‘To make pottery you need great knowledge and respect for life. You need to take care of what you are doing. Great care.’[1] – Ettore Sottsass

 

On the surface––and surfaces count for a great deal where ceramics are concerned––the works of Ettore Sottsass (1917–2007) and Jesse Wine (b. 1983) have nothing in common. While the multiples of the Austrian-born, Italian-educated father of the ‘Memphis’ design movement are tight, sleek and uniform, Wine’s are unwieldy, unique, rough, shaped by chance. Chance––the enemy of the architect, the engineer, the designer; the handmaiden of conceptual art post-Duchamp and Cage, and an essential ingredient in the work of the younger artist.

1.

What does it mean to fill a space with unlike objects? To stand something conceived in 1989 next to something made more than twenty years later? What of the distinction between the words ‘design’ and ‘art’, or the verbs ‘to execute’ and ‘to create’? How might our thinking be shifted by the knowledge that one artist’s objects have been made in editions of 24 while the other artist’s objects are distinct, unrepeatable? These are some of the questions raised by the coupling of Ettore Sottsass and Jesse Wine, and which vex the unlikely union between 20th-century master designer and young British sculptor. And yet there is also something provocative, even appealing, about the juxtaposition of Sottsass’s colourful geometries with the uncertain physiques––wounded torsos, crumpled lungs––of Wine’s vessels.

2.

Ettore Sottsass began designing ceramics in 1956 because, as he has put it, ‘an American … asked me to do so.’[2] This American, a New York-based entrepreneur named Irving Richards, commissioned Sottsass’s early foray into the realm of ceramics in the hope that the results might hasten the modernisation of consumer goods in the United States (and beyond). Sottsass laboured diligently alongside Aldo Londi, art director of the Bitossi ceramics factory in Montelupo near Florence, to turn out a slew of ceramics that were never successfully sold nor, according to their designer, much remembered. He did not return to the medium for several years, and only then did so as a means of processing a grave and attenuated period of illness following a trip to India. This group of works, which he referred to as the ‘Ceramics of Darkness’, were the culmination of a year spent bedridden, awake at night, soaking up the ‘violet gloom of the hospital corridor in which you could feel everyone’s fear.’[3] This series, together with his ‘Episode Two’ group––made in honour of the Indian god Shiva, whom Sottsass associated with his recovery––were the only two bodies of ceramics with which the designer was also ‘personally involved, that is, with [his] own hands’; these are unique pieces, unlike much of what was produced under his name in later years.[4]

3.

Jesse Wine has made dozens of copies of works by master potters and ceramic artists. Some of these he has exhibited alongside his other work, most recently his versions of works by Peter Voulkos, Rudy Autio, Ken Price and John Mason in a solo exhibition titled ‘Young man red’ at Gateshead’s BALTIC in 2014. Wine’s relationship to his predecessors is one of deep reverence, even awe; he remakes their works not just to learn (and Wine’s practice is, by his own admission, still developing) but to inhabit the gestures of the ‘greats’––to see if he can get the feeling of their hands inside his own.

Wine claims that he did not find ceramics, but rather that ceramics found him. In 2010, during his final year on the Sculpture MA at the Royal College of Art in London, Wine spent time at Hunter College in New York where he was required to take a certain number of pre-requisites specific to the American MFA system. A bureaucratic bungle resulted in his being denied entry to all but what he deemed at the time to be ‘undesirable’ classes. One of which was ‘Clay & Casting’. Since this serendipitous introduction, however, Wine has worked almost exclusively with clay. Still, even years later, he maintains a largely untrained approach. The specific results achieved in any given work rarely reappear in Wine’s oeuvre: surfaces blister and seem to peel, glazes layer uncontentedly over others, underglazes cover overglazes in habitual reversals of procedure. Rather than some flip attitude, or valorisation of the amateurish or unskilled, this is a considered response to the scientific business of shaping, glazing and firing clay. The vessels, or pots, are objects that Wine makes compulsively alongside other works––they are often fashioned of recycled or hard-to-use clay, which accounts for their lubberly, quite homely, appearance. For Wine, making vessels is a way of inserting himself into an ancient history, of doing with clay ‘what humans have always done’ with the medium. And yet, his ambition has nothing to do with perfecting the form––everything remains, to some degree, an experiment. Nothing is precious.

Accordingly, Wine does not keep notes on glazes; neither does he plot or trace his steps. He is not particularly mindful of how different kiln temperatures will affect different glazes or oxides––hence the beguiling surface of Armitage Shanks I (2014), whose papery porcelain finish is crazed like a dry riverbed in the American southwest. The underlying colour appears spectral, as if the heat of the kiln had turned it to ash. And yet, the surface is not the only thing at stake––this vessel holds another within it, a container of an altogether different character: one that has been thrown on wheel. In Armitage Shanks I, II and III, these ‘properly’ thrown––if slightly defective––pots (Wine only recently became proficient with a potter’s wheel) are swaddled or protected by their roughly-hewn carapaces.

Sottsass, who relied on the expertise of highly skilled ceramics technicians to execute his designs, had an equal appreciation for the mercurial and unpredictable nature of clay. As he put it: ‘This is pottery in my experience. You put ugly objects into a little door. Clay is grey and colours are absorbed by it, hence you will never see it red or yellow, even though this is the colour you have used to paint it. You have spent a long time making the objects, to let the clay dry, to make sure it does not crack during the night… But when you put them into the little door it seems just a waste of time. And then, when you open the door, the objects are the same, but the colours are like glass. It’s magic!’[5] 

4.

When, in 1989, Sottsass undertook the ‘Antiche Ceramiche’ series, he did so with the assistance of Alessio Sarri, a master ceramicist with whom he had worked two years earlier on the ‘Indian Memory’ ceramics. Sottsass and Sarri appear to have formed a special kinship when they first met in 1981; each recognized in the other a near fanatical attention to detail. As Sarri explains, ‘We never needed to discuss anything. Our methods of work coincided.’[6] This was essential to the type of work that Sottsass’s designs demanded––for ‘Antiche Ceramiche’, the pair worked together in Sarri’s ceramics lab in Sesto Fiorentino to determine how he would proceed from the drawings. Sarri would then work largely independently, testing different clays and methods, refining colours, working against the clock to assemble each plane or piece of a vessel while the clay was still fresh. Still, Sarri speaks fondly of how changeable, even temperamental the medium can be, ‘Sometimes all goes smoothly, and sometimes you have to do the whole job again. It also depends on my mood, on how nervous I am, on how concentrated I manage to be… it is a delicate equilibrium.’[7]

Though ‘Antiche Ceramiche’ was conceived in the late 80s and executed in part in 1993, the full editions have yet to be completed by Sarri. That a Sottsass ceramic could, in theory, be remade at any time––even eight years after his death––speaks to the ‘ideaness’ of his objects instead of their physicality. To assume that Sottsass’s ceramics are not––for lack of being handled, tweaked or touched by Sottsass himself––autobiographical objects is however to miss something fundamental about the late designer’s relationship to his designs. Whether named for periods of illness or elation, or for geographies visited or imagined, Sottsass speaks of them as if they made up his life’s narrative: a string of colourful islands visited, architectures that could have been. The forms bear his imprint, a touch of absent hands.

5.

When Wine talks about making a work, he also acknowledges how the medium reflects the maker: ‘The really amazing thing about clay is that it picks up your every move. If you come into contact with the material in any way it will show back to you what you have done. In this way clay has an existential effect on the person working with it.’[8] Sottsass perceived his work as behaving similarly but conversely: ‘I began then to think that if there was any sense in making things that might help people in some way or other––help them to recognize and free themselves––if there was any justification at all for designing objects, it could only be found in the performance of a kind of therapeutic act, an act that would enable objects to heighten the awareness all human beings have, or can have, of their own adventure.’[9] The vessels and vases that make up ‘Antiche Ceramiche’ echo this conceit; atavistically named––Gerico, Ur, Isfahan, Ninive, etc.––these pots are a bathetic nod to the now-mythical grandeur that was the product of pure human endeavour.

6.

The cultivated abjectness of Wine’s slumped, humble vessels––named, it should be noted, for toilet brands rather than the seats of ancient empires––chimes with a strategy adopted in the late 80s and early 90s by many artists, most prominently Mike Kelley, who, as Glenn Adamson suggests, ‘exploit[ed] craft’s “abject” position, its “lower than low” status in the cultural hierarchy. Craft has captured the attention of artists because it is a site of cultural failure, a field of activity that is resigned to inferiority and debasement because of the complete supremacy and centrality of mass-manufactured commodities.’[10] Wine might be making certain similar gestures––surfaces are pocked with hastily daubed blobs of colour, a Nike ‘swoosh’ is carved like teenage graffiti into the back of Duravit III (2014)––but he seems unburdened by, even largely unengaged from, the craft/fine art debate that continues to swirl. Sottsass too was at home within this blur; he was, after all, an artist who worked between labels: ‘architect’, ‘engineer’, ‘designer’, ‘photographer’. He was unafraid of the glint of mass-production, even fostered a look of ‘cheapness’ in some of his most rigorously, artisanally produced works. With the ‘Antiche’ vases, for example, the glazes have been applied more thinly along the edges to give them a lighter, almost whitish colour­­––this was done to give the impression that they might be made out of plastic. Bright, seductive, joyous… disposable? There is, for all of the subdued colours and fractured surfaces in Wine’s work, also something ebullient––like Sottsass, he sits contentedly in his relationship to the medium. Indeed, it could just as well have been Wine not Sottsass who said, ‘I think I can learn more if my work is in the world… And I think that is the essential moment; when you see yourself from the outside.’[11]


[1] Ettore Sottsass, Vorrei Sapere Perché/I Wonder Why, Milan: Terradarte by Mondadori Electa S.p.A., 2007, p.176

[2] Bruno Bischofberger (ed.), Ettore Sottsass: Ceramics, London: Thames and Hudson, 1995, p. 6

[3] Ibid., p.32

[4] Ibid., p.176

[5] Op. cit., Vorrei Sapere Perché/I Wonder Why, p.175–76

[6] Ibid., p.106

[7] Ibid., p.109

[8] Jesse Wine, from an interview with the author, Art Papers, summer 2014, p.45

[9] Op. cit., Ettore Sottsass: Ceramics, p.9

[10] Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft, Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2007, p.159

[11] Ettore Sottsass, from an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, op. cit., Vorrei Sapere Perché/I Wonder Why, p.118–19