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Claire Verkoyen: refined and alienating.

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FOR THE EXHIBITION PRETTY DUTCH IN THE PRINCESSEHOF in Leeuwarden, the Dutch ceramist Claire Verkoyen (1959, Willemstad, Curacao) draws her inspiration from 18th century Dutch Porcelain. The natural motifs are simultaneously refined and alienating.

A mosquito floats on gossamer wings across the ivory surface of a soberly shaped porcelain container, as if it has escaped from the border of delicate golden tendrils bearing miniscule flowers. This edging en circles the cartouche, correctly placed in the centre of the container, while the elegant border frames an unusual scene: tropical flowers in a classic beet-root-red glaze, blooming so abundantly that their offshoots threaten to overrun the frame. And in the foreground a tiny cricket, is the solitary witness to this unbridled growth. With a high degree of professional ex pertise and the necessary humour, Verkoyen has given historical decorations a new twist, but she also presents nature in a different light.

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Claire Verkoyen's passion for ornamentation is obvious, but in Holland, land of the iconoclasts and of Mondriaan, the mistrust of decoration and aesthetics is firmly ingrained. Too much of ought is good for nought, as the saying goes. No wonder then that Minimal Art was able to take root so readily here, including in ceramics. Artists such as Jan van der Vaart (1931-2000), Geert Lap (1951), Wouter Dam (1957), and Netty van den Heuvel (1956) make abstract ele mental forms in monochrome colours. Decoration was taboo, regarded as excessive and only 'permitted' when the patterns were the result of manipulating the pigmented clay, as do Babs Haenen (1948), Johan van Loon (1934), and Saskia Koster (1955). "Ornamentation is a crime" declared the Austrian architect Adolf Loos in 1908, but a century later decoration and figuration are once again in heavy demand, and Pauline Wiertz (1955) and Claire Verkoyen have been at the forefront of this.

Verkoyen, the daughter of an art-historian and a teacher, followed her own path. At the Sint Joost Academy in Breda she received tuition from the process-oriented Anne Ausloos and Johan van Loon, who does have an interest in patterns because of his background in textiles. The accent in the academies at the time, however, lay on a sculptural, elemental approach and Verkoyen initially adhered to this. In 1995, however, she discovered the possibilities of the ceramic silk-screen in the framework of the project Action/Reaction (Aktie/Reaktie) initiated by the ceramics manufacturer Koninklijke Tichelaar in Makkum. Since then, she has ceased making sculptures. Her attention shifted to decoration, which she applies to a ceramic base. And in the course of time she has gone from strength to strength. In the last quarter of the previous century the modernist quest for reform proved to be at a dead end.

In the search for the essential, the forms were stripped to the bone until nothing remained except the idea, the concept. It was impossible to continue going forward, only back, and the post-modern artists reoriented themselves towards the past. And in so doing the previously much-maligned decoration and figuration re-emerged.

The exhibition of lavishly painted 18th century rococo crockery, with the indicative title Pretty Dutch, thus dovetails with the reassessment of decoration and beauty. And the invitation for contemporary artists to react to the historical forms and motifs is entirely fitting in the post-modern era. 'Dutch Porcelain' is the term used for the porcelain that was produced between 1759 and 1814 in Weesp, Loosdrecht, The Hague and along the river in Ouder and Nieuwer-Amstel. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) imported the porcelain from China, because the secret of porcelain production was not yet known in Europe. Attempts were made to imitate it in order to meet the heavy demand, and hence Delft Blue is not painted on porcelain, but on earthenware covered with a white pewter glaze. It was not until 1709 when the German alchemist Bottger, who Augustus II 'the Strong' had commissioned to search for gold, discovered the formula and firing technique for porcelain. That was the start of a blooming industry in Meissen. And al though the formula was jealously guarded under penalty of death, the secret of the 'white gold' soon leaked out to other countries, reaching Holland in the 18th century.

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The Dutch Porcelain is of high quality; this was apparent in the multimedia presentations in the museum. Alongside the excellently presented objects themselves, film projections were used to zoom in on the decorations. This then divulges rustic panoramas; you revel in the sight of delicate wildflowers or juicy fruit, or are horrified by a hairy spider consuming a caterpillar ... The hand painted depictions on the porcelain benefited from the rich tradition of Dutch painting, although the scenes were rarely taken from life, instead being copied from prints that were in international circulation. In that sense there is only a difference in degree to the present day, in which artists recycle the endless reservoir of images that are available on the Internet. Nowadays, one no longer has to paint these by hand. They can be applied to the surface by means of transfers. Initially this was only possible for graphic images that were silk-screened with ceramic pigments on to special paper, a transitional stage to produce the 'transfer' that was soaked off, applied to the surface and fired. But in recent years it has also become possible to reproduce the subtle light gradations of photos using digital ceramic prints.

In Claire Verkoyen's work we see the hairy spider return on one of her simple 'bucket forms'. She found illustrations of exotic plants and insects in the library and in the botanical garden of Amsterdam, and she also photographed plants and flowers in France. She says: "The Dutch Porcelain is exceptional for its sumptuous delicate decoration and the incredibly precise hand-painting. I try to equal this attention to detail and this concentration with the help of the most up-to-date techniques. Unlike the silkscreen technique, there is no screen with modern ceramic computer printers, which allows you to work in infinitely finer detail."

When the Princessehof was seeking artists to respond to the tradition of Dutch Porcelain, Verkoyen was an obvious choice. She has been working with bone china for years, having learnt its methods at the European Ceramic Work Centre (EKWC) in Den Bosch. And she has won various prizes for her work, including the third prize at the World Ceramic Biennale in Korea in 2003. "I love the ethereal beauty of the wafer-thin porcelain. It is a material with a hugely rich tradition and offers a myriad of possibilities for experimentation, both in the firing process and the glazes. I find the technique challenging and my second job as technical supervisor at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam is also stimulating."

Verkoyen could be regarded as a testate of the alchemist Bottger. She became fascinated by the chemical transformation of the clay during firing, and by natural processes and their manipulation by human beings in microbiology and nanotechnology. And initially that was her theme. She used graphics computer programs in order to depict the artificial perfection of microbiological processes, those Images of Utopia, as in the title of a tile picture from 2000.

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Verkoyen combines a tradition of craftsmanship with new techniques and with contemporary themes. The word 'decoration' is too one-sided. It is not just about filling the surface with patterns, but about evoking other realities. Another world, as was the title of the exhibition in Galerie Maas in 2004. Except she does this not on canvas, but on a ceramic base that reinforces the three-di mensionality of the almost liquid ephemeral forms depicted--the (asymmetrical) perspectival or graphic forms unfurl on the cylindrical vessels. Sometimes she uses a round plate as a frame that serves, just like the Tondi (round paintings), as a window on the world. The same applies to the cartouches, the motif of an oval frame that Verkoyen has borrowed from the Dutch Porcelain.

The work in the exhibition Pretty Dutch appears different to the rarefied artificial forms of her earlier work, but the similarity lies in Verkoyen's love of nature. At first it was about depicting insects and microbiological processes that are invisible to the naked eye; now though, in the tradition of Dutch Porcelain, she has also portrayed recognisable plants. Verkoyen enjoys being out in the open air and every so often she is able to swap her urban existence in Amsterdam for her house in France, where she takes pleasure in long walks.

Nature has always been an inexhaustible source of inspiration in the arts, whereby artists indirectly paid tribute to the God that created it all. Nowadays, mankind himself acts as Creator and tinkers with genetic properties but, like a wizard's apprentice, man no longer has the developments under control and Verkoyen visualises this in an intuitive way. "I suspect that the insects have a greater chance of survival than human beings," she says.

On the cartouches she sets the vulnerable nature in the spotlight, but there are subtle alterations to the familiar image. Thus, a realistic spider spins a mathematical web, the flower of the bird's-foot clover becomes attached to a butterfly and other realistic butterflies swarm across the undefined surface of the container. Borders are ignored, boundaries become blurred. The recent work is hybrid: in addition to the Rococo-inspired forms, the banderols, cartouches and foliage, there are also contemporary photos and computer-drawn patterns. Past and present combine and the natural and artificial are playfully woven together.

Anne Berk (1958) is a Dutch art critic who closely follows developments in the fields of applied art and sculpture. She writes for publications including Het Financieele Dagblad and Kunstbeeld and is author of the book Bodytalk (Waanders, 2004). From 22 April--28 October 2007, Pretty Dutch, was shown at Nationaal Keramiekmuseum Princessehof, Leeuwarden, www.claireverkoyen.com Photography: Jan van Esch.
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Title Annotation:Pretty Dutch exhibition
Author:Berk, Anne
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Words:1648
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