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Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art

  • Art
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Installation view of Takuro Kuwata, at Strange Clay: Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy the Hayward Gallery.
Installation view of Takuro Kuwata, at Strange Clay: Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy the Hayward Gallery.

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Ceramics aren’t meant to be in an art gallery. They’re the pots your plants are in, the plates your dinner’s on, they’re your bathroom tiles, your toilet. Ceramics are domestic, utilitarian, and that thing art is never meant to be: craft.

And obviously that’s all bollocks because the Hayward’s put on a whole show of work by artists who use clay and it’s just as valid as any painting or marble sculpture. 

It starts with Jonathan Baldock’s huge totemic towers of terrifyingly wobbly clay cylinders. Each one is like a stack of chimneys or tea mugs, covered with protruding hands and mouths and drooping bodily blobs. Then Emma Hart shows up with a bunch of ceramic windscreens, totally opaque trapezoids covered in exploding chevrons and shattered roads. 

Both of these artists are funny, clever and playful with their material, and both do a good job of treading the line that courses through this show between those who go for a rough, handmade, DIY approach and the artists who exploit clay’s potential for glazed slick perfection.

No one does the second bit better than American artists Ken Price and Ron Nagle. Price’s undulating alien forms are incredibly beautiful, like living rocks that have bubbled up out of the desert. Strange, gorgeous, liquid things. Nagle’s tiny, shimmering constructions are like glowing extraterrestrial zen gardens, microscopic worlds of calm beauty. Price and Nagle are such unbelievably skillful artists, total masters of clay, twisting it into unfathomable shapes, manipulating the firing and glazing processes like sculptural alchemists. 

I blame Grayson Perry

Takuro Kuwata pulls a similar bunch of tricks, but on a much bigger scale, creating huge, oozing, gold and pink and blue beasts that have slimed beautifully into the gallery. Salvatore Arancio operates on almost the same scale, with his long, glistening psychedelic poles emerging from mounds of volcanic rock. Then you find David Zink Yi’s huge clay squid lying in gloops of brown goo in the middle of the space, and the radical, hallucinogenic, slick weirdness of clay has been taken as far as possible.

But then there’s the other side of all this: the domestic, rough, hand-hewn approach to the material. Lindsey Mendick’s installation is the best of the bunch: a whole flat that’s become a warzone, filled with battalions of battling slugs and mice. There are rats on the dinner table, cockroaches on the couch and an octopus slinking out of the bog. It’s a funny teardown of the mundanity of everyday battles at home, the emotional turmoil of cohabitation.

But Klara Kristalova’s floral installation is filled with genuinely crap, faux-naive, childish sculptures of women and lions and forest sprites. They’re shockingly naff. I blame Grayson Perry – who is represented here by a handful of self-indulgent, ugly, patronising, tedious pots – for making it acceptable to be a ceramicist who isn’t any good at ceramics. 

So it’s a relief that the show ends with Edmund de Waal’s oasis of grey calm. Suspended above you in vitrines are hundreds of paper-thin porcelain cylinders, each barely managing to not crumble. They play on the domestic history of clay – I mean, they do look like the world’s most expensive espresso cups – but pushed to minimalist oblivion, creating miniscule moments of nearly-cracked peace that you’re desperate to cling on to.

What comes across throughout this show is that clay is special: it’s elemental, malleable, fragile. And that makes it feel very, very human.

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


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