Material and the procedure of (ceramic) art

Gianfranco Maraniello

Over the last decade, the flourishing number of what have become standardized International Art Biennials and the numerous trips and opportunities to exchange information, have led to an increase in the consumption of cultural products and the success of curatorial strategies designed to satisfy the voracity of a system that often works “in the present” and which boils down to a rapid report of the here and now. A Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art is aware of the risk and the paradox of making the local traditions, to which it refers, a part of such a scenario, i.e. that characteristic “know-how” that has been consolidated over time in a specific area of northern Italy and that now becomes an opportunity for convivial encounters and poetic assessment for those invited to get involved with a history from which they must diverge in order to return. Being part of a tradition means moving away from it, establishing a productive distance that outlines a horizon and a perspective, instead of the sterile impasse of unhappy mannerism. The continuity that emerges from the contribution of such a difference is the result of the conflict with a material, with clay, that becomes art through the skilled guidance of master ceramicists who work with the new interpreters of this technique from around the world. And it is here, exclusively in the kilns of Albisola and the outlying areas of Savona, that the works are produced for an exhibition that uses a two-year period merely to provide a specific rhythm for the continuous, non-fleeting efforts that teach patience, the confirmation of a working method that needs time to check the firing, the resistance and the consistency of that body manipulated on the potter’s wheel. The artist does not export his product or impose his work on the globalized art circuit. Instead, he is stimulated by local tradition, of which he becomes the “guest.” Often, the artist acquires the knowledge of others and makes his own contribution by symbolically experiencing a material controlled through the expert hand of the ceramist who is familiar with its innermost qualities and possible transformations. If art is, in the final analysis, nothing more than a symbol of transfiguration, ceramics is an exemplar and explicit physical limit, an “exteriority” to treat demiurgically. In fact, Giuseppe Uncini work is characterized by the complicity and challenge of the material.
Between 1959 and 1963 his Cementarmati implemented a building sector construction principle that, through the interlacing of iron and cement, allows the artist to exhibit the intrinsic poetic and practical value of the materials used. Diverging from the primordial essence objective so characteristic of much informal art, Uncini exhibits a “poverist” (in the sense of Italian “Arte Povera”) sensitivity ante litteram and adopts a rigour for which there are certain analogies in various examples of American Minimal Art. According to Manfred Fath1, Giuseppe Uncini’s sculptures, those occasionally geometric blocks with traversing metal links that create veins in the mix of limestone and clay, allow the public to note the procedure used to create them, like declaring that the actual execution plays an indispensable role in the final aesthetic outcome of the work. Uncini now seems to insist on such a “process-based” aspect of the work and provokes an encounter at the limit of what is technically possible, introducing iron bars in the ceramic that risk melting right when the high temperature in the kiln gives clay its solidness and form. The materials became solidly linked in this way; iron becomes the vertebra of that clay that becomes so precious in the hands of the artist. The work is complete, but characteristically remains a “reference” and becomes a trace of the experimental research of an almost alchemic tension, of a discovered balance between the roughness of iron and the compact and elegant fragility of ceramics.
The beautiful decorations and the handcrafted work give ceramic products a kind of added value, an immediate attribution of uniqueness and beauty, and an aura that very rarely can be found in objects mass-produced by the industry.Plamen Dejanoff has learned the technique and creates some ceramic models of funny M&M dispensers: plastic ovoid shapes with eyes, legs and arms that dispense their “sweet” when bent in the proper position. The artist doesn’t just take a consumer product to raise it to a refined sculpture; he doesn’t exhibit it as an object “with an aura” as if it were reminiscent of the works of Jeff Koons or Haim Steinbach. Dejanoff intends on experimenting with the potentials of the ceramic product within a wider field of negotiations currently underway with the manufacturer of the famous candies, like preparing a sample to be submitted to the executives of M&Ms to get them involved in a more profitable future commercial enterprise. The artist becomes a kind of agent of the industrial world, and acts like a mediator among possible partners. He is an operator that makes his activity a work, a work installed, even up to changing his name (he used to be called Plamen Dejanov) and living according to the advice of a prestigious public image management company that he contacted to renew his figure as an artist; or even working in a team and reversing the relationships between art and sponsorship, cooperating with the BMW automotive giant to manage all the exhibition or editorial spaces offered to him.
Instead, Davide Minuti works ceramics according to a modular system that appears to negate the specific singularity of the products and, at the same time, uses such material in a practical way. He creates cylinders that he joins with special rings to create a drainpipe. He decorates them with the typical colours of the Albisola tradition, but always with an essential web-design graphic layout in mind. The functional rainwater collection and drainage system alludes to computer language’s “downloading.” Download is in fact a recurring title in the works of Minuti who, in an almost “ecology of art” sense, is sensitive to the conversion of the technical and technological possibilities that he investigates into potential and (creative) energy. He “paints” with PVC, transforms wind energy into spectacular installations, creates works equipped with wheels or that, in any case, can be transported or modified, as if he doesn’t want to admit that the form is complete so as to stimulate us, instead, to be constantly dynamic.

1 See Manfred Fath “Raum aus Fläche und Struktur,” in Uncini, Gli Ori, 2000, pg. LXIX.

Text published in the catalogue of the 2nd Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2003.