Pottery is perhaps the most durable form of art – our oldest record of long lost cultures – it comes from the earth and it’s here to stay. So argues Margaret O’Rourke – organiser behind the confluence of the Craft Potters Association, the Ashmolean and Oxford Ceramics. March 2nd, the opening day of Clay Live, with talks and demonstrations by artist Mo Jupp, represented the most sustained dialogue of a single artist and audience I have ever attended, as well as a great interface between multiple platforms across Oxford. Their innovation extends to reaching out to new demographics through planned video dissemination by Rosa Productions. If you’ve never thought about the alchemical magic of clay, this is the time to start.
If you’re not holding ceramics gingerly right now, then chances are you probably hold them in low regard as art. But Jupp’s return to his most sinister figurative work has the power to change your mind.
Uniquely, as a medium, ceramicists’ main audience is often other potters – a community with practical knowledge. This renders one of art’s most immediate media even more immediate, and testifies to its capacity for intimacy. Even the simplest surfaces and glazes are loaded with memory of touch.
Like concrete pillboxes, Jupp’s helmets stare us down. Both threatening and defensive, they defy us. At once they seem filled with a solid and suggestive darkness, but also void, an armour without a body. This tension suspends the viewer between attachment and alienation. As the artist conveyed in the day’s lecture, the impulse behind his helmets stemmed jointly from the trauma of a near death experience at the hands of a terrified driver, and the legend of Ned Kelly and his failed bullet-proof armour. There is tension between suffering and protection, aggression and fear.
With the simplicity of a cylinder with a slit cut across it, it chills you. Indeed, Jupp composes these works with the same repetitive mechanical process as he crafts his headless figures limbs. Here there is a definite fit, symmetry even, between his feminine nudes and masculine helmets – both dehumanising, both phallicising. But the helmets escape the misogyny of the figures to prompt deeper questions. I could dwell on the pretences to gender essentialising “universal femininity”, and the rhetorical silencing that the de-individualised sexually-overt figures perform, but instead I think we should look again at the bold simplicity of the methods uniting both streams of work, influenced by his direct experience of industrial process.
These helmets stand as wounded limbs. The cuts in some are so fine as to blur the line between open-wound and scar. Where are these bodies’ organs? Where are these mechanism’s humanity? There is a fraught relationship here between inside and outside, human and artificial object, and, at the minimalist edge of figuration, between figure and clay. Jupp teaches us something about the essence of manipulating matter in our hands, but also the ambivalences of being human.
Mo Jupp’s solo exhibition is at the Oxford Ceramics Gallery until 17th March
PHOTO / Clay Live Official Press Release