Paul Carter Robinson interviews Eva Masterman, the winner of the 2016 Anthology Art Competition, sponsored by CHARLIE SMITH LONDON. The £2000 prize was awarded on 4 August 2016. Masterman, a Royal College of Art Ceramics and Glass graduate, has an interest in material and process that forms the basis of her work.
AL: How do you describe your practice ?
EM: As in am I a ‘Ceramicist’ or ‘Fine Artist’? To be honest, I think it would be an insult to the ceramicists of the world if I called myself that! Becoming a ceramicist is a vocation, more so even than being an artist, I think. At its base, it means that you must constantly strive for perfection and control; there is no ‘that’ll do’ or ‘I’ll fix that bit later’. You must be excited by the idea that you have to repeat the same thing 20 times before it lives up to the image in your head. I’m much more interested in the previous 20 attempts, rather than the perfection at the end: the mess that surrounds the making, the process, the accidents. I identify more with a ‘fine art’ way of thinking than a material specific one, but my practice and work draws from both fields.
I have huge respect for people with making skills, and being around high-level makers is a real inspiration, whether that’s wandering around a ceramic factory in Stoke or watching someone plaster a wall. That intuitive connection real craftspeople have to a material or a process is an intelligence all in itself and something that can only be communicated through making. It’s very difficult to describe or articulate the tolerance of a material without first feeling that tolerance for yourself. I guess what I’m trying to do in my own work is translate that material knowledge into something that’s transferable and that transcends ‘just making’. In the language I’m using, a cracked pot that has been stuck back together is also a body or mind or relationship that has been pieced back together. We are a sum of our parts, products of our environment and ‘made’ by our experiences, just as much as my sculptures are born from their environment and decisions I make along the way.
AL: Do you think the line between fine arts and applied arts has blurred in the last decade?
EM: Yes and no. I think fine art has started appropriating applied arts language and become more interested in delving into that undiscovered territory, but I’m not sure that’s been necessarily an advantageous development for the applied arts. There’s been a move in fine art towards a more process, material-based way of making, which could have been caused by numerous things: reaction against the professionalisation of art and art fabrication, globalisation and technology and the alienation that goes with that, or simply just that the art world is cyclical. Enough time has passed since the conceptual bubble of the 1980s to burst for it to be acceptable again to be interested in actually making things, yourself. Artists are always looking for the next inspiration and it’s only to be expected that at some point they’d start looking at the fringes of the art world, which is traditionally where the applied arts hang out.
However, that doesn’t mean that the art world has opened its doors to applied artists who are interested in appropriating a fine art practice. It seems acceptable for an artist to use clay or make functional ware, but if a ceramicist makes an installation, that’s still considered lacking in some way, not quite ‘art’. Personally, I think it’s an issue of language again. They’re an inherent value system and vocabulary to each of the fields that are specific to their context and history, and both fine art forays into the material specific, and the material specific forays into fine art are relatively new. Neither have the language or experience to be able to communicate effectively to each other, and that makes any really interesting cross-pollination very hard.
There is definitely an expansion happening across the board that means it’s becoming difficult to define practices; Assemble winning the Turner prize seems to me to be a pretty strong statement that anything can be considered art. However, I think there will unfortunately always be base boundaries that are driven by the market that will be impossible to break. Fine art will never want to fully merge with the applied arts because the applied arts are cheap and the market demands a separation to keep art prices higher. That may sound a bit cynical but I don’t see it as a negative, really. What is considered art or art practice is expanding and as long as the artists keep an open mind about working with and developing connections with other fields, there will continue to be exciting, boundary-breaking work and collaboration. Which is what it’s all about!
AL: Who do you describe as your main influences?
EM: I’m not sure I have any specific artists or makers that I would say directly have influenced me…more movements/ethos’ that relate to them or their era? I love the process work from the 60s, Serra flinging lead at walls and Benglis pouring expanding foam into gallery corners, and also the Otis School Abstract Expressionist ceramic movement that happened about a decade before. I hope my work echoes some of that thinking, trying to marry the conceptual with the physical and revealing the bodily realities of working in the studio. Looking into the Otis group, who continually pushed against the parameters and confines of ceramics, definitely showed me that actually having or giving yourself parameters or rules as an artist can be really useful. It allows you to break them.
AL: Where do see your work evolving from here?
EM: I want to continue to expand the visual language and conversation that I’ve begun. I’d like to develop more ‘tools’ like the jugs that are part of Used, objects that are complicit in their own making or the making of other works. I’m excited by the blurring of what is art or facilitator, where things finish and end. At the moment, these ideas have been manifesting as separate avenues of an investigation but I think I’d like to start bringing them together, perhaps with more found elements, or as self-curated friezes.
AL: When Grayson Perry won the turner prize for his pots was this a defining moment for ceramics as a medium (both in the bigger picture and personally) ?
EM: I think it’s funny how much the art world focuses on this as the ‘defining moment’ when ceramics became cool again. He won in 2003, so actually, it’s taken 13 years for it to be accepted, and even then, the ceramics that mostly populates the art world is very far removed from Perry’s work. It’s looking back to 1960s abstract expressionists and looking at clay as a vehicle for material and personal expression, not pots laden with political and status driven illustrations. Perry winning the Turner prize was a defining moment for him, and his profile certainly has helped to bring these conversations to the foreground, but I’m not sure how many of the up-and-coming contemporary artists using clay now identify with his work, particularly. That doesn’t diminish his importance as a figure in the art world, or as an advocator for craft and clay, but I’m just not sure him winning the Turner prize as a transvestite potter can be directly related to the surge in popularity in the material now.
AL: Do you think your work is universal? and will it continue to transcend cultures outside of the UK vernacular?
EM: Any good artwork is universal, so I hope that mine will prove to be so, but it’s impossible to tell until it reaches that wider audience! I do believe that the ubiquity of clay can act as a universal entry point into an artwork. Everyone has a ceramic mug that they drink their coffee out of, and most people will have mucked around with clay or some similar play-dough-like material at some point. I think it’s a very levelling experience to be able to look at a piece of artwork and realise that it’s made of the same thing you eat your cereal out of. Clay does this in a way that no other material has, in my opinion. It is, and has, been part of our everyday since humans found fire; it’s inherent. That familiar material understanding is something that I am trying to tap into, and hopefully offers enough common language for anyone to be able to appreciate it.
Photo: © P C Robinson Artlyst 2016