In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic I visited an exhibition called “Møte” (Encounter) at Telemark Kunstsenter (www.telemarkkunstsenter.no) in Skien, a small town on the southeastern coast of Norway. Skien nowadays is known for being the birthplace of the playwright Henrik Ibsen—whose plays expose tensions in both the domestic sphere and in society. I ponder that the show’s title is perhaps meant to evoke a marital drama in tune with his plays, given that the works exhibited are made by two seasoned ceramic artists and spouses. Eirik Gjedrem and Ann Beate Tempelhaug work as individuals, and visually their works speak to one another. Yet—as these connections aren’t other than visual, the encounter as such doesn’t produce a dialog between the works. Teaming them up together isn’t what makes this exhibition of some 25 works engaging. Despite an unproductive pairing, the individually great projects touch a variety of themes that makes the visit worthwhile and more.
Most of the pieces in the exhibition date from the last three years. All are made from either stoneware clay or porcelain, and this, along with the considerable number of large pieces, is testament to both artists benefiting from working at an industrial manufacturing facility for several years. Norsk Teknisk Porselen (NTP) factory exports ceramic insulators and offers small series production. It has a longtime program that grants ceramic artists access to the factory and use of the labor force and materials, as well as machinery and other tools at hand. They have thus allowed many artists whose means were limited in scope to both scale up their work and also to fire pieces several times over, thereby paving the way to unrestricted experimentation for dozens of makers.
For someone like Gjedrem, who just turned 61, and Tempelhaug, five years his senior, factory facilities like the ones at their disposal at NTP are liberating in regards to the physical side of ceramic work. Still the works made by Tempelhaug, like Dager (Days)—a large handbuilt platter measuring 6 ft. (1.8 m) long—seems not to be disproportionately large just for the sake of it. Both she and Gjedrem are seasoned artists who have the skill and capacity to not let the technical side of making dominate their work.
Tempelhaug’s work demonstrates a strong sense of balance, but getting a sense of the process she uses is not straightforward. Her large platters present themselves much like paintings of landscapes and seem also not to weigh anything. That is an exploit given that she works in handbuilt stoneware, but what also deserves attention is how the colored glazes have been applied to the surfaces such as to become fleeting and close to innumerable. They stand out as both layered and living, similar to watercolors. In some respects they have the eerie quality of paintings by Marlene Dumas, only Dumas’ paintings revolve around figures, not landscapes. Tempelhaug obtains such qualities by applying her glazes by hand with the greatest attention to detail and a great amount of patience (since multiple firings must also be involved), or in short, with passion. The work is far from coming across as seeking perfection. Nor is it about being pretty, but still it’s absolutely very sensual. A patch of one color can look like curled up skin, albeit in yellow tones, next to which runs a grayish streak that looks like a veil, a curtain of rain with dirt, or tears. These subtle variations of gray tones also dominate Dager, and the platter evokes depth and drama. Sparsely dotted pastel colors near the edges looks like flimsy glimpses of islands adrift in a storm, in a space where seminal darkness prevails, as if caught in a muted rage. Here colors of hope are sparse and scattered, leaving our gaze adrift in the space between them. This is an inner landscape more than anything.
In Gjedrem’s work, which is three-dimensional, the one form recurring most often is that of a wobbly doughnut. It might in fact also evoke a whirling ring of bubbles formed by water that is boiling. Water as an element is here a straightforward reference, while other kinds of labeling aren’t. What these objects lack in beauty is compensated for by a strong character. The shapes are informed by various creatures in the sea and oceanic life that is often hidden from us. Throughout almost the entirety of his career, this avid diver has been in keeping with this strand of references of underwater life, and he’s often kept with his matte surfaces of zinc or barium glazes, unevenly layered, thereby emphasizing the organic shapes underneath that he makes by coiling and handbuilding.
Seeing these creatures of the seas alongside the pastels in the works by Tempelhaug spurs an association to early European porcelain. The dexterity with which the porcelain industry imitated and recreated all sorts of life forms replied well to the demand of naturalism in the arts—at a time when the natural world at large was being discovered (and colonized). This decorative tradition flourished in the upper echelons of European society. And from the mid-18th century onward, it became fashionable to populate one’s dining table with art figurines imitating sea life and other creatures of the world.
Yet in Gjedrem’s work, there’s a melancholic thread akin to the 19th-century rediscovery of nature once it was overshadowed by the second wave of industrialization. I find the character of the pieces by Gjedrem to be somewhat introverted, and a little restrained. To juxtapose his sculptures with the works of ceramic artist Eva Zethraeus confirms that only the forms are similar, since his sculptures don’t reverberate with joy and wonder, as does this Swedish woman’s artistic universe—besides, her works are thrown. Sculptures by Gjedrem display his dexterity, but one feels their characters are somewhat muted. They also bring to mind painted images of a bygone era, namely the seascapes by Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez (1838–1926). He executed his art under water, in order to better render the impression of a sea bed, and with it also the painter’s state of mind (in a similar vein to Tempelhaug).
Whatever drama I expected to encounter at this Skien exhibition was somewhat eclipsed by the fact that my visit was bookended by the first two lockdowns that followed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sadly the pandemic also prevented Gjedrem and Tempelhaug from making a whole new line of work together for this shared show, work that they had planned before the pandemic halted everything.)
The anamorphic shapes of Gjedrem bring in these very days some other associations, given we’re now applying a “pandemic gaze” to life around us—and within us. And his shapes mimic also microbes and other invisible forms of life—and with several mutations of COVID-19 so far encountered, we are learning about and also from these viruses in our midst. Seeing better how entangled we are with nature’s ways and its parasites. Indeed, such associations to parasites were propelled by a seasoned critic after viewing Møte, and her review thus dismissed both these artistic projects as offering very little in way of originality. By positioning instead Gjedrem and Tempelhaug “in the shadow of giants”—namely Torbjørn Kvasbø and Marit Tingleff, respectively—the critic exposed at best her own disappointment of not witnessing an encounter. And the gallery’s decision to go forward with an initial idea although the outbreak of COVID-19 ground the very production of new pieces to a halt seems a grievously contagious communication blunder, causing a frustration that I can share. But, as dull meetings nowadays take place on Zoom and in video-link conferences, I see how much we’re all missing out when it comes to conversing—so I’m truly still excited that Møte did take place and that I was allowed to engage with these works by being there. As these two brilliant ceramic artists’ projects are both radiant, I’m sure that new variants and mutations will follow once nature’s laws allow for it.
the author Christer Dynna is a freelance critic and art historian living in Oslo, Norway, who has been writing on craft and teaching for some odd 20 years.