Ceramics Monthly: While your work is typically figurative and narrative, you’ve recently created a series of vessels for a collaborative exhibition. Could you describe how the process for designing the vessels differs from designing your sculptural work?
Matthew Groves: The pots I created recently for the collaborative exhibition with my partner Sarah Nishiura, called “Familiar Bedfellows,” at Lillstreet Gallery in Chicago, Illinois, in July 2014, were very different in concept and in execution to my figurative work, being first and foremost objects with a practical application, either rhubarb forcers, curfews, or bells.
In making the pieces I reflected on the year I spent teaching in Florence, Italy, where it seemed almost every noteworthy utilitarian object in the made environment had a significant sculptural, symbolic, and/or decorative aspect. I visualized these new vessels similarly to 18th-century Wedgwood cauliflower and pineapple teapots, which provided a surprising decorative appeal when not in use, analogous to an interesting rock or plant one might encounter in the natural landscape, which you expect to see, but still intrigues and delights.
In “Familiar Bedfellows” we worked in our own specific media to create pairs of objects, quilts and vessels. Sarah started her quilts and my designs followed, like a call and response. We spent a lot of time discussing the formal elements of each pairing. Sarah chose colors and quilting patterns that might relate directly to some of the techniques I was interested in employing and vice versa. This collaboration was a joint investigation into the experience of making purposeful objects, something we both feel deeply passionate about. Sarah’s quilts are conspicuously utilitarian, offering practical and decorative solutions, but my figures have no obvious use.
In my figurative work, I try to balance the static and the fluid elements, but sometimes rely heavily on the glaze to give the figures movement, particularly mold-made pieces. Although these vessels are also formed over a mold, which lends a static monumentality, the surfaces are bigger and flatter than on my figures, more like a canvas. This forced me to develop more playful energetic surfaces using contrasting layers of slip or texture, overlaid with the fluid glazes. The effects are rich and intriguing and worth developing and I am excited going forward to apply them to new figurative pieces.
Making pottery versus sculpture forces me to reconsider my fundamental relationship to our society. Making pots of purpose is rewarding in ways not possible for me when making purely decorative figurative work, and I am excited to examine this paradox. I am currently developing a solo exhibition at Indiana University Northwest’s Gallery for Contemporary Art. The show will include some new objects made in pairs that continue to explore the relationships between figure and vessel. I can imagine some vessels which contain figures, some vessels which conjoin figurative elements, and also some vessels paired up with more abstract, slab-built sculptural forms.