Text by Louise Winter
One might object to hollow volumes in favour of solid materials, but no materials are solid, they all contain caverns and fissures. Solids are particles built up around flux, they are objective illusions supporting grit, a collection of surfaces ready to be cracked’ Smithson, 1968
Karstiess’s latest exhibition, in which he attempts to contain flux and entropy through a series of glazed ceramic boxes and corners, seems contentious given Smithson’s declaration of the fallacy of the self-contained object. But should we dismiss the former’s attempts as merely absurd?
After all, it was Smithson himself who famously coined the term ‘non-site’ to describe material collected from a site that was then contained within the gallery. While Smithson’s practice centred on displacement, Karstiess prefers a much more hands on approach that sees him resume ancient ceramic techniques and, with this, the most archetypal mark of sculptural forming- the imprint of the hand in shapeable clay.
Four vertical corners or monoliths, punctuate the first room of the Hatton Gallery, forming a loose ‘S’ shape that snakes through the middle of the space. Smothered in rich glossy yellows, blues and golds, these shiny surfaces are highly seductive and wouldn’t look out of place on a science fiction set.
On closer inspection, these opulent exteriors evidence a turbulent history, having been variously poked, pummeled, pulled and scratched. The resulting cavities lend the objects an intimacy not usually associated with works of this scale, while at the same time, subverting any notion of the works as decorative.
The objects not only preserve this activity, but also celebrate the hand of the artist, not just Karstiess, but anybody who’s ever bothered or been interested enough to stick their finger in a lump of clay. It’s not long before we’re wanting to put a collective finger up at Post-Modernist’s who turn their noses up at such markers, seeing them only as outmoded gestures of authorship.
Scattered across the floor of the gallery, though no less entrancing, are clusters of smaller grey, metallic boxes. As we know, boxes have become an essential part of the art historical canon, from the modernist grid to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, and, on the surface, Karstiess’s casts of ordinary cardboard boxes do little to buck this trend.
Each of the boxes contains mysterious pools of blues, browns and greens, some bubbling, others cracked and frozen. This collection of surfaces, (to borrow Smithson’s phrase) are in fact glazed glass – the temperature at which they were melted creating a range of colours and consistencies, which were then poured and left to cool in ceramic boxes. The metamorphosis induced at the time of the material’s formation, appears to reverse before our eyes, as light catching these surfaces transforms them from solid, into glinting pools of liquid.
Far from peddling modernism’s seemingly endless procession of boxes, Karstiess instead creates containers for a kind of primordial soup, where past, present and future collide.
As well as creating series of visually stunning objects, Karstiess’s material alchemy also evidences a strong conceptual tac; each object points to the activity of the artist, the object that signifies that activity and the site from which the material was formed, all of which create an interminable dialogue between the artwork and viewer.
In this way, static objects are transformed into contingent markers, and, just as the sound of a singing bowl permeates the exhibition, so too, the material and mental life of Karstiess’s objects goes on – perhaps Smithson and Karstiess are not so different after all.
This exhibition shows the results of a year long Lipman residency undertaken by Karstiess and fellow ceramicist William Cobbing in Newcastle University’s Fine Art Department. Karstiess’s exhibition Boxes and Corners ran from 25 January to 15 March, and Cobbing’s work will be on show 21 March to 17 April 2014, at Hatton Gallery, Newcastle.
Image: ‘Boxes’, glazed ceramic, glass waste, diverse sizes (2013). Courtesy VAN HORN Düsseldorf and Ancient & Modern London © Karstiessß/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013.