Flesh Made Stone

 

 

After setting up the work bench I tried something out that came to me as I was travelling down to the Residency in February. I am currently working on the text and will soon apply it to the sculpture components. I made the first marks with what will no doubt be the stylus I use for the script.

I have always had difficulty with my calligraphy, but somehow this form of writing suited me. I enjoyed inscribing the soft material with the wooden tool, lightly dragging it through the flesh to be made stone. It seems so appropriate to the text which ties up the two main pieces of the installation.

Thinking about the textual link between the two pieces, the third work has suddenly, as I write, become resolved. I was in two minds as to which of a number of works I would use. The answer is clear: the silent ‘What is the Difference? (I can also add the video if there is time; brings in another dimension to the overall idea)

 

Restarting Blender… and Making

 

 

I have been back two full days and restarting making as always is hard. The excitement of returning to work is tempered by the reality of settling in and organising a workflow. Having spent half the day on Blender tutorials I said to my self, making is so much more satisfying. Mid-afternoon I made a sketch of the conversant piece while still not dry, and took measurements to keep its companion piece on the same scale.  Then I made a tiny model for which I shall make tomorrow its companion maquette before starting on the large scale piece.

 

 

Over the Summer I looked at Blender and how to use it to create 3D renderings. However, some time has passed and I have forgotten a lot of it as I had never worked with it before. So, I am restarting my learning from the top with videos on the fundamentals. I feel much more at home with the user interface which means I can get on quickly. 

The plan is to go through several videos every day, in between making and writing. By December I should be able to do pretty much what I want for the final show if needed. This seems late in the day to be starting this in earnest but my aims with respect to  3D rendering are relatively modest for now.

See links to videos in Resources with the aim of building a library of tutorials.

 

Experiment 3 for Conversant Pieces

 

Third porcelain conversant piece.

 

This piece sets the tone for subsequent works. The large suspended piece will follow that felt sense that this has. I have resolved many aspects of making so when I return to the studio I will be able to immerse myself in the making rather than problem solving.

I was originally thinking of having a large number of pieces on a raised surface near the ground. I have changed my mind. This is going to be one of two pieces, placed on surfaces so that they can be looked at and listened to closely:  waist height most probably. I had thought of plinths but I think that two flat surfaces, interlocking, held up with very thin metal legs might work better. I don’t want the sense of space to be blocked by solid plinths but rather have the porcelain pieces almost hovering off the ground. One recumbent like this one and the other vertical, more active. The horizontal extension of this one against the verticality of the other will form an L shape seen from above and the side. But this depends on the exhibition space.
 

Experiment 2 for conversant pieces

 

 Porcelain components for second conversant piece.

 

This piece, the second in the series, was a departure from the vertical vessel. I count this as the second failure of the series. It moves on from the former work but I am still not happy with how I relate the form. I am not feeling it enough; working too much from the head; the work is too rigid. Perhaps this is because I am contemporaneously resolving some practical problems such as how to embed the sound and making the pieces so they fit the large kiln. I am pleased, though, with the material quality, its surface but not its formal quality. It does not convey the organic sense I am looking for. It has, however, crossed some boundaries and as a stand alone piece it could well work – just not as part of the installation as I envisage it at the moment, but that could change and it may still appear in the final show depending on its context and how it is displayed.

I am looking to make something that is like a body, but not a recognisable one. To have human elements without any human iconography. To engender an empathy in an alien form; to convey the animal in the human, with the human trapped in the body, latent, nascent, trembling with what it might become.

 

Amputation

 

 

An amputation is not something one would want. Sculptures have suffered amputations throughout the ages, some repaired, others restored and yet others left as they were found, This Herakles, Venus de Milo, the Belvedere Torso and so on. Limbs at times distract from the sense of form, many artists have known this, others have incorporated the limbs so that it merges into the body.

I have had a problem in that I want to make large ceramic works but the kiln is only so large. I have a top loader 59 cm diameter and 69 cm high which needs to be wired in. This is not small but neither is it large enough. What to do?

I had thought of jointing the pieces much as I did with the works in Chaos Contained. But this is not in keeping with the informal, organic sense of the works I am currently engaged with. Chaos contained was about symmetrical growth from within, an outward radiation. Now the works are internally generated, handled in a completely different way.

 

 

So I looked at how I could make the pieces in parts to be put together later after firing. I came across the work of Giovanni Vetere who works with glazed ceramics. The pieces are much larger than would fit in a regular kiln. In addition they would be unstable and too fragile for firing in one piece. On closer inspection of his work I noticed that they are made in pieces using the glaze patterns to camouflage the joints.

 

 

I could try to hide the joints when installing but would there be a better way? To show the cut, a severance, a clean cut that must signify something. And it opens the way for future large works where the cut plays a part. It may even lead to being able to show a work in its pieces arranged meaningfully or at least aesthetically.

 

 

What this does for my ongoing work is to provide a formal solution to having a kiln smaller than the fluid forms I want to make: the parts can be fitted together after firing. It also solves the problem of how to insert and remove sound equipment.  Conceptually, this technique offers the opportunity for representing vulnerability, fragility and reformation; perhaps also creating compositions, of parts that relate to one another and reconstituting them in different configurations.

 

Finishing Porcelain

 

 

As I work, I think of how the final pieces will look. Porcelain is a strange material. Silky smooth when fired with a grainy feel if left unglazed. I want to give the surface a skin-like feel.

 

 

The Belvedere Torso in the Vatican collection was a seminal inspiration for Michelangelo. Signed “Apollonius son of Nestor, Athenian”. Marble acquires a softness that bellies its nature as stone. Sculpture in stone influences my choice of material. But I choose ceramic as a pliable stone which is transformed by the alchemy of heat. Porcelain is like the white marble of stones and glazing it seems to me betrays the traces of handling and so an essential characteristic of its making.

Why do I choose the Belvedere as an example of marble statuary? Because arms and legs are functional, locomotory and grasping. The body is the centre of physical being from which other things radiate. As it was with our primordial ancestors, so it is with the forms I am working on.

Glazing speaks to me of function, impermeability. The body is not impermeable but in continual transaction with the world. In early times the clay was burnished to render vessels less porous. Decoration has always been applied to ceramics, from the rhythmical marking of the beaker people, to the finest renderings. From symbolism to shear exuberance and delight, ceramics have diversified and many left function behind long ago evidenced in the heritage of form only.

I have experimented extensively with Parian clay which was developed to look and feel like marble, it is soft, vitreous and warm, but it is hellishly difficult to use and is subject to warping and cracking. It is better suited to casting large pieces. Casting at this stage is not for me, it is not sufficiently spontaneous and better left as a means of reproduction. However, I shall continue to work with it on smaller scales. 

I do not want to use glaze because it covers detail and the sculpture looses the surface nuances developed during its making. However, the raw biscuit low fired material is brilliant white and unsubtle. It is also prone to get dirty and due to its porosity very difficult to clean. When fired to a higher temperature, the surface vitrifies and becomes sealed to a large extent, less porous and prone to atmospheric damage and the dirty that comes with handling and storage. However, the crystalline surface is still very white and lacks the organic surface quality I am looking for. When the porcelain is unfired and still wet, it has a flesh like look, a warm grey that responds to handling developing a beautiful sheen where it is burnished. However, this disappears on firing. I have looked for a finish that can restore to some extent that sense of sensual softness and has the following characteristics:

 

  • does not yellow over time,
  • is colourless,
  • does not create a thick layer,
  • is not glossy
  • and is easily restored.

 

Having experimented with a number of possible candidates I have found that the humble paraffin wax candle is the ideal substance. The porcelain is heated with a hot air blower and the wax rubbed on building a very thin layer that penetrates the microscopic pores on the surface and creates a colourless, translucent finish. Finally it is burnished with a cloth or brush.  

 

Methodology

 

 

Starting is always the hardest thing, unless one were to consider finishing. Both are difficult for different reasons. Finishing is the moment when you realise you have done what you can, it cannot be otherwise. It is the collapse of the potential that had been possessed before and during the making. Its gift is to whisper or shout according to its own inclination how the next work might proceed. And that brings me back to the beginning, starting a work.

I am starting a new piece in porcelain, white as the blank canvas of a painter, the beginning of a long journey. And as I set out without a set destination, only a sense of what I am looking for, that freedom is frightening. It reveals my shortcomings in the midst of a vision pulling me back to how I did things before. What is that the right course of action, how do I navigate this landscape of decision and indecision?

To know what to do is not the point. It is the how and the why that will give me the framework to hold on to. Take that journey, on foot say, into a forest with neither the stars to guide me nor compass or map. I have no destination, only the ends of the Earth. If I try to walk in a straight line I will simply do so in circles and find myself back to where I started. I must decide on a course of action, a simple set of rules to break the bias of my own nature. Sometimes rules are changed a little but not so much as for me to loose my way irrevocably.

Over years a method is perfected as is the reason for it. I work as a cartographer, marking each point as a star to guide me, a landmark to aim for. But this is art, not some field to be gridded out with a surveyor’s precision. To do so would yield little more than what is in the ground and the rule itself. To look beyond that field is where progress lies. Progress is born of change, imposed, contingent or better still by means of my own agency. To do so is to turn the world on its side and refresh sight from another vantage point. But habits possess inertia, to turn them over I need help. Something I have learnt working with Janet is to do what I would not do normally. This is just one way of changing the course of things and refreshing what might otherwise become limp.

And so it is with the work I do now and the research statement. By this stage, I should not have to worry about where a work will end, it never ends as each finish is but the start of the next.

 

Andrew Lord: A Case of Phusis

 

 

I mentioned in a recent post that I am now ready to look into a contemporary context for my work. This is not altogether easy as what I do is not centred on one idea or medium alone. I know that many artists today are cross disciplinary and work in various mediums; this makes contextual correspondences all the harder to find. I have to be careful not to mention every one and sundry that I like or identify with in some way. This sort of openness would only confuse and lead to a lack of direction. What would making a long list do, help in the project development, show my wide taste in things?

No, what I am looking for is work that directly contextualises mine in terms of contemporary ideas and environments. Andrew Lord, ten years my senior is one such practitioner. Although he would not like to be called a potter, his body of work very much centres on the idea of vessels and clay, something I also work with.

Lord’s central notion is an interesting one. It is an idea that many working in clay have followed for some time, that of ‘rescuing’ pottery from still life painting. As Mark del Vecchio lucidly points out in his book, Postmodern Ceramics:

From Pablo Picasso to Giorgio Morandi, Vincent Van Gogh, and George Braque, pottery has tended to be the visual anchor of most still-life compositions. Contemporary ceramists have begun to reverse the compliment and draw inspiration from the paintings in which these pots appear, returning them to the three-dimensional realm, but retaining some painterly associations. 

Looking for what is common between two and three dimensions is a process which also requires an awareness of what is lost in translation. Only in this way can an essence of the object be made manifest. 

 

Andrew Lord displays his work in such a way as to allude to the still life genre by placing objects on tables and plinths, carefully arranged in terms of light, time of day, space and so on. The arrangements often remind me of Morandi’s still lifes, treated as emerging from the material becoming objects felt in the making. He leaves overt traces of how the object is formed often to the point of caricatured.

 

This work is consonant with elements of some of my work, playful and ‘rough modelled’ caressed into being aimed at a sense of Platonic idealism imperfectly fashion in and on (E)arth. 

It also interest for me to note that in some cases, vases are displayed just off the floor in a similar way to how I plan to show  H’s Play Things in the final show… with one twist. 


 

Much of this approach is consonant with what Heidegger says in his essay, The Origin of the Work of Art:

  1. The material (clay) is central and clearly evident in the work. 
  2. The clay is subservient to what is being portrayed yet it ‘shines forth’ 1.
  3. There is a struggle between the nature of the material and what it tries to portray, what it is formed into or as Heidegger would say, between the Earth and the World.
  4. The vessels are not the product of craft yet he uses, techne or mode of knowing, to bring out hidden Aletheia, or being.
  5. The being of the thing is not just made, it is brought forth and made evident. It is generated from within through phusis as though through natural law.

But what is the role of craft in this act of phusis? Heidegger does become confusing, or more likely confused unable to articulate a distinction between craft and art: he descends into subjective ideas of the mystical and the sublime and sacred to support his thesis. Perhaps a simple, if still elusive reply is that the impetus for a work of art comes from within an internal process of natural growth, whereas craft’s impetus is external to its growth. It is clear to me that this categorisation is false in many cases and can only be considered from piece to piece and not generically.

Having said all this, Heidegger does provide a useful way of thinking about art as a spontaneous act of emergence in the making also raising interesting questions regarding the relationship between what is ‘being creative’ and artistic practice. 

  1. Heidegger[]

On Materiality

 

 

My works are based on a strong sense of materiality as a means of grasping abstract ideas. To translate these from objects of the mind to ones that occupy three dimensional space is to rescue them from ephemerality. This in itself changes their nature as they arise in the making, capturing feeling in the material, moving away from the imagined to the physical. Concrete as they are, they probe into what is ephemeral and evanescent. Is it the phenomenon of being or the idea of being that is being represented here?

Clay is a material that can be shaped according to one’s own senses. Its inertness permits me to freeze moments of feeling and embed them in its corporeality. It is ideal for my approach, not to represent in some way thematic notions but to reify them. What emerges from these thoughts is that cycling and continuity are the abstract processes that underlie the thematics of time and life; and that in the work, space becomes actual material and that material defines the work, its thingliness, alongside its theoretical and contextual characteristics and qualities. 

Albeit I see the work as the thing itself, it is also a vessel holding allegorical content. It brings forth into reality the very notions that led to its making. However, in all probability these might well remain hidden if not layered with or disclosed by context. Context can wrap around the work in many ways, through text, juxta-positioning, placement, images, sound and so on. It is an area that I must work on diligently.. 

To make the object of the mind otherwise, digitally printed, commissioned or projected in another (more resistant) material, would not be the same. I need the direct contact between hand, eye, mind and material that makes it what it is and nothing else. The directness of touch as a principle conduit for embedding feeling in what otherwise might be materially impersonal. It is a synthesis of the untouchability of an idea and the inability to express that ideal form physically. It is as direct as stroking an animal or smelling a flower yet one can not be an animal or a flower. This creates a bridge between maker and receiver that subverts the continual increase in faux intimacy engendered by the current use of technology in today’s society, as in social media and infinite multiples of the same thing.

The human haptic mode encodes a complexity of information transmitted from in-the-making and passes on to experiencing. They come close to being one and the same thing. The object becomes more than something that can be seen and touched: it is a vehicle for subtle empathy. Not the sentimentality we attach to cherished, used objects of mass production. 

This subtle empathy which, placed in a human context, links me to the themes of the work relating to natural forces. I no longer am an observer but a participator in creating and remaking the world. The work is overtly human but also non-anthropic. It reminds me that we are part of nature but not necessarily central to it. We only make it so for existential reasons as do all other plants and animals. It is this survival, cycle, continuity that is again at the root of my ideas. But unlike an animal or a plant I can see beyond my immediate world, give form to other worlds and times. This gives me a special privilege and responsibility.

As to the basic form of the vessel that appears in much of my work? The vessel is a plane, folded on itself to become a container. We all were born as balls of cells that began their journey into the world as simple dimpled  spheres from which a vessel was formed. This form defines the boundary between the physical inner and outer environment. It defines the limit of our corporeal existence. We can only project out of it through our senses and the mind. However complex the vessel might become, its fundamental property of containment remains.

I see the vessel as inviting exploration of what is within and without and more importantly what it is that connects the two. My particular area of interest is not only located in the now but in the connections with the past and how this is part of what the future might become. The present is the vessel for all things yet it is elusive, an idea ever changing. It is an elusive membrane whose allusion becomes object in much of what I do. The membrane of the present, the inside and outside, the self and other.