Blistered, scorched, and scaled: Gareth Mason’s seductively sublime ceramics


Wildfire

By Scott Indrisek

I make cracked and broken things; corrupted, limping, damaged things. My work is walking wounded, rent open, bleeding, and, on occasion, pretty ugly.    –Gareth Mason in conversation with collector Richard Jacobs

British ceramicist Gareth Mason cuts a subdued figure against the wild backdrop of Jason Jacques Gallery in New York, where his exhibition More is More recently opened. Tucked away in an unassuming Upper East Side townhouse, over 50 of Mason’s irreverent vessels are arrayed on shelves and platforms; pieces varying from the dainty—like the densely textured Morsel—to the imposing—like Answers Oracular, which has an almost palpable mass.

When I visit the gallery, Mason is joined by Southern California-based collector Richard Jacobs. The pair met several years ago, bonding through a series of intense correspondences about the nature of ceramics, art, and life in general. It’s a real world embodiment of what the pair terms the “love triangle” between collector, maker, and art object.

Mason’s ceramic oeuvre contains oddities and experiments, both formal and material. He delights in the knowledge that his creations sometimes cause a conflicted, perhaps uneasy reaction in the viewer: “Many of us go through life with very settled notions of what we think turns us on or repels us,” he says. “Now and then we’ll come across an artwork that disturbs us, that interrupts our sensibilities. We have to be alive to those moments.”

Mason, as he’s quick to note, defies many of the accepted notions of what constitutes proper ceramic artistry—“I delight in poking orthodoxy in the eye”—and in turn his pieces evince a muscular curiosity and eclecticism. Answers Oracular is a boldly impolite form—from the ragged rim to its slightly hunched posture, its unexpected protrusions and chaotic cladding of glazes. The more modestly scaled Divested, while adhering generally to a more recognizable shape, possesses a surface that appears alternately scaled, cracked, blistered, and scorched.

“What I do is a very process-laden experience, with a great deal of physical interaction with wet clay,” Mason explains. “There’s an application of material of various kinds, some of which will crust into a kind of rock; others which will run into a viscous mass; some of which will become viscerally crimson red, like something spurting out of an artery; some of which will become like cool, tropical water. All of these allusions that the human mind attaches to material: that’s my currency.”

Now and then we’ll come across an artwork that disturbs us, that interrupts our sensibilities. We have to be alive to those moments. Mason’s ceramic objects command attention; they toy with our own expectations, prejudices, and desires—and seduce in unexpected ways. “I use, quite mindfully and deliberately, every tool at my disposal on the sphere of experience—from the delicious and sensual to the obnoxious, evil, and acidic”, he says. “Great art should reveal its secret slowly. It shouldn’t be like junk food—an instant sugar rush. It should be a long-term nutrition.”

It’s this density of aesthetic information that has made Mason’s work an integral part of Richard Jacobs’s collection, where contemporary pieces are housed alongside those from many different points in ceramic history. “It’s glorious in its isolation, but the object takes on new meaning when it sits on the shelf with an indigenous object, or a 19th century Victorian tea cup,” Jacobs says. “It’s the reconciliation of what seemed to be contradictions or discrepancies into a pattern of meaning, where there’s a wholesale integration of these things into a family.” For this collector, Mason’s prickly, difficult appeal is what allows his ceramics to add to the ongoing story of the medium: “The greatest contribution of the postmodern contemporary is this naked celebration of the sublime—the naked celebration of the ugly, and how the ugly, like death, gives meaning to life, and the beautiful.”

Mason’s own discussion of his practice pivots around an understanding of his “aesthetic of patch-and-repair,” in which he’ll take existing ceramic pieces and add to them, alter them, so that the works bear the marks and accretions of these changes across time. Some pieces take several years to fully form to Mason’s satisfaction.

Risk is another word that has a special resonance for the artist: a willingness to cross lines and engage materials in unexpected, at times intentionally incorrect, ways. “For Divested, I deployed a piece of weathered, decomposed steel from the blast surround of a Victorian cannon—scavenged from a beach on the south of England—over a classic sang de bouef (copper red) glaze,” he says, “knowing that it will eat through the glaze and into the ceramic surface in the firing like a corrosive black acid.”

As an iconoclast and a sort of wild-eyed, aesthetic scientist, Mason is ceaselessly pushing the definitions of an age-old medium, one pot at a time. For this artist, it’s a craft that is, above all else, deeply personal. “What I do and who I am are inseparable,” he says. “I don’t just do ceramics, I sort of am ceramics. It’s my identity. For good or ill, I’ve ended up with clay—but clay is a pretty wanton and wonderful recipient of bodily energy and mark making. As a vehicle for artistic endeavor, it’s as valid as any other from the entire cultural offering of human history.”

 

The 260-page exhibit monograph, also called More is More,  features Jacobs' and Masons' intriguing correspondence, "Friendship Forged in Fire: Letters Between a Collector and a Ceramic Artist." 

  • Images by

    • Kevin Mertens

      Kevin Mertens

      In addition to a fantastic eye, Kevin brings years of print and online photo-editing experience to L’ArcoBaleno. He is also a photographer who draws on his passion for helping others to create documentary photography.
  • Text by

    • Scott Indrisek

      Scott Indrisek

      Scott is the executive editor of Modern Painters and the founder of Brant Watch. He lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, with two erudite cats.

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