25 Apr Observations on South African life glazed in satire: Lucinda Mudge’s solo exhibition ‘Kill You Eat You’
On the upper level of Circa gallery a collection of 25 ceramic vases sit atop plinths, arranged far enough apart so that visitors may weave their way through an invisible maze and gaze at these glazed objects from all angles. Doing so reveals the double meanings in Lucinda Mudge’s work: On one side of a vase is a conventionally pretty pattern, while the words ‘Oh For Fuck’s Sake’ are cheekily etched into the vessel’s reverse. Often using humour to broach serious socio-political topics around life in South Africa, Lucinda’s textured and richly colourful vases are positioned as art objects and exist comfortably outside the realm of crafty home decor (though they’re certainly beautiful enough to be used in this manner too). The vases on show have been painstakingly produced over a period of a year, and the body of work, disconcertingly titled Kill You Eat You, draws on a wide pool of influences that spans pop culture to politics. With the opening of her current solo exhibition, we spoke to Lucinda about making contemporary art in a genre that’s almost as ancient as humankind itself.
How did you find the medium of ceramics, or how did it find you?
Pottery. Ceramics. Cat bowls. Strange mugs. Revolting. It’s a terrible medium to work in – full of ‘craft’ connotations and ‘home industry’. Some of the nastiest art objects in the world must be ceramic.
My medium does not define my work.
Yet despite this, for me there is something addictive about making ceramic pieces, and there are few things that can be more rewarding than opening the kiln after a successful glaze firing.
The glazed surface of my ceramic work is very alluring and this effect can’t be achieved through any other medium. And – once out of the kiln the result is final. In the beginning stages, the colours that I work with are pastel shades – a direct contrast to the final colours that are rich and deep. It is very difficult to control these colours and as such, very rewarding when the result is good.
This is offset with the dark side – there can be no other creative medium that is quite so unforgiving against poor craftsmanship as ceramics is. I come from a family of engineers, my father was a furniture maker, and I grew up to be technically capable. As such, I take great pleasure in producing a big vase because of the hours of work it takes to produce each one.
Tell us about your creative background. Was it always clear that you’d pursue a career in art?
Aged five I reported in my news book: ‘I am going to art school’. I did end up going to Michaelis (graduating in 2000) but it is only in the past five years that I have been able to work as an artist full time. No, it was not always clear, I have always made ends meet by holding down other jobs.
Broadly speaking, what kinds of things influence, inspire and inform you as an artist?
I am interested in human brutality in art through the ages. Cruelty and barbarism stand out. I am interested in the human spirit – the good times and the bad. I think my vases reflect that. They are glitzy, gold and beautiful, but there is a heaviness there too.
What role does humour play in your work?
I use humour, irony and mockery as a way of asking authentic questions about serious issues. The work then opens up to operate on two levels, because it’s sometimes unclear to the viewer as to whether it’s serious or not.
The title of your upcoming exhibition is also the title of one of the works on show. What’s the story behind the piece, ‘Kill You Eat You’?
The title comes from a local Knysna news story that caught my attention. An Afrikaans boy band from Johannesburg was shooting their music video at the scenic and historically resonant Knysna Heads when they were attacked. One of the attackers shouted, ‘I will kill you and then I will eat you’.
Vases can be used as functional and decorative objects – sometimes both. What makes the vase interesting as an art object?
By making ceramic vases I am fitting into a genre that is almost as ancient as humankind itself. I often reference the decorative design from, for example, a 14th century vase, or an art deco vase, and then add to that foundation my own text or images. We are familiar with the image of a decorative vase, and then we see it offset by something perhaps unexpected.
The beauty of a canvas that is round is that the story will link up and repeat. My vases are canvases that tell stories and I use this as a reference to the human condition – the idea that we are on repeat.
Secondly, with a vase, it is not possible to see the whole picture at once. The image on the back will always be hidden, but we know it is there. This is a reference to the way that we live – what we chose not to see but that we know is there. Some of my vases are built with this in mind; there are two different sides to the vase, only one is visible. If you don’t like the message you can turn it to face the wall (but you know it is still there). I engage with that.
The piece ‘Oh For Fuck’s Sake’ speaks to your struggle with the art-making process. Because ceramics can take so much time to complete, how much room is there for mistakes or spontaneity along the way?
Regarding mistakes, I think it depends on the angle you are looking at them from. Each work is spontaneous because the colour of the finished piece is always a surprise. I am also a spontaneous person, it’s in my character, and that comes through in my work. I cannot measure ingredients or colours, nor can I make notes. It’s not in my nature.
There is however no room for technical mistakes. I have to be meticulous every step of the way. I recently lost four months of work, because I changed my clay. In 2013, in preparation for my first exhibition of twenty vases, I lost twelve works in nine months because they cracked in the kiln. I have opened the kiln to find the vase slumped against the walls of the interior, because the kiln overfired. Every step of the way there is something to watch out for, something that can go wrong. It’s a terrible process, but when it’s successful the result is a perfect combination of spontaneity and discipline.
Please talk us through a few more of the pieces in your exhibition, namely: ‘Infectious Diseases’ and ‘For Eva And Eva Amen’.
‘Infectious Diseases’: This vase with its gold spotty rash is a reference to the recent Ebola outbreak. The title ‘Infectious Diseases’ originated from my brother’s delight in his daily lunch runs to the Infectious Diseases building at The University of Cape Town Medical School, where he works. I was struck by the distance between two worlds. We, who are delighted are so far removed from the reality of poverty and its attendant vulnerabilities that we laugh at this building – a building I suppose a person living in an Ebola outbreak area would not find funny at all. The rest of the vase is covered in simplified versions of 19th century book covers which for me reflect order and calm.
‘For Eva And Eva Amen’: The image of the hand balancing the dice and the knife is taken from a section of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. In my work I pay attention to the ordinary, I evoke it and describe it, here using the overused image of the protea and aloe to ‘mock’ reference South Africa. However, by adopting a mocking attitude there is a danger that the stereotypes I use become an imposed identity, one which I am not free to remove myself from, even as a reaction against.
Your works contain references to literature, pop culture, art, etc. How much research to you do before starting with a particular piece?
I don’t have a plan for the vase until I actually start drawing on it. I begin with painting the vase one colour and work from there. I work freely and without a script.
You incorporate quotes into your artworks often. What is your relationship with words as a visual artist?
I use text to simplify my work, and to give it context. I like it to read plain and simple and to be clear. It is intentionally anti-art elitist because I don’t relate to ‘art speak’.
Your latest body of work is multi-faceted, forming both a visual and a socio-political record of our times. Please tell us about some of the topics you’ve explored in these vases? Is there an underlying theme or message you’re wanting to convey?
I make what I hear and see. My work is a reflection of my life. The twenty five vases have taken a full year to produce, and I put in the hours, I work hard. So this collection of vases is perhaps a record of my past year. The news stories, a new song, the topics from a radio chat show, the millions of Facebook comments – there is an element of each of these in this work.
My themes are fear and paranoia vs. beauty. My message: Understanding human anger and violence by reflecting on our history – looking at where we have come from helps us to better understand where we are now.
Kill You Eat You is on at Circa until 22 May, 2016.