry during the late 1950s, during which period he met the artist Jean Lurçat – a key figure in the resurgence of interest in the art form in Europe amongst artists. By the time of their meeting in 1957 Grau-Garriga had already started an involvement with the Casa Aymat – a former carpet manufacturer in Catalonia and now a creative space. In France, the artist would consolidate his skills and make artistic connections.

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Josep Grau-Garriga / De L’Afrique També, 1998, Tapestry, 200 x 113 x 35cm, Image courtesy of Michel Soskine Inc.

Artists who come to a new medium with an established practice in another tend to see that second medium as a means towards expanding on the possibilities of the first. Grau-Garriga’s stated aim however, was to address the tradition of tapestry as a craft in the service of painting – a medium to be manipulated to order by an artisan rather than being worked on directly by the artist. To really address this, and to begin to push the medium in new directions, there could be no half measures. In approaching the art of tapestry from the premise of equal status to painting in its articulation of texture, motif, colour and meaning, Josep Grau-Garriga contributed towards an important and continuing realignment of many art forms traditionally thought of as craft within the shadow of painting.

Josep Grau-Garriga on tapestry (French)

Josep Grau-Garriga at Michel Soskine Inc, Madrid

200 words #25 / Yann Gerstberger

DSC_8776.jpgYann Gerstberger / Sex Messenger, 2018, 280 cm x 250 cm, 110,2 inches x 98,4 inches, Coton, linoleum, colle néoprène, pigments naturels (grana cochenille) photo Hugard & Vanoverschelde. Courtesy Sorry we’re Closed Gallery

The word painterly often gets thrown around without thought for the scope of its significance. When applied to the weave of a tapestry or an area of glaze on a ceramic pot, its very use implies the primacy of painting above crafts. One irony however, is that the thing which is considered painterly in painting is that moment when its very nature as a material – pigment suspended in a medium – is most evident. In that moment, I feel we are in fact appreciating painting as craft. So, it should seem strange for an observer to lend the term to other art forms when in truth, a painting is sometimes most painterly when it reminds us of other media.

In Yann Gerstberger’s large scale tapestries, the heft of the weave and the complexity of fantastical, crude, exotic motifs as they seem about to bleed into each other, may well bring to mind a heavily-worked painted surface. The exaggerated flatness of tapestry weave – in Gerstberger’s case market sourced fabrics and hand-dyed mop-head strands glued to a vinyl surface – is enhanced by the tightly-packed and carefully balanced imagery, the arrangement of which leaves not a single area of visual slackness.

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Studio view – Image courtesy Sorry we’re Closed Gallery

Yann Gerstberger at Sorry We’re Closed Gallery

Alice Peillon

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Alice Peillon – Untitled Collage, mixed media, © 2018. Image courtesy of the artist

If we think of collage as a language of disparate, often delicate elements coming together in taut and balanced interactions, then Alice Peillon has achieved over time no small degree of mastery of its vocabulary and grammar. And if we can agree that a language at its most effective can express both the banal and the profound in a single breath, then we can see evidence in Alice’s work of the artist making the same demands of her medium; collage.

Whilst not precisely minimal, Alice’s collages do manage to express a certain expansiveness which hints at things unsaid within the measurements of the surface. This sense of a sparsely occupied space is all the more surprising on such a small scale. Alice’s experience as a painter contributes to the life of these works. Where paint or ink has been applied in her collages it is like the hint of a larger gesture – one which we can imagine continuing beyond the edges of the artwork. Painted marks are so reduced in these works that, where they appear, brushstrokes could be thought of as potential rather than fully formed. Pigment holds a subtle but powerful presence over these delicate surfaces, like the implied consequence of an unrealized act.

Through her unhurried experiments with paper, ink, fragments of photographic images, and painted gestures Alice is adding to the depth of findings by other exponents of the medium, artists such as Anne Ryan and Lyubov Popova.

This text was produced for the artist’s website – www.alicepeillon.com

Alice’s work is currently on show at Winns Gallery, London – artrabbit.com-winnsgallery

200 words #24 / Josephine Halvorson

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Josephine Halvorson / Night Window, February 11-12, 2015, 2015, Oil on linen, 31 x 22 inches, 79 x 56 cm © Josephine Halvorson, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Representational painting demands that we take it on faith that a subject exists as depicted. Josephine Halvorson paints her subjects on-site and within real-time constraints such as available hours of daylight – or in the case of the series Night Window, which the artist painted during a residency at the French Academy in Rome and which shows the same window on multiple nights – available hours of darkness. Her subjects fill the canvas and convince with every brushstroke.

Peering into the darkness and imagining the world we knew in daylight still there is also an act of faith. The unyielding opacity of Halvorson’s darkened window, with its implied depth, heightens our impulse to catch sight of that world. Looking from painting to painting in the series for traces of difference, we see more discernible depth and detail in the window frame than the endless night beyond.

Halvorson’s subtly different night scenes give the lie to any idea that we register a painted subject solely through the evidence of what is clearly depicted. Just as we can imagine the flaking paintwork on the window frame implied by the artist’s brushwork, so too can we hear the sounds from the darkness outside.

Night Window series on the artist’s website

ART21 / Youtube video of Josephine Halvorson making a painting

Josephine Halvorson at Sikkema Jenkins

Works from the series currently on view – The Lure of the Dark at MASS MoCA