Anne Marie Laureys
It's a Toy Violet Brain, 2018
23.50h x 14.50w x 17d in
59.69h x 36.83w x 43.18d cm
Anne Marie Laureys’s work It’s a Toy Violet Brain exemplifies the sophistication with which she deploys the vessel mouth – or in this case, a series of mouths, like the soft cavities of some jungle plant, or deep-sea coral. The pot-sculpture is made up of three principle volumes, separately thrown and joined.The largest of these, which serves as a base of sorts, has a deep fold across its midsection, helping Laureys execute a near ninety degree turn from foot to lip edge. And that edge is something to behold – pinkish, partially flattened, opening up to a soft void. The shape of the opening echoes through the vessel form, a series of ribs rippling down the wall like sound waves.
There is an extraordinary photograph of Anne Marie Laureys working on a pot, her hand thrust into one of its innermost cavities. The first thing you notice in the picture is the similarity between the hand and the pot. Each is a complex cleft form, both plump and taut, with a curvature of lines articulating its surface. One was used to make the other. It is a case of art imitating life. Next you notice the specificity of Laureys’ gesture: the precise turn of wrist and thumb, the gentle glide of pressure exerted by her fingertips. It could almost be a sexual touch; certainly it is a sensual one. But it is also supremely technical. We know this from the extraordinary results that she gets, perhaps the most subtle and highly developed alterations of wheel-thrown form ever achieved.
Laureys’ work is so organic that it can seem born rather than made, but it is not without precedent and influence. Paramount among these is George Edgar Ohr, the singular genius of late-nineteenth century ceramics who was amongst the earliest to realize that the wheel could be just the first step in a process of form-generation. A sufficiently thin-walled vessel could be manipulated in numerous ways – pinched, ruffled, folded, collapsed, stretched, pierced – to create a wholly new asymmetrical vocabulary. Ohr met with little success in his own day, but with the rediscovery of his work by an antiques dealer in the 1970s his extraordinary ceramics became a key benchmark for contemporary potters.
Laureys’ masterful tactility comes across clearly to a viewer; it is easy to see, in her suggestive shapes, the traces of a searching anthropomorphism. That helps them communicate on several levels at once. She wants the pieces simultaneously to establish an analogy to “the mechanical body, muscles and hands; the sensual body of touching; the emotional body as the treasure chamber of experience; the social body being a human amongst others; and the thinking body ventilating ideas.”[i] The word “experience” is key here as all pots have a temporality embedded in them, but few convey the thrilling sense of coming-into-being as powerfully as Laureys’ do. These are as close to choreography as ceramics gets.
In fact, Laureys once had a dancer come to train with her in the studio (he had to mime the actions of throwing a pot on stage, and wanted to get the movements right). As they worked, the word that popped into her head was Erlebnis – which is German for “experience,” but has vaster implications than our English term because of its etymological link to the word for life, leben. Martin Heidegger, the great German philosopher, set the concept of Erlebnis at the core of his thinking; for him the term denoted the ever-unfolding rush of time and space, which only aesthetics can ultimately make meaningful.[ii]
One of the great mysteries--which preoccupied Heidegger, as it has many other aestheticians--is how the binding of form and matter that occurs in the work of art can be understood from the outside, by those who are not themselves the artist. Often in performance, and in teaching, the energy comes from an imaginative leap. The apprentice mimics the master’s gestures, at first awkwardly, then with confidence growing into rightness. The theatre audience vicariously inhabits the dancers’ bodies. The child thrills to the roller coaster when standing underneath it on the ground.
Just in this way, even someone with no throwing skills whatsoever can feel themselves forming the ribbon-like contours that course over the surface of Laureys’ pots. Unlike many ceramics, in which the marks of making are effaced with thick glaze, or erased through industrial procedure, hers present no barriers to the mind’s eye. Of course, that impression of immediacy is to some extent illusory. So how does she do it? For starters, she throws very thin, right at the limit of the material’s ability to hold its shape. Significantly, she titled some of her past works Clouds By My Fingers, for they have the evanescence and infinite variability of meteorological events.
Once her archetypal thrown elements are fabricated, she begins to combines them, perhaps stacking multiple vessels together, or adding an asymmetrical collar. This is less like Ohr than Peter Voulkos – also gifted at the wheel – who constructed even his largest sculptures primarily from wheel-thrown elements. If Voulkos concentrated his attention primarily on structure, though, Laureys has a more draftsman-like sensibility. The center of compositional gravity for most of her work is the lip – where the pot greets its exterior, and affords views into the velvety space within. In her hands, the lip becomes an aesthetic erogenous zone. It is the spot where the elasticity of her clay is fully evident, as the wall’s dimension is revealed, a fleshy play of thick and thin.
Laureys’s work It’s a Toy Violet Brain exemplifies the sophistication with which she deploys the vessel mouth – or in this case, a series of mouths, like the soft cavities of some jungle plant, or deep-sea coral. The pot-sculpture is made up of three principle volumes, separately thrown and joined. The largest of these, which serves as a base of sorts, has a deep fold across its midsection, helping Laureys execute a near ninety degree turn from foot to lip edge. And that edge is something to behold – pinkish, partially flattened, opening up to a soft void. The shape of the opening echoes through the vessel form, a series of ribs rippling down the wall like sound waves.
Growing from this first component’s flank is another, more pliant thrown form; and then atop it, the crowning glory of the work: an absolutely extraordinary, baroque accretion. Here the lip is not just a single defined line, but a deconstructed cascade. Catch it from the right angle, and it looks like whorls of smoke issuing from a pipe, or the fabric swirls of a rhythmic gymnast. It is a wonderful example of the way she transforms the mass of clay into a miraculous feat of levitation, seemingly freed from gravity and any familiar ceramic iconography.
This mimetic multivalence is enhanced by Laureys’ use of color. She never employs glazes that disguise the sensitive surfaces of her pots, and in many of them the clay is left unadorned. In other cases though, as with It is a Toy Violet Brain, Laureys sprays on pigments in a palette that is as suggestive and mysterious as her forms themselves. Though artificial, her colors nonetheless contribute to the oceanic organicism of the work.
Laureys’ ceramics are so technically impressive and formally adventurous that it can be easy to lose track of their deeper sense. At the core of her work, she says, is the attempt to give physical shape to “metaphors of feeling.” Like many great abstract sculptors – Ursula Von Rydingsvard, Martin Puryear, and Ken Price spring to mind – she has been able to develop a very consistent artistic language while also infusing every work with its own individual character. Sometimes, working in the studio, she is aggressive. At other times she caresses the clay, coaxing it along. Some of her pot forms are poignant, downcast; others exuberant; still others reach upwards in a gesture of transcendence. Collectively, her works offer as many moods, as many emotions, as there are in a lifetime.
[i] See: Push: Anne Marie Laureys Ceramics (online publication, 2017), 13.
[ii] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1950), in Basic Writings (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).