Saturday, 11 May 2019

Catch the Chicken!

Nicholas Wright Ceramic Wall Pieces (early 1900s -present)
The prolifically produced and charming animal-influenced ceramics of Birmingham born artist, Nicholas Wright [1956- ] have been a staple viewing of my visits to Spike Island studios ever since I can remember. I learnt recently that he has been at the studios in Bristol from the very start in the 80s when a community of artists worked together on site. It is therefore really quite surprising that the current exhibition showcasing over a hundred of his works (produced over the last thirty years) is the first time his work has been shown on this scale in the UK. 

Nicholas Wright Ceramic Wall Pieces [detail]
‘A Chance to Look at Chicken’ is just that; chicken, birds, cats, mice and cows are the subjects of this unusual menagerie of animal representations in ceramic. Each one unique and situated within a crafted border of fauna. Influenced by religious iconography and pierced forms from ancient bronze-age metal work, these individual pieces have been designed in a dome-like shape mimicking a boss, which one learns, is a ‘decorative keystone used in the vaulting of medieval architecture’. They have a simple-looking nativity, imaginative or folk-like appearance which gives these pieces their individual character and, like most things of this nature, is deceptive of the skill and craft involved in producing them. In their perceived simplicity they reminded me of Picasso’s animal ceramics, specifically his birds of which I caught by circumstance at the Louisiana gallery in Copenhagen last year. It had me thinking that there seems  to be a quiet joy and elegance in sculpting something from imagination and in its simplest of forms, which is pleasing to the eye and more reminiscent of the actual feeling of happiness or feeling of ‘lightness’ on the glimpse of fleeting moment of seeing a bird than the laboured, detailed representations I tend to render in my own work. One is an intent on capturing the nature/character of the animal being represented, the other a more intense study of what it looks like.  Despite Wright’s representations being created in heavy fixed ceramic there is a transience in their depiction that is perhaps more lifelike than the static observational nature of my own. It is an interesting variation that makes me question what I am looking to convey or achieve in my own work.

Picasso Bird (Dove) 1953
Displayed together as a huge set, one can really appreciate the earthy colours of the glazes, mark-making and pierced-out shapes, defined and distinguishable like stencils or silhouettes against the white walls of Spike’s gallery space. Like Noah’s ark, some great animal archive or shrine they work well together as one big piece even if they were perhaps never intended to be shown in this way. Elsewhere a large ceramic chicken, from which the show derives its name, is displayed on a plinth alongside some of Wright’s drawings which are a useful addition revealing some of how he thinks about the web-like botanical fauna and mark-making present in the ceramic pieces.

Nicholas Wright Chicken Drawings (2018)
The pierced forms within the ceramics is echoed in an early work made by Wright (not shown here) when he noticed mice eating his paper in the studio. Wright used soup to paint onto the paper, the resulting work made from where the mice had nibbled at the soupy areas to create a stencil of sorts almost acts as an accidental precursor to the pierced forms of the ceramic work to come. The element of play and humour also present in the later works. I hope that Wright continues to use Spike as a studio for many years to come, but it is worth having the opportunity to see his work with the space it deserves outside the clutter of the studio. Visitors should seize the chance to look at chicken whilst they still can!

Nicholas Wright’s A Chance to Look at Chicken is on at Spike Island until 16th June 2019