The current exhibition at Cross Lane Projects in Kendal is called 4 – a clever title that neatly squares up the work of four distinctive artists, Lawson Oyekan, Gavin Turk, William Plumptre and Nicola Tassie. Implying both allegory and category, the title 4 presents the audience with several ways to interpret the intention behind the selection of these seemingly contrasting art practices: an even quartering, or the cardinal points on a compass (with a central point of convergence) perhaps. Selected and curated by gallery Director Rebecca Scott, the chosen works occupy the four corners of the gallery and represent the unique relationship between each artist and their shared material. Placed together in one compact space the artworks demonstrate the extent of clay’s timeline from artefact, to utilitarian craft object and modern artform, whilst also acknowledging the ascension of clay as an artist’s medium particularly in fine art approaches since the early 2000’s.
Ceramic art in general has experienced a simultaneous hierarchical shift with art galleries and museums increasingly showcasing sculptural ceramics and vessels in major shows. Lubaina Himid’s ceramic painted plates, Veronica Ryan’s natural sculptures and Shawanda Corbett’s ceramic vessels, film and jazz score which is currently showing at Tate Britain for example, reflect an eclectic, multi-faceted view of this contemporary art practice. As examples of the relationship between artist and clay, the works included in 4 propose a critical dialogue between the blurring boundaries of art and craft, exposing as many reasons to unite the artists as initially appears to divide them; discussed here individually in turn, reflecting the curatorial scheme.
1. The exhibition layout flows clockwise and begins with Lawson Oyekan’s ten selected works where all but one, which is placed on a round table, stand directly on the floor within a separate alcove. Nine pierced or carved clay vessels of various shapes and sizes surround a central sculptural piece, ‘Analogous Fabric, English Clay’ (1998). A rich clay-red slightly larger than human-sized monolith, its hollow structure glimpsed through irregular thumb-sized holes or ‘eyes’; Oyekan describes the monoliths as bodies. An amalgamation of layers, the textured exterior exposes the artist’s hands-on engagement with the material. Towering above the other works, it rises from the ground with the looming presence of an ancient standing stone. On his website under the title ‘Existential Regular Challenges, Creative Industries and Ingenuity’ he writes : ‘But I love Forests and rock formations as much as I love the open sea. I am also curious to examine what energies constitute the affable aura of a place. Starting from the geomorphic earth to the sentient mechanical motion continuity of life above ground.’ The title of the piece suggests the work can be viewed as metaphorical, representing the birth of form from a mindful and meticulous construction; the materiality of human experience combining reciprocally with the handled clay in a process of morphogenesis. In his own words he explains ‘I intend to express human endurance and deliver a message of reassurance: that fellow humans ought to know they have the natural capacity to heal automatically.’
2. Gavin Turk’s conceptual work ‘En Face’ (2010) is a selection of six varnished clay busts on basic wooden plinths. Resulting from an interactive performance called ‘The Bust Party’ (a continuation of the project ‘Distortion’ (2009) at the Venice Biennale), a number of invited guests were encouraged to manipulate a series of seventy-two wet clay busts depicting the artist. Each bust is mutilated or violently distorted, disfigured or adorned and evidences a reflexive action executed quickly and without technique. Placed on plinths usually associated with classical sculpture, the busts occupy the place of art, but as the title suggests (en face is French for opposite), these clay monsters play with convention. To understand the concept behind the work we are required to question exactly what and who makes an artwork an artwork, and Turk’s intention to subvert leads us to consider the very nature of art itself. As Rachel Newsome concludes in her essay about the series, ‘These Deformed Clay Busts’ which is available to read on Turk’s website, the busts are not the artwork and as such, do not require or provoke our appreciation. They are the artefacts left over from a performative exchange. She refers to Nicholas Bourriaud’s description of this type of interaction as ‘a collaborative elaboration of meaning.’ There is also a coincidental association with temporality to the outcomes. In Newsome’s essay, Turk speaks of his search for originality and hoping to achieve a sense of timelessness. Choosing clay as the medium is key to this viewpoint. Although the material itself has no memory, what we read in the appearance of the fired busts is flow fixed in stasis. We are confronted with the chaotic impression of force left behind by each messy, spontaneous instance of contact.
3. Pottery by William Plumptre in a domestic setting occupies the ‘north-east’ corner. Curated on and around a collection of vintage furniture and mid-20th century drop-leaf tables are selected examples of hand-thrown and press-molded stoneware by the artist. The references to the home and utility are unmistakable and initially the works suggest a robust practicality; a sturdy jug, narrow necked vessels, rice bowls designed to fit the curve of a palm, jars, pots, and platters are placed in careful alignment to maximize the accomplishment of each individual piece. The forms are characterised by a hand-made Anglo-Oriental appearance of subtle, muted greys and blues enhanced by richly glazed textures and patterns. Plumptre trained at Chelsea College of Art before travelling to Japan in the eighties to study in the workshops of three different potters, including a year with the Japanese Master Tatsuzo Shimaoka. Since then, he has developed his own unique style specialising in a rope marking decorative technique and a range of glazes produced using locally gathered wood ash. On closer inspection there is an attention to finish in Plumptre’s pieces that elevates the work above the status of pottery and its everyday associations. The usefulness of them is counterbalanced by a technical artistry that sits confidently within a contemporary art gallery. The inclusion of traditional pottery within the show both addresses and questions the divergence between craft (with its roots embedded in both the technical process and the haptic experience) and fine art (with its roots embedded in both the technical process and the haptic experience).
4. Seven free-standing ceramic sculptural assemblages by Nicola Tassie, including a new body of work produced specifically for the show complete the quadrant. Tassie is a ceramicist whose practice traverses both sculptural ceramics and domestic wares. The sculptural ceramics included in the show reference either the interior domestic, or look to the materials and artificially constructed boundaries found in the external landscape. ‘Totem: Beacon’ (2022) and ‘Totem: Soda’ (2022) are stacked glazed stoneware sculptures; the uncomplicated, smooth bowl and vase-like shapes reminiscent of domestic vessels. According to the dictionary the word totem refers to a natural object or animate being assumed as the emblem of a group. Standing up to 8 feet in height these bright shiny ‘totems’ may at first appear playful – the building blocks of our childhoods – but there’s an unsettling quality to the size and their mass-produced look (though they are all hand thrown) that toys with the notion of craft and the maker. If these are totems to reflect our times, they depict a culture of remoteness, life viewed through a filter, of consumerism and object worship. Tassie trained as a painter at the Central School of Art and Design, London and explains that as a painter ‘the subject came secondary’ in relation to the materials she was using and that ‘form making and surface are interdependent.’ It’s an interesting observation that Tassie’s deep understanding of the material allows her to create work that successfully eliminates all traces of the artist. In ‘The Conditions of Boundaries’ (2022), the reciprocally formed pieces are assembled to create a freestanding boundary within the gallery space and echoes craft techniques traditionally used in dry stone walling – a ubiquitous feature of the Cumbrian landscape. Likewise, ‘Stile’ (2021) and ‘Haltadans’ (2021-2022) (Haltadans is a stone circle found in the Shetland Islands), seek to replicate the organic forms of stones and pebbles as if, mindful of their relationship to the whole, each piece is individually shaped to contribute to its harmonious conclusion. The references to myths, legends, and the natural world in these ‘stone’ works represent a fusing of influences for the artist. Interior and exterior, natural and cultural, and also, a fusing of disciplines that feels very current; while society in general grapples with new ways to reconnect with a natural environment in crisis, Tassie’s work seems to reflect this cultural uncertainty.
Bourriaud proposed that ‘the artist dwells in the circumstances the present offers (them) so as to turn the setting of (their) life (the physical and conceptual world) into a lasting world. They are ‘tenants of culture.’ The ‘nowness’ that Bourriaud describes is a present now underlined by environmental turmoil. Perhaps this explains the artworld’s current enthusiasm for clay, as a potent, elemental, earth-based material in all its creative manifestations. To understand Rebecca Scott’s reasons for selecting the artists, she spoke to me of an intuitive intention ‘to represent four contrasting attitudes to design, the domestic, sculpture and spirituality.’ And it’s clear, each artist represents an opposing approach to art practice, but unexpected synergies also emerge. Each artist expresses a personal connection to their surroundings through their choice of material and working processes. The show undoubtedly succeeds in summarising the possibilities of clay, its material history, and its current position within the contemporary artworld and the context of a renewed interest in ‘ceramic curation’, all with only four astutely selected artists. Reading the exhibition booklet produced to accompany the show is enlightening. The audience is given personal insights into the thoughts and motivations of the artists, revealing more subtle, esoteric nuances to the artworks and connecting them through a shared network of cultural references that are as plastic and amorphous as the material being explored. There is alchemy at work here; the space that the four artists occupy at Cross Lane Projects becoming so much more than the sum of its parts.
4 is at Cross Lane Projects 30 April – 25 June 2022.
Sam Pickett is a visual artist based in Lancaster.