One more article from the latest issue of Gilded Birds paper
Early humans figured out how to make baskets a long time before they could make pots. JJ PEET, ceramics master, Sensei and member of Satan Ceramics, subscribes to the theory that the first ceramic pots were made quite by accident – when baskets were lined with clay to make them waterproof and somehow ended up being burned. The vitrified clay would have emerged, solid and able to carry liquids, thus kicking off an earthenware industry that would emerge in similar ways on every continent. Skip forward a few thousand years and the Ancient Greeks were making the gorgeous decorated pots that are still one of the primary sources of their history. Skip forward a few thousand more to the 16th century and Korean pottery was so highly prized that a Japanese warrior-general kidnapped the best Korean potters and held them captive in a castle town called Hagi where they made beautiful stoneware with a milky white glaze. There have been decadent ceramics, like those from Mme de Pompadour’s Sèvres factory (she once had a whole garden of porcelain flowers made to see if she could fool Louis XV into thinking they were real). And there have been so-called ‘ethical pots’ made by post-war British studio potters like Bernard Leach, who favoured simple utilitarian forms.
And now we have Satan Ceramics. They’re a team of four artists from New York who work mostly with porcelain, a little with stoneware, but never ever work with a wheel. Although Tom Sachs is the most famous and clearly the bureaucracy leader (being one of the most charismatic people you can meet), JJ PEET is the ceramics teacher and he’s extremely learned on the subject. He teaches grad students at Columbia University as well as a mix of dedicated amateurs at the 92nd Street Y, some of which sell their wares for “considerable sums” he tells me. You can ask him pretty much anything about porcelain recipes and the history of ceramics and he knows about it.
“I think I gave it the name. That night. The first night,” says Mary Frey. Mary is a dominant force to rival Tom and much more articulate about her art than you might expect if you only know her from being in ‘top ten chicest people in fashion’ lists. This confidence shows in her work, which, unlike the work made by the other three, is boldly decorated with nudes, including one by her son, Arsun. She is also the spiritual and creative force that drives this collective’s dark side.
Pat McCarthy is the shy one, at least in this company, but, like everyone in the group, he has an authentic motivation for making what he makes and has a firm set of principles that go with this. Everything he makes is for the benefit of the hundred or so pigeons he keeps on his rooftop in Brooklyn. His pigeon loft I called Babylon Gardens. All the members of Satan Ceramics make zines to go with their work and Pat’s pigeoning zine, Born to Kill, is full of touching, hand-written stories about his pigeons and their environment that are quite poetic. For example, the neighbours have recently acquired parakeets who “sing beautifully, in a childish treble that carries itself neatly to the roof and hides behind the high bass of the pigeon’s incessant cooing.” I learn from Pat that pigeons mate for life and they also see the same spectrum as us, so the colourful glazes inside the porcelain bowls they sleep in really do mean something to them.
Tom explains how they all got together; “Pat, Mary and I have all taken JJ’s class at the 92nd street Y and he’s our teacher and friend. He teaches at Columbia as well as the 92nd street Y – and whether he’s teaching grad students or grannies or us down here, it’s the same thing, it’s a universal thing. It always starts with a cup.”
This ‘pinch pot’ is made by inserting both thumbs into a lump of porcelain and fashioning it into a bowl by slowly pinching the clay until it becomes thinner and shapes itself into the kind of bowl that JJ somewhat intimidatingly remarks to the first-timers, “will say a lot about you.”
So where does Satan come into this?
“I’ll field that one,” says Tom. “Satan isn’t just for baby-eaters and Republicans any more. Satan ceramics is a way of embracing the irrational. Artists are mystics who find the answers to questions beyond the realm of logic. We’re taught in school that you have God versus the Devil, Apollo versus Dionysus. We’re taught that one plus one equals two. The artist teaches us that one plus one equals a million but he can only get there by understanding and trusting himself enough to make just the right wrong decision.”
“Letting go of fears is a part of that,” adds Mary. “We’re all newcomers apart from JJ.”
Although they started with stoneware, the team now uses mostly white porcelain. Stoneware is groggy, gritty and along with regular clay, it’s red, brown, black, many colours at once. “Sometimes it’s too much information, “ JJ explains. “Porcelain is more elemental and then you add colour to. It’s also much harder to use, so if you start to use it in the beginning you’re that much better as you go along.”
Tom adds: “I like porcelain because it shows the fingerprints. Stoneware doesn’t. It’s got too much grog so the grog pushes the fingerprint off the surface. Porcelain is harder to use because it has a much shorter open time where it’s soft enough to form but not so hard that it becomes brittle.”
As we sit around talking and eating takeaway from a local Italian restaurant, a friend of theirs from Texas, Liz Lambert arrives. She’s a visionary hotelier who’s setting up a Satan Ceramics studio for the team in Marfa. They already have a site and hope to open the studio in the summer of 2016 with a propane kiln and a programme of visiting artists. Liz can see that Satan Ceramics are doing something unique with an ancient medium. “When you think of porcelain you think of very fine, detailed stuff. This is a whole new period in porcelain. That’s the thing I see. To see rudimentary porcelain is a rare thing.”
JJ spent a lot of time in graduate school trying out his own recipes for porcelain. This is where the others draw the line. They’re not interested in mixing their own porcelain any more than they would go out and fell a tree for lumber, but JJ knows the history and the process intimately. “It was fired at a much lower temperature when we first started using whatever clay was in the back yard, no more than 1200 degrees. This was slowly increased in Japan and Korea to over 1800 degrees. Iron enriched clay vitrified at a much lower temperature than your average porcelain, but as kilns and clay mining started to be more efficient people realised that they could fire things at higher temperatures without the clay melting.”
JJ genuinely senses a link between what he does and the ancient craft of early humans who made simple pots and Venus figurines. “I’ve done ceramics for 30 years. I took a break and one day I started doing some drawings of something I wanted to make and I stopped and thought, wait a minute, I can take a ball of clay and make this thing exactly the way I want it and I can show my hand or not show my hand. If I have an idea it comes from the brain, through the hands, to the object. So I started a manifesto that’s “brain to hand to object” and pushed it on these guys and I push it on anyone else I can. It’s really the most basic material to make a three-dimensional object out of. Sometimes it ends up being a sculpture and sometimes it ends up being a functional object, it just depends on what you need. It has faults – it breaks easily. It’s hard to combine with other things. There are good and bad ways; you have to really work at it to get it right. These guys are all pretty good at it because they’ve done sculpture before and they know materials. I love seeing people glue stuff to clay. I push combinations as much as I can.”
Of course, they’ve all had their fair share of breakages too, which they’ve turned to their advantage, sometimes by starting again, sometimes by working with the broken pieces. Mary tells us, “I don’t mind when I break things or things go wrong. It’s kind of great to be able to let it go and start over again. It’s a good disconnect. One of the best things if we break something after it’s vitirified, is that now all we do is we resin it. We repair it.”
“We resurrect things,” adds Pat. “It’s so much more interesting when things start breaking on you and you have to fight for this thing you made and it’s not casual bowl-craft any more, you’re not making housewares. It’s a cherished object.”
Tom is probably the most experimental in this area. “We’ve stapled things. You drill two holds and hand form a staple by wrapping a piece of wire around a staple. It’s a good Zen moment when you’ve worked on something for days and days and days and then it’s gone in an instant. It’s kind of like life. “Ichigo ichie” is what they say about the Japanese tea ceremony, which means “one time one meaning” and it’s really a metaphor for life. You have one life and there’s no use crying over spilt milk. I can’t deny that when you drop this after you’ve been working on it all day, the first feeling, no doubt, is disappointment, but I guess the real question is how long does that stay with you?”
Tom’s motivation for making porcelain came from the tea ceremony that the astronauts performed in his incredible Mars Mission that took place at the Park Avenue Armory in 2012. He’s interested in how the material is handled culturally, in the rituals of our lives. “During Mars I was so busy administering the space programme, I didn’t have time to make the tea bowl. I was ashamed of this shortcoming so I talked to JJ about it and he said I had to take his class. There I learned to make a chawan and I have a cabinet on the wall here of my first 200 bowls. There are almost 400 now. So it started with a deficiency – like so many things in our lives that we excel in. Not that I’m saying I excel at this, but I’m putting a lot of energy into it, that’s for sure. The material has taken on a different role in Pat’s work. He uses it in a very specific way as a component in his other activity which is pigeon-keeping.”
Pat has noticed that his birds really do have a preference for his porcelain creations. “I got pulled into this in a similar way to Tom, wanting to my bowls for my birds to be little beds for them in the winter so they can make their nests in them – and perches – everything I make is stood on or interacted with by a bird. They do prefer it. I think they prefer the texture on their feet. There’s a real function to it. It’s not just me playing dollhouse. I have 100 birds on my rooftop. A lot of people in the neighbourhood have birds. I have maybe fewer than most of the rest of the guys. I’m into low craft primarily, things cobbled together and broke-ass which is like where I live and I’m happy to participate in that. So I try to make ceramic craft that doesn’t necessarily supersede them. I’m not trying to trump an existing culture with my high-end porcelain. They’re fairly casually made but still with a lot of intent and a lot of love because they’re being given to another living thing.”
Mary had already experimented with ceramics and used to have an “idealistic romantic plan of moving to California” and taking it up again with Tom when they were senior citizens. But the ceramics plan has come to fruition earlier than expected. “My idea is that I would make things for my house; throw everything away and replace it with things I made myself.” She’s been inspired by the work of Peter Voulkos and Mark Ferris since learning about them from JJ. “We use an oxide called Voulkos. JJ also invented a couple of oxides already. If you do testing, that’s the best part, naming something. Tom’s studio has invented NASA red.”
In spite of the best efforts of artists like Grayson Perry, a lot of ceramic work is still labeled as decorative. Tom has brought the rigour of his artistic thinking to the medium and cites Sol Lewitt’s ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’ as a current influence. That’s not to say that Satan Ceramics don’t appreciate a good teapot. “I’ve loved that stuff since I was little,” says JJ. “Those mundane objects that we live with every day are what have influenced me the most.”
We try to clarify the meaning of decorative art. Mary brings up derivative ‘hotel art.’ “It’s easy to dismiss that work because art is either revolution or prostitution,” says Tom. “You’re either making something new or you’re doing it for money. Clement Greenberg would dismiss peoples’ work as decorative, meaning it’s only decoration, it’s not revolution. They say that decorative art is the art that’s applied to things that are functional. That changed in the 20th century with industrial design, but so many industrial designers are just hacks. Before Raymond Lowey you were just an industrial engineer or a product designer. Now it’s a thing for halfwits to get their degree in.”
Satan Ceramics have no strict rules. As soon as any one of them made a rule, the others would probably rebel against it. They don’t use the wheel and they say don’t use machines such as slab machines; but then Mary points out that Tom would use a machine if he was convinced it was the best machine in existence and Pat decides that he would use one if he’d made it himself. Even Tom’s famous studio rules, “Ten Bullets,” don’t apply. “Especially if you saw the way Mary Frey mercilessly steals my tools like an eight year old who wants them because they’re mine!”
It is however, clear that there’s an underlying philosophy behind what they do. “There’s energy in there, “ says JJ. “When Tom makes a cup, part of him goes into that cup. That’s the important thing. 3000 years from now you’re going to see that maker.”
Tom explains further; “The one advantage the artist has over industry is to be able to say “I was here” with a fingerprint into clay. No matter how hard Johnny Ives tries, he can never do that, because it’s industry. And the more work I put into this the more it looks Apple-made, but it will never be able to reach that level of precision either, so why fight against the nature of things? Let the material be what it wants to be. When you drink out of this cup you’re feeling that I was there and in 5000 years if it survives, all that energy will still be there,”