Inventory Number MAG249
Size 29" h x 34" w x 26" d
Material Jingdezhen middle white porcelain, layered glazes and copper cable
Country of Origin China
Year Made 2016
Each sculpture by Gareth Mason represents a small cosmic explosion. Intensely expressive and energetic in character, Mason’s work reflects his eagerness to capture the dynamics and the mysteries of creation. Immersed in the transformative power of fire, Mason’s spirit is freed through earth – his artistic medium – and his ceramics acquire a life of their own.
“In Jingdezhen, porcelain bit me back.” That is how Gareth Mason sums up the three-month residency he had in the famous Chinese ceramic capital, back in 2016. His presence there was nothing unusual for in recent years the city has witnessed a virtual procession of contemporary ceramists from Britain, and other countries too. Most are equally eager to connect with its ancient roots and its present-day capabilities, but Mason’s visit was something different. “I am not an ardent fan of Chinese ceramics,” he says. “My default position in regard to all of my sources is one of intellectual skepticism, irrespective of the extent to which they may seduce me sensually or emotionally. I doubt everything.”
This doubt reverberates through all Mason’s work and yet it does not close him down. Of all contemporary practitioners in clay, his work contains the greatest multitudes. A single pot from his hands may have as many ideas as a whole archaeological pit. Some potters work additively, building their objects from premade components; others subtractively, carving away at a premade vessel. Mason transcends that opposition. His pots seem brought into being via sheer gravitational force, as if he were driven to compress all the possibilities of the discipline into the space of a single vessel. It is a quixotic enterprise; but having tried once, he does it again. And again. And again.
Yet in Jingdezhen, he struggled mightily. “I have founded my practice on removing safety nets and taking risks so I am fairly inured to shock,” he said at the time, “but the surprises I encountered upon attempting to bend this material to my will (let alone the beating it gave me when I opened the kiln) were deeper than I am used to. We never know where our learning is going to be and in Jingdezhen. I was forced to adapt, fast.” The battle scars are evident. Asked more recently to reflect on the experience, he responded, “It was inspiring and disabling, unsettling (terrifying!) to have my skill base dismantled by material. I recommend it.”
Consider, as evidence, Horror Vacui, one of the works made on his residency. The title (Latin for “fear of the void”) suggests Mason’s omnivorous appetite, but if anything it seems an understatement. At its simplest it is a vase blown to pieces and reassembled around multiple axes. The memory of the original, vertical, symmetrical form is preserved in a mostly-intact rim, but it has been repositioned, slung along the form’s hip like a lasso. If you peer through, you can see a vortex of negative space on the object’s far side. Perched above this portal-like element is a ribbed fragment that could be a bit of neck or base. Below it is a perforated chunk that seems to have wandered in from some other object entirely, maybe an incense burner or a kiln shelf. Around the back, the piece sticks its ass into the air; what looks to be a vase’s foot is exposed to view. Its edges are ruinous. A black “X” marks the spot. Elsewhere in the work’s complex structure, it is rifted open with cracks, sheathed in pooling celadon glaze, splashed with oxblood red, and laminated with layers of white that looks primed to flake off. Even within the vessel’s deconstructed walls, things are happening. Copper cables snake through the clay body, like lengths of rebar through a slab of concrete. They perhaps serve to hold the little landslide together, and here and there poke out their rough ends, making their presence known.
While Horror Vacui may be an outstanding specimen of Mason’s work, it is nothing unusual in his practice. Any one of his pots will hold whatever interest you care to give it. They are durational like that, though they also seem forged in a single furious moment. They are the works of a man who has gone deep into a world few of us know anything about.
Given this, it comes as no surprise to learn that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is an important reference point for the artist – specifically, its chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.” In it Melville considers the many conflicting associations that humankind brings to the color white, and the way that it can seem to oscillate between plenitude and nothingness. It is “not so much a color as the visible absence of color,” he writes, and yet it contains all other colors. In an extraordinary passage, he writes:
…all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge - pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper.[i]
In the face of such titanic prose, Mason has this to say: “Porcelain has this potential. Sadly, rarely explored.” Too often this pure white ceramic body is treated as too fine to rough up. It is luxurious, quiet, or worst of all, nice. Mason’s handling of the clay could not be further from that kind of politesse. While never relinquishing porcelain’s grandeur, he also dredges from it the base materiality that Melville evokes so beautifully.
Mason’s works exemplify a collision of past and present with particular force. Looking at their pocked and cracked surfaces, one thinks not just of the moon but its actual surface – and of objects of all scales, from the astronomical to the handheld, which hurtle through space and time, acquiring layers of meaning as they go. These are not recreations of a historical forms but rather, objects made in history’s long shadow, much as the pieces realized in Jingdezhen recapitulate the city’s long trajectory. Ceramics, after all, is not always a success story. Every kiln has its failures. Indeed, Mason’s works riff on the accidents and disasters that inevitably occur in its inferno. They look more like the slag heap out back of a manufactory than they do like the shiny wares in the shop out front. This is what he gives you: a backstage pass to the medium and its discontents.
Ceramics is a mysterious art. Not only do the kiln gods give and then take away, but even when faced with a pot of greatness, it can be difficult to say just what it is that makes it sing. Mason knows this well. He likes to explain it with the Spanish term, duende, which is untranslatable, but comes close to our word “soul.” He loves a text by the poet Federico García Lorca, which attempts to explain this ineffable term via an exploration of flamenco music. Duende, Lorca writes:
…is a force, not a labour. A struggle, not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: it surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that is truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it belongs to the most ancient culture of immediate creation.[ii]
No better description of Mason’s intentions could be conceived. Here come his pots, which seem both ancient and new: from the ground up through the soles of the feet, and out into space.
[i] Herman Melville, Moby Dick (London: Penguin Classics, 2013 [orig. pub. 1851]), 212.
[ii] Federico García Lorca, “Theory and Play of the Duende,” in Theory and Play of the Duende: and, Imagination, Inspiration, Evasion (Kanathos, 1981). This topic stems from a lecture given in 1933.