Earth Intruders: How Ceramics-Making Is Shaping Art And Fashion

by Keng Yang Shuen  /   May 22, 2021

With ceramics-making picking up as a major lifestyle trend, the artists specialising in the medium here are getting their much-overdue turn in the spotlight. We explore how the scene is taking shape.

“Clay offers sensory impact and associations that are singular, perhaps even fundamental,” writes British art curator Clare Lilley in Phaidon’s Vitamin C: Clay and Ceramic in Contemporary Art, a compendium of works by 100 of the world’s most important artists in the discipline published in 2017.

Childhood memories of manipulating plasticine, Play-Doh, Fimo or indeed clay lead to an association of clay with ‘play’ and to something instinctive, innately human, visceral.”

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Pottery as a leisurely hobby has seen a boom indeed. While there are no official numbers on the scene, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts educator and ceramic artist Nelson Lim estimates that between 30 and 40 ceramic studios have sprouted locally within the past half a decade.

The pandemic has only intensified the passion (ever tried securing a class in the past year?). Against a backdrop of political insanity, digital burnout and global health crises, ceramics-making can feel like a soothing low-tech balm.

Credit:Zestro Leow

Coated in iridescent automotive paint, this work by 27-year-old Singapore artist Zestro Leow defies conventions of style and technique in ceramic art.

The very physicality of clay sets it apart from the fragile or forbidding nature of other art forms, making it the rare medium that begs for touch – a luxury in a time of social distancing.

For artists specialising in ceramics, it has meant a time to fire up and shine. Over the past few years, the prices of ceramic works by top-end names such as Hans Coper and Picasso have skyrocketed (according to online art brokerage Artsy, the latter’s pieces came to auction 361 times in 2020 alone).

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The fashion world has also developed a growing obsession with the field, what with designers like Hedi Slimane commissioning the German sculptor Katinka Bock to create an artwork for Celine’s Rue Duphot store in Paris, and Kris Van Assche collaborating with Brian Rochefort – known for his vividly coloured, glob-like earthenware – for Berluti’s Spring/Summer 2021 collection.

Credit:Dustin Aksland

Los Angeles artist Brian Rochefort – known for his vividly coloured, glob-like earthenware – partnered with Berluti for the latter’s Spring/Summer 2021 collection.

Possibly the industry’s most ardent fan is Jonathan Anderson, who – both as creative director of Loewe and founder of his eponymous label – steadily supports ceramicists through initiatives such as the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize, and exhibiting their works in stores.

For Fall/ Winter 2021, the women’s look book of his namesake brand features images of the artists Shawanda Corbett and Magdalene Odundo alongside those of their works (elegant, sumptuously curvaceous ceramic vessels) and his equally form-focused dresses, as well as blankets featuring prints by the women.

In Singapore, the ceramic art scene leans towards the nascent, despite having greats such as 81-year-old master potter Iskander Jalil. According to veteran ceramicist and performance artist Jason Lim, the last national study of the ceramic medium was done in 1994.

Patricia Liang, founder of Mulan Gallery that’s been hosting the “Ceramics Expressions” exhibition annually since 2017 (save for last year), also points out that serious collectors remain niche.

Credit:JW Anderson

For Fall/Winter 2021, JW Anderson’s women’s look book featured the works of veteran British artists Magdalene Odundo and Shawanda Corbett (pictured on the left) alongside equally form-focused clothes.

“They tend to focus on the works of very established ceramicists, despite the fact that ceramic works are usually more affordable than bronze sculptures and 2-D works,” she says.

Industry players interviewed agree collectively that more concerted efforts need to be made for local ceramic artists to gain recognition and, thanks to them, a small but hopeful resurgence is taking shape.

This year’s edition of Singapore Art Week in January hosted not one but two shows dedicated to ceramics: Ceramics Expressions, as well as, notably, the debut of Singapore Ceramics Now (SCN), which focused on more experimental works that go beyond the typically utilitarian applications of the medium.

“Ceramic art does not have to serve a practical function, but instead can be created with the intention of gaining appreciation as a piece of artwork.”

Ceramic artist Daisy Toh

Conceptualised by Jason Lim and co-curated by Connie Wong, Lourdes Samson and Ivy Lam – founders of the independent non-profit art space Seed – SCN aimed to not only give an overview of the current state of ceramics in contemporary art, but also elevate the status of ceramics from the craft tradition.

“By and large, many Singaporeans still have this narrow point of view that ceramics is only pottery,” says Lim. The works on display were anything but.

Cue Daisy Toh’s Undercurrents – a nature-inspired installation made up of 15 petal-esque porcelain pieces coated with tender blue striations then mounted onto a wall; its effect was akin to that of a gently undulating wave.

Credit:Daisy Toh

Part of the groundbreaking Singapore Ceramics Now exhibition in January that marked the most extensive showcase of ceramic art here since the ’90s (the works of 19 artists across generations were on display), Daisy Toh’s tranquil Undercurrents is made up of 15 petal-esque porcelain pieces coated with tender blue striations then mounted onto a wall

Meanwhile the curiously misshapen sculptures of Hans Chew Ziyang – a student at Tama Art University in Tokyo – were the result of repeatedly and spontaneously creating and destroying them.

It’s worthy to note that both Toh and Chew are in their 20s, making them ones to watch as part of Singapore’s next generation of ceramic artists. Joining them are the likes of Zestro Leow, 27, who coats some of his whimsical pieces with iridescent automotive paint, and Shayne Phua, 23, who uses vintage pastry moulds as a base for her delightful sculptures that traverse cultures and centuries.

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Setting them apart from the craftsmen fashioning tableware out of clay is that their works and techniques defy the traditions and conventions of the medium.

Says Toh, who works with porcelain: “Ceramic art does not have to serve a practical function, but instead can be created with the intention of gaining appreciation as a piece of artwork… As fine-grained clay, porcelain has a delicate appearance. Its creamy, smooth finish seems plain, but it is deceptively so. In truth, it unflinchingly immortalises an artist’s finesse or lack thereof. Every day at the studio presents its own puzzles and obstacles – it is an exciting way to live.”

Credit:Hans Chew Ziyang

Like many of his peers, the 24-year-old ceramicist Hans Chew Ziyang subverts the tradition of working with the medium, creating this sculpture titled Emotional Stones by repeatedly and spontaneously shaping then destroying clay

And if proponents such as Jason Lim can help it, there’ll be many more young rising stars to come. Besides a show in November to spotlight practitioners of ceramic art at all levels, SCN will be embarking on an outreach programme to pre-tertiary schools to provide teaching materials, so that its students can gain foundational knowledge of Singapore’s history of ceramics.

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And, while not every potter (or pottery enthusiast) will become an artist, the fact that crafting clay vessels and vases has become a major lifestyle trend only helps to give that aspiration tangible form.

As Tricia Lim, founder of the ceramics studio Pinch and an up-and-coming artist in her own right with her polychromatic sculptures, puts it: “Since the onset of the pandemic, people have been spending more time on their personal interests and hobbies. Perhaps this means that more people in our generation can afford to delve into buying or making things in contemplation of beauty.”

A version of this article first appeared in the May 21 Lust For Life edition of FEMALE