Philip Root - Why I Create
Who are you and what’s your relationship to clay and ceramics? Phil Root, an artist whose work revolves around ideas of mythology and the perception of nature in painting, drawing and ceramics. I'm also co-founder of The Grantchester Pottery a collaborative project that takes the notion of the modernist arts studio, working with a group of contemporary artists to create works that slip between mediums, styles and authorship. I first became interested in working with ceramics when I found a book in the Goldsmiths College library on the Slipware work of Thomas Toft, a 17th Century potter famous for working on large decorative plates. Their naïve illustrations and warm honey glazes seduced me, as well as the impressive scale of many of the chargers. This discovery in turn led me a few hundred years forward to Bernard Leach who was also influenced heavily by this tradition and opened me up to the medium as a conductor for modernist ideas around the blurring of art and life.
Why do you think there’s an increased interest around clay and ceramics right now? It is often billed as a remedy to our hyper-digital age, our getting back to the tangible, malleable, physical world. While I think that might be partly the case, it's also historically a shapeshifter in the metaphorical as well as literal sense, it's constantly moving between the realms of the masculine and feminine. Is it something for domestic ware or is it something heroic and statuesque? It's ability to be both at once is what makes it attractive.
Ceramics is sometimes regarded as decorative, rather than fine arts. Does the distinction bother or annoy you? I don't think it's an arbitrary distinction, I think the domestic is inherently tied up with a lot of art, since art is deeply personal and so are the places we dwell. I've always been interested in art that you can interact with or art that plays with the viewer in some way, being heavily influenced by artists like Franz West and Martin Kippenberger, it was this entanglement that interested me. It is also seen as a medium that is often worked directly by the artist, not outsourced or fabricated, so it has a romanticism attached.
Whose work in this field do you admire? Another draw to ceramics for me is it's alchemy and the use of ritual magic that can be associated with clay objects, the way many ancient ceramics are votive in the form of animals, humans or spirits. A particular example is the anthropomorphic Bartmann jugs which were appropriated as Witch Bottles in the 17th Century. The figure is often said to have originated from the wild man or green man mythology, the symbol of rebirth cycles in nature. Partly because of this symbology they were used for spells, often filled with the subject's urine and objects such as pins and nails which were buried or placed on a fire to ward off evil, cure sickness or inflict harm upon another. This ability to give objects a power beyond their innate physical quality is what art is all about, this is why I'm fascinated with these kinds of reconfiguring, the putting to use of things beyond their intended function.
What are the hardest things for you to get ‘right’ and what are your unique challenges? In terms of technical skills, it's sometimes hard or impossible to stop things warping or cracking during firing, but over time you learn to minimise these effects. I think also in regard to being a painter and conceptual artist it is balancing the work within the right context and possibly trying to look at the work from many different points of view. This approach often falls into the debate of is it art or is it craft which I think is definitely a unique challenge to working in the medium of ceramics and creating works that are pragmatically functional ware, no one seems to question whether these things could be simulacra, or simply art.
What part does the vulnerability of the material play in things? It's inherent fragility is definitely an appeal, I think the very nature of ceramic is that is one of metamorphosis, you're taking natural elements and putting them through an extreme process that transform them irreversibly. The very thing that makes the work vulnerable is what keeps a 2000-year-old glazed bowl from China looking as new and fresh as when it was made.
Is how you display a piece an important element of the work itself? Do you ever suggest how something might be displayed? Display is definitely a big part of the work in terms of installing works for gallery, as the works often inhabit a narrative of sorts, have a certain preconceived function or are staged in a specific way, as if the works are remnants of an unseen event for the viewer to ponder. Whenever someone has purchased a work, I rarely tell them what to do with it however, except perhaps don't put it in the dishwasher.
What’s next for you, and what’s next for ceramics? I am working on producing a series of ceramics which will be used to create designs for the skateboard company Isle, run by painter Nick Jensen. The works are small-scale glazed objects, forms and motifs from recent paintings which will be arranged on a grid, I like the idea of something so fragile informing the design.
In terms of ceramics....I'm not sure! I don't really want to speak in terms of the market or trends, the creation of objects from clay have been around much longer than my short stay on this planet and I should think it'll carry on long after I'm gone!