I have some trouble finding the red thread or the theme as it is tentatively pointed out in a free leaflet serving as guide to the exhibition “Ceramic Momentum Staging the Object,” which was on view at the CLAY Museum of Ceramic Art Denmark in Middelfart, Denmark. Herein the museum’s director makes use of a brief statement to present to us a “world where ceramic works to a great extent reflect the digital world in which they are created, and where ceramics to a high degree is projected and experienced as images via social media: Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, etc.” The text in question also lays out how “present-day ceramic artists” engage in “a subtle dialogue with both the physical and virtual pictorial space in which the ceramic work is experienced.” (The physical space that is a museum doesn’t allow one to touch, needless to say.)
Reflecting On the Digital Work
Subtleties aside; I find but one of the 23 exhibiting artists to be directly addressing the online world of images. Nils E. Martin’s work taps into the content of a YouTube channel dedicated to a pair of reality TV characters crisscrossing the globe to test their own manhood in the wilderness.
Martin’s work is, one could say, a far cry from that sort of macho-man-ism. His pieces display more a certain delicacy, and they each individually offer a range of perspectives—both literally and symbolically. Seen in situ, one must shift one’s viewpoint to align lines in the work such as to get the optical effect of the design to fall into place, which happens only at a very precise spot in the room.
The figures he draws by hand with porcelain pencils adorn rather intricate cast reliefs. These are made partly in stoneware clay and partly in earthenware. Detectable to a discerning eye, these reliefs outline recognizable figures, or attributes of the characters involved. In totality, this creates a happy marriage of high and low—the painstaking, handmade, purely optical, and quite cerebral drawings and reliefs, to which he adds vivid and shiny coloring that in its own right speaks volumes of accessibility and popular culture.
At the same time, for someone well versed in ceramic history, these wall-hung pieces denote the technical prowess of Luca della Robbia and his Renaissance-era imagery that graces many an art museum. I myself find the yoke somewhat disorienting, and the YouTube reference isn’t an easy one to untangle from these 3D riddles. The titles lead on, but they necessitate a bit of Googling. This seems a fair game for this exhibition that takes on the online image proliferation of today.
The exhibition leaflet referenced above offers some clues to Martin’s work, but only by framing him and others exhibited as attesting to what the museum sees as “refer[ring] back in time to the baroque and to staged photography.” However, Martin posts nothing on Instagram himself, which is perhaps logical, since being in the room with the actual object is the only way of seeing how they work, a baroque theatricality indeed.
Their eyeing of the baroque within the field of ceramics permits the exhibition curators (three external perspectives and one from within the institution) to give a wide range of such strategies. In regard to this, the works of Steen Ipsen and Martin Bodilsen Kaldahl stand out. Both are part of the curator’s team alongside Bente Skjøttgaard, whose work always affirms a deep love for clay and glaze as materials. Her abstracted trees and clouds hint to growth and abundance, and recall the richness of floral depictions throughout art history.
An approach of this kind is also seen in Matt Wedel’s contribution, only his is an enlarged and more naturalistic version. He also adds to the international scope of the exhibition, so this is perhaps why his two pieces both occupy key space: one at the exhibition entrance and the other in open air, in front of the building, which is the oldest part of the museum and the main entrance. Seen against the building’s red facade, his sculpture’s translucent turquoise glaze clinging onto contorting cactus branches comes across as quite bombastic and an old-school ornate style, and thereby quite accessible, emotionally eruptive and light, and a bit saucy.
This characterization, apart from the accessibility, also applies to four towering sculptures by Anders Ruhwald. These have contours reminiscent of Gothic sculpture, and his also seem heavenly bound, or sent, perhaps. Based in the US, as is Wedel, Ruhwald’s contributions originate from a larger congregation of such works that he exhibited in 2017. With only the four sculptural objects scattered on a large swath of metal in the middle of the exhibition hall, this work isn’t, as an installation, as prominent as Ruhwald’s pieces normally are.
Baroque abundance and richness of color and shapes also carry through in works made by Anton Alvarez, Takuro Kuwata, Pernille Pontoppidan Pedersen, and Marit Tingleff. Pedersen’s work smacks of impiety, but shows enough skill and audacity to bar being labeled “sloppy craft” and other simplistic characterizations. The others’ takes on the quotidian dish, vase, or teabowl approach the forms in a more orthodox fashion, and they aren’t toying around either. The group of classic chawans by Kuwata is orthodox apart from the glazes and the expressive effects of metallic dazzle. Tingleff, with her large platters, shows a personal orthodoxy in that for decades she has made oversized, serving-platter-like objects from earthenware and slips. Her eye for the subtleties and refinement in her materials hasn’t been thwarted throughout the years, while her creations take radical proportions. Her huge twin pieces on show were made in 2019, both pieces defined by a depth created by adding another layer that runs in a meandering pattern and recombines Tingleff’s older themes. The visual and tactile pleasures taken in the core materials of ancient ceramic techniques are combined with expressive and free-flowing energies; yet Tingleff is a purist if ever there was one.
Mock-up and Fake Ceramic?
The quaint silhouettes of Carl Emil Jacobsen’s pieces draw on miscellaneous sources; I see super-sized farm tools and buds and scions from arcane industry, among other references. Hard as they are to characterize, for the pieces to be labeled as ceramic is even harder. Their titles state a mere “powder variation,” in different hues, so I turned to the leaflet for further details, and learned that they are made of “pigments from crushed bricks,” and also “acrylic, fiber concrete, polystyrene, and steel.” In that pigments adorn the pieces’ surfaces, they get the look of basic adobe ceramics, which evidently, they are not. What are they, then, and what would be Jacobsen’s relation to the concept of the show, of the proliferation of online images and the “virtual pictorial space in which the ceramic work is experienced?”
Via the mobile screen in my own pocket I see how Jacobsen’s own Instagram account is testament to ceramics’ ability to generate likes, but see also how discreet he is about his working methods, even as some comments express belief that the works are actually made by firing clay. To hold such beliefs when contemplating them in person in a museum dedicated to a single material being fired isn’t quite the same; and still it is hard to discern what they are made of, since touching is prohibited here, too. Is it a tongue-in-cheek statement in the form of mock-up or fake ceramics, and if so, is it a statement on the part of Jacobsen or also of the museum?
Either way, such musings are not productive when done by a sole artist of the 23 involved. The axis between what Nils E. Martin does in his reliefs and the sense that Jacobsen’s powdering creates could make an intriguing horizon for contemplating ceramics, but this show isn’t up to it, as so much good old baroque fanfare and many well-known and highly publicized artists are forming the core of this show.
Ceramic Momentum, Staging the Object included works by Anton Alvarez, Karen Bennicke, Christina Schou Christensen, Morten Løbner Espersen, Michael Geertsen, Mia E Göransson, Steen Ipsen, Carl Emil Jacobsen, Ole Jensen, Gitte Jungersen, Martin Bodilsen Kaldahl, Marianne Krumbach, Takuro Kuwata, Nils Erichsen Martin, Marianne Nielsen, Turi Heisselberg Pedersen, Pernille Pontoppidan Pedersen, Anders Ruhwald, Bente Skjøttgaard, Linda Sormin, Marit Tingleff, Anne Tophøj, and Matt Wedel.
The exhibition (on view through November 3) is accompanied by a 140-page catalog with information on each artist as well as texts by Copenhagen Ceramics (the external curatorial team), Glenn Adamson, and Stine Høholt. Published by CLAY Museum of Ceramic Art together with Copenhagen Ceramics. For more information, visit claymuseum.dk; www.copenhagenceramics.com.
the author Christer Dynna is a journalist and art critic living in Oslo, Norway. He has a master’s degree in the arts from the University of Oslo and in part from Sorbonne, France. To learn more, visit www.frilanskatalogen.no/christer.