A gutter pipe, snorkel, hairdryer and ping-pong bat are just some of the arbitrary household objects that, together with highly symbolic objects borrowed from traditional still-life paintings, constitute a kind of vocabulary of forms that are brought into curious conversation in the ceramic sculptures in this exhibition. The exhibition takes its name from the early Renaissance still-life genre of painting known as Vanitas and it is here that the conversation perhaps begins. This being, as art history has it, the Christian notion of the vanity (from Latin vanus meaning empty) of earthy goods, the futility of indulgent pleasures and the transience of life. A solemn reminder that ‘memento mori is written on the face of life’ . . . and all this while ironically affording the artist and viewer with a moral justification for enjoying the lavish depiction of such earthy goods.
While the random combination of motley objects in the sculptures aims to question the lofty notion of meaning in art, the Vanitas warning does however seem prescient in our current time of consumerist plenty because for the first time in history abundance is correlated with a declining birthrate – what is being called Europe’s demographic winter. This might cause us concern that while we are fixated on acquiring ‘stuff’, the portentous sound of the death knell of our civilisation might soon be ringing in our ears.
The sculptures in the exhibition consist of an assembly of the aforementioned forms. While some remain whole, others are contorted and piled together in a sometimes chaotically confused fashion and finally bound in coils, echoing the agitated design and sensationalism of Hellenistic art. One likewise characterised by a poetic struggle with the dark forces of decline. The assemblages form a backdrop onto which a graffiti-inspired covering of garishly coloured glaze has been applied. We may hereby recall another decadent period of history and that great patroness of the arts – and of porcelain in particular – Madame de Pompadour, whose championing of the exuberant Rococo style was said to be, at least in part, an attempt to revive the flagging spirits of her depressed amour Louis XV. This, of course, in a time when ‘le peuple’s’ dissatisfaction with the status quo was beginning to brew. . . And finally but perhaps most importantly, the virtue signalling that may be read into these works stands strikingly at odds with the artist’s obvious delight in a sensuous engagement with the medium at hand.