Jesse Wine is a young 32-year-old British artist with flaming red hair (at times, it just went brown) who works primarily with ceramics. He has been receiving praise and gaining a high profile “it” status from the critics for his last few exhibitions. And rightly so, he brings Puck-like insouciance to a medium that is too often self-conscious and precious about process. The artist fires multifaceted and coarsely textured works in a second-hand industrial kiln in his South London studio. You can read a companion piece on Wine in this week’s issue.
He approaches clay with an unbridled, puppy-like love but without reverence. He is part of a school that has been problematically named “sloppy craft.” Certainly his craft sensibility is loose and informal, in part this is the product of risk taking and experimentation. According to Baltic Plus, “Wine’s approach is chance-driven as his firing processes add shapes, forms and colors that are often not entirely predetermined.”
However, sloppy, which is defined as “careless and unsystematic; excessively casual,” does not fit his art. Rather he delivers fake slop that gives the calculated appearance of being “excessively casual.” It is a dangerous process. One plays on a knife-edge, always in danger of getting expressive freedom wrong and just making junk. An example can be found among his works on Frieze this year, an oozing, multi-spouted blob.
Wine’s latest exhibition, Young Man Red, at Baltic Plus (London, November 22, 2014 – February 22, 2015 ), is ambitious and sprawling, and is enlivened by a devil-may care innocence that might be difficult to hold onto in coming years. Michael Mulvhill, in his review, says that he sees the process as part of a dialogue about ceramics and art:
Central to Wine’s exhibition is the disputed status of ceramics within a ‘fine art’ gallery space and the association of clay with craft. However, Wine evades this by [eschewing] the precision and reproducibility of craftsmanship, allowing glazes and oxides to mix, firing at different temperatures and allowing uncertainty to influence structures.
I could not disagree more. His use of materials is no different than an army of artists working in any other material, from sculptor Sterling Ruby to Thomas Houseago. It’s a mainstream style and the artists are not involved in the art-craft debate. It’s just that ceramics has tended to be craft fascist over the years and any deviation from virtuosity is seen as having an agenda. Ceramics has been admitted to the temple, it’s not necessary to revive its past struggle in every ceramics show that reaches the art world. The writers’ views on the subject need a reboot.
However I liked Mulvhill’s apt comparison of the show, which consists of three tableaux that are shown above, and a gallery of individual works, to a series of ceramic Instagram posts engaging the banality of life:
Each tableaux deals with an aspect of the artist’s everyday life, from eating a pasta meal, choosing footwear from his trainer collection, and making artwork. The…installation plays with notions of musicological display and the theatrical spectacle of contemporary everyday life. Yet are these representations of the artist an examination of our mediated day-to-day lives, or is it a stage for examining the act of making art?
Wine’s exhibition style also operates with a venerable degree of theatrically and environmental concern, where objects give the appearance of human interactivity, outline a human form or, to cite an example from a recent exhibition, manifest themselves as three self portraits puppets floating like a Alexander Calder mobile. His vessels are never used functionally despite their frequent semblance as objects that are designed to contain.
His clothes and shoes, the glass from which he drinks “Jesse’s Wine” and other daily ephemera are part of each assembly. But they have work to do, it’s not as simplistic as the description makes it seem:
[He] uses ceramics to re-engage with a formative creativity, which through clay, explores a tactile world of things seemingly without irony or critical scrutiny. Wine seems to re-evoke the early modern romantic notion of the ‘artist’; that of an individual with unique access to a simpler and less problematic perception of the world.
To this end ‘Young Man Red’ recalls not only Alexander Calder’s mobiles, but also ‘Le Cirque de Calder’ (1961), a fully working model of a circus made from wire and wood, and featuring kinetic contortionists and sword swallowers, which revels in the immersion of childish play.
The second part of the show is a gallery of pedestals with various individual works, his Bloody Hell series in which he pays homage to work to leading such as Peter Voulkos, Kenneth Price and John Mason while ruthlessly satirizing this canon. Mulvhill states that the artist learns by the notion of copying:
[He] learns through making and remaking; as many facsimiles of completed works don’t make it through the firing process. His predisposition to the philosophy of copying also pertains to the history of ceramics where he remakes and re-invigorates artists’ works from the canon of ceramics including Mason, Price, and Voulkos all of whose sculptures he remade at his exhibition, Young Man Red at the Baltic.
However one review of these works made my hackles rise, no mean achievement, as they have become more pacifist of late. What ceramics fears now is that art critics who write of the medium will, in their ignorance of it, lead ceramics to be presented narrowly as a material rather than as a complex discipline with its own massive art history. In doing so they would blunt ceramics’ true worth. Eve Knowlson in cuckoo review makes reality of this concern. She begins well enough:
In the adjoining space, Wine displays a series of sculptures, which mimic other artists’ work. Wine draws upon the history of ceramics … art was flourishing in the 1950s and ‘60s. Entitled ‘Bloody hell Peter’, ‘Bloody hell Ken’ and ‘Bloody hell John’, another ceramic piece called ‘Bloody hell Rudy’ reminded me of Picasso’s work. I found these three pieces very unusual as ‘Bloody hell Ken’ was a grey mug with a snail attached to the base, ‘Bloody hell John’ was a piece of clay with the imprint of a pair of pliers.
She misses that these are all canonic known works from these artists. Ken Price’s Snail Cup is a classic in art circles now. (Wine’s devolution of the cup’s elegant conceit is hilarious, wet, weird and creepy.). And for the record, Rudy Autio was influenced by Chagall’s floating figures and not Picasso.
Her most embarrassing moment is saved for Voulkos and his Rocking Pot, one of the most famous pieces of ceramic art in the 20th century and the artist’s most iconic work:
‘Bloody Hell Peter’ was the most unusual as I couldn’t tell what it was meant to be. It remind me of a skull with bones, although it could be interpreted as a hat with daggers going through it.
Google makes this kind of “sloppy” criticism unforgivable.
Wine’s Rocking series is intriguing, much like Andrew Lord’s channeling (perhaps for too long now) of Paul Gauguin’s ceramics. I have spent so much of my life looking at and writing about this object and Wine has, for better or worse, forever changed my locked-in preconceptions of this pot. There is a geriatric looking, Old Peter, and Practice of the Wild that marries Voulkos to a Robert Arneson-like male genital sculpture, perfectly skewering the machismo of that generation.
The purists in ceramics, whose ire will not doubt be raised by this review (bring it on) will have difficulty dealing with his description of not being materially progressive, but traditional. In an interview Wine states:
I was grappling with it for a while, then did a ceramics course and had a breakthrough. Clay is amazing because you can build with it and it supports its own weight, which sounds banal but is fundamentally brilliant; it can defeat gravity. I like making stuff, it’s a compulsion. I also like to do things the wrong way. I think an artist understands how to apply a method and purposefully do it wrong; they are in control of knowing they are doing it wrong, but not in control of the outcome, this way the work remains a surprise.
Surprise is certainly a part of his growth, appeal and freshness, much like a magician he entertains (and perplexes) one with his seemingly casual sleight of hand. His next show is eagerly awaited.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
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