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Frances Woodley reports for CCQ on Still: The Language of Clay, the new touring show by ceramicist Anne Gibbs, currently on at Mission Gallery, Swansea.

Anne Gibbs is a ceramic artist who lives and works near Cardiff. She is both maker and curator of small, delicate, pastel coloured objects, a practice I have referred to here as play-work. Intensely researched and fastidiously crafted, allied to a wide variety of references, practices and genres, her current solo exhibition Still emerges as the mature work of a thoughtful artist.

The lepidopterist delicately spreads and pins her butterfly. Instructions for a lepidopterist: “After relaxing an insect, loosen its legs, antennae, and other moveable parts by gently wiggling them and then stretching them out. Use a toothpick, wooden probe, or teasing needle”. [1]

How best to pin down the art of Anne Gibbs? Bringing others to the question might help. I suggest her practice extends beyond the nostalgic and elegiac resonance of Hesse and Whiteread’s, artists she much admires, to other qualities such as playfulness, subversiveness, sweetness, and wit. And so I might venture to place her in another relation, between Yves Tanguy and Nobuko Tsuchiya, Fischli and Weiss and Claire Barclay, early Tony Cragg, Helen Marten, and Gillian Lowndes. Lowndes is something of a hero for Gibbs, but she might be surprised to find herself amongst the rest.

Still is part installation, part a laying out. Once a Norwegian seamen’s mission church, the building’s intimate architecture now bears down on artists who must work with it, not against it. Two long painted tables therefore occupy the small square nave with accompanying still lifes on shelves to the right, with a ‘tapestry’ of works, pinned or hung, to the left with more still lifes on slab like trays to the back. Three elevated plinths occupy the apse, on which pinned and interwoven works of a very different colour register are balanced; white, black, and the colour of blood.

The next question perhaps is whether we are indeed looking at an installation? The table-tops are her landscape, painted respectively misty green and cloudy blue, or is it minty green and baby blue? Already, with these motley associations, we are at the nub of it. Gibb’s work straddles diverse contexts and genres: architecture, landscape, confectionery, corporeality, still life, installation. This gives to her arrangements a certain ambiguity and perverse resistance to interpretation.

Contemporary installation artists such as Song Dong, Cornelia Parker and Daniel Ortega, use objects as both component and framing device, whilst others, Michelangelo Pistoletto or Phyllida Barlow for example, construct new objects by harnessing the poetic redundancy of discarded ones. Gibbs does neither. Uneasy at the prominence of either part or whole, she avoids commitment to both. Even the objects of her smaller still lifes set on shelves and ‘trays’, (a conversation with Morandi’s later works perhaps), resist a central organising principle. Instead, objects line up or lie down, stand or slump, act discrete yet group together.

Now, how to describe this play-work, these objects, things, accidents, incidents, or stuff, arranged on surfaces? As scrapings, cuttings, clippings, pinnings, splittings, foldings, fiddlings, castings, saggings, dippings, frillings? Bone china, not known for its responsiveness, falls over itself to please as Gibbs transforms it from base material to something like paper, silk, coral, latex, fondant, or candy. At one moment we see infinitely thin strips of clay draped and drooped like satin ribbons; at another, a white solid thing, pink dipped and clench-fisted. Sometimes, found objects intervene to give Gibbs' ceramics a poetic edge such as when a white bone china sac is adhered to a jaunty snip of orange tubing using breathable Elastoplast. With oblique references to a mermaid’s purse, sycamore seed, snatch of twine or lichen covered branch, we are cast back to memories of walks in the woods or combing the seashore, childhood games or intimate experience. This is the play of push and pull, between recognition and strangeness, the mouth-watering and the bone-dry, the unfamiliar and the everyday, wit and sensibility.

Each object, or cluster, is a Lilliputian performance, separate from those around it, absorbed in itself. Things are given substance by the shadows that attach to them, but these shadows don’t extend as far as others. And so a different connection comes to mind, that of still life at the turn of the 17th Century, paintings that obey no formal perspective, no vanishing point, and no compositional coherence in the conventional sense. The still lifes of Ambrosius Bosschaert, Floris van Dijk, and others, impel a very different mode of viewing to that of later painters: scoping, scanning, moving about, no fixed point of entry or exit, no preferred horizon. Like theirs, Gibbs’ work invites a particular viewing distance, not so far away that qualities disappear from view, not too near lest they assume too huge a scale. A tension is thus forged, between the monumental and the incidental.

Gibbs’ work is exquisite, delicious, and mischievously suggestive. There is such a command of material and materiality here that it’s terrifying to behold. Breathing, sneezing, let alone touching, risks collapse, fracture, crumbling and tinkling. It is the combination of her acute sensitivity to her medium, her technical virtuosity and her compositional and curatorial aesthetic, that sets Gibbs’ work apart. But more than these, it is her serious commitment to play.


Frances Woodley – Researcher, curator and artist. © 


Still: The Language of Clay is a Mission Gallery National Touring exhibition, curated by Ceri Jones


Mission Gallery, Swansea, 21 January - 26 March, 2017

Aberystwyth Ceramics Gallery, 8 April - mid June, 2017

Ruthin Arts Centre, 22 July - 24 September, 2017

Llantarnum Grange Arts Centre, 7 October - 18 November, 2017

Image credits, from top:

Landscape in Green (detail), Anne Gibbs 2017. Photo: Dewi Tannatt Lloyd. 

Landscape in Green (detail), Anne Gibbs 2017. Photo: Matthew Otten.

Landscape in Green (detail), Anne Gibbs 2017. Photo: Dewi Tannatt Lloyd.

Landscape in Green (detail), Anne Gibbs 2017. Photo: Dewi Tannatt Lloyd. 

Still Life #1, Anne Gibbs 2017. Photo: Dewi Tannatt Lloyd. 

[1] © Home Training Tools Ltd. 2007.