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Ceramics go under the hammer as the precious clay finds a new breed of fans in contemporary art.

Contemporary ceramicists are breaking the mold, creating groundbreaking work that challenges the traditional perception of the precious clay. Will the art world welcome ceramics into the fold, or does it remain cemented to its craft past?


During the 18th century, porcelain was so highly prized among royalty that a talent for throwing could get a potter put into prison by curious heads of state eager to discover – and even more eager to guard – the craftsman's well-kept secret. While today, such tactics would be deemed a little extreme, modern day Medicis vie for their own white gold trophy piece with ceaseless zeal.

After the onset of the industrial revolution, the marriage between art and craft began to wane, leaving many master craftsmen without trade or the artistic standing they once held. Although some maintained a living creating more rustic or functional pieces, appealing to a more traditional market, the decorative appeal and attention to detail once so highly sought after fell victim to the fast turnover of the manufacturing process.

Of course, there have always been exceptions, such as post-war luminaries Beatrice Wood, Lucio Fontana, and Lucie Rie – whose 1978 Footed Bowl went for £6,600 at Bonhams' ceramic auction earlier this year – who still achieve impressive sales, and also artists, from Jean Cocteau and Marc Chagall to Jeff Koons and Antony Gormley who, through the use of ceramic within their repertoire, brought added kudos to the craft as an art form. As contemporary ceramics specialist Ben Williams of London– and New York–based auction house Philips de Pury notes, "Ceramic has always been popular with artists better known for working in other media. The Impressionist and Modern artists enjoyed the plasticity and immediacy with which they could mold in three dimensions, mark-make on the surfaces created, and decorate with glazes in a painterly way. The pieces produced were frequently a collaboration between the 'artist' and a 'technician' or 'potter.' The potter helped with the alchemy, allowing the 'artist' to realize their vision." Towns and villages, such as Vallauris in the south of France, became an arts enclave in the 1950s, due to its flourishing pottery industry and its famous resident Pablo Picasso, who created many great ceramic works in collaboration with the local craftsmen. Honoring this tradition, since 1966 the town has hosted the international ceramic event Céramique Contemporaine Biennale Internationale Vallauris, displaying the cream of postmodern ceramic art.

These relationships still exist, although today the role has been reversed. Time-honored institutions such as Royal Crown Derby in the UK, Spain's Lladro and French porcelain manufacturer Bernardaud seek artistic collaborations that will appeal to the burgeoning number of contemporary art and ceramic collectors alike, through classic reinventions or creative carte blanche. Dutch design stars Hella Jongerius and Marcel Wanders bring decorative flair and innovative new forms, while Nymphenburg's latest project, the Commedia dell'Arte Couture Edition invited leading names from the world of fashion to makeover the original 18th century rococo figures of Franz Anton Bustelli's Commedia dell'Arte. Viktor & Rolf's haunting Colombine is a far cry from Bustelli's delicate original, yet the form, or the high level of craftsmanship, remains unchanged.

Artists working independently are also taking the craft in an interesting direction – as a platform for social comment. Of course, art has always played a major role in documenting the past; it is a visual record, and this is what many argue takes contemporary pieces out of the realm of craft, firmly placing them in an artistic arena. In some cases the craft is secondary to the concept. For example, take Rebecca Maeder's Eros, created by dipping barbotine-filled balloons into milky white clay, or Piet Stockmans' Floor installation, created from a repetition of haphazard-looking splats of fresh clay. One of the most successful examples from the new generation of non-ceramicist ceramic artists is Barnaby Barford, who creates interesting narratives from secondhand ceramic ornaments dissected and reassembled into sardonic tales of modern life. "In the craft world, it is about the technique, whereas what I think is more interesting is the range of ideas people are making – it's more about what the work is about. It's a great material, it's got loads of connotations and history, and you can play with all of those different elements to make loads of things. I'm enjoying it because I've found a way that I like to work; they're like actors, in a way. I wouldn't gain anything from creating the characters from scratch," says Barford.

Of course, this form of observatory style is nothing new. Throughout history, ceramics have provided a tableau on which artists have created snapshots of society, capturing the essence of the time, from ancient Etruscan vessels to Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, but as contemporary art becomes ever more homogenized, and with globalization, the style has become an important means of expression, as Williams explains. "The role of the ceramic artist has changed from one who makes vases and dinner services for the home – although of course, these people still exist – to someone who is looking at the world around them and using the medium of ceramics to convey their own artistic message. I think that often the way in which we are able to talk about a particular piece of ceramic defines which category it falls into. If we run off down the technical route, discussing what the body material is and 'how' it was made and fail to investigate 'why' it was made that way, then we're in trouble. For some of the new work, it is only appropriate to ask 'why'; the 'how' has become irrelevant."

Check out the following events:

http://www.musee-ceramique-sevres.fr/

http://biennale.vallauris.free.fr


International Post-war and Contemporary Ceramic Art sale, Bonhams, October 22, 2008
(hyperlink: http://www.bonhams.com/cgi-bin/public.sh/pubweb/publicSite.r?sContinent=EUR&screen=contempoceramics2)

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