Fingers and noses poking out of pink plinths, a woodland filled with statues frozen in metamorphosis, rats and slugs waging war on a domestic stage: this clay is strange, indeed, writes Madeleine Kelly.
The Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition – Strange Clay – invites 23 contemporary artists to showcase the versatile brilliance of clay. The result is a show that is at times sublime and at times baffling but always new. There are some familiar faces, Grayson Perry, Magdalene Odundo and Edmund de Waal are all included, but the exhibition roams well beyond these names placing the works of more established artists next to newer talent.
In the first room, Jonathan Baldock’s Facecrime, an array of columns sprouting human features, sits next to Betty Goodman’s House of the South a large frieze whose fragments wriggle across the wall like an ancient fresco come to life. The two pieces are a staggering start to the show, both referencing ancient methods from whose ruins their ceramic practice grows.
The other rooms continually provide fresh spectacles, there’s Klara Kristalova’s ceramic studded woodland whose foliage smells like a sweet field; Liu Jianhua’s white cascade of familiar objects which rolls down the walls and across the floor; or Leila Babirye’s Easter Islandesque statues crowned with bike chains. Unlike with Baldock and Goodman’s pieces, many of the exhibits sit slightly uneasily next to each other, which can allow each new work to either drown out or get lost.
And it could be easy for works to get lost in an exhibition where bigger is often better. Brie Ruais worked with twice her body weight in clay to create two conjoined circular masses in Uncontrollable Drifting Inward and Outward together. Meanwhile, Takuro Kuwata uses traditional techniques to reinterpret Japanese tea bowls on a monstrous scale and one of Babirye’s statues is almost 3 metres tall.
There is something to be said for the power of sheer scale but this show can go astray when it values magnitude over mastery. Ken Price’s large clay splats look like the vast droppings of an extra-terrestrial being and Baldock’s aforementioned columns look less ruined, more unfinished next to Goodman’s joyful fragments.
But in this vast undertaking of an exhibition, there are also small reminders of clay’s strange powers. Ron Nagle and Edmund de Waal place tiny objects in larger vitrines. Nagle’s objects are abstract interstellar contraptions that leave the viewer perplexed and entranced whilst de Waal’s white vessels draw attention to the space between them, hidden as they are behind walls of various opacity. Even in vast works, intricate details stand out such as in the decorative ceramic beads of Serena Korda’s And She Cried Me A River, in which the loose beads of the huge necklace suggest that the clay may yet fall apart.
There are moments where, in the Hayward’s desire to celebrate and uplift ceramics as an artform, it chooses to overlook a key characteristic of the medium: its fragility. But the devil is in the details and this show has plenty. Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX until 8th January. Times: 11am – 9pm, Wednesday; 11am – 7pm, Thursday. Admission: £15; Concessions available & Southbank Centre Members go free.
Link to Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art web page HERE