From the ancient times till today, ceramics has arguably been amongst the few mediums to have persevered through thousands of years - the oldest known ceramic artifact is dated as early as 28,000 BCE during the late Palaeolithic period. This perseverance has, of course, met with iterations and evolutions that have allowed it to stay relevant in our contemporary world. However, many traditional techniques have remained as the backbone of this craft. Subtle adaptations in techniques have allowed for large possibilities, while experimental approaches have allowed for unconventional and avant-garde creations.
Here, we take a look at the contemporary ceramic artists who are using ceramics in radical ways to reshape the medium. We also see how many of them are still inspired by the ancient craft and its traditions. Their works push the boundaries of what ceramics works can be, allowing us to witness the sheer versatility of the medium:
Grayson Perry, 'Matching Pair', 2017. Photography by Robert Glowacki. Image courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London.
Grayson Perry is nothing but radical. While he’s been cited as “an artist who happens to make ceramics”, his ceramic pieces need no introduction. It was this very medium that threw Perry into the limelight during the era of YBA artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, with his choice of medium shocking both the art and ceramic scene. No matter how alternative and broad his practice finds itself, he will always be known for his ceramics.
After dabbling in ceramics during his time in art school, Perry took up pottery classes and picked up the basics, allowing him to get his grounding on the medium. Instead of sitting at the potter’s wheel, he sat at the table. Perry took to a process that involved hand-building coils as opposed to throwing on the wheel. Within a few months, he was making vases some 60 to 70 centimeters high.
Perry’s hand-built works, such as ‘Men have Lost their Spirits’ have sold for over £50,000 at auction. He draws on the enormously rich history of ceramics, along with adhering to a wide range of techniques that the medium allows. When asked about why he makes ceramics the way he does, he states how "over the centuries potters and decorators have always shown off their best work on the vase - that’s the tradition I was buying into."
Comprised of husband-and-wife team Vince Lim and Elaine Lu, Lim + Lu is a multidisciplinary design practice based in Hong Kong. Their strong emphasis on innovative product design is highlighted through works such as 'Split Vase’. By casting two iconic Ming vases together, they create a new fusion of forms. The vase is then glazed over with 3 beautiful soft-hued glazes unique to Lim + Lu.
The ‘Split Vase’ series examines the history of ceramic vases altogether. Through this process, a new perspective is presented of traditional Chinese vases. Lim + Lu state how these works take their “own identity” during the firing process. Handmade and hadn’t glazed, no two vases are alike.
Shigekazu Nagae, ‘Forms in Succession #5,’ 2011. Collection of the Powerhouse Museum. Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Sydney.
Shigekazu Nagae blends technical brilliance with artistry in his works. As one of the leading pioneers of porcelain casting and firing techniques in Japan, he transcends the stereotypes of mass production of porcelain in his techniques.
Nagae starts with two slightly different ‘ikomi’ molds, a technique that makes thinner and more complicated shapes possible as compared to those using a potter’s wheel. Nagae casts them with liquid porcelain, creating two eggshell thin forms that are suspended inside one another within the kiln. Under intense heat, the final firing process allows these forms to fuse, bend, and drape around each other. This organic procedure of using the element of head results in elegant shapes and lyrical curves in Nagae’s works, one form mirroring the other in fluid harmony.
With acquisitions by the V&A in London, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Australia, Nagae’s popularity and recognition are established. He has won over 20 ceramic awards, including the Triennal de la Porcelain, Nyon, Switzerland, and the Grand Prize at the Asahi Ceramic Exhibition.
Edmund de Waal, 'breathturn I', 2013. 476 porcelain vessels in aluminum and plexiglass cabinet. Image courtesy of Gagosian.
Installation view, Edmund de Waal/ Giorgio Morandi, Artipelag. Image courtesy of Gagosian.
Edmund de Waal is known for his large-scale installations of porcelain vessels. At the age of five, he took up a ceramics evening class, attributing towards the start of his interest in pottery from an incredibly young age. At 17, he deferred his entry into the University of Cambridge for an apprenticeship with potter Geoffrey Whiting, making hundreds of pots during this time. He graduated from Cambridge, built a kiln in Herefordshire, and later obtained a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship that gave him the opportunity to study ceramics in Japan.
de Waal’s porcelains come with a distinctive celadon glaze. He is inspired by traditional Japanese miniatures, along with the works of abstract expressionist Barnett Newman and minimalist Donald Judd. Strongly influenced by his time in Japan as well as by traditional techniques of pottery, his works seek to unify East and West. They harbor characteristics of medieval Chinese ceramics, and with it, Bauhaus aesthetics.
Yeesookyung, Translated Vase Thousand, 2012. Ceramic shards, epoxy, 24K gold leaf. Korea Artist Prize, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea.
Yeesookyung, Translated Vase (TV2), 2013, detail. Image courtesy of Locks Gallery.
Using discarded shards of porcelain and binding them with gold leaf, Korean artist Yeesookyung creates new organic narratives in her sculptures. These structures result in bubble-like, biomorphic forms, and have been part of an ongoing series entitled ‘Translated Vases’ that began in 2002.
Yeesookyung collects these broken shards from other artisans in Korea who work at replicating historical vessels from the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties. She states how, in a way, she “mutates” these vases with 24 karat gold leaf over the cracks. To her, broken ceramics lose their qualities and functions, is “released from the stress and danger of being damaged”, and thereby is “released from the stress of being a reproduction”. By reconstructing what is damaged, she intervenes by reconstructing them into new possibilities. Yeesookyung eliminates its fragility, transforming them into novel states.
Yeesookyung has completed notable residency programs at Villa Arson, Apex Art, and the Bronx Museum. She has also shown internationally at the 57th Venice Biennale, the 6th Gwangju Biennale, the 5th Liverpool Biennale and the 18th Biennale of Sydney, to name a few. Her works can be found in permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Saatchi Collection in London, and the IFEMA ARCO Collection in Madrid.
Tony Marsh, Perforated Totem, 2007-8. Earthenware, glaze. Image courtesy of the artist.
The ceramic vessel has consistently been Tony Marsh’s primary vehicle of artistic expression. In his ‘Perforated Vessels’ series, he takes the dense composition of clay, removes as much material as possible from it one hole at a time, and creates a visual intensity in it to present forms that “levitate”. Marsh states how this is “addition by subtraction”. With light penetrating the crystalline structure, refracting back out, and passing directly through it, we see how the shadows cast from this also constitute towards the architectural integrity of his works.
These brilliant and intricate structures resemble cellular structures and biomorphic forms, a testament to Marsh's training and background in pottery. For four years, Marsh trained under Japanese potter Shimaoka in Mashiko, Japan. Exposed to working experiences and influences of the region on a daily basis, his practice evolved.
After leaving Japan, Marsh received a Masters from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, later returning to his alma mater at Cal State Long Beach where he continues to be the head of the ceramics department.
Hae Won Sohn is a Korean ceramicist currently based in Baltimore, Maryland. For her, the processes of her works are more than just the journey it undergoes but is also an element of their final construction.
In Sohn's ‘Fraternal Centuplets’ series, drinking vessels are slip cast from a mold that has been intentionally broken. From this, only a single cast is produced. In a move against traditional ceramics, the work is left unglazed on the outside, while the interior is glazed. These inconsistencies in the exterior of her works present fragmentation in a thoroughly unique way. Its aesthetically pleasing nature comes paired with its imperfections, combining characteristics of both art and design perfectly.
Sohn has exhibited in galleries and museums across the United States as well as Korea. She was also the recipient of the Tony Hepburn Scholarship and the Chrissy Award of the year of 2017 at Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Christopher David White, Tipping Point, 2016. Ceramic, acrylic, resin. Image courtesy of the artist.
Christopher David White, Within Arm's Reach, 2016. Ceramic, acrylic, copper leaf. Image courtesy of the artist.
If you’re wondering why we’ve selected wood carvings on this list of ceramicists, look again. Motivated by themes of decay and deterioration, artist Christopher David White creates deceivingly wood-like sculptures made out of clay. These hyper-realist subjects not only resemble wood but also rusted metal, amongst other materials in the process of decomposition.
White’s practice distinctively explores the relationship between humans and nature. He states how clay is “a soft and malleable material that can be fired and made hard as a rock”, and at the same time, “an incredibly fragile material.” He creates this wood texture through repetition of layering that he finds deeply satisfying. He also uses x-acto knives and wire brushes that he designed specifically for a certain texture. White’s painting process is also particularly meticulous.
White was the recipient of the Windgate Fellowship from the Center of Craft, Creativity, and Design, and later was awarded ‘Most Environmentally Conscious’ at INLight 2014 hosted by 1708 Gallery. His work has been shown in galleries and museums internationally, including Daejeon Museum of Art and Suwon I-Park Museum of Art in South Korea, Abmeyer & Wood Gallery in Seattle, and Hartwick University’s Foreman Gallery in New York.
Johnson Tsang, 'Open Mind IV", 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.
Johnson Tsang, 'Love in Progress", 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.
At the intersection of realism, surrealism, and sculpture are works by Hong Kong-based artist Johnson Tsang. Stretched, opened up, and looking a little uncomfortable, Tsang’s surrealist subjects are cleverly executed with the medium of clay. In his series ‘Open Mind’, hand gestures are incorporated into his sculptures to metaphorically (and quite literally) showcase a sense of open-mindedness in their narratives.
Tsang wasn’t always an artist. In fact, he struggled through his upbringing not only financially but also at school. Prior to being an artist, he was an air conditioning assistant, a potato chip fryer, and a policeman. During his thirteen-year career as a policeman, Tsang took up a clay modeling class. This was his first experience with the material, and it was here that he felt the friendly and soothing nature of clay first hand.
These days, Tsang has been cited as a “prolific creator”. His beautiful and quirky sculptures have led him to a “The Secretary for Home Affairs' Commendation” from the Government of Hong Kong for his outstanding achievements in international art events. Tsang also received Special Prize of Korea Gyeonggi International Ceramix Biennale 2011 International Competition and Grand Prize of 2012 Taiwan International Ceramics Biennale, making him the first Chinese artist to receive both of these two prestigious international ceramics awards.
Koike Shôko, Pleated round shell-shaped sculpture, 2013. Glazed stoneware with silver glaze. Image courtesy of Joan B Mirviss LTD.
Koike Shôko was one of the first female graduates from the prestigious ceramics department of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. She was also one of very few women ceramicists in her generation to take on a full-time career as an artist, supporting herself as such. She is also one of the most recognized contemporary female ceramic artists in Japan.
Using Chigasaki stoneware, Shôko creates shell-inspired sculptural forms with pinched, irregular and ruffled edges. Entirely hand-built, she glazes these forms with a white opaque glaze that is at times metallic and iridescent. This results in stunning works that are all at once organic, dynamic, and powerful.
Shôko’s works are in notable collections around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Fernando Casasempere, Out of Sync, Atacama Desert, 2015Out of Sync, Atacama Desert, 2015 'Out of Sync', 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.
Fernando Casasempere, Out of Sync, Atacama Desert, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.
London-based Chilean artist Fernando Casasempere explores the idea of landscapes and environments in his ceramics. His use of clay surpasses its physical medium as it is also conceptual, connecting relationships between culture and the earth itself.
Casasempere’s 2012 work ‘Out of Sync’, was exhibited at the Somerset House in London and received critical acclaim. Set in a meadow of real grass, this work comprised of a monumental field of 10,000 ceramic flowers and sought to explore how tensions between the seasons and the fragility of nature. Amazingly, these flowers were made from the 12 tons of Chilean clay that Casasempere brought with him to London in 1997. In a turn of geographical symmetry, these flowers have now returned to Chile, and are permanently installed in the Atacama Desert.
Straddling his home country of Chile with his adopted country of Britain, Casasempere seamlessly executes themes of ecology and geology through his practice. He is the first artist to have been honored with an exhibition throughout the entirety of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago and has exhibited at the Frieze’s Sculpture Park in London.
Zemer Peled in her studio. Image courtesy of the artist.
Zemer Peled, 'Under the Arch', 2016. Porcelain shards, ceramic. Image courtesy of the artist.
Israeli artist Zemer Peled constructs her pieces using thousands of porcelain shards. Making both small and large-scale works, these stunning pieces examine both the beauty and brutality of the natural world.
A breakup led to Peled trying out art therapy where she tried out a wide variety of mediums and falling in love with clay thereafter, saying how it responds to her “touch, movement, and emotions”. She eventually attended the prestigious London Royal College of Art and received a masters in ceramics. Her practice involves firing and glazing her clay before shattering them into pieces, then using its shards to construct her final pieces. Deliberate and chaotic, Peled has also stated that she keeps Band-Aids “on-hand” due to the unpredictable nature of her medium.
Creating up to ten-foot-tall structures with her ingenious method, Peled still finds herself reflecting on a memory of her mother taking down a wall in their house in Northern Israel. Now, her works are exhibited internationally, with Peled represented by three galleries across London and the United States.
Lei Xue, 'Drinking Tea', 2014. Hand painted porcelain. Image courtesy of Kottke.
Lei Xue melds the traditional and contemporary in his works. In his series ‘Drinking Tea’, he creates porcelain cans in Ming Dynasty aesthetics, successfully illustrating relationships between the old and the new. This refreshing juxtaposition in re-contextualizing medium and execution results in crumpled cans featuring Ming Dynasty patterns and motifs. Xue adds a contemporary twist by contrasting an image of mass production with traditional handicraft, highlighting the consumption of canned drinks to that of tea ceremonies.
As opposed to real cans, these works are painstakingly made by hand. This is a practice that Xue holds close to his heart. He molds his cans by hand, bending them into indiscernible shapes before painting them.
By painting the Ming Dynasty motifs on contemporary structures, Xue’s ceramics bridge the gap of some 600 years of art history.
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