Sunday, December 30, 2012

Christmas cards

This year I decided to make a limited edition lino-cut. Having not done any print making for a very long time, it was a steep learning curve. First I had to track down some block inks – ultramarine was relatively easy to locate, but silver proved more illusive. Cornellisen's came up trumps finally, whilst the paper came from Atlantis.

I bought two thicknesses of Khadi Cotten Rag and wanted to use the thicker 320gms, but that involved an expensive afternoon at Thames Barrier Print Studios, hiring the use of their almost clapped out old press – with mixed results, and unfortunately there wasn't time to put on a second colour.

The edition was ultimately produced in my studio with a hand roller on the thinner paper. A test showed the ultramarine needed some black in the mix to create a stronger colour.

The mis-registering was deliberate – the white show-through on the silver layer meant to convey snow sitting on the 'fruit'.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Silhouettes and Kara Walker

The Willow Pattern, viewed by candle-light (the usual night-time illumination at the end of the 18th century), appears like a silhouette. A vogue for making silhouettes and the art of shadow portraiture swept across western Europe in the last decades of the 18th century. This may have been influenced by Chinese fretwork, and the lattice work of furniture maker Thomas Chippendale. Silhouette art became a popular pastime, requiring only scissors, a candle and black paper; the art was taught in fashionable schools, and a major treatise was written in 1792 by a Dutch artist August Edouart (who had previously been a painter on Delft pottery).

The art of the silhouette was already popular in the East. The Chinese enjoyed shadow plays, and at the end of the 17th century were making iron 'pictures', designed to be mounted in windows or in lanterns, or hung on walls. A noted iron artist in the early 18th century was T'ang P'eng, who often featured the willow tree. Similar depictions found their way into the English drawing room in friezes.

Kara Walker is a major American artist whose signature works are silhouettes – paper-cut installations, using black paper and scissors. I first saw her work at Tate Modern in 2007. Kara uses the 'genteel' art of 'the oppressor' to create stories that would never have been told at the time.
The historical setting for much of Kara Walker’s work is the American pre—Civil War antebellum South. While this is the backdrop for many of her scenes, Walker does not represent a necessarily truthful depiction of history. Fact, fiction, and fantasy are intertwined; exaggerated truths and fictionalized events parade as history lessons that viewers must unpack, sort out, and ultimately decide which elements are true. Through this scrambling of “truth,” The artist is also commenting on the way that official history, particularly that of African Americans, is just as constructed as her stories.
Kara Walker describes her work as both visual and literary. Literature such as southern romance novels, historical fiction, slave narratives, and contemporary novels influence the artist's practice of storytelling, while some texts are directly referenced in her pieces. Like a novelist, Walker employs characters, setting and action to convey a story. These narratives are not always linear, however, and don’t necessarily include a clear plot line. In the artist’s words, “There is always a beginning and there’s never a conclusion.” Walker is interested in the stories we tell about ourselves, and specifically, a desire for a narrative about “African America” that engages the past, present, and future.
Text and image © of Walker Art Center (all artworks and quotations by Kara Walker © the artist, courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York).

© Installation view of My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Sheldan C. Collins.

Monday, November 19, 2012

About an academic dissertation...

Another academic request recently received...

I am a PhD student and working on my dissertation about "Use of Readymade & Found Ceramics Tableware & Porcelain figurines in Contemporary Arts". I have prepared the questions in the below link to be answered by ceramics artists and related professionals from all over the world. Could you please fill out this questionnaire. That would be a great contribution to my doctoral dissertation. Thank you in advance for your valuable time.

Aygun Dincer Kirca

The Fragments Conference

Beatrice Bazell runs an academic reading group called 'Fragments' at Birbeck College London, which she says, 'studies the incomplete, broken, partial or refracted'. She wrote to me to ask if it was OK to use an image of my work she'd spotted on this blog (see the 2008 post) to help advertise an event she's holding for her PhD students in early December.

Of course I said yes. In the event description, Beatrice credits the work: "the image is from which showcases the stunning (and very pertinent) work of the artist Sue Lawes, reproduced by kind permission."

The event details are here, and hopefully I can join them on the day.

Adriana Varejao

Just discovered the Brazilian artist Adriana Varejao. Her work "alludes to expansion and transformation of cultural identity, yet continues the use of her theme of understanding the past in order to understand the present."

From the Liverpool Biennial website:

"Adriana Varejão’s paintings are cultural and artistic excavations. In particular, they trace the historical conjunctions that have produced contemporary Brazilian art, including Portugal’s long history of cultural cross-fertilisation with China. This complexity is exemplified by Varejão’s incorporation of traces of the transplanted Chinese artistic tradition with the Baroque influences of colonial culture.

"Portuguese Catholicism has produced some startlingly violent imagery, with graphic representations of martyrdom and disrupted flesh that literally dismember the classical ideal of the human body. These images have been absorbed into the indigenous cultural traditions of Brazil, in turn influencing the style and content of local Christian iconography.

"Portuguese artists exploited the narrative potential of Chinese ceramic decoration, especially the cobalt blue that became so popular with Europeans. It is common in both Portugal and Brazil to find blue tile decoration on the outside of buildings. Inside churches, panels of these tiles often tell stories from the lives of the saints. These narratives invariably end badly, with bodily degradation, flaying, dismemberment and various forms of penetration. A very popular secular use of the same medium is found in butchers’ shops to promote their wares. It is common to find images of joints of meat, poultry or fish hanging on hooks in these situations. The parallels with religious iconography are hard to miss.

"Varejão recalls the curious sight of damaged ceramic panels that were restored at some time in the past without any apparent attempt to reconstruct the original design. As a result, the figures have been fragmented and the frame has appeared within the composition in a bizarre configuration. For a modern viewer this fragmentation and disruption of the frame has distinctly cubist (and indeed post-structuralist) overtones, but it is also a compelling metaphor for cultural bricolage. The artist has used this strange history of iconographic conjunctions as a starting point for her paintings, often referring back to the blue tiles."

Meanwhile, this piece by Adriana made in 1997, titled Tea and Tiles II, sold for £391,250 in June this year.

Top image: copyright Victoria Miro
Middle image: copyright Liverpool Biennial
Bottom image: copyright Christies 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Samuel Smiths Old Brewery Bitter

Adjourning to The Angel pub (St Giles Street near Tottenham Court Road) with my niece Kate, after the TUC march yesterday (A Future That Works), was delighted to discover it is a Samuel Smiths pub with special Samuel Smith pumps.

Unfortunately my camera battery was dead so I didn't take a pic. This photo is copyright of Beerlens.

Also a pleasant surprise was that some old friends from Deptford were in the pub. They had also been on the march. Moyni said they come here cos the beer's cheap, and I was reminded that recently a nerdy beer fanatic had told me that Samuel Smiths pubs only serve Samuel Smith's products. The price of the beer is set by the brewery at an affordable rate.

Their website says that no branded or media advertised products are stocked and their pubs have no music or TVs. It was a fitting place to end a day of protest against capitalism, and the beer was very good, but now I will have to find out why they have chosen the Willow Pattern to decorate their pumps!

Shadow players Tim Noble & Sue Webster + March Against Austerity

© Tim Noble & Sue Webster, Blain | Southern 
In Willow, David Richard Quinter observes, "Thanks to whaling, one of the greatest revolutions in human history occurred at the end of the 18th century...whale-derived spermaceti oil came into general use, providing candles which burned with a clear, steady flame – giving us still our measure of 'candle-power'. It was not until 1784 that the public was able to extend day into night even more efficiently with the marketing by Aime Argand of a lamp utilizing a burner, wick and a chimney...If the nature and duration of work thereby changed, so did recreation, the arts and their performance and completion – and with bright light sources emerged the opposite: substantial, if not natural, shadows. At that point the silhouette hobby and its practitioner arose in Europe..."

"Sitting on a dresser shelf and viewed by whale oil- or candle-light...a row of Willow Pattern plates would appear much like a row of silhouettes..."

Yesterday, I caught Tim Noble & Sue Webster's show Nihilistic Optimistic at Blain | Southern in Hanover Square, on the way back from the TUC march. This is their first major solo show in London since 2006.

"Featuring six large-scale works, the show builds upon the artists' sustained investigation into self-portraiture, further deconstructing the relationship between materiality and form, which has been so intrinsic to their practice.

"The exhibition's dualistic title, Nihilistic Optimistic, responds to the oppositional forces present within these works, and indeed within the artists themselves; the show is at once constructive and destructive, hopeful and despairing. Light and shadow, form and absence, figuration and abstraction all inform one another and exist in a constant state of tension."

There was a kind of deliberate choice not to use such recognisable objects any more, and to start fracturing things up - splintering things. So the mind has to wander in a different way, like you’re giving and taking, and it’s as much about the gaps and holes in between.” Tim Noble

Meanwhile, here are some pictures from the March Against Austerity...

This is Independent journalist and commentator, Owen Jones, new star of the left. 

This yellow RMT SAYS NO! banner was adapted (with permission) from artwork I did for a local campaign against Academy Schools (DEPTFORD SAYS NO!), which was in turn borrowed from Shepard Fairey's SAY YES, who took that from Alexander Rodchennko's Everything old is new again.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pierre Sauvageot: Harmonic Fields

On our first day in Weymouth, we went to the amazing sound installation in an old Portland quarry, Harmonic Fields. This was part of Inside Out Dorset and the piece itself was part of the London 2012 Festival (the 2012 cultural olympiad).

Harmonic Fields is an ensemble of 500 instruments, played by the wind. Harnessing this natural energy, life is breathed into the orchestra, creating a symphonic soundscape, unique to each visitor.

Pierre Sauvageot, creator of Harmonic Fields explains. “We’re constantly bombarded with new noises, which amplify, until we no longer listen. Sounds from Harmonic Fields are quiet and come at their own pace, like waves on the seashore. It is music in its simplest, most primal form.”

It was an overcast and windy day – the rest of the week was sunny and calm, and apparently there was less wind to play the instruments. In fact there was so little wind later in the week that the last day of the Paralympic sailing was cancelled.

Here's a video I found on YouTube...

My videos....

There was a lot of art on in Weymouth when I was there, although I'd missed much of the work in the B-Side Multimedia Festival as it was in its last week. Managed to see Stig Evans' Portland Colour Library of Portland and Beijing artist Lu Zheng's Waiting For Godot, both on Chisel Beach at Portland, but unfortunately missed a live gig by Bristol improv duo Eyebrow at Sandsfoot Castle since it was our last night.

Richard Harris: Jurassic Stones

Have just spent a week in Weymouth. Saw some art, but didn't see this...

Richard Harris's Jurassic Stones. See

The BBC covered the unveiling of the sculpture in February 2012: "A collection of 16 Jurassic stones mounted on steel plinths have been unveiled in Dorset to mark the 2012 Olympic games. The sculpture is near the Jurassic roundabout in Littlemoor, Weymouth, and is close to the venue for the Olympic and Paralympic sailing events.

The project is funded by Arts Council England, Dorset County Council and Weymouth and Portland Borough Council. It cost £335,000 and is part of a three-year project costing £725,000.

Each boulder weighs between two and nine tonnes. They were formed between 160 and 65 million years ago in an area of the county that would have been a tropical lagoon.

The sculpture was designed by Devon-born artist Richard Harris. Mr Harris said: "I was inspired to work with the large Bencliff Grit stones when they were revealed by the road excavations on Southdown Ridge, to preserve them and to give them a new life after millions of years under ground."

Karen Ryan

My neighbour John sent me this

Karen Ryan is a contemporary British designer. "Necessity, fate, autobiography and subversion are the key influences upon my practice. I generally use what others discard. Every discarded object is imbued with its own living history. This everyday provenance is used as narrative in the objects I design and make."

Monday, August 20, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012

Blue & white at Shellness

A day out last Sunday to the Isle of Sheppey, to the north tip at Shellness, with views across the estuary to Whitstable...

Although Shellness is a private gated community of appallingly ugly chalet style buildings, there is public access to the beach, where a massive amount of mostly cockle shells can be found (obviously how the area got its name).

As well as shells, blue and white pottery fragments also wash up here.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Calla and Cauldrons

Originally I'd wanted to model the "Old Blue & White" flowers on Calla lillies, but had to modify the idea so that the flowers could face out vertically to be seen from a distance.

As I made more of them (with a copper wire armature), they became, co-incidentally, a similar shape to the "flowers" that then later appeared as part of the London 2012 Olympic cauldron.

The Guardian on "Betty" the Cauldron...
Along with the Queen, Daniel Craig and a cast of thousands, the Olympic cauldron acquitted herself elegantly at the opening ceremony, raising her fiery petals at the end of the night to form a perfect dandelion of flame and set a new standard for understated first-night aesthetics.
The cauldron's creator, the designer Thomas Heatherwick, resisted the temptation to join the global cauldron race, opting for grace and originality over sheer bulk.

The 8.5-metre-tall cauldron, which was crafted in a workshop in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, was intended to stand apart from the fiery troughs that had come before it.

"We were aware cauldrons had been getting bigger, higher, fatter as each Olympics happened and we felt we shouldn't try to be even bigger than the last ones," he said. Betty's design, Heatherwick added, had also allowed the organisers to stress the diverse but united spirit of the Games.

"This incredible event has 204 nations coming together, so we had a child from each country bringing these copper polished objects in."

Not reported was that the gas supply to the cauldron cost £5K a minute. (The lighting for the stadium cost £10K a minute)...Hopefully official "energy" sponsor, EDF, paid for that!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Old Blue and White at DX Opening

Deptford X Opening, last Thursday 26th July, at Creekside Centre. A few words from RH Dame Joan Ruddock and the very gracious lead curator Hew Locke. Flowers in foreground...


Not sure about The History of Art in Three Colours  (surely a case can be made for red). The second episode, Blue, featured Titian, Picasso and Yves Klein. The programme showed that until the precious stone lapis lazuli reached Venice from Afghanistan in the middle ages, blue was a colour little seen in western art. Then ultramarine became associated with depictions of the Virgin Mary until Titian began using it as he liked. It also made a link to the colour of the earth as viewed from outer space ("beyond the blue horizon"). This is a NASA image from the July 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Installing The Old Blue & White (2)

More flower arranging today...Emma Redstone came to help, along with David.

The History Bit: Origins of Blue and White

Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

Extracts from the transcript from the BBC Radio 4 series The History of the World in 100 Objects

Episode 64 - The David Vases

The David Vases (made in 1351). Porcelain; from China
"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."

The thrilling opening lines of Coleridge's opium-fuelled fantasy still send a tingle down the spine. As a teenager I was mesmerised by this vision of exotic and mysterious pleasures, but I'd no idea that Coleridge was in fact writing about a historical figure. Because Qubilai Khan is a thirteenth-century Chinese emperor and Xanadu merely the English form of Shangdu, his Imperial summer capital. Qubilai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan, ruler of the Mongols from 1206 and terror of the world. Wreaking havoc everywhere, Genghis Khan established the Mongol Empire - a superpower that ran from the Black Sea to the Sea of Japan and from Cambodia to the Arctic. Qubilai Khan, his grandson, extended the Empire and became Emperor of China, which leads us to the objects for this programme.

Under the Mongol emperors, China developed one of the most enduring and successful luxury products in the history of the world, a product fit for stately pleasure-domes, but which spread in a matter of centuries from grand palaces to simple parlours all over the world... it's Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. We now think of blue-and-white as quintessentially Chinese, but as we shall discover, this is not how it began. This archetypal Chinese aesthetic comes in fact from Iran.

The importance of Chinese porcelain is hard to over-estimate. Admired and imitated for over a thousand years, it's influenced virtually every ceramic tradition in the world, and it's played a star role in cross-cultural exchanges. In Europe, blue-and-white porcelain is practically synonymous with China. And we've always associated it with the Ming Dynasty. But it was the David Vases, now in the British Museum, that made us re-think this history, for they predate the Ming and were in fact made under Qubilai Khan's Mongol Dynasty, known as the Yuan, who controlled all of China until the middle of the fourteenth century.

Seven hundred years ago most of Asia and a large part of Europe were reeling from the invasions of the Mongols. We all know Genghis Khan as the ultimate destroyer and the sack of Baghdad by his son still lives in Iraqi folk memory. Genghis's grandson Qubilai was also a great warrior, but under him Mongol rule became more settled and more ordered. As Emperor of China, he supported scholarship and the arts, and he encouraged the manufacture of luxury goods. Once the Empire was established, a 'Pax Mongolica' ensued, a Mongolian peace which, like the Pax Romana, ensured a long period of stability and prosperity. The Mongol Empire spread along the ancient Silk Road and made it safe. It was thanks to this Pax Mongolica that Marco Polo was able to travel from Italy to China, and then return to tell Europe what he'd seen. And one of the startling things he'd seen was porcelain.

The David Vases are so-called because they were bought by Sir Percival David, whose collection of over one and a half thousand Chinese ceramics is now in a special gallery at the British Museum. ... These two vases are obviously luxury porcelain production, made by artist-craftsmen delighting in their material.

Porcelain is a special ceramic fired at very high temperature: 1200-1400 degrees centigrade. The heat vitrifies the clay, so that like glass it can hold liquid, in contrast to porous earthenware. And the heat also makes it very tough. White, hard and translucent, porcelain was admired and desired everywhere, well before the creation of blue-and-white.

The very word 'porcelain' comes to us from Marco Polo's description of his travels in Qubilai Khan's China. The Italian 'porcellana', 'little piglet', is a slang word for cowrie shells. They do indeed look a little like curled-up piglets. And the only thing that Marco Polo could think of, to give his readers an idea of the shell-like sheen of the hard, fine ceramics that he saw in China, was a cowrie shell, a 'porcellana'. And so 'little piglets', porcelain, we've called it ever since - that's if we're not just calling it china. I don't think there's another country in the world whose name has simply become interchangeable with its defining export.

The savagery of the Mongol invasion destabilised and destroyed local pottery industries across the Middle East, especially in Iran. So when peace returned, these became major markets for Chinese exports. And in these new markets blue-and-white ware had long been popular. So the porcelain the Chinese made for them mirrored the local style, and Chinese potters used the Iranian blue pigment, cobalt, to meet local taste. The cobalt from Iran was known in China as 'huihui qing' - 'Muslim blue' - clear evidence that the blue-and-white tradition is Middle Eastern and not Chinese. Here's Craig Clunas, an expert on Chinese cultural history:

"Iran, and what's now Iraq, are the kind of areas where this sort of colouring comes in. This is a technique that comes from elsewhere, and therefore it tells us something about this period, when China is unprecedentedly open to the rest of Asia as part of this huge empire of the Mongols, which stretches all the way from the Pacific almost to the Mediterranean. Certainly the openness to the rest of Asia is what brings about things like blue-and-white, and it probably had an impact on forms of literature. So from the point of view of cultural forms coming into being, the Yuan period is extraordinarily important."

We're told that the vases were purpose-made to be offered as donations at a temple, and that the name of their donor is Zhang Wenjin, who describes himself with great solemnity as a disciple of the holy gods. It gives his home town, Shuncheng in what is now Jiangxi province, a few hundred miles south-west of Shanghai. He was offering these two grand vases along with an incense-burner - the three would have formed a typical set for an altar. The incense-burner has been lost, or at least has not yet been found. ...

Foreign rulers, the Mongols; foreign materials, Muslim blue; and foreign markets, Iran and Iraq; all played an essential part in the creation of what to many outside China is still the most Chinese of objects, blue-and-white porcelain. Soon these ceramics were being exported from China in very large quantities, to Japan and south-east Asia, across the Indian Ocean to Africa and the Middle East. And far beyond that. Here's author Jenny Uglow:

"Then it comes to Europe, and the Dutch adapt it to their life, and so it comes to Britain, and we adapt it to the forms of jugs we like, the plates we love, and so on. It becomes translated, it's like a wonderful language which is perpetually translated to the culture where it's arriving and is loved. People say it's a very, sort of, elemental thing: it's blue and white, it's the blue sky and the white clouds, or the blue sea and the white sand. And behavioral psychologists who've looked at the way people react to colour say that blue and white is seen as immensely serene and relaxing. But I think also it has to do with the great long history - you know, a thousand years of history - and the way that the blue-and-white designs themselves seem to be mysterious and 'other' and have their own stories as well. It's a combination of colour appeal and historical appeal."

So, eventually, centuries after its creation in Muslim Iran, and its transformation in Mongol China, blue-and-white arrived in Europe and triumphed. Willow-pattern, the style that many people think of when blue-and-white is mentioned, was invented in England in the 1790s by Thomas Minton, and it was as much a fantasy view of China as Coleridge's poem. It was an instant success, and Coleridge may indeed even have been drinking his tea out of a willow-pattern cup as he emerged from his opium dream.

Blue-and-white porcelain was the first truly global luxury product, and one that could be infinitely adapted to suit all local tastes. The David Vases, the earliest dateable blue-and-white, were made as offerings to the gods; in the next programme we're with another high-status object, also used as a means of connecting with the supernatural... it's a ritual throne from the Caribbean.