The idea of clay as a serious art form is nothing new. The traditional ‘craft’ connotations of the medium have been slipping since the second half of the 20th century, with clay becoming the material of choice for heavyweights such as Grayson Perry and Betty Woodman. More recently, artists including Lindsey Mendick, Leilah Babirye and Woody De Othello have used it for its raw, political and psychic potential.
These artists are included in Hayward Gallery’s wide-ranging new exhibition ‘Strange Clay’, which presents ceramics as fantastical and uncanny. It also manages to show quite how electrifying this medium can be. The work is vast, totemic, loud and messy. All 23 artists in ‘Strange Clay’ more than hold their own within Hayward’s cavernous brutalist architecture.
‘The good thing here is that you can put together a really serious installation,’ curator Cliff Lauson tells me. ‘There is domestically scaled work in the show, but you can also really let rip. We wanted to turn the old image of clay on its head and make it really exciting.’ He has been considering the exhibition for the last four years, engaging in long-running conversations with many of the featured artists, whose profiles have continued to soar since its inception.
‘The idea of clay as a serious art form has been bubbling at the forefront of contemporary practice for a while, alongside a wider consideration of craft,’ says Lauson. ‘The journey for many of these artists has come from looking at history through a contemporary lens. Of course, ceramics has a rich history in every country around the world.’
Jonathan Baldock’s imposing Facecrime greets visitors first entering the show. Precarious towers of ceramic cylinders emblazoned with ears, faces and mug-like handles are interrupted by floppy, unmissably phallic, balloon-like forms poking from the sides. The work captures the playfulness of the medium that threads through Strange Clay, often revealing uneasy emotional undercurrents.
Eruptions of all kinds also happen throughout the show. David Zink Yi’s giant squid is surrounded by a thick marbled slick of ink; Beate Kuhn’s collection of chalky black ceramics appears ready to burst with glowing goo; Salvatore Arancio’s volcanic forms feature iridescent columns shooting from their bases. Mess, both physical and psychological, can be found everywhere.
Lindsey Mendick brings this untidiness to a thundering climax in Till Death Do Us Part. Taking its title from Madonna’s homage to her famously troubled marriage with Sean Penn (which soundtracks the work), the installation displays the full intensity of domestic life spent with another person. Slugs writhe on the kitchen floor with their guts spilling out; rats clamber over a broken table, surrounded by blood-like splashes of red wine; cockroaches crawl over a worn-out copy of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Mendick has poured her own experiences into this piece, creating a complex image of love and the potent battle of wills that often accompanies it.
‘It is an emotive medium and I think we relate to it,’ Lauson tells me. ‘Tactility is there in all of the works. It’s really explicit in some. There is this trace of interaction. There is that element of the human and the earth. You can revel in the untidiness of the medium, which is often brought into the final form. It’s also bolstered by the things you can do with surface.’
Leilah Babirye creates similarly powerful work, stretching the material potential of ceramics by combining clay with found objects. In busts ranging from human-sized to 3m tall, she utilises woven old bike tyres for hair and bike chains combined with rusty lights to form a crown. Her use of discarded materials refers to abasiyazi, a Ugandan slur for queer and trans people derived from the inedible part of sugar cane that is thrown out. Babirye symbolically elevates her materials, ‘representing the queer community, my community, in a royal way’.
This expanded way of working with clay is pushed to its limits by Klara Kristolova. Far From Here features 18 stoneware figures surrounded by dried vegetation, forming a hilly landscape that viewers can walk through. The scent of dried leaves, not dissimilar to chamomile, pervades the space, noticeable before the work is within view. Each of the figures can be seen in a state of transformation, between human, animal, insect and plant forms. She combines gloss and matt finishes on her ceramics, creating an effect more akin to watercolour painting than traditional glazing.
Hayward director Ralph Rugoff mentions that ceramics sit in the middle of painting and sculpture. But this is not the only ‘between’ space that they occupy. There is also a play between liquid and solid; humour and darkness. As displayed in ‘Strange Clay’, this medium is hard to pin down, enabling a conflicted expression of what it means to be human and all of the muck that comes with it.
Until 8 January 2023 at the Hayward Gallery, London
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