Material: Earth at Messums

THE  new exhibition at Messums Wiltshire in the 700 year old tithe barn at Tisbury celebrates the use of clay in contemporary art, by leading contemporary potters and ceramic artists, including Grayson Perry, Edmund de Waal, Hans Coper and Sandy Brown.

On show until 1st May, Material: Earth is the first in a series of three shows exploring the art of making and the use of natural materials in contemporary art.

It may be one of the finest collections of 20th and 21st century ceramics that you will ever see under one (vast) roof – a display of the elemental power of clay to communicate a vast range of emotions and ideas,  and the way makers and potters are increasingly shaping a new aesthetic and exploring the connections between an ancient material and the latest technologies.

It shows how artists have created new forms of art through a complex and fluent merging of past styles and formats. The exhibition shows how since the 1970s there has been a steady progression away from studio pottery towards the challenging arena of contemporary art.

But in case that all sounds very academic, you have to understand that this is also an incredibly emotional exhibition, full of works that you will make you smile, gasp, laugh, catch your breath – and think. Some of the pieces are poignant, some shocking, some even frightening.

The big names have some impressive pieces, including two rare early works, Death To Grayson Perry, from 1984, self-portraits by the Turner Prize-winner, lofty totems by Sandy Brown, powerful vessels by Hans Coper and elegant fine ceramics by Edmund de Waal.

Look out for the exquisite biscuit ceramic sculptural montages by Kaori Tatebayashi, including a writer’s desk, book and pen and ink; giant pots by Alexander MacDonald-Buchanan (quite big enough to conceal Ali Baba’s 40 thieves!); and Sandy Brown’s covetable functional tableware.

Skilled restorer Bouke de Vries shows work created from fragments of Chinese blue and white ceramics – an ironic and beautiful comment on the huge imbalance between the value of a perfect piece and one which has a little chip or crack.

The Uncanny Playroom by Christie Brown is a disturbing sculptural piece. At first what you see are 10 doll-like figures sitting on a beam but gradually their individual weirdness takes over – these are the sinister toys, dolls and battered teddy bears that come to life when the children are tucked up.

The exhibition will be supported by a series of talks and workshops and an educational programme open to schools and young people, culminating in a symposium on the new Clay Movement and a Makers Festival to be held at the barn on the 29th and 30th April.

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Pictured: Totems by Sandy Brown, The Uncanny Playroom by Christie Brown, sculptural fragments by Bouke de Vries and an overview of the exhibition in the tithe barn. Photographs by Sylvain Deleu.