The force of contrasts in ceramic

Guido Molinari

One of the most distinctive characteristics of the first few years of the new century is the renewed concentration on “noble” materials. The current redefining phase, being experienced within an altered cultural climate, requires a brief review about what marble, bronze, ceramic and other premium materials represented during last century’s cultural debate. We all know that at the beginning of the twentieth century the historical avant-garde movement preferred to break the confines of doing art, fostering an approach to the numerous aspects of existence and the world involving the use of expressive and methodological techniques that some art historians defined as cold or extra-artistic (performance, readymade, conceptuality, photography and installation). Art with a capital “A”, linked to the use of manual techniques that could encompass the inimitable dimension of personal style, was set aside in favour of new aesthetic operations, related to the “death of art”, that constituted the most innovative and significant factor.
Subsequently, during the second half of the century, the neo avant-gardism continued in this direction, bringing the movement phase to an end and beginning the one involving groups, focusing their attention on all the potential, still to be determined, offered by the new, cold stylistic approach. Today, with the end of the phase comprising artistic groups and having kicked off a new type of comparison embracing the sphere of individuality, a new chapter has been opened. We are witnessing the emergence of synthesis sometimes even among opposing factions, such as cold mediums linked to the death of art and noble materials, or conceptual modalities and the restoration of the aura and creation through manual activities.
Today, if the fulcrum of creativity rests on the extreme emphasis to attribute to the individual re-elaboration of stimuli and aesthetic ideas, then those operating from such a perspective feel ready to take all possible paths and to implement any medium or technique to achieve the desired result. Naturally, this is a truly innovative factor: forms, techniques and materials no longer contain that explosive aesthetic power which distinguished them during the twentieth century, but of such a force only a shadow, a trace and a slight presence remain, that we sense as a reference in today’s cultural products. A very visible example is offered by the world of forms: the square and the orthogonal dimension, so representative and permeated by ethical aspects throughout the twentieth century (Bauhaus, Constructivism, Neoplasticism, Modern Movement), has undergone a radical change over the last few years. For today’s artists, the relationship with orthogonality reflects a completely new means of designing, rooted exclusively in the dimension of individuality, in the realm of the single, and no longer in the utopia of an all-encompassing revolution. Thus, today, there is a lack of any and all references to the design and ethical thoroughness that had characterised the use of this family of forms in the twentieth century. In fact, present-day Minimalism is presented as an elaborative affectation, in the most positive sense of the word, of historicised assumptions of earlier times, now perceivable as an echo of a glorious past that has by now come to an end. This is demonstrated by the ongoing processes of contamination between the square, orthogonalitiy and various different types of stimuli, both in the field of contemporary art and design, and present-day architecture. Hence, the square no longer has that significant power that had been attributed to it last century. Instead, it has become a shadow of itself, an aesthetic recollection at the disposal of those who want to recombine the effects of art; therefore, a presence on which to take action through alterations to produce innovative and hyper-sophisticated artistic effects. Similarly, even noble materials are being repositioned based on a new scale of values. It should be recalled that, set aside and taken out of the action during the early 1900s, they reappeared during the century, thus characterising those phases of contraposition against the avant-garde cycles. Specifically, the various cultural phases inspired by the return of order were the main driving force behind the return of manual activities, of the profession of doing art, of revisited historical traditions, aimed at making the aesthetic values tied to the aura re-emerge, something that noble materials possess. Thus, within such a state of affairs violent contraposition occurred several times in the past in which marble, bronze, terracotta, ceramic and thus sculpture (and, naturally, along with a recovery in painting) were placed in opposition to the use of performance, videos, installations, the readymade, as well as artificial materials linked to the industry. But then, after reaching the current phase, everything suddenly changed: the extreme and violent cultural contrasts have now become a thing of the past, and completely disappeared within a climate of integration rather than opposition. The noble materials are no longer so representative of that violent reference to the past that placed them in opposition to the values of extra-artistic innovation. Today, noble materials contain less of that explosive evocativeness of noble artisticity for which they were so distinguished, because of a lack of contrast with cold mediums. So, during the current phase, it is possible to plan a new type of use for these materials. It is the concept of a refined integration among artistic and extra-artistic mediums operating in many solutions simultaneously. Finally, a good example is the world of ceramics, which is a subset with its own features in the area of noble materials. In fact, as well known, an agreement was reached during the 1900s with regard to themes concerning biomorphism, i.e. related to the dimension of the organic, and ceramic material. One of the most important names, Lucio Fontana, exemplifies how not only the material, but also the operating techniques were known and creatively investigated in this area of research. But, today, we can see how the new generations consider the comparison with this material. Firstly, the technical elaboration procedures are not as well known. Secondly, in general, there is a preference to work with this material in its finished state, at the end of a completed procedure rather than experimenting with it during the constitutive processes. In addition, the sphere of the biomorph no longer seems to be the main design reference with which to carry out interactions.
We are currently experiencing a phase that fosters a combination of aesthetic references and thus tends to carry out what are mainly cold conceptual processes involving ceramic material. Sometimes, a new relationship with dailyness emerges in this direction, enhanced by perfectly hi-tech ceramic surfaces, almost as if to exclude the presence of manual operations. If references to the organic area do exist, the assumptions are re-invented and revisited with respect to the historical referents. In other words, new prospects appear in using the ceramic material because the cultural conditions and the underlying design assumptions appear to have changed. If we really want to seek a remote precedent in this direction, at least in principle, we would have to refer to the way in which futurists dealt with this warm material, without excluding the basic conceptual references of their avant-garde themes. Or much more recently, Post-modernism, during the Eighties, which developed a model to recreate a new approach to aesthetic factors. But currently, with an end to the era of twentieth century contraposition, and having dismembered aesthetic activism, we find ourselves on a terrain in which the evoking power of this material is skilfully used within the context of a light and refined hyper-affectation, constructed around the role of a comprehensive artistic identity, that’s ready to integrate the opposites.

Testo pubblicato nel catalogo della III Biennale di Ceramica nell'Arte Contemporanea “Indisciplinata”, Attese, Albisola (Italia), 2006.