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Strange Clay: The Ever-Evolving Medium

A review of The Hayward Gallery's latest limit-defying display, proving the potential of clay is reaching new heights.

View of the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition entitled Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art
View of the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition entitled Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.

In 2009, on the subject of ceramics, Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times that “it can’t be said enough that the art-craft divide is a bogus concept regularly obliterated by the undeniable originality of individuals who may call themselves artists, designers or artisans.” In the 10+ years since this article, the impact of ceramics in fine art has only intensified, as established and emerging artists alike consistently test the limits of the medium and reliably find innovative new modes of expression. Only within the last two years did London see Theaster Gates’s cultural takeover entitled ‘The Question of Clay’, where the artist’s pottery featured in major institutions including Whitechapel Gallery and White Cube, and The Black Chapel commissioned for the Serpentine Pavillion this past summer. Currently on view until January 2023, Strange Clay at the Hayward Gallery charters new, playful, terrifying, graceful and grotesque territory dominated by artists working in ceramics today, yet again asserting the dynamism and diversity of what is becoming viewed less and less as a craft material designated for one-dimensional hobbyists.


Grayson Perry and his alter-ego Claire use ceramics to address sexual identity and gender roles in contemporary society, an ever-evolving discourse that comes to life on the surface of his traditionally sculpted urns. His vases subvert the ancient tradition of storytelling and homage paid to revered figureheads by depicting figures with collaged features and satiric costumes and accessories.

Grayson Perry, Women of Ideas, 1990. Courtesy of The Hayward Gallery.
Grayson Perry, Women of Ideas, 1990. Courtesy of The Hayward Gallery.

Ken Price masterful handling of clay is apparent through his bubbling, oozing liquid forms that so gracefully and organically undulate. In the same gallery Ron Nagle’s luminous architectural objects feel other-worldly, like mock ups of a futuristic residential complex. The effortless handling of epoxy resin and catalysed polyurethane with alternating texture and subtle shifts in colour confirms Nagle’s outstanding accomplishment in artistic alchemy.

View of Ken Price sculptures at The Hayward Gallery. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.
View of Ken Price sculptures at The Hayward Gallery. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.

Ron Nagle, Midnite Bite, 2018. Courtesy of The Hayward Gallery.
Ron Nagle, Midnite Bite, 2018. Courtesy of The Hayward Gallery.

But it is Lindsey Mendick and David Zink Yi who provide the abject shock that frees the medium from the limitations of the craft category. Mendick’s dystopian household installation which features would-be comforting scenes of kitchens and living rooms are in fact infested with rats, cockroaches and other vermin that seem to have taken over from the human race. The sea creature that emerges from the toilet or the bees that swarm the telephone feel cartoon-like and childish, harnessed by the traditionally homely assumptions of clay, adding an element of humour and playfulness to an otherwise unthinkable reality.

View of Lindsey Mendick’s installation at The Hayward Gallery. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.
View of Lindsey Mendick’s installation at The Hayward Gallery. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.

View of Lindsey Mendick’s installation featuring boxing cockroaches at The Hayward Gallery. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.
View of Lindsey Mendick’s installation featuring boxing cockroaches at The Hayward Gallery. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.

Zink Yi’s enormous squid that lies oozing in its own ink starkly reminds us of the power of nature and the impact of such a creature lying dead and rotting in our presence, all channelled through clay’s ability to achieve form and texture that inspires such a visceral reaction.

David Zink Yi, Untitled (Architeuthis), 2010. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.
David Zink Yi, Untitled (Architeuthis), 2010. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.

As the visitor navigates the fantastical forest setting of Klara Kristalova, it becomes all too clear the extent to which clay has the power to traverse the real and the imagined, to communicate and to challenge our notions of materiality and its parametres.

View of Klara Kristalova’s installation at The Hayward Gallery. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.
View of Klara Kristalova’s installation at The Hayward Gallery. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.

View of Klara Kristalova’s installation at The Hayward Gallery. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.
View of Klara Kristalova’s installation at The Hayward Gallery. Photo by Kate Fensterstock.

For more information, please visit The Hayward Gallery, or email kate@artscopeintl.com.


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