‘Lovely things and delicate things and dreadful things’ … Uncontrollable Drifting Inward and Outward Together by Brie Ruais. Photograph: Nash Baker/Courtesy the artist and Albertz Benda, New York
Hayward Gallery, London
This modern ceramics exhibition has everything from stunning pitchers and seductive pots to ridiculous trinkets
On a naked red column that is higher than me, huge globby gouts of brilliant cerulean blue glaze sag and tumble in a stopped, fused avalanche. A misshaped, pistachio-colored cupcake has something like a poo on top of it, and a wonky blue form that has grown like a fungus from the floor is decorated with red and gold tears. Bursts of opaque ultramarine and blackish congealed ooze emerge from a golden gloss. The whole thing resembles a massive melting sundae or one of those shapes you may discover close to a deep-sea vent where life ought to be impossible. Takuro Kuwata, who was born in Hiroshima, is the creator of all these stunning works. Their surface treatment was inspired by the glazes and methods used to embellish the modest bowls used in the Japanese tea ritual.
Like a giant melting sundae … Takuro Kuwata’s Untitled. Photograph: Robert Glowacki/Courtesy: Alison Jacques, London © Takuro Kuwata
Even though Kuwata’s work is unquestionably the result of tremendous talent and technical knowledge, it transcends taste, beauty, and refinement. One of the highlights of Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art at the Hayward Gallery in London is also his work. The exhibit features everything from exquisite pitchers and pots to silly, quasi-conceptual trinkets, from items that seem to be made for a high-end boutique to overly-thought-out, poorly-conceived craft that wants us to feel something profound and important is happening.
In the fogged plexiglass display cases that dangle over our heads, Edmund de Waal’s diminutive, streamlined porcelain vessels swarm together. De Waal teases us by keeping these little forms at a distance and even offers a sitting space so that we may sit and reflect on their frailty and remoteness. You can only take a lot of these things so far, however. I like ceramic art. My father took evening classes in ceramics and once constructed a raku kiln in our backyard. Maybe he attempted to push me in it for critiquing one of his pots.
Untitled (Architeuthis) by David Zink Yi, 2010. Photograph: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich/David Zink Yi. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Everyday items shower down the walls but are trapped in mid-fall and pile up on the floor below. Bananas, phones and hot water bottles, high-heeled boots, children’s shoes, greyish white porcelain purses and headgear, baseball caps and torches, firearms and teddy bears. Most were gifts from the family and friends of the artist Liu Jianhua, who had them recast. The artist claims that this jumble of things is reminiscent of the wreckage after an aircraft accident. There are a lot of hammers for some reason, and eventually you start to notice the repetitions. Another teddy bear and that headgear are present. Everything seems a little dramatic and sappy. As does the fragrant, fairytale-like canopy of leaves, twigs, and other vegetation that Klara Kristalova’s fantastical and folklore characters call home. Girls with ape wings open out like flowers. A man with a horse’s head hides nearby with his hands in his pockets, while a man with a boar’s head who is just wearing underwear squats down. They may all be on cruises. A girl is locked in a tree and there are other, rather ominous characters hanging about. Another area in the glade is home to a stoneware replica of Henri Rousseau’s 1897 painting The Sleeping Gypsy, and I first believed the whole scene to be a perfume advertisement.
‘This was obviously all fun to make’ … Lindsey Mendick’s Till Death Do Us Part. Photograph: Mark Blower
Give me the trauma in 2022 Till Death Do Us Part by Lindsey Mendick instead. At first, I detested it, but now I believe I’m supposed to. Mendick presents us with an entire house full of unpleasant creatures, including dozens of pottery rats, mice, cockroaches, wasps, moths, slugs (or are they caterpillars? ), and a dead cat that served as a haven for additional mice. These creatures are free to roam around the kitchen, dining room, bathroom, sofa, staircase, and drains. The handcrafted ceramic toilet bowl is being heaved out by a drab octopus. Apart from the furniture, everything in the house is made of clay, even the dyspeptic, irate notes that the humans who live there have left for one another and the copy of OK magazine. You’re unsure whether to contact social services or pest control. This was definitely enjoyable to produce and gleeful in both idea and execution. The abundance of detail and the naughtiness will delight the audience’s young viewers.
Speaking of cephalopods, a large ceramic squid is beached in a resinous, inky puddle on the floor of an upstairs gallery, and David Zink Yi, a Peruvian-born artist, has created a long row of what appear to be squid or cuttlefish bodies, each with a unique color or glaze, that wrap around a corner of a wall. The materiality of the fired and glazed clay, with its gratifying heaviness and slipperiness, and the bodies of these animals, with their sheen and the translucency of their coloration and their capacity to mirror their environment, are very similar.
Natural forms … Beate Kuhn’s Glasbaum, 2001. Photograph: Tony Izaaks/Courtesy the Estate of the Artist
In Jonathan Baldock’s Facecrime, a series of columns adorned with puckering lips and smiles, I’m extended a finger and invited to shake hands. Hands grip and clasp while arms stick out. He throws extra in when he’s unsure of what to do. The effort and struggle required to seem bizarre are really noticeable. Serena Korda’s massive necklace, And She Cried Me a River, and Woody De Othello’s clumsy glazed feet that ascend virulent green steps both have additional feet and eerie disembodied hands. On a black jug, red lips grimace, and a finger motions for us to be quiet. In addition to resembling asparagus stalks, anemones, and other natural shapes, the little objects created by the late Düsseldorf ceramicist Beate Kuhn grow more fingers and toes. In other places, lumps swell, droop, and pout. Glowing globs call from lava beds in the dark and explode into trippy, iridescent columns, much like the neon eggs at the opening of Ridley Scott’s film Alien.
Then there are the beautiful, delicate, terrible, and things I’d never want to see again. Grayson Perry uses cross-dressed 18th-century heroines with strap-ons, flintlocks, and sex toys to embellish his mock-Victorian pots and urns. These wicked women are unafraid of anything, even this place, as they go about their tawdry, bewigged, and corsetted exploits. We are informed that “every artist in the exhibition shares a passion for the deeply physical, tactile processes of shaping and working with clay.” Comparable to mentioning the “joy of paint” or the “joy of sex,” respectively. It is never sufficient. what individuals do with mud.
From October 26 to January 8, Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art will be on display at the Hayward Gallery in London.