Saturday, August 28, 2010

To Be of Use

To be of use: It is an age-old internal dilemma that many people face, to feel that they are leading a purposeful life, and it is one which many artists grapple with on a daily basis. The pursuit of art can be seen as an indulgence, a retreat from "real life", a drive to create objects or experiences of "no use".

Knowing of this internal conflict within many artist friends, I was struck today by two supreme and conflicting examples of the "use" of art, both by UK ceramic artists, both flaunting convention.

The knowledge of history and tradition in ceramics is obvious in Julian Stair's work. Apparently, earlier in his career, he created ceramics which were abstract and had nothing to do with function, yet had to be seen in the round, in reference to the principle of centering inherent in traditional thrown ceramics. Today Stair creates forms which are completely functional in nature, yet never meant to be used, but rather worshiped, revered, objectified. When I saw his tea bowls and teapots today at the Scottish Gallery, I at first mistook them for simple pieces. Then I looked more closely at the forms, at his purposeful placement, at the masterful use of different clays and slips to express individuality, at the carefully formed pedestals, and realized that Stair was using forms of use to tell a different story, to tell of a language of generations of humans creating by hand. So, the "use" of these pots was very different than the easily identifiable functional form. Interesting!

Then I walked to the Open Eye Gallery and encountered the work of ceramicist John Maltby. Although trained in traditional pottery techniques, Maltby clearly uses ceramics to tell a story in sculptural form. His dreamy enigmatic figures seem to delve into the world of the subconscious and imply dreams, memories, desire and hope. There was not a functional piece to be seen in the show - no pots, no cups - yet as the work transported me to a quiet state of mind, I was struck by the terribly important function of this work. Here I was, in the middle of Edinburgh which is and was teeming with thousands of visitors for Festival and the bank holiday, with noise and music and performance and ruckus EVERYWHERE, and John Maltby had created a zone of magic and wonder.

I suppose this all comes down to the definition of "use", but these two encounters provided ample justification - as if it was needed - for the transformative nature, and purpose, of art. Thank God for artists!

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