Carol O’Callaghan takes a look at a new craft exhibition that explores one of our simplest household objects.

There’s hardly one among us who doesn’t possess a vase, that functional household object with the luxury of a name with two pronunciations, often to be found lurking in the back of a cupboard in most kitchens, or attired in a fur coat of dust on a high shelf.

Then again, the vase has enjoyed celebrity too, thanks to poet John Keats and his earnest verse, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.

Fast forward 200 years later, and meet craft curator Brian Kennedy, who tackles the subject of the vase and its perception by bringing together nearly 30 ceramicists with their particular approach to the object in a new exhibition entitled, VASE: Function Reviewed, currently taking place at the National Craft Gallery in Kilkenny until November 6.

Philip Eglins Looking For Mr and Mrs Andrews made from earthenware with lead glaze (2013).
Philip Eglins Looking For Mr and Mrs Andrews made from earthenware with lead glaze (2013).

“For me, the vase and its pronunciation have a lot to do with snobbery and class. One is posh, the other is not,” Brian explains. 

“I wanted to poke fun slightly at how the word vessel is used in ceramic making rather than vase.”

Two themes bring all the works together — narrative and story-telling, and an object that holds something, done through the work of leading ceramic artists from Europe, Africa and Asia, sitting alongside an Irish offering by some of our most talented ceramicists including Sara Flynn and Derek Wilson.

“The best in Ireland can stand up to the best in the world,” says Brian. 

“I wanted to show a range of different tendencies in the work so there’s English and European, and I wanted something oriental so there’s Chinese and Japanese also.

“I wanted it to be a big, meaty show with a focus on contemporary ceramics but with functional work. For some reason there seems to be less value on functional objects.”

Lucinda Mudge’s Baby I Live for Danger in ceramic with gold platinum lustre (2016).
Lucinda Mudge’s Baby I Live for Danger in ceramic with gold platinum lustre (2016).

The big meat he’s talking about includes three English ceramicists, a move which has particular significance for him. 

“These women who are now in their late 60s and 70s have very different approaches but they personify a major shift in the making of studio ceramics,” he says. 

“Karen McNicoll’s work is political, with a piece using found objects that cites the British invasion of Iraq time for the second time.”

Janice Tchalenko, on the other hand, links the ceramic making studio with industry. 

“She worked with Dartington Pottery so she’s creating a dialogue between the object and industry and mass production.”

The third is Alison Britton whose work is contemplative. “Alison is a thinker,” says Brian. 

“She raises the question, what is a vessel; why is it necessary for the object to be attractive when we don’t expect painters to be happy and make pretty work.”

Akiko Hirais Blue Moon jar in stoneware with glaze (2015).
Akiko Hirais Blue Moon jar in stoneware with glaze (2015).

It seems this isn’t the only area where art and craft, especially functional craft and some of the most attractive at that, are treated differently.

Brian recalls taking ceramic craft to Geneva some years ago to show in an exhibition and his encounter with Swiss customs and excise. 

“I had a large vessel that they decided looked like a jug which meant to them it had a clear function, so that meant duty had to be paid on it, whereas art doesn’t carry duty.”

Blurred boundaries in the worlds of art and craft, no question, but when it comes to the vase, function is absolutely at its core, something that is demonstrated beautifully by the inclusion of a separate exhibition within the main show.

Master Florist Lamber de Bie has designed a floral installation called Verdant Vessels. Visitors can expect to see an abundance of blooms on display in stunning ceramic vases. 

A range of floral techniques will be embraced, from the traditional to the modern, reimagining the vases and reinterpreting them through use.

Lamber will explore the theme of shape and form from September 15 to 20, and the topics of heritage and materials from September 22 to 28, looking at where craft and art meet and how the vase finds its purpose with the addition of flowers.

Hitomi Hosono’s Petite Mangrove Bowl in porcelain with palladium leaf (2015).
Hitomi Hosono’s Petite Mangrove Bowl in porcelain with palladium leaf (2015).

“Many years ago I saw an exhibition of work by a Japanese ceramicist,” Brian explains. 

“It was of tea bowls and vases with all of the vases having simple and elegant floral arrangements. In the catalogue he said that for him the vase was never complete until it held flowers. I have long forgotten his name but his thought has always remained with me: Does use enhance or diminish the ceramic object?”

Pop along to the National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny and decide for yourself.

Throwing Shapes

Cork born ceramicist Sara Flynn’s arresting work in clay has seen her launch onto the international craft scene in recent years.

With gallery representation in London for her award-winning work, it has now been bought for private collections worldwide and those of galleries as far away as Shanghai and Canberra.

Ongoing development and growing confidence have seen her move from small scale functional pots to one-off vessels which are purely sculptural in their intent, like the Esker collection which forms a series of sculptural decorative vessels now on show at Vase: Function Reviewed at the National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny. 

In December, she moves on to London for her third solo show at the Erskine, Hall and Coe gallery.

Esker vessels by Sara Flynn in thrown and altered porcelain with a manganese rich glaze.


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