Christina's Anatomy Of Visual Arts And Culture JANUARY 20, 2012 - by Christina Lai


Carol McNicoll on her subversive ceramics

You can tell a lot about an artist from his or her home. This could not be any truer than for British ceramicist Carol McNicoll's. Anyone who has visited her Camden studio flat, a converted piano factory basement designed by Piers Gough, will know precisely what I mean. To compare it to an Aladdin's cave of peculiar surprises is an understatement. Take for example, her statement staircase. Covered in discontinued, mismatched tiles from a wholesaler, and juxtaposed by lively slip decorated tiles by ex-student Dylan Bowen, the stairway is complete with colourful walls of cut up olive oil cans.

"The home, a context of the cutting edge of the art world abandoned around 1945, is the context I find the most intriguing". McNicoll's home is the proof of a life-long commitment to this ethos; almost every surface is recycled, re-embellished and reinvented. Like her home, her wildly patterned ceramics are amalgams of native and foreign cultures, kitsch nostalgia and eccentricity.

Over the last forty years McNicoll has established herself as an internationally renowned potter. Born to a family of makers (as a girl her mother taught her to sew, her father was an engineer who travelled abroad), she studied fine art at Leeds polytechnic, because "being an artist seemed to be the most glamorous thing at the time".

Prior to studying ceramics at RCA, she worked briefly in theatre costume design, was a seamstress for Zandra Rhodes and made costumes for Brian Eno of Roxy Music. In the 1970s she was part of the revolutionary 'New Ceramics', a group of ambitious RCA students, including Elizabeth Fritsch, Richard Slee, Jacqueline Poncelet and Alison Britton, who famously rejected the restrictive minimal styles of Leach pottery. Since then she has carved out her own niche, breaking the conventions of English domestic ware with her subversively patterned yet functional ceramics.

McNicoll's early pieces engendered surreal influences, including wrapping paper vases and unzipped plates. In the 1980s her vessels became increasingly abstract and geometric in form, with architectural structures of complex cubist planes (an example of this, a fruit bowl was featured in the V&A's Postmodernism exhibition recently). From the late 1980s to early 1990s she made teasets simulating the soft, unfurling qualities of fabric.

Since 1999, McNicoll has turned to mediating over social, cultural and political issues, by combining clashing patterned slipcast figures with found objects. A good example would be Foreign Policy Initiative (2003), a soldier carrying a mass produced glass bowl on his back, while trampling over a classical column - a whimsical commentary on Post-Colonialism, Imperialism and trade.

Her latest and most controversial ceramics to date are concerned with "soldiers sent to fight blindly in far flung countries, in wars that are really British armament sale exercises to have our pensions paid". With constant headlines of the British and American armies' seemingly unremitting involvement in international conflicts, there's never been a better time for her to explicitly critique on misguided Western politics, albeit with a hearty dose of refreshing humour. "I choose to rant in my work about issues that annoy and amuse me at the same time. It's all pointless but it keeps me entertained".

An eco-conscious rejection of consumer culture is another dominant aspect, demonstrated via the celebrated use of bric-a-brac. Maybe it has something to do with having grown up in a home immersed with mementoes of foreign cultures. From her father's foreign travels, he brought back Indian engraved brasses, wood carved furniture and Persian carpets (one of which still lays proudly in Carol's living room). She has a sentimental attachment with knickknacks; a desire to turn someone's trash into treasure - something I quickly realised from visiting her studio.

Mass-produced teacups, plates and vases, glass, wooden animal figures and brassware fill the shelves of her studio like pirated loot. They are salvaged on her frequent cycling trips around north London and travels abroad, from charity shops, flea markets, car-boot sales and junkyards. She critiques our throwaway culture by recycling the abandoned detritus of consumerism. "I use second hand objects because I don't want to be part of the global capitalist project. There's so much fantastic stuff already out there." Drawn to the constantly changing, random chaos of knickknacks, she loves how a universal image like a bird can be endlessly reinterpreted to take on a different context. With the current trend of eco-sustainability, her work is more relevant and democratic than ever.

So how are these tacky castoffs transformed? The makeover process is a time-consuming one and a engineering feat in its own right. Each soldier begins life from pictorial research and drawing - sometimes recruiting her son to model for her (Surprisingly McNicoll didn't start drawing until after an enlightening trip to India in the 1990s). She then models the soldier in clay, makes a plaster mould of him and casts him in earthenware slip. The cast soldiers are modified to support the specific found or cast object before bisque firing. After deciding on decoration, the soldiers are glaze fired to stoneware temperature, before transfers are applied and fired. Finally the pieces are assembled with screws, resin fillers, insulation foam and solder. A McNicoll vessel must be sturdy and robust to serve its purpose.

One of the most intriguing pieces is Expeditionary Coffee Set, a Middle-Eastern brass plate with a circle of seated solders, their backs joined by a chain with bulldog clips. An Anglicised Chinese coffeepot decorated with foliage and soldiers transfers sits proudly as the centrepiece, while bulldog clips ingeniously clamp onto the handles of dainty coffee cups. The oriental and Middle-Eastern found objects blatantly evoke exotic adventures of troops. Yet one senses a deeper sadness coming from the silent soldiers, who like robots are programmed to wage war in folly.

Not all of the new works are critical of contemporary society. McNicoll's squashed Jasperware Jugs (reminiscent of the 'soft' jugs and cups she made in the 1990s) are a delightful example of injecting lightheartedness into tradition. Gaudy open-stock transfers of flowers and kimono-clad Japanese women are unconventionally paired with her own photographs. From trees seen from her garden, pylons and cranes to construction workers on a Chinese skyscraper, everyday moments that we overlook are acutely observed and captured. There is an intuitive compositional awareness of colour, pattern, texture and balance, perhaps originating from her fashion and textile background. The contrasting, absurd synergy between the Wedgewood reliefs and transfer imagery creates an exciting, jumbled narrative. Plus there's something curiously satisfying about having to peer inside, as well as outside the jugs to see the complete picture.

In Fantasies, a soldier wears a pretty uniform collaged with flowers and images of Pope John Paul, while balancing a lotus flower bowl on his head. The authority of religion is playfully undermined, like Philip Eglin's Virgin Mary and Pope Figurines. It's the perfect showpiece for a Mad Hatter's Tea Party, while ironically reminiscent of the gaudy church offerings McNicoll witnessed as a child.

However for her, Fantasies' significance lies with the wooden plate the soldier stands on. It bears a pair of carved praying hands, a commemorative souvenir of Oberammergau's famous Passion Play. Carol fondly recalls visiting the decennial event in Oberammergau on a school trip aged seventeen. "There was a US army base there at the time. Being young, innocent convent girls we would dress up sexily to meet these soldiers in bars, and get ourselves into ridiculous situations". Fast forward fifty years she picked up a plate at a junk market. It wasn't until weeks later that a closer inspection revealed that it was dated Oberammergau 1960. It was the year she visited, a time she remembered as a "bizarrely wonderful moment".

One cannot refute McNicoll's unadulterated passion for making. From ceramics, cooking, gardening to making clothes and upholstery, it is the creative force that drives every aspect of her life. A maverick, having created an impressive repertoire of work, has evolved during her career, marrying classic with contemporary influences. Despite using the industrial method of slip casting and embracing new technologies, she is a dedicated advocate of hands-on craftsmanship. The only unwavering constant of her ceramics has been functionality, which started as an anarchistic response to the 'pretentious notions' of high art.

Though flamboyant in appearance, the meaning of her work is never obvious. It is a dreaminess of fragmented ideas; an ambiguity that allows the viewer to ponder subjectively over her work - be it seriously or in jest - that makes them so fascinating. Equally striking is her sharp wit and candour. When she speaks, she keeps you on your toes. She possesses a confidence and enviably rebellious spirit which she exudes in person as well as in her ceramics. Before the end of the interview I jokingly ask whether last July's riots will be next subject of her work. "I haven't gotten to that yet," she laughs.