Finishing Porcelain

As I work, I think of how the final pieces will look. Porcelain is a strange material. Silky smooth when fired with a grainy feel if left unglazed. I want to give the surface a skin-like feel.

 

 

The Belvedere Torso in the Vatican collection was a seminal inspiration for Michelangelo. Signed “Apollonius son of Nestor, Athenian”. Marble acquires a softness that bellies its nature as stone. Sculpture in stone influences my choice of material. But I choose ceramic as a pliable stone which is transformed by the alchemy of heat. Porcelain is like the white marble of stones and glazing it seems to me betrays the traces of handling and so an essential characteristic of its making.

Why do I choose the Belvedere as an example of marble statuary? Because arms and legs are functional, locomotory and grasping. The body is the centre of physical being from which other things radiate. As it was with our primordial ancestors, so it is with the forms I am working on.

Glazing speaks to me of function, impermeability. The body is not impermeable but in continual transaction with the world. In early times the clay was burnished to render vessels less porous. Decoration has always been applied to ceramics, from the rhythmical marking of the beaker people, to the finest renderings. From symbolism to shear exuberance and delight, ceramics have diversified and many left function behind long ago evidenced in the heritage of form only.

I have experimented extensively with Parian clay which was developed to look and feel like marble, it is soft, vitreous and warm, but it is hellishly difficult to use and is subject to warping and cracking. It is better suited to casting large pieces. Casting at this stage is not for me, it is not sufficiently spontaneous and better left as a means of reproduction. However, I shall continue to work with it on smaller scales. 

I do not want to use glaze because it covers detail and the sculpture looses the surface nuances developed during its making. However, the raw biscuit low fired material is brilliant white and unsubtle. It is also prone to get dirty and due to its porosity very difficult to clean. When fired to a higher temperature, the surface vitrifies and becomes sealed to a large extent, less porous and prone to atmospheric damage and the dirty that comes with handling and storage. However, the crystalline surface is still very white and lacks the organic surface quality I am looking for. When the porcelain is unfired and still wet, it has a flesh like look, a warm grey that responds to handling developing a beautiful sheen where it is burnished. However, this disappears on firing. I have looked for a finish that can restore to some extent that sense of sensual softness and has the following characteristics:

  • does not yellow over time,
  • is colourless,
  • does not create a thick layer,
  • is not glossy
  • and is easily restored.

Having experimented with a number of possible candidates I have found that the humble paraffin wax candle is the ideal substance. The porcelain is heated with a hot air blower and the wax rubbed on building a very thin layer that penetrates the microscopic pores on the surface and creates a colourless, translucent finish. Finally it is burnished with a cloth or brush.  

 

On Materiality

 

My works are based on a strong sense of materiality as a means of grasping abstract ideas. To translate these from objects of the mind to ones that occupy three dimensional space is to rescue them from ephemerality. This in itself changes their nature as they arise in the making, capturing feeling in the material, moving away from the imagined to the physical. Concrete as they are, they probe into what is ephemeral and evanescent. Is it the phenomenon of being or the idea of being that is being represented here?

Clay is a material that can be shaped according to one’s own senses. Its inertness permits me to freeze moments of feeling and embed them in its corporeality. It is ideal for my approach, not to represent in some way thematic notions but to reify them. What emerges from these thoughts is that cycling and continuity are the abstract processes that underlie the thematics of time and life; and that in the work, space becomes actual material and that material defines the work, its thingliness, alongside its theoretical and contextual characteristics and qualities. 

Albeit I see the work as the thing itself, it is also a vessel holding allegorical content. It brings forth into reality the very notions that led to its making. However, in all probability these might well remain hidden if not layered with or disclosed by context. Context can wrap around the work in many ways, through text, juxta-positioning, placement, images, sound and so on. It is an area that I must work on diligently.. 

To make the object of the mind otherwise, digitally printed, commissioned or projected in another (more resistant) material, would not be the same. I need the direct contact between hand, eye, mind and material that makes it what it is and nothing else. The directness of touch as a principle conduit for embedding feeling in what otherwise might be materially impersonal. It is a synthesis of the untouchability of an idea and the inability to express that ideal form physically. It is as direct as stroking an animal or smelling a flower yet one can not be an animal or a flower. This creates a bridge between maker and receiver that subverts the continual increase in faux intimacy engendered by the current use of technology in today’s society, as in social media and infinite multiples of the same thing.

The human haptic mode encodes a complexity of information transmitted from in-the-making and passes on to experiencing. They come close to being one and the same thing. The object becomes more than something that can be seen and touched: it is a vehicle for subtle empathy. Not the sentimentality we attach to cherished, used objects of mass production. 

This subtle empathy which, placed in a human context, links me to the themes of the work relating to natural forces. I no longer am an observer but a participator in creating and remaking the world. The work is overtly human but also non-anthropic. It reminds me that we are part of nature but not necessarily central to it. We only make it so for existential reasons as do all other plants and animals. It is this survival, cycle, continuity that is again at the root of my ideas. But unlike an animal or a plant I can see beyond my immediate world, give form to other worlds and times. This gives me a special privilege and responsibility.

As to the basic form of the vessel that appears in much of my work? The vessel is a plane, folded on itself to become a container. We all were born as balls of cells that began their journey into the world as simple dimpled  spheres from which a vessel was formed. This form defines the boundary between the physical inner and outer environment. It defines the limit of our corporeal existence. We can only project out of it through our senses and the mind. However complex the vessel might become, its fundamental property of containment remains.

I see the vessel as inviting exploration of what is within and without and more importantly what it is that connects the two. My particular area of interest is not only located in the now but in the connections with the past and how this is part of what the future might become. The present is the vessel for all things yet it is elusive, an idea ever changing. It is an elusive membrane whose allusion becomes object in much of what I do. The membrane of the present, the inside and outside, the self and other.  

 

Tutorial 3: Jonathan Kearney – 17 June 2019

 

We spent most of the time talking around one recent post, Critique on Latest Study.

This summary is taken from our Conversation.

 

We discussed the ebb and flow between refined and crude thinking and handling during making and how a maquette is a condensation and clarification of this process before embarking on a large-scale project. How two approaches are kept in harmony: of keeping the dynamism of the sketch and the clarity of further finishing. That visibly incorporating both can give a sense of the kinetic essence of the process of making.

We also discussed the sense of something arising out of the material and the struggle involved. That this maelstrom of life, with crowded entities entering and exiting a surface is a metaphor of life and how this can also speak about aspects of humanity. How humans are part of and not separate from nature.

The forms represent individually more or less formal approaches and that this duality is emblematic of how I work, between the emotionally literal and the rational artificial, ritual and representational.

We discussed a variety of ideas for larger scale work: the evolutionary ideas and the mythology that arises from them leads to the whole created using modular units, interchangeable and capable of fitting together in various ways.

We discussed the central notion of seeing life in a non-anthropocentric way and how alluding to humanity in this way can be a powerful way of raising questions about our place.

The various responses to my work raised the question of whether the works are related to the idea of monsters, something we do not quite understand. Monsters are harmful, I do not see my works as monsters but rather as inhabiting a parallel world, asking the question what if we were not here?

This led to a discussion about the Anthropocene and how my work is an expression of my relationship with the world and view of human relationships, particularly the nature of individual vs individual and individual vs group dynamics.

Language is part of this argument and the image of the Tower of Babel, used in a post on my Research Paper was discussed as bearing a variety of conceptual meanings as a metaphor for difference and variety.

We continued to talk about the study as a means of opening out different elements. The sense of the emotional and rational, the Apollonian and the Dionysian and where I might place my work in relation to these paradigms. The balance appears to be constantly shifting between the material and the idea: how the two exchange during the process of making, what the trigger points might be and how they coexist in a final work. I think that this unresolved internal dialogue becomes resolved as a conversation between two works.

The material itself is neutral and whether the rational or irrational predominates is a function of how it is approached. Which predominates is part of the selection process as it is difficult to treat the material of clay with the same philosophies at the same time. It might be possible, but my personal structure prefers to oscillate between the two. The balance between the rational and irrational in a single work could be seen, as being created during the making process by alternating the two approaches. However, as I said earlier, the resolution of the two is expressed as a conversation between works rather than within a single work.

What I appear to be doing is exploring the referencing of ideas through my visual language having created a vocabulary over time. Time during which I have transitioned from working with ideas at a distance to breaking open the carapace of rationality, found in earlier works, to dig deeper beneath the surface to find what lies underneath. And if it is sound, authentic, it might ring a bell in someone else.

At his point we started to talk about how I might lead someone into the work, particularly as the current artist environment is very much centred on the overtly societal and human anthropocentric.

Jonathan sees my work as presenting an ambiguity that encourages investigation. However, a lot of visual culture exemplified by Instagram, with its dangerous description of the world, works against pausing, waiting, taking time. He thinks that sadly, most people will not engage but those that do will be richly rewarded.

I asked Jonathan how explicit does one have to be before becoming didactic (not a good thing) to open out a deeper conversation, how does one signpost possibilities? Is it not our gift to do so and alas a task for the viewer? We agreed this is an impossible question to answer but explored some ways of answering this.

We looked at how the time for ‘demystifying art’ has hopefully passed and how confusion in a gallery is a way of catalysing a conversation in a gallery. We then looked at the importance of titles. Jonathan sees what I do as emotional and the title is the rational companion to it, a balance of the emotional and the rational. This is a very interesting idea and one I have often considered but not quite in this way. A title can be seen, as an entry into the work, a poetic entry. However, there is a caveat: not to overburden the work with a title that closes-down its meaning with the choice of words. Reducing the space for its meaning can damage it as well. Questions such as, ‘What is the Difference’, are good.

This led to the question of Jargon and how it can cover a multitude of misunderstandings and how having simplified my language, I have been able to express complex ideas more clearly. Jonathan suggested that writing about the work, not necessarily explicitly for the reasoned discussed above but as another layer could be an interesting and effective way of rewarding further investigation. I have been thinking of ways to do this. The important thing is not to close the work down with words but rather say, ‘this is my offering to you as to what I was thinking but actually there is a space for you’.

Finally, we looked at how I am planning my work and how there is still plenty of time although my methodology requires careful planning ahead.