Museum Crush talks to one of the major ceramic artists of her generation, Sara Radstone, about history, memory and her major exhibition at CoCA, York Art Gallery
As you encounter the strange ceramic landscape of Sara Radstone at the Centre of Ceramic Art in York, it’s hard to escape a deep sense of the uncanny – and of history made somehow discernible through mysterious marks, traces and the textures of clay.
“I’m very interested in the way that human history is manifested through the marks on the sides of ancient pots,” says Radstone as she looks back over a career spanning 40 years. “That’s what really struck me when I was a lot younger, the permanency of the mark on clay.”
More than 50 artworks from this unconventional ceramicist, ranging from torn and textured slabs to beautiful vessels and skeletal wall mounted pieces, feature in the CoCA retrospective charting the twists and turns of a remarkable career on the periphery of pottery.
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One of the most respected ceramic artists of her generation, Radstone freely admits to never defining herself as a potter – even when she was a ceramics student at Camberwell School of Art in the 1970s.
“I love pottery and I’d done a lot of throwing,” she says, “I learnt to throw when I was nine years old, but I was always interested in other art forms – in sculpture, in painting.
“I initially used the vessel form as a vehicle just to carry ideas and as a canvas for surface and I loved the connection to the history of vessel making and what it’s meant throughout the millennia, so I used that as an abstract form.”
The exhibition charting this journey progresses from her early works reinterpreting the vessel form through to her freestanding sculptures, wall based work and installations. Works from the Anthony Shaw collection, which is on long term loan to CoCA, can be seen alongside loans from the artist herself – these are ceramics that recall many things, from archaeological tomb relics to the petrified remains of organic vegetation.
One of the major works, Corpus, a piece consisting of 44 clay slabs, seems to perfectly encapsulate the Radstone tropes of history, memory and a mining of the depths of the interior clay void to explore what is exposed or hidden.
“I’d spent a long time thinking about the idea of clay and its link to the word ‘volume’ because that’s an inescapable aspect of working with clay,” she says of the piece, “you’re always working with interior space as much as the surface.
“The surface is like an indication or a kind of hint of what might be going on inside and that has all sorts of psychological and interesting resonances for me as well.”
Radstone started working on Corpus in 2000 after a process of reassessment, re-thinking and looking deeper into her work. Originally made as a wall piece, here it has been laid out flat like a kind of pavement, which also gives it a memorial, slab-like quality.
“The idea of memorials has become more and more a subject of investigation,” she admits, “what an actual memorial object is and whether it works and what that means – like monuments to the dead in wars, or monuments of other sorts and what their actual function is culturally.”
This train of thought began to germinate in the 1990s when she was looking to move away from vessel-based work and seek out a process of looking at the forms of different kinds of vessels “like boats and caskets and enclosed spaces and what they can indicate”. She soon found that the more she enclosed an object the more suggestive it became.
The clay slabs of Corpus also suggest a series of books, which also occupy a special place in the personal history of Sara Radstone. Her mother was a bookseller and she remembers how books “would just stream into the house all the time”.
“I moved onto thinking about this and books became a huge area of investigation,” she says, “partly because of the word ‘volume’ because that’s exactly what a book is about – this compressed volume and within the covers it’s got this mysterious life intensely going on in there.
“It’s not revealed until you obviously break it open and yet it’s all still there. Literally bound up inside the covers of a book there’s all this volume of information and memory and history, which I’m very interested in as a source material.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, poetry was especially prevalent in the Radstone household.
This bookish interest may also be one of the motivators in her experimenting with flax paper clay, which is clay mixed with finely shredded paper that when fired, results in a light but very resilient material.
“You can work with it as very thin slabs very easily,” she says, “if they’re torn at the edges, you get this amazing kind of edge quality to it and when it’s bone-dry it’s very strong, you can almost throw it around and it still won’t break.”
When combined with hessian scrim the expressive ceramic forms that result from this material have a transparent quality to them, with lots of little holes that add to the sense of precariousness and fragility. “It’s almost nothing,” she says, “it’s almost not clay and it sort of defies what ceramics is about.”
“These places have these intense and beautiful names which seem to be a memory of what had been”
You may also encounter pieces of old found wire “both as a way of collaborating with a piece of clay and as an interesting way of displaying a piece” and paper that’s been dipped in paint.
Admitting to being a bit of a forager, she reveals how, now and again, she’ll happen upon something like the wire, which will then take her to an idea. Similarly a word or phrase will lead her to a piece of work, which she often titles before making it.
“We used to have a croft on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides,” she says, “it was a completely, semi-derelict little house, unbelievably remote in the most beautiful place in the world and one of the things that fascinated me about it – apart from the remains of ancient people which you could see in the standing stones and the remains of croft houses – were the place names.
“Looking at the map, you’d see where someone had named a bit of land with no apparent road leading to it and no remains of a building of any sort, there might just be a shearling, a shepherd’s hut, but nothing else. And yet these places have these intense and beautiful names which seem to be a memory of what had been. And of course every loch has a name, and that really fascinates me.”
It’s this human trace – this mark making and naming that is key to understanding how the landscape weaves its influence over Radstone’s ceramic creations. But they also seem intensely personal, even though she says most of her works aren’t manifestations of personal histories, if you peer beneath the surface, ghostly remembrances seem to be embedded in the clay.
The Mirror series, a kind of fragile mirror with hinged panels, is rather like a triptych painting with non-reflective surfaces akin to an ancient mirror of polished stone. Radstone admits to having a mirror like it as a child and as you gaze inside there is no image looking back – just the presence left behind.
Shroud 2 is an austere off-white structure, which as the title suggests, references a time of bereavement. The sculpture takes its name from another piece, Shroud, which was lost in the MoMart warehouse fire of 2004, and is a search for a way to express remembrance. Suitably skeletal, it is composed of frail fragments of slip-dipped scrim that seem to evoke the fragile fabric of memory, rising from the ashes.
Again the title is an essential tool in bringing the meaning of this resonant work to light, although words like ‘Tract’, which describes a succession of textured slabs of clay with a faint red river running through them, offers multiple meanings that may equally bring to mind a desolate expanse of land or a written text.
Like many of the works on show here the fractal nature of the paper clay surface expresses ideas as much as substance. The closer you get, the more is revealed.
Sitting among the pots of CoCA collection, “I’m surrounded by people whose work inspired me from the beginning, people who were my tutors at college, some of whom are deceased sadly deceased” says Radstone, these delicate structures offer a fascinating insight into the work one of our foremost ceramic artists – and the uncanny cross fertilization between ceramics, history and many other disciplines.
Sara Radstone: More than Words is at York Art Gallery until June 10 2018.
Sara will giving a lunchtime talk on the exhibition and her professional career of nearly 40 years on January 17 12.30 – 1pm. Free with admission, no need to book. See https://www.yorkartgallery.org.uk/exhibition/sara-radstone-more-than-words for more information.
York Art Gallery
York, North Yorkshire
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