Ceramics at Messums
As this trio of shows demonstrates, when it comes to ceramics Messums is in for the long haul.
Beyond the Vessel: Narratives in Contemporary European Ceramics
22nd February – 12th April 2020
19th February – 14th March 2020
THERE’S A PERCEPTION in fine art and design that craft is a little bit like Cornwall: it doesn’t welcome outsiders readily. From personal experience I know this isn’t the case. I became editor of Crafts magazine in 2007, having come from the architecture press. I couldn’t (and, indeed, didn’t) profess to be any kind of expert on the subject. Yet, I quickly discovered this wasn’t going to be a problem – the various makers I dealt with were open, honest and understanding to a fault. In fact they welcomed the fact that someone from outside their immediate sphere of expertise was taking an interest. In other words the craft world wasn’t insular at all.
However, it can be suspicious of people’s motives. And with good reason. Over the years I’ve watched a slew of curators, writers, editors, gallerists and retailers ‘discover’ craft, loudly marching in telling people how things should be done, attempting to define what it might be – all the while ignoring its rich history of writing, criticism and sense of adventure – before leaving again once they’ve had their fill (usually when they realise there’s more money and glamour to be had elsewhere).
So perhaps it wasn’t entirely surprising that there were cynical murmurs when Johnny Messum opened Messums Wiltshire in 2016 and started showing materially-driven work. Was he serious about the subject? Or was he simply going to flit in, sprinkle a little fine art stardust before becoming bored? The answer to those questions would appear to be answered definitively this February when Messum opens three contrasting exhibitions across two sites – all devoted to ceramics.
In the magnificent 13th century tithe barn he will be showing ‘Beyond the Vessel: Narratives in Contemporary European Ceramics’, which as the title suggests, features artists whose work is less concerned with pots and more interested in telling tales, or making a point about our wider society. So, for instance, Malene Hartmann Rasmussen has created an installation in her typical bright, poppy style that mixes norse mythology with her family history. There are animals, including snakes and a squirrel as well as licks of ceramic flame. The ensemble, which includes a two metre totem of creatures with a manically grinning, expectant dog at the base and a shiny golden egg at the top, is a riot of colour. The artist herself likes to think of it as an ancient place of worship. “I wanted it to be like a temple,” she explains, “So you go to a rainforest or something and you encounter these totem figures.”
Meanwhile the adjacent gallery will be devoted to a retrospective of Michael Flynn, who Messums describes as the ‘godfather’ of figurative ceramics. Meanwhile on Cork Street, the gallery has decided to concentrate on a pair of South Korean artists, Ree Soo-Jong and Lee Hun-Chung, in a show that has been curated by craft historian and director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, Paul Greenhalgh. While Ree Soo-Jong is one of the nation’s most established artists and plays with the traditional Korean Moon Jar, Hun Chung’s work is more conceptual, creating everyday objects such as chairs and tables from clay.
The whole endeavour reeks of commitment to the craft cause, as he’s happy to admit when we sit down to chat in the office of his London gallery. Messum is the third generation of his family to be involved in the art world and, as he says, “I guess you find your own language with it. Traditionally the gallery showed two dimensional pieces, but it has always been the plastic arts that worked for me.” His entry point into clay was a combination of Grayson Perry and Jørgen Haugen Sørensen.
“I realised that clay can be more than just a pot,” he tells me. “That was a real revelation, seeing the storytelling. To a large degree painting had stopped telling tales but, when you looked at artists working in clay, many of them possessed a sense of narrative. And that seemed to me to be really relevant.” A conversation with the curator and critic Glenn Adamson convinced him further. “Part of what I wanted to do was to get people comfortable looking at different materials. Glenn explained that I shouldn’t think of painting, sculpture, textiles and ceramics as vertical silos,” he says holding his fingers aloft to emphasise his point. “Instead he suggested I looked laterally across them and then I’d find a creative thread that validates them all. I thought that was a really good analogy. There’s great art to explore in different mediums. I have to stick my finger into the areas that don’t make sense to me. And the distinction between art and craft doesn’t really hold water over the breadth of time.”
That said, pursuing his idea wasn’t straightforward. “Bear in mind I had to leave the family firm to go and do it,” he says. “My father said, ‘If you think that’s what you should do then you’re better off doing it by yourself.’ So I left.” Subsequently he bought the Cork Street Gallery from his father in 2018, but he’s happy to admit, “It was definitely swimming against the tide … It’s important to a generational business – or any business extending beyond one lifetime – to find out how to keep the DNA, but to evolve so that people will follow you.”
However, he isn’t an uncritical friend of craft (and here we briefly part company). “It talks to its own audience too much. You can’t say clay, without thinking ceramics, without thinking pot, without in some way thinking it’s different from the main thrust of contemporary art. In the same way you can’t say craft without removing any aspiration towards artistic or conceptual content at the same time.”
Perhaps as a result of this, one of his challenges has been to bring the gallery’s collector base with him. “I think my two starting points were that we can do more and we have an obligation to make ourselves more accessible to the wider public. And the second was that we had an obligation to our collector base to show them a road as opposed to servicing a need. So we should do things that are perhaps unexpected but certainly eye-catching and thought-provoking.” At the same time he believes he has made in-roads into the next generation of collectors too.
What is striking about Messum’s approach is that he hasn’t attempted to reinvent the wheel. Instead he’s willing to rely on the knowledge and experience of others such as Adamson and Greenhalgh. He acknowledges that craft has roots and he’s keen to respect them. And while he’s fascinated by the conceptual nature of the work he exhibits, he remains in awe of his artists’ skill. “Look at Carolein Smit or Malene,” he enthuses. “The sheer technical skill is insane. If you’re looking to find comfort in the world then there isn’t much greater comfort than recognising and appreciating someone’s ability in any field.”
After the trio of shows are over, he’s planning a summer architecture exhibition and will also be programming work for The Grange Festival in Hampshire later in the year. His intention is to turn February into a regular slot for ceramics. There is little doubt that craft has been having a bit of a moment in recent years – it is embedded in hipster culture, been used (and frequently abused) by advertising agencies and been noticeable by its presence at design weeks in places like Milan and art fairs such as Frieze. The fear is that the fashionistas’ focus will shift dumping craft as if it were a teenage holiday fling. By contrast you feel Messum is in it for the long haul.
Messums – a specialist in exhibiting contemporary British art.