Gareth Mason: The Vessel as Medium

British contemporary ceramist Gareth Mason is passionate about his craft and completely vested as artisan, writer, speaker and teacher. You might say Gareth Mason is a visionary in the field of ceramics, raising the bar in all aspects of the field while featured in permanent museum collections around the world: Korea, Kenya, Switzerland, Turkey, Austria, Scotland, England, New Zealand and collected privately too.

Gareth describes his core passion as an artist, “The best art, irrespective of the discipline, is felt first and reasoned later…Art is at its most potent when it exposes something of the artist’s humanity.” Gareth Mason took a moment out of his busy schedule to share his love for what drives him and it’s a great privilege to share this interview with all of you. Enjoy.

(L/Black Bleeds: :7½/19x7/18x13¼/33.5, porcelain, sang de boeuf, iron, oxides, gold and platinum lustre, 2009/2011 and on R/Astrobleme).

mM : Many of your forms are seemingly other-worldly or inspired by the ancients. How would you describe the forms you create in your pieces?

Gareth MASON : I believe the ceramic vessel is as powerful a medium of human expression as any other - as powerful as the haiku, the novel, the symphony, ballet, sculpture or motion picture... That belief is a wellspring for me. The realm of the ceramic vessel is dauntingly vast, spanning the gamut of human history; indeed, our innate sense of utilitarian kinship to the clay vessel, its symbiosis with human cultural and practical endeavour, is one of my reasons for relishing it as a canvas. We all feel we understand the pot—it is a friendly form. This makes it ripe for subversion and celebration, the very stuff of art.

Of the myriad historical examples in the world, I feel most attracted to the evident survivors, the pots who have come down to us through the ages. As well as the obvious pristine museum superstars, my eye is equally – perhaps more – attracted to the works that bare the scars of the centuries, the ‘wasters’, discarded to the trash heap and subsequently unearthed; the ones that went wrong; were over-fired, warped, cracked and fragmented; the broken, sad and proud encapsulations of raw ceramic experience. I am a shape thief: I draw on the iconic forms that I have absorbed over the years (Song, Shoson, Islamic, Medieval English (pictured L and Romano-Islamic glass R), Iznik, Tamba, etc, etc—a long list) as source and substance.

Then the fun starts as I treat each with my own particular medicine. Patching and repairing is an important aspect of my work, a leitmotif or OCD. I administer an aestheticized CPR to the pieces, bringing them back from the brink, sustaining them as it were beyond their life span of ‘usefulness’ into another, more ambiguous theatre. Surface is the arena wherein this tragicomedy is played out. I may reference a recognisable vessel form, perhaps a ‘classic’ Kangxi vase, or a bit of Romano-Islamic glass, and, submitting it to several firings and heavily intervening between each, I divorce it from its historical antecedent creating a mindfully contemporary object. I also improvise with the vessel, free-form, like a musician or chef, exploring material relationships and energies, flavours and stimulations of various kinds; so I will pinch, tear, puncture and caress: all contribute to the sense-record that is surface.

My work is bound up in the nature of appetite, the physical triggers of aesthetic arousal. Craftsmanship is crucial, as is the ability to selectively relinquish skill, allowing other things to happen. My forms are mindfully composed and wilfully damaged; considered and stressed; loved and disrespected. A certain duality permeates my work – an intersection of consonance and dissonance. I value both. (Above, Overflown detail).

mM : Your new work features many different earthen techniques—earthy materials applied to the exterior surfaces of your vessels. Please share some of your inspiration in creating this new portfolio of inspired works:

Gareth MASON : My most recent exhibition, at Jason Jacques gallery in New York, was entitled ‘Other Forces’ and that title is a big clue. (Book too!) For me ceramics provides a chink on the devastating powers that are extant beyond the reach of our race, be they above our heads or beneath our feet. The geological/galactic realm ever fascinates me but is only part of the story. Ceramics is for me a mighty negotiation between earth, fire, and the agency of will. It can encompass elements and qualities that are evocative and even mythic in their scope and allusive power. I have an enduring child-like wonder at the metamorphic aspect of ceramic experience, which seduces my imagination, spurs my intuition, and goads me to audacious risk, often to my cost.

(Above, Overflown: 16½/42x13½, porcelain, sang de boeuf, oxides, copper cable, gold and platinum and bronze lustre, 2011).

The kiln is an alterer of states, a transformer of matter. Firing is the business of crystallizing dull earth into irrevocable, vitrescent form. Can there be an art form more dynamic, more fertile, more ripe for poetic exploration? Fire is my capricious creative partner and I solicit its favour, not from a desire to control, rather for its revelatory potential. Viewed in this light, almost anything can be raw material.

(L/Astrobleme (detail): 11½/29x11½/29x8½/47, porcelain, dolomite matt glaze, sang de boeuf. 2009/2011 and R/Jovian Hourglass: 9/23x9½/24x13½/34.5, porcelain, glazes and feldspars, oxides, gold and platinum lustre, 2010/2011).

In addition to orthodox ceramic materials, I specifically appropriate other fuel, raw, found, unprocessed, and importantly, unknown. I value not knowing. I use riverbanks, beach flotsam, cliffs, stream beds and scrap heaps as scouring grounds. The most unprepossessing of elements attract me; a rusty nail, a shard of glass or pottery, and I alight upon these as opportunities to harness the unexpected. I like to venerate the overlooked. These material choices become accents and notes in my compositions. Their voice is often outside my control, and all the more vital for it. Colour and texture are important tools for the artist and I deploy them as mindfully as any. Marshmallow and black acid are interesting bedfellows, aesthetically speaking. Material contrasts, even stark and bitter ones, all have a part. Beauty exists in many guises, and I want them all, the sublime and the abyss.

mM : Do you find inspiration from artists of the past? Please describe how some of these artists have inspired you over the years:

Gareth MASON : Here are a few – and not just of the past, in no particular order of preference; an incomplete selection from a long list. A quality of commitment, risk and disclosure characterises the work of all the artists from whom I gain sustenance. Their work tends to be experienced at an immediate, human level; there are exceptions but in the main I would say I am attracted to hard-lived rather than calculated and cerebrally executed art.

(Above/Small Shield: 16½/42x18/46x23½/59, porcelain, oxides, sang de bouef, gold and platinum lustre, volcanic earth, 2009/2011).

From Howard Hodgkin, (pictured above), I have taken a renewed appreciation of colour and gesture: I appreciate the necessity to ‘re-visit the canvas’; also, I love the idea of ‘painting with emotion’. Giacometti is in my view heroic in his mastery of mark making and his unadulterated pursuance of his own vision – he went so deep and for so long… as did Kathe Kollwitz, who is one of the twentieth-century’s great draftspeople; she gave the human spirit material form, (pictured below).

Auguste Rodin’s late drawings entrance me for their fluidity and virtuosity but also as a template for revisiting the canvas. Jackson Pollock understood the ‘paint-ness’ of paint, its materiality: he brought it close to the body, transferring physical experience into material brilliantly, and he was just so brave. Another abstract expressionist, Joan Mitchell, was a great colourist. Egon Schiele had such beautiful line, and was utterly unafraid of the dark. Daniel Day Lewis is a very great, courageous artist, as was Jeff Buckley – both inhabit the moment, unfiltered, with unerring integrity. Antoni Tapies and Cy Twombly, (pictured below), are giants, for their ability to get to the heart of experience and appreciation of that fecund, ambiguous space between artwork and viewer. Tapies in particular has a gloriously unfettered approach to material.

Common to all the arts, there is a space that exists beyond mere technique; a powerful and illusive space that few inhabit successfully, where, far from the province of sterile perfection, the only route is to risk all in pursuit of complete, body and soul engagement. Ultimately the purpose of this endeavour is communication; to be both mirror and spur to human existence; to inspire, move and stir the spirit. What is the point of art, if not this?

“Inspired?” Thank you to Gareth Mason for this fantastic and deeply personal interview. You can experience more at his website, and if you get the chance to see him demonstrate or speak, take a closer look. You can also contact the Mindy Solomon Gallery for available works. More soon.

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