Johan Creten is a ceramist and multimedia artist who started showing in the art world in the late 1980’s. This was at a time when ceramics was largely taboo, a precursor to Thomas Shutte and others that eventually brought this medium into the European galleries.
Above image: Johan Creten, The Valley, 2014, gold luster on yellow glazed stoneware
Earth Mother, the creation archetype linking the sacred to the profane, is his leitmotif. It takes the form of a female torso in various stages of abstraction covered with an obsessive fecund surface of leaves, petals, nuts, fruit or pebbles (an example can be seen below). The fact that she has never disappeared from his oeuvre, and is his work most likely to be seen at art fairs, may lead one to believe that this sculptor is a Johnny-one-note and makes nothing else. I must confess that that was my judgment until about five years ago when, as I dug deeper, a broad, powerful and ambitious oeuvre I had not known revealed itself.
His epic exhibition Storm this year in 2014 at the Middelheim Museum, Antwerp was proof of a diversified career that is now starting to soar. The dominant work was a 15-foot high bird, Pliny’s Sorrow (2011), a bronze simulation in resin. He also works in bronze and other media.
Creten is a stylish dandy and a familiar fixture n the Parisian art and social scene. He considers himself a Parisian by adoption, to have a Flemish soul (where he was born) and he also seems to have the restless spirit of a gypsy.
A interview in the New York Times last year with Claudie Barbier states:
“After his studies in Ghent, he traveled widely in Europe, the United States and Mexico. ‘I wanted to be free, and I couldn’t do that in Belgium, so I traveled from one experience or possibility to the next,’ he said. ‘I stayed in each place a minimum three months, a maximum three years. Each time I would work with the local clay and glazes that I found. Each time this would add something to my knowledge, and also to my story.’”
However he is quick to point out that he is not on a mission other than to make and show his art; “I am not an Ai Weiwei. Politically, I am an observer, not an activist. I have been changing studios, homes and countries for years and love the feeling of being an outsider — ‘un étranger’ — the distance that that position gives.”
He also, of late, has developed a Midas touch. He has always flirted with the preciousness of gold glaze but in the last decade it has started to envelope aspects of his art in all its decadent glory. (Living close to Versailles has its dangers.) We saw this in his 2006 sculptures Why does Strange Fruit Always Look So Sweet? from 2008, and his works on the exhibition Dark Continent at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris.
This feels like an homage to Fontana whose love of gold (it signified virginity) was an erotic idée fixe for this Italian artist who is an significant influence on Creten. The gold has not appeared only on his bronze works, it’s also seen (and began on) his ceramics. Lust Limbo (Alfred painting 26) (2013) is from his residency at Alfred University’s New York State School of Ceramics.
Galerie Perrotin’s presentation of Creten’s exhibition Fireworks (Hong Kong, October 02 – November 15, 2014 ) is literally a golden moment in his career and a precious, sunny glow invades the gallery. The title “Fireworks” of the exhibition is threefold: it is about joy and the outburst of intense emotion; the other the works are literally “fire” works and lastly pyrotechnics were invented by the Chinese. They result, as the gallery states, “when muddy earth transforms into pure mysterious beauty. They rose from fire like a phoenix from ashes, metamorphosed into a timeless and superbly rich material.” Hyperbole but true.
In the center of the main room stands Hong Kong Beauty (2014) the most recent torso from the “Odore di Femmina” series, named after Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” and when the great seducer calls out “Ah, odore di femmina.” He does not see the woman but smells her. There is something animal about body odor, but at the same time it is attractive and sensual. Nonetheless it is taboo, a complaint that must be combated with endless perfumes. The sculpture Hong Kong Beauty is covered in a fleshy dark red glaze and a skin of bright gold luster. It is the first torso that makes use of a glazed stoneware base.
These torsos are carefully hand-built and only a very few are produced each year. Their forms have evolved over the years, from early dark black torsos suggesting mussel shell covered rocks, to the open coral colored torsos he made in Miami, and the pristine virginal white Sèvres work shown at the Wallace Collection, London and at the Louvre Museum, Paris.
Explaining the concept of the “Odore di Femmina” series, critic Rosa Martínez says:
The torso is also a reminiscence of the Venus de Milo, who emerged from the sea as the incarnation of love and beauty. In the primitive form of woman nature, the sculpture lures men with its feminine aura, urging them through an uncharted journey of feelings. Fragile and tender with seductive petals, “Hong Kong Beauty” is sensitive to the male gaze; but the razor-sharp edges on the surface immediately present a threat of wound resulting in a figurative tension between the opposite sexes.
The Glory series shimmers on the wall. During Creten’s stay at the Manufacture National de Sèvres, he started a series called Les Vagues pour Palissy, which he says “consists of triumphant images of energy, regeneration, the cycle of life and the hopeful nature of creation”. The series is a tribute to the Renaissance ceramic master Bernard Palissy, which Creten later developed into new wall sculptures titled The Glories.
Creten employs the Italian majolica glaze technique in a fresh way and this created the “Fireworks” pieces in the other room. They are sculptural works with painterly quality, perfectly poised between painting and sculpture. Created in a specific form, they can be placed in four different orientations, opening up multiple possibilities. The fact that they are beehive-shaped actually keeps to the theme, containers of liquid gold.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that one of the region’s pre-eminent artists-of-the-moment, the Flemish sculptor Johan Creten, has chosen mud, or more precisely clay, as his medium. “Clay is excremental, it’s the ashes of the dead,” Mr. Creten said during an interview at his studio overlooking the Ourcq canal in northern Paris. “In a brutal way, disgusting and magical at the same time.”
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
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