Everyone knows someone who's got into pottery in the last five years. I might be writing a book about the stuff, but it feels like clay is everywhere right now, in high culture and low. Instagram is wall-to-wall ceramicists, to the point that there’s not one but two pottery meme accounts jostling for top spot (@gay4clay and @cerameme).
More seriously, the material is becoming more prevalent within artistic practice (in works by artists like Jade Montserrat, Florence Peake and Keith Harrison) and in exhibitions such as the recent Body Vessel Clay which brilliantly explored the work and legacy of Ladi Kwali, and straddled craft, art, and museum show. However, it’s major contemporary art institutions that The Hayward picks up, where it’s been somewhat (if not completely) lacking despite current trends. As the gallery’s director Ralph Rugoff emphasises in the press view speeches: Strange Clay aims to redress historical resistance met to clay as a serious art medium.
In the survey of twenty-three artists, established and emerging, a handful of stars of the ceramic art world are included, some of whom are household names like Grayson Perry whose vases, jugs and platters subvert and renew tradition. There’s also Edmund de Waal, whose Atmosphere (2014) plays on light and air, in materials otherwise dense and brittle: glass, metal, porcelain. In it, misted vitrines containing assortments of narrow porcelain cylinders hang like clouds from the gallery roof – we view them from below, (significant as they have untidy bases, because they were thrown in a single breath and left un-turned). The vitrines are hung in formations like cumulus over an open landscape, the porcelain made weightless by glazes in palest blues and cirrus grey.
These established names share space with young and emerging artists like Ugandan multimedia artist Leilah Babiyre, whose coil-made idols are crowned with bike chains scavenged from New York streets, and Woody De Othello, whose unreal montage includes chunky distortions of functional items: a melting spoon and large mug are like Dali at playgroup; cartoonish vessels are gifted praying hands and cherry red lips; a pair of feet melt down the stairs.
Themes emerge from the curation: ceramic processes are referenced in one of Rachel Kneebone's porcelain works, where agglomerations like porcelain wasters (pots fused in the kiln and discarded) hang as a chandelier in the stairwell. Aaron Angell’s encrusted assemblages suggest dinnerware that will never be used, as if liberating them from the insistent functionality of studio pottery. Elsewhere the beauty of potter’s glaze tests are referenced in David Zink Yi's All My Colours, a series of elongated almonds in a vast palette from muted, stippled and speckled to volcanic glazes and iron tiger stripes.
More arresting is his giant squid, splayed on the gallery floor in an oily pool of water. It is incredibly lifelike, wildly uncanny, and almost impossible not to touch. I struggle not to check the wetness of that puddle – is it liquid? Resin? It feels absurd to be stood barrier-less next to this huge wet carcass, and not caress a slimy-looking sucker, but this is a gallery, and I know I am categorically not allowed. This wetness reoccurs throughout the show, like in Brie Ruais’s work, where two large Catherine Wheels of clay are hung like enormous fingerpaintings, with swipes of a pale glaze that seems to be an opaque liquid defying gravity, hung on a wall and frozen in time.
While it is perhaps only true that clay faces resistance in art if you stick a load of caveats to that statement, this show remains significant. There is perhaps a general sort of parallel with photography to draw. Just as the practical and technical elements of documentary photography obstructed its acceptance as an art medium, so perhaps a distaste for craft – along with the technical demands of ceramics – have blurred desired boundaries that would see work in clay embraced by contemporary art institutions. You are still more likely to see established names like de Waal and Perry at the British Museum or V&A than at the Tate Modern, for example. This may only be true insofar as you restrict yourself to art as defined by the major institutions that buy, sell and house it, but the curation of Strange Clay feels like a high-water mark, upping the ante for strangeness while retaining references to wider ceramic practices and traditional processes, because for all my hand-wringing here over exactly the neglect being rectified by Strange Clay, its curation is a triumph, playing with both the past, present and future possibilities of a most abundant material. The most powerful moments are the most tactile – from the squid’s oily pool to glossy glazed surfaces – so if I have a complaint it is unresolvable and applies to all exhibitions: that I can’t touch this stuff. I regret that I am not allowed to fondle or stroke these extremely valuable artworks, or in the case of Lindsey Mendick, to play in these scenes. (I scratched the itch by handling all the giftshop mugs and vases by studio potters, happily weighing them in the hand.)
While the moments where functional ceramic objects are referenced (in giftshop and gallery) bring Strange Clay into sharp focus, it plays best upon the imagination when this most everyday material becomes literally unearthly. It’s in this duality of potential as the real and the unreal; the earth bound and limitless, that clay will always provide transcendent possibilities for art.
Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art is at the Hayward Gallery, London, until 8 January 2023