“A Matter of Life and Death,” which features works by 13 international artists, exceeds its modest prospectus of being simply “an exhibition of works in clay.” Curated by Jenni Lomax, who built London’s Camden Arts Centre into an international venue combining exhibition galleries with public workshops in ceramics, the show (on view through May 28, 2022) deftly addresses the place of ceramics in relation to contemporary debates around fine art.
Hierarchical distinctions between craft and fine art have been steadily dissolving, and this most pliable and versatile of natural materials has become integrated into the broad variety of possibilities available to artists. Arguably the strongest postwar catalyst for this crucial, if gradual shift in the perception of clay was the painter, sculptor, and theorist Lucio Fontana. Appropriately, his painted and pierced ovoid Concetto Spaziale (1955–60) in terra cotta opens the exhibition.
For Fontana, clay was an essential element in an unrelenting investigation of materiality. Yet he had to distinguish his ceramic work from the artisanal activity and mass production widespread in Italy, insisting that it be viewed in a fine art framework as sculpture. In 1939, he told the Milan newspaper Il Tempo, “I am a sculptor and not a ceramicist. I have never turned a bowl or painted a vase. I am looking for something else…” The expressive gesture became part of Fontana’s artistic personality through clay accentuated by color. The latent dynamics of Pesce (1940) stress his intensely tactile approach and reflect his fascination with the surging natural rock formations along the coastal region of Liguria, which he discovered while visiting the ceramic workshops at Albisola. Along with sessions at the Sèvres porcelain factory near Paris in 1937, the experience prompted his return to figuration.
The ease with which Fontana shifted between representational and abstract modes—a practice he continued well into the 1950s—is evident when comparing the polychromatic and restless Fondo Marino (1947), an encrusted swirl of seabed, with Concetto Spaziale (1950), a lozenge-shaped tablet of terra cotta painted black and incised with four irregularly spaced columns of crudely pierced holes or buchi. The perforations set up a visual rhythm, actuated by light, between surface and the void visible beyond.
Fontana demonstrated how clay could upend familiar art forms, yet even in the early 1990s, artists exploring ceramics as material and conceptual inspiration risked professional marginalization. For Lynda Benglis, clay was the natural next step in a pursuit of pure form that had already led her to embrace latex, polyurethane, glass, paper, lead, and aluminum, as well as photography, film, and video. Sensual and insubordinate, clay fortifies the energetic gesture central to Benglis’s practice, as in the table-top Mean Green (1992–94). Elevated en pointe, its balletic poise freeze-frames the bending, tangling, and collapsing of clay tubes into a single, forceful image. Bird’s Nest #2 (2016) goes further: wall-mounted in a column form richly coated with painterly colors and then glazed, two openings like arterial ruptures expose darker and more intimate interior spaces that bend inward at mid-point, as if caught in a spasm of mass and plasticity. “I am the clay,” Benglis has commented. “I have been extruded, in a sense.”
Phillip King saw off a similarly quizzical reception of his turn to clay in 1993 (after he had spent time in Japan working on a potter’s wheel) because his lifelong fascination as a formalist sculptor had been with materials. He brought the same poetic and hands-on properties to clay, exploring different vessel shapes by opening their interior space beyond functionality with rectilinear, framed apertures in the shell wall that “unwrap” interconnected facets and volumes in a Cubist fashion. Most strikingly, two pieces selected for this show—The Pitcher (1995) and Head (1996)—exhibit figural qualities wholly absent in his other sculptures. Color, hitherto integral to his work, was also eschewed in favor of a matte, unglazed finish.
The exhibition underscores how contemporary artists continue to engage with traditional vessel forms. London-based Serena Korda works across several media, often simultaneously, to relate sculpture, performance, and sound in a process of continuous composition that can extend to the involvement of audience members. Her five pot-bellied jugs, completed in 2015, deal with the figure as symbol, and their shapes derive from a vessel type originating in 15th-century Germany. Popularly dubbed “bearded man” stoneware or Bellarmine, these vessels display the distinctive motif of a male face modeled onto the neck below a thickened rim. Korda parodies her source with subversive intent. Drawn to the secret history of these vessels as “witch bottles” sold to ward off evil influences perceived as emanating from women, her portly vessels (with titles like Red Tahoma, Trumpeter, and Emerald Puker) exude luscious, mature color and an infectious humor. The empty vessels literally fill with hot air when played as instruments in a wind ensemble, the air escaping through holes in the swollen body and blowing away the heritage of prejudice.
The visceral identification of the vessel with the body, which accounts for pottery’s long association with the mythic world of timeless archetypes, breathes spiritual energy into the works of British Nigerian sculptor Lawson Oyekan, whose large-scale forms explore ancestry, language, and belonging. In Physics Eternal 1 (2010), the coarse surfaces of twin, column-shaped sculptures (each one six feet tall, but with dramatically contrasting girths) pulsate with the constructive rhythm of earthen slabs pushed and patted into a porous skin pierced and scarified with legible signs and words (in English and Yoruba) that reach out to fellow occupants of the space.
The smooth-skinned and pared-down objects from Magdalene A.N. Odundo’s “Untitled Vessel, Symmetrical Series” (2020) explore similar themes, related to her Kenyan heritage. Electrifying in appearance, their long, slender necks sit with consummate elegance on squat bodies. In these perfectly composed works, the wall serves as a membrane that establishes shape through the animated relationship of internal space and exterior surface; finish defines individual identity; and firing fixes texture and coloration, both elaborated with details that defy categorization. The silhouettes have affinities with the craft traditions of numerous cultures and with influential artists as diverse as Lucie Rie and Ladi Kwali, while the distinctive black and copperish tones could derive from metal rather than clay.
The grandeur of Odundo’s work celebrates clay’s suitability as a material for profound expression. The raw, encrusted surfaces of Japanese artist Masaomi Yasunaga’s vase forms, built up almost volumetrically by hand with glaze, slip, and chalk, are no less vivid. Bringing to mind excavated relics, they sit on a bed of gravel and stone particles, a constructive conceit that Yasunaga has spoken about in terms of reciprocity between earth and surface akin to birth, burial, and rebirth.
When looking at alternative directions, the show focuses predominantly on European and American artists, leaving a more global assessment to a future occasion. The transformation of formal and material expectations fuels quirky distortions of traditional shapes in the work of Andrew Lord. Circle of sixteen swallows (2019) animates the gallery with an indoor flight while also delivering a sly take (in shiny cream glazes with gold leaf touches) on a quintessential suburban English ornament—the strict formation of a flight of ducks climbing a living room wall. Lord explores the connection between clay’s tactility and physical sensation. “Each [piece] documents the intimacy of touch through the gesture of the hand,” he has said.
By contrast, Anya Gallaccio’s 17 untitled “fragments” (2016–18) were formed by an industrial extruder and fired with no modification by hand. Set on a tabletop as if awaiting forensic examination, the arrangement invites narrative interpretation, perhaps along the lines of a catastrophic event that ripped asunder a once larger and possibly coherent whole. For Gallaccio, who is known for using organic materials such fruit, flowers, and chocolate that decay or disintegrate while on display, the appeal of clay lies in its durability, which reverses her established process into an image of permanence.
Fontana’s 1939 description of his ceramic sculpture as terremotata ma ferma (“earthquaked but motionless”) applies to Gallaccio, as well as to Phoebe Cummings, who enacts a comparable seismic shift in conventional practice. The extraordinary rococo complexity of Prelude (2022), which stands six feet tall in a steel planter, is unfixed, its appearance changing over the course of the show. This impermanence is as jarring as the realization that Cummings’s flowers have no equivalent in nature; they are fictions modeled from tongues of raw clay that progressively dry and crack, loosen, and fall into a growing pile of dusty fragments on the floor. When the show closes, Cummings will break down every part and reuse it in another short-lived, site-specific commission. Like Fontana and the other artists here, she carves out a space that balances subtleties of containment and displacement through an unconventional performance in which accidents of atmosphere and the inclinations of the material play prominent roles.
The exhibition title, “A Matter of Life and Death,” poetically sums up this borderline condition—between temporal and physical change and renewal. Lomax borrowed it from a British fantasy-romance film of the same name, released in 1946 and starring David Niven as a RAF aviator forced to bail out of his airplane without a parachute. His unexpected survival precipitates fierce rivalry between terrestrial and heavenly forces for possession of his body. Niven finally wins his case to remain among the living because he has been “remade” by love.
The most dramatic demonstration of clay’s capacity for change can be found in Keith Harrison’s 160-second video Resistor (2001). Here, he wraps a strip of Egyptian clay around the heating element, or resistor, of a domestic space heater. Then he turns the appliance on. The potential dangers of this maneuver appear to deter neither the artist nor his grandmother, who hosts the experiment. Harrison’s fascination with the activation of material transcends any expectation of a finished object. The point of the video (demystifying the process by dispensing with kilns) lies in the pursuit of uncertain outcomes. This work, played on a monitor beautifully installed in an open fireplace, encapsulates the essence of ceramic practice traced with admirable variety through this show: the seismic transformation of a robust, organic material in the search for new forms.