LONDON—Over-sized floating ceramic heads domineer over visitors, mouths gaping open, begging them to sneak a peak inside as if, perchance, to gobble a delicious morsel of a human head. The heads are part of Emma Hart‘s new exhibition Mama Mia! at Whitechapel Gallery (July 12 – September 3, 2017).
Less sinister than my imagination initially allowed, the heads are rather, much like the ABBA song from which the exhibition title is derived, an “investigation into pattern, from visual patterns to patterns of psychological behaviour. The work also looks at the design and rupture of pattern and the ruminations in between,” the gallery writes.
The large cartoonish ceramic lamps hang from red rope and project a speech bubble spotlight on the floor, but a closer look inside of each form reveals graphic depictions.
One shows young women entangled in a vine of jealousy, among the stylized jaws of Venus flytraps. In another, manicured fingers push hot red buttons, rendered in the greens, blues and yellows of a thermal imaging camera. A third shows overlapping rows of curves, which transform from McDonald’s golden arches into a line of pink breasts as the pattern mounts the sides.
The depictions are the “epiphany” of Hart’s 2016 residency in Italy, according to The Art Newspaper. The heads, which were formed, fired and glazed there, draw from her experience observing family therapy sessions for two months at a renowned psychotherapy school in Milan. She says this investigative experience resonated with her time alongside master ceramists during her residency, The Guardian writes.
“Both are driven by patterns. The psychiatrist is trying to unravel human behavioural patterns, and the studio to generate a visual pattern.”
She adds because of clay’s raw and direct characteristics, she wanted to use the medium to explore and express a range of interpersonal family dynamics.
The repeated motifs—of teardrops, fists punching black eyes and a woman choked by a green “jealousy plant”—refer to the cycles of negative emotions that can flare up in family relationships.
Freud would be proud, and would then diminish the complex emotions to latent sexual expression.
As part of her residency, Hart also studied the maiolica collection at the International Museum of Ceramics and experimented with the medium at the Museo Carlo Zauli, guided by the late ceramicist’s assistant Aida Bertozzi and other artisans, The Art Newspaper writes. She said these graphical depictions influenced the work she wanted to produce for this show.
“I realised that the link between these two halves of the project—the psychology and the maiolica—was the potential of decorative patterns to capture somehow the problems of repetitive human behaviour,”
Hart works across several mediums in her artwork including photography, video, audio and ceramics, which she taught herself via YouTube instructional videos merely five years ago. She tells The Art Newspaper, having never explored drawing either, was an exciting and revealing exercise for her.
Hart received the sixth biannual Max Mara Art Prize for Women in 2016.
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