Text by Alan Sykes
Back in the 1990s the art collective BANK published a regular tabloid-style newsletter: in one of them the headline read “Craft is Not Art: Say No to Craft.” There are still people who profess to disdain the “applied” arts as opposed to the “fine” ones. Despite the fact that some ceramicists – Turner Prize-winner Grayson Perry, for example, and Emmanuel de Waal – are regarded as equals with their conceptual contemporaries, the feeling of inferiority still persists in some quarters.
Grayson Perry has said of Richard Slee: “He’s probably the ceramicist who is making the best attempt at the transition into the fine art milieu and managing it. Because I always thought from very early on he was the one who had the best chance of being taken seriously by the contemporary art world – because it is a real handicap being defined as a craftsperson.”
Richard Slee blurs the line between fine and applied more than most. His ceramics resemble useful objects, but are almost aggressively useless at the role their forms take. Try using one of his hammers to put a nail in the wall, and you will end up with a pile of brightly coloured clay at your feet, and his umbrellas will certainly not protect you from the rain.
The exhibition at Tullie House is called “Work and Play”, and shows items which can broadly be separated into the two categories – including a ping pong table and a unicycle for “play”, and hammers, saws and a pickaxe for “work”. It covers Slee’s works from the last 10 years, including some from his survey exhibition “From Utility to Futility” at the V&A in 2010. There, his pieces were displayed shut up in standard museum vitrines, whereas at Tullie House everything is on open view, providing the audience with a much less institutionalised experience.
Slee revels in using vivid, sometimes brash, colours. Yellow is a favourite, but, as he says “I also love this very dark blue, cobalt blue. It has such a lovely colour to it … I often spray one colour over another. This “Large Hammer”: it has a cobalt blue glaze, which is slightly transparent enough to colour the clay, and then it has a red glaze painted over the top. You can see the blue through the red, so it is slightly purple.”
As well as being bright, Slee’s works are often mischievously fun, particularly in the “play” section – a ping-pong table comes complete with life-sized bats and balls mounted on waved white ceramic bases, giving the impression of being in suspended animation after bouncing on the surface of the table. In “Kross Bow and Arrow”, the green ceramic bows are displayed attached to stretched bungee jumping ropes, while in “Street Broom”, an ordinary yard brush is shown standing on end with tiny figures lost in the forest of broom.
“Work and Play” manages to be entertaining and fun whilst at the same time demonstrating how a craft skill can also produce works which have no purpose other than the purely aesthetic.
Image: ©Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust – ‘Hammer (detail)’