TJ Boulting is proud to present a group show exploring the diverse use of clay in art, connecting antiquities with contemporary artists working today. The earliest work in the show is around 4000 years old, the most recent completed just weeks ago. What is it that has drawn artists to use clay for millennia? There is a thread that weaves its way through clay’s many guises that connects past and present together.
The title CLAY™ refers to the raw material itself, which over thousands of years has straddled various art tribes - ceramics, pottery, sculpture – and with various degrees of proprietorship in each. The artists in this show have been chosen because they do not necessarily fit into a prescribed way of using clay, and have come to it from less traditional routes. Just as the ™ symbol alludes to an attempt to define what clay is used for, somehow clay has evaded ownership by one tribe even after millennia. The juxtaposition of antiquities with contemporary and modern works highlights their connections, disguising what is old and what is new: A Pre-Colombian zoomorphic pot from the Chorrera culture, dating from circa 1200-200 BC, feels as fresh as many of the contemporary works in the show with its expressive form and character. The Chorrera culture, from the coastal region of Ecuador, was highly sophisticated and artistic and produced a huge variety of very skillful and realistic pottery inspired by nature, animals, birds, fruits and marine life. Just as the Indus valley pots from 2600-200 BC are adorned with birds fish and a stripy creature. Animals were one of man’s earliest inspirations to recreate, a primal instinct to capture the works around them. Stephanie Quayle is known for her dynamic and expressive animals quickly captured in clay, she too shares this need to mark make with clay the natural world. We see here monkeys of varying endangered species, and a half-human half-bear form.
The words ‘pot’ or ‘pottery’ always infer a more utilitarian motive, and many of the antique pieces in this show did have a use, mainly some kind of storage or vessel. But they are still unique pieces, and the hand of the maker or artist is felt over massproduced ceramics of more recent centuries. Kate Merry plays on the traditional English ceramic figurine by adapting existing ones, weaving in folklore and caricatures. When seen next to the Peruvian mocha pot from 500 AD they share a sense of the character and personality of either the figure, the maker or a bit of both. Katy Stubbs creates modern-day commentaries of every day life, highly graphic and colourful and not afraid of the real. For this show she has created a pile of beautifully hued fish, but with tiny ceramic flies suspended above it. Nearby in the vitrine a tiny fish looks on, a Chinese votive food offering of the Tang Dynasty 7-10th century AD that was placed in the shrines and offered up to the gods.
Giovanni Vetere takes his inspiration from the oceans. His tall and delicate freestanding works imitate the forms of the sea creatures with tentacles and delicate textures. This is mimicked in the real-life texture of the barnacles on the Hoi An Hoard – Vietnamese ceramics that were sunk nearly 600 years ago and and salvaged from the shipwreck, the resulting delicate textures of their time under the sea still visible and becoming part of the work. Saelia Aparicio also has created surreal sea creatures, a crab fused with glass that is also a candlestick. A lost shoe reclaimed by a glass and ceramic creature.
The use of clay is also something that as a material is very therapeutic. Harley Weir is an established photographer but started creating ceramics together with her father who has Alzheimer’s. In it she found not only creative freedom away from her usual practice, but also a shared experience with her father, as they collaborated on pieces together, often him making the work and her doing the glazes. Richard WM Hudson found himself wandering the woods and hills of Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland following the traumatic death of his dog in front of him. He collected pieces of wood and in the studio paired them with blackened ceramic forms that took on the resemblance of ancient funerary urns. The works have a function, but one that reminds us that we will all one day be reclaimed into the earth as clay. Michaela Yearwood-Dan is normally a painter but during lockdown she found herself at home away from her studio, and air-hardening clay was a medium that she could use to create pots which she could paint on. The result small and intimate versions of her paintings, produced in a time of isolation and intensity. One she broke in her room and instead of discarding it embraced its destiny and painted it gold on the inside, drawing attention to its existence rather than shying away from it. Broken pots are nothing new, the fact that so many have survived is incredible, so a bowl from Mohenjo-Daro (modern-day Pakistan) which is 4000 years old can be forgiven for appearing in its repaired state from the 1930s.
Every single civilization from the Greeks to the Egyptians and Christians have a creation story that is based on the making of man from clay, that a deity then breathed life into. In fact the name ‘Adam’ means clay in Hebrew. Paloma Proudfoot has created a life-size human skeleton which she has paired with a sculpture of a shirt that is suspended nearby, a fabric rigid exo-skeleton.
In the world of sculpture clay as a material has certain formal properties. Matt Ager’s works include clay with metal, wood and plastic, the clay holding its form as desired and molding with the other materials. Rafal Zajko’s clay tablet is machinelike, with a performative element of smoke blowing out of it. On the wall next to it sits a Tudor or Dutch terracotta tile from five centuries ago.
Clay does not always have to be used in 3D form, as in the work of Melania Toma, who uses clay and terracotta as a form of paint in her wall hangings, as well as her ceramics. A fired and glazed bowl uncannily shares the colours and marking from a 10th century Persian green, yellow and brown splashed decoration and ‘sgraffito’. Her inspiration is nature and the encounter with raw materials – clay, wool, terracotta, sand and natural pigments with oil paintings.
Each of these contemporary artists finds something different in the inherent properties of clay, be it nature, form, narrative, instinct, therapy, function – and shared for thousands of years in the antiquities that went before them.