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EXHIBITION Clay for today

MICHAL BONCZA recommends some striking work by contemporary female potters and ceramicists

Pioneering Women  
Oxford Ceramics Gallery

PRODUCING utilitarian ceramic vessels is one the most ancient and well-documented human activities. Archaeologists digging at any site anywhere in the world prioritise, above all else, locating pottery as a trusted source of information.

The word ceramic derives from the Greek “keramos” meaning pottery, or a potter, and its Sanskrit root used to mean “burnt stuff.” Hence ceramic describes objects which have been formed with clay, hardened by firing and decorated or glazed.

A kitchen dating back 20,000 years was unearthed in a cave in China in the early 2000s, with a wealth of pottery fragments and a  similar find in Britain — the Windmill Hill “cooking” pot — dates back to the Neolithic period of 4,000 BC. Today’s meat-and-lentil stew recipes can be traced to that era.

But in the Oxford Ceramics Gallery exhibition Pioneering Women, the most intriguing pottery on display is liberated from kitchen utilitarianism and imbued with loftier aesthetics — they are objects of domestic adornment.

The exhibition features over 40 pieces by 10 ceramicists who have contributed significantly to the development of contemporary ceramics, particularly the ceramic vessel form.

Works by Lucie Ri and Ladi Kwali, Bodil Manx, Magdalene Odundo and Jennifer Lee or Alison Britton reflect a broad interpretation of formal ceramic traditions from Japanese, Danish, Nigerian and Korean domestic pottery to Bauhaus and postmodern styles.

The formal minimalism of Odundo’s Early Vessel evokes the elementary and the ancient, accented with an elegant single laceration, while Kali’s glazed Water Jar has spell-casting lizards running up its sides to the lip. Both artists learned the traditionally female technique of making functional pots in Africa.

Deirdre McLoughlin and Lee both studied Japanese traditions and techniques during residencies in that country. McLoughlin’s “off-balance” and asymmetrical Ruby intrigues but appears not to have any discernible application, while Lee’s elegant, thin-walled and barely decorated inverted conical Pale, Two Speckled Ring Traces is part-utensil, part-art.

Carol McColl and Britton came to prominence as part of a group of female Royal College of Art graduates in 1970s known as “The London Ladies,” who identified with postmodernism and a programmatic rejection of the dominant, circular form beloved of modernist potters such as Ri.

McColl’s Fragments is a humorous “dig” at archaeology, with its ill-fitting elements “reconstructed” into a clumsy bowl, while Ri has a seriousness of purpose and a subliminal elegance in the shape and colour of Bottle Vase with Flared Neck.

The modern hybrid nature of ceramic art forms is a joy to behold and it is reassuring that this creative endeavour reinforces the link of human progress across continents and civilisations over many millennia.

Available to view online until March 27 at oxfordceramics.com

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