‘The Property of a Lady’ 2002 is on show. It consists of 24 sections, 4 across and 6 high, with an extensive white clay dinner service arranged within each of the bottle-green compartments, appearing very orderly. Each section seems to be arranged symmetrically, with its contents lined up on either side of the axis.
The title makes me think of the auction house, but I can equally easily believe that I am below stairs in a stately home, with the china arranged carefully but artlessly, for simple ease of access. One might well think of these pieces as having come to rest after being at work. They might have been used a century or two ago, or just last night.
It is a strange business looking at Cecile Johnson Soliz’s work, because you don’t quite know what you are looking at. ‘Property of a Lady’ offers you various options: to look at individual pieces, to look at the arrangement of a group of pieces in each section, or to look at the overall composition. You can let it go in and out of focus, allowing it to be more or less like a picture.
There is an overall symmetry to the tableau as a whole which I begin to mark off, box by box. The top left and top right sections both slope inwards, as if providing the whole with a pediment. The same cutting of the corners appears again on the bottom row.
But then I begin to question the order. How is it ordered? Its neat and systematic impression begins to admit of occasional lapses. One section is ‘missing’ a cup, another a ladle, a third a box. One consists only of irregular items, another is irregularly placed. Should I read anything into this?
Hallucinate a little more, and project some imagery onto these conveniently blank frames. I play with a little Chinoiserie, some Sevres, some Meissen. Which country? What decoration fits what form? And how vulnerable is the form – or the function – without its decoration? For instance, am I looking at vases or at a condiment set? Would I be right to see it as Chinese? Are the objects which are slightly out of place the ones which don’t belong to the rest of the family?[i] What country are we in, and what is foreign?
And if I imagine different decorative schemes, why not also allow the possibility of different materials? If everything is not – in truth – white, then everything is not – in truth – made of clay. Might clay represent objects made of glass, or metal? The clay is, after all, only a base. Though it makes reference to the conventional material used for these forms, it is one step removed. It is not glazed, but matte, and as it is only lightly fired, it would not actually be usable.
Where I started off so confidently – looking at this Lot, this ‘Property of a Lady’ – I have come to lose my way, lost in its blankness, unsure of its date, provenance or function, all the criteria which art history, and the auctioneer in particular, value. The work of Soliz is increasingly provocative in the demands it makes of its audience, letting them loose and unsecured in the shifting sands between art and craft, painting and sculpture, object and image, one and many. Here, moreover, I am also lost in terms of time and place.
Even if the questions I have been led to ask myself as I look at a ‘Property of a Lady’ are not the artist’s own (though some turn out to be close), she has set up the uncertainty of its framework, in which, in asking where its axis lies, we come to realise that we don’t know how to look at this work, from what distance, with what kind of gaze, or with what kind of analysis.
In 1996 Cecile Johnson Soliz took part in a group exhibition at the Castello di Rivara, a privately-owned baroque villa outside Turin. One of the four Spanish artists in the show had worked with a small local firm which manufactured ceramic stoves, and the owners invited Cecile to visit them there in Castellamonte.[ii] Later that year she returned with a travel grant which allowed her to spend two months living in the Castle, going to the factory each day by bicycle. What she wished to do was to return to the way stoves would have been made locally in the years around 1900, working empirically from the evidence she could discern from extant examples, including those in the Castello di Rivara itself.
Recovering methodologies by working backwards in this way allows a certain leeway for invention, but the time and effort Soliz has devoted to this process has resulted in sculptures which are more substantial than their modern counterparts. Not simply larger and heavier, but studied in a way which makes the modern versions seem more like images of the real thing. The summer periods which Soliz has been able to spend at La Castellamonte have so far engendered two sculptures, each of which has taken 12 weeks to press and model, dry, fire, glaze, re-fire and assemble the 39 pieces. The original 10 pieces, from which the others are pressed, took 12 weeks to model by hand and cast. What might look almost like conventional linen-fold patterning is in fact all hand-done; the record of the artist’s tooling the surface. The first (brown) was shown at the Castello in an incomplete version in 2000, the second (green) was produced in 2001.
It was not until 2002 that the sculpture was put into use, appropriately enough in a gallery made out of a former Fireboat station in Bristol. Making a warm sculpture had always been a key objective. Put simply, it was about making the stove function; put more complexly, it was confronting the physical with the mental; confronting the wish to touch sculpture despite the knowledge of how something will feel. This surface, however, could now be warm or cold according to the circumstances. Temperature is not something we often associate with sculpture, even if it is crucial to everyday tactile experience, and crucial also, of course, to ceramic ware.
Soliz went further with her installation in Bristol, because she added to it the sliding wooden benches she had designed and shown first in the National Gallery in Cardiff. These modular maple stools ran along the walls of the room in which the stove stood in the centre. Thus the stove became ‘Warm’, and the ‘Seating’ retitled ‘Bench-mark’. People were detained in the exhibition space – sitting, talking, looking, feeling – able to make themselves comfortable and to relate to the work in the way that they chose. Meanwhile, of course, the work was already affecting them, warming them up and keeping them there. This is an object which works on a basic physical level while talking about something (the same thing?) that would be defined as conceptual.
‘Warm’ (in green) was shown again at the Lindig in Paludetto gallery in Nuremberg in December 2002, unlit, and we had to imagine its warmth. If it was a sign of something absent, it was doubly so (having been fired itself). Soliz would now particularly like to show ‘Warm’ in a large space, so that the approaching viewer would go through an area of cold air before sensing the warmth. This would achieve her goal of both accentuating and confusing one’s mental and physical apprehension of the sculpture, which would pass from image to object, and from the purely visual to the physical too.
The artist’s first exhibition was at the Nicola Jacobs Gallery in London in 1989 and she showed sculpture in a context that might be described as painterly. Painting and sculpture are always contiguous for her, and she uses the wall as carefully as a painter would use the canvas or the frame. Putting objects against the wall is at the core of her practice, and is what she calls still-life. Making shelves for her objects (or sometimes as objects in themselves) is a way of extending the plinth question, while at the same time putting her objects into pictures and controlling their shadows. Different volumes of light not only reveal her works at different times, but also suggest different durees.
The ‘Three Vases’ shown on the balcony in the Milchhof in Nuremberg take on the sober architectural quality of that building. They are not lit, and high up on the wall come to reside almost as classical relics, self-coloured carvings which might be part of the original building. This quiescence suggests the conjectural, and if they might be mere shadows, or figments, then they come close to being ghosts from the past.
The ‘Three Vases’ in the lower gallery are still too high for us to see their apertures, and thus to judge whether they are the ‘right’ way up. Nevertheless, and seeing it after ‘Property of a Lady’, I have become used to thinking about axes and inversions. Now the axis is vertical, and the objects continue to question their own obedience. The creaminess of the white clay suddenly stands out in contrast to the whiteness of the shelf.
The still-lifes begin with an object with which to experiment. Soliz is interested, firstly, in “plausible” shapes (which are neither fantastic nor concocted), and then in how they belong together. The family seems to be important, for she does not want orphans. Soliz will then elaborate upon this object; making it look more or less full, looking at it in relationship to others of its kind, showing three together. How does one represent how much a vessel can hold? Soliz has always been interested in the openness (or the capacity) of her jugs and bowls (in distinction, she notes, to those of Alan MacCollum), and this allows also of a figurative element without going so far as the figurative.
The physical is perhaps always just below the surface in the work of Soliz; the warmth, the question of touch, the openness, the relating of one to another. More than this, the descriptive anatomy of a jug in fact closely echoes the human: the foot, the body or belly, the neck, shoulder and lip. The size and shape of crockery reflects our hands, as do the tools which help to make them. Soliz has found a way to be corporeal without being corporeal, or figurative without being narrative. The symmetry or asymmetry of the jugs and pitchers echoes not only our own bodies, but also the way we see the world.
The ‘block’ sculptures (in which she represents the space around an object in solid clay) which have represented a substantial part of the oeuvre of Soliz are an attempt to find another way to represent an object and a sculpture. If an architect can choose to represent a building in section or in elevation, how can a sculptor represent parts of her sculpture?
I thought ‘Property of a Lady’ looked like a painting. Interestingly enough, it is the first time Soliz has herself used colour. At the Bowes Museum her works were placed in a cabinet with an orange background, and at Barnstable Museum she chose one with a green interior which she echoes in her choice for Nuremberg. The individual breakdown of the cabinets has led her to consider using colour for the background of smaller arrangements, while the overall scale has reawakened her natural interest in the grid structure of the lexicon. The overlapping nature of the arrangement might also remind one of a collage, as if executed in sheets of overlapping paper.
Lexicons are drawn out on paper; to make one would be to take a step further. But Soliz is interested in establishing what she can do on paper and what she can do in three-dimensions. The spaces in her watercolours are there partly to provoke her thinking about showing space in her object compositions. To me these small and carefully painted jugs and cups seem like frames of a film, or of a cartoon, appearing, repeating and blanking. Their intermittent nature is at once quiet and beautiful, and slightly hallucinogenic. They stay, and they move; they stay, and they go. They appear in full, then in part; they reassemble and disassemble before my eyes.
Soliz identifies her ‘genres’, or three different ways of representing the subject, as being image, space, and time. One can see, fairly directly, how the image dominates the still-life works, space the block sculptures, and how time is conveyed by the speed (or the slowness) of the chosen process and the variable fidelity of the execution. Soliz describes her training at Goldsmiths College in London as being conceptual, and she used whichever medium – film, video, painting – was most appropriate to what she wanted to say. Nothing has changed so very much then, except that her material expression has come to be worked out in clay, and that this brings with it the question of craft.
Even as children we wonder how to deal with the reality gap in depicting what we see rather than what we know. It is harder to obey the eye than the head. At the same time we establish how little one can get away with in terms of a visual vocabulary, and that our audience (our parents and teachers) will more readily understand simplistic stereotypes than more complex transcriptions. The question of translation, and how we deal with it (or fail to) is key to the enquiry of Soliz. She wonders how to introduce craft into the subject of her work, without it becoming a defining feature of the object we see. She wonders how to make something slow (or laborious) look quick (or facile). How near anonymity can one get; how near individuality?
Next time she installs ‘Property of a Lady’ Soliz has the pre-meditated option of arranging it differently, and she likes this fact, which is at once quite everyday yet also esoteric. She wonders too how it could grow and change, like things in a life. She would like to see it set within a larger wall, so that it can be seen there as a painting, framed on each side.
In the exhibition In the Midst of Things, held in the town designed for the workers at the Bournville chocolate factory, Soliz tried to reconcile her seemingly idealised work to the everyday situation in which it might find itself, and from which it originates. She had 50 sets of bone china cocoa pots and cups made to her design in a factory in Stoke-on-Trent. They were then taken out of their still-life context and returned to life. (This crossover from still-life to active life, from sculpture to object or art to life is expressed also in Soliz’ wish to make a film showing the pots and cups in use.)
Similarly, in Measham (Derbyshire) Soliz worked for over a year in a large factory,[iii] making chimney pots which could be bought and used, just like those on the standard production-line. As in Italy (but more happily) she worked with and extended a semi-craft-based, semi-industrialised skill, using its essential framework, but individualising it largely by returning to antecedents found in the craft itself. Soliz uses a technology, learns its parameters, and pushes it a little. In this case she used a software package for engineers alongside the more traditional craft process. She locates herself deep within a personal experience, but makes it public by making works – the stove, the chimneypot, the cocoa set which may be seen outside the artworld, and which function in a conventional manner. These liminal pieces cross various thresholds beyond that of the public/private; for the artist they are objects with an almost talismanic quality.
This interest in finding ways to be genuinely public now marks out the work of Soliz. She seeks out categories of objects which are located in the public domain, which have evolved through the combination of different experts, experiences and stages over time, and tries to pick them apart or look under their surface. This search inevitably also takes her to places associated with their fabrication, and what she finds and learns there she brings back into her studio. In working between the hand-made and the factory production-line she places herself in the past, on the edges of the Industrial Revolution, but the questions which her art poses for the present are absolutely topical.
Soliz wants to place her work at the margins of the gallery; associated with a place for looking, but with something else beside. It seems aesthetic (and it is), but it is not esoteric. In fact it is surprisingly real. She wants to bring some of our more quotidian pleasures and experiences towards our assessment of her art. But if she adds the very real and everyday to our experience, she also adds something uncanny, for these objects carry their communal histories, so that the noises and movements of the past now provide them with the breath of animation. They are new, and old, oh so old.[iv]
[i] In fact all the objects derive from Chinese Export ware, and are all 18th century. The original inspiration was (as the title suggests) an auction catalogue; types were subsequently studied in books and drawn directly from examples in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
[ii] The firm, founded in the 1970s is called La Castellamonte and is run by Silvana Neri and Roberto Perino.
[iii] Red Bank Manufacturing Company, Ltd, Measham, Swadlincote, Derbyshire.
[iv] I am coming to be reminded, as I work on this essay, of one I wrote last year for Tobias Rehberger. Though his work looks very different, both artists are fundamentally concerned with the adoption and trans-migration of forms across different cultures, and the artist’s role in shaping our understanding of that translation.