Part II of a three-part post on mosaics and contemporary art.
Learning lessons: Contemporary mosaics and the world of ceramics.
Part One of this post on contemporary mosaics pointed out the seemingly obvious – mosaics might create images, patterns and moods but they are not paintings. Mosaics are born of function, rooted in history, and pixelated by necessity and when thinking about the place of contemporary mosaics in the art world they must be understood and responded to on their own terms. The fact that mosaics are made up of collections of things or bits – precious or rubbishy, purpose made or found, artificial or natural – is a fact that defines them. You can’t ask a mosaic to be other than what it is.
In times not so very long past, that meant (bizarrely) that mosaics were relegated to a lesser category of creative endeavour. The slipperly. wriggly, elusive thing that calls itself Art might have become ever more elastic in recent decades but somehow mosaics (or at least mosaics which called themselves mosaics) never quite made it.
But now a quiet revolution is underway; dissent is growing, unrest is stirring, the people are rising up. There are subtle, yet real, shifts in the world of contemporary mosaics. Tessera by tessera, contemporary mosaic artists are clammering to be heard. Piece by piece, they are demanding to be included. It clearly doesn’t make sense that some modes of expression should be decreed worthy to enter the haloed portal of Art, they insist, while others are condemned to hover at the threshold.
A few years ago Mosaic Art Now published a fascinating dialogue entitled ‘What is it Going to Take to Advance Contemporary Mosaic?’ between Paul Bentley, former chair of the British Association of Modern Mosaic and Gary Drostle, its current chair. Bentley argued that we need to push for mosaics to be included in the contemporary art scene, that we can’t sit quietly on the sidelines and allow them to be marginalised as an art form. Drostle pointed out the mysterious ways in which the ‘highly stratified art market’ works with layers of influence and importance working up from small independent galleries to major public collections. ‘The market sells The Artist and his/her vision, thought, and exploration of concepts,’ Drostle wrote, ‘Those influential curators and critics who drive the art market system will never choose a medium – they will choose Artists,’
Put another way, the system will never choose a medium – they will choose the ideas which express themselves through the medium. That’s where ceramics come in. Once upon a time, again not so long ago, ceramicists were also outsiders. Then something changed. ‘A fondness for that most elemental and ancient of materials is increasingly shaping a new aesthetic,’ wrote Catherine Milner in a recent Financial Times magazine article, Thinking Outside the Pots, about pushing the boundaries of clay. Ceramics, she says, are no longer just pots. ‘A generation of contemporary art ceramicists is emerging whose work is irreverent, playful and radical – but also beautiful.’ Swop the word ‘ceramicists’ for ‘mosaicists’ and we are onto something.
Barnaby Barford, a ceramicist whose six metre high Tower of Babel was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Musuem in 2015, said in the same article that the fact that ceramics are so commonplace and present in almost all aspects of life makes them the perfect medium for artistic expression. ‘People eat out of them, drink out of them and go to the loo on them – but they dont expect to be challenged by them.’ Bang, bang, dead to the theory that mosaics can’t be art because of their historic functionality.
Have you been paying attention? Do you see what’s happening? Not only are ceramicists striding forth with heads held high (and being paid tens of thousands of pounds for it) but some of them are doing so using techniques which are profoundly mosaic-like. Look at the work by Hatori Makiko, Sandy Brown and Barnaby Barford above. They are mosaics in all but name. At the same time instantly recognisable artists like Ai Weiwei and Damian Hirst are employing the principles of mosaic (repetition, placement. line, materiality) in their work without giving so much as a nod to mosaic.
It is time, therefore, to stop being so hung up on the mosaic-ness of mosaics. We do not look at a painting and think: ‘Paint!’ Nor look at ceramics and think: ‘Clay!” We look at the work itself and the material or medium is an adjunct to that. It is not the main story. So it should be with mosaics. As Drostle puts it: ‘Many highly collected artists like Tony Cragg, El Anatsui and Chuck Close are creating work by massing or sticking multiple objects to surfaces or creating their own visual tesserae using traditional materials. While one may question whether these works are mosaics or not, mosaic artists should learn from the success of these artists that the concept must take priority over the medium.’
And so, in the third and final post, I will look at how contemporary mosaics are indeed doing just this; creating work which uses the medium of mosaic, but not to make us think ‘that is a mosaic’ but to make us curious, to amaze us, to unsettle us, to take us, in short, by the scruff of the neck and say: ‘Look, look and look again. I have something interesting and exciting to say!’
What is it going to take to Advance Contemporary Mosaic?, Mosaic Art Now, April 20, 2013.
Thinking Outside the Pots by Catherine Milner, Financial Times, How to Spend It, November 27, 2016.