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Gabriele Koch.

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The City of Liverpool, at the time of writing this article, is continuing its year as European City of Culture: a meaningful accolade for a city in the process of rejuvenation that has had its full share of creativity in so many fields of art. Anyone who went there in 2008 is struck by the energy, the pace of new building and a characteristic Liverpudlian optimism.

At Liverpool's prestigious Bluecoat Art Centre, a one-man exhibition by the potter Gabriele Koch contained 16 new pieces, half of which were sold at the private viewing at which Emmanuel Cooper made the opening address. In the same month, at the Kunstforum Solothurn in Zurich, Switzerland, a few miles from Koch's native Loerrach in South Germany, three of her tall pots were on show with the work of other potters from Britain, as at the Terra Viva Galerie in St Quentin la Poterie in France. One month later, at the Beaux Arts Gallery in Bath, Koch presents another exhibition of 20 pots produced in 2008, just 20 years after her first solo show at this gallery. To be showing more than 40 original pieces in such a diversity of venues is evidence of an intensely hardworking potter and the demand across Europe for a sight of her latest smoke-fired work.

The number of pots on view has to be put in the context of how long each work takes to make, for they are all large, made by hand and sometimes fired several times as part of the ritual of smoke-firing. Although there are usually several pots in process at once, one finished pot per week is an average production rate.

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There are at least six prominent potters in Britain known for their skills with the basic but nuanced technique of smoking. Koch is one of the two leaders in this field. The other, Kenyan-born and Royal College-trained, Magdalene Odundo, has for all her career been associated with superbly finished pots with which the word African can reasonably be associated. She deservedly has an international following. Koch's work is less ethnographically rooted. Though originally drawn to ceramics by seeing pots from Mediterranean lands where carbonation marks are accidents of manufacture, she has in a career of 30 years lifted her work totally clear of traditional associations and made smoke-firing her servant in an on-going search for more refined but original pots.

Born in Germany in 1948, Koch was educated at Heidelberg University before coming to England in 1973. Soon afterwards, her interest in pottery became her main concern. When she joined Goldsmith's College in 1979, this branch of London University had a ceramics department of prodigious reputation and historic importance. From an early stage she concentrated on handbuilding and has since remained attached to the coiling technique. All potters know about coiling--in rings, not spirals--and most practitioners today use straps of clay with a long rectangular cross-section rather than coils which are round in section. Koch makes straps from a combination of T-material, famously used by Hans Coper, with the smoother St Thomas' Body. Both are potentially stoneware clays, but their high-firing capacity is not needed for her low-temperature work. Most of the forms she makes have very small bases (forms that will need perfect poise later) which means that support is needed, usually from improvised textile-covered bowls in which the pot stands as it grows in height. Koch takes care by repeated sponging and brushing of the outside form that there are no indications of the coil joins visible on the finished pot. On the immaculate final forms she removes most of the molochite grains (from the T-material) from the surface with a dry house-painter's brush, while a slight 'tooth' remains on the surface to help adherence of the slip which she next applies. While the clay is still receptively damp she brushes on several coats of thin coloured slip. The slip is made from the clay body, sieved, with an addition of porcelain clay and then tinted with oxides or body stain up to 30 percent of the dry weight of the clay.

All these processes are laborious and the slip coat has to be thick (hence the numerous layers) so that it can be compacted by the next process, which is the burnishing. This is done with the back of an old kitchen spoon in order to create the very personal surface sheen which resembles the attractive patina of an old worn leather saddle. It takes hours and hours.

Many of her recent pots include on their surface areas of textured clay added as an impasto which, when modified by a variety of tools, give a contrast to the smooth burnished areas. Maintaining or creating exactly the surface appearance she seeks depends on precise control of two contrasting firings. The biscuit firing in a gas kiln must not be taken above 1000[degrees]C or the burnishing sheen will be fired away. The second firing in a sawdust kiln comes closer to alchemy, for it is here that she creates the enigmatic pattern associated with smoke. It comes from oxygen starvation during combustion around and in contact with the pot. This starvation or reduction is of course the source of many prized glazes and finishes in ceramics and in the smoke-firing of unglazed pots it creates dark colouration in the clay body, in the case of Koch's work, underneath but showing through the burnished slip.

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The random quality of this patterning is a relative matter. With years of experience it can be controlled. The sawdust kiln itself is a simple metal drum, such as a dustbin with a lid, and the potter's skill in organising the pattern is in the careful positioning of the pot and the packing of different sawdust materials around it, varying the density of the sawdust both inside and outside the form. The packed kiln is lit from the top with a blowtorch plied all over the surface to make sure that combustion is even. The slow downward progression of the heat means massive temperature variations within the kiln and the process is fraught with dangers of pots cracking. After extremely slow cooling, the pot is lifted from the kiln, washed and given a light wax polish to enhance the colour.

Knowing what you want to achieve in the first place is important. Being able to achieve it precisely is Koch's skill. She will decide what the form she has made will need--say a dark top and a dark base and in between the two the abstract calligraphy which comes from hot spots of combustion where the sawdust burning is fierce and the need for oxygen urgent. Because the patterning is on a curved surface--often spherical, nearly always convex--this abstract calligraphy is revealed slowly as the pot is turned or the viewer walks around it. In this respect, the ceramic artist shares a common factor with the sculptor, the three-dimensional nature of whose work makes the appreciation of the whole not achievable at a single glance but as a sequential process.

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Sometimes Koch's pots have a front and a back, in part because of the way the patterning is organised but, more importantly, because of the form. This brings us to an important development in the artist's work in the last few years. Her more spherical forms have been given subtle undulating ridges: minimal but enough to carry the eye around the form. Her upright forms sometimes have quite abrupt changes of contour and many of her vessels, inspired by seed forms, are given bisymmetry by means of vertical grooves or deep dimples. On pots which are made to an oval or elliptical plan, these impressions are made on the two major axes, hence 'the front' and 'the back', but in a more general biological sense rather than an anthropomorphic one.

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At a time when sculptural pot makers are incorporating more and more figurative images or forms, Koch's figuration remains restrained. The grooves and undulations have a haunting quality, reminiscent of something understated rather than obvious. The pots themselves fall into distinct families, with family resemblances but subtle differences, so that no one pot, quite apart from its smoke patterning, is exactly the same as another; they just carry the family genes. And as with all good pots, the observer feels the need to touch and hold them.

So we have a potter aiming to achieve a combination of precise, symmetrical and often organic forms, varying from the smooth to the rugged, with a smoke-generated pattern. This is often ethereal, meteorological even. Yes, the pots so beautifully combine the earth and the sky. It is no accident that she contrives patterns like the nebulae seen through her father's telescope, patterns where black carbonation is the unruly tool of drawing and red, pink or duck-egg blue are the background slip colours of the canvas on which she draws. "Earth, air, fire ... elemental," is how Sir David Attenborough describes her pots in his introduction to the monograph on her work; "Gabriele Koch's lovely pots speak of all ... of these elements as vividly as any I know."

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Tony Birks is the author of numerous books on ceramics including the biographies of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, as well as the Complete Potter's Companion, which has sold over 100,000 copies in the US, published by Bulfinch Press
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Title Annotation:ceramics exhibition at the City of Liverpool
Author:Birks, Tony
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2009
Words:1573
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