15.02.19 - 23.03.19
15.02.19 - 23.03.19
Sam Bakewell: Time For Waste
It is obvious that Sam Bakewell thinks a lot about colour. From pale tints to strong blasts, his sculpture of the past decade has followed painters' use of colour, while making things in clay. A careful observation of painting history, as in Fra Angelico, or Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, is as useful to his thinking about colour as the contemporary work of artists such as Cy Twombly or Etel Adnan.
Sam's work has consistently involved patience, graft, precision, a passionate extravagance with material, and ongoing experiment in evolving a language of fired colour, after some early years with white clay.
Here in Time for Waste, two groups of coloured blocks, small cities, called Leavings seem to introduce the exhibition. Six months of work went into fine-sanding blocks of various sizes; and the waste from all this labour, colour by colour was kept in plastic bags, an archived library of ceramic powders. The important idea of reclaiming - often loved as an idea but also necessary with clay - brings new forms out of what might have been detritus. The sieved dust was fired, re-sieved and fired again to set, creating the Dust series. Some of the pigments flux more - making piles sintered together, slightly fused. Others remain so dust-like you hardly dare to breathe in front of them, but you can. This is the elegant deception of the series.
Not all the pieces in this exhibition are exploring dust, or what caused it - we are also shown the marks of colour investigation made ten years ago in his MA years at RCA, where I was his tutor. He had found by then his love of Parian sculpture in museums, smooth hard clay that self-glazes with the right firing, seen in the eyes of 19th century enthusiasts to be like marble. The earliest works here are the paler pair in the Offal series. These started as colour tests; loose splats of colour-saturated Parian slurry, daubed as tests on hollow blocks of the same clay, recipes coded and recorded. Another, one of my favourite pieces, is a horizontal spread of swampy colour splodges lacking a title. But like a painter's palette, perhaps, these loose glutinous colour experiments, made a decade ago, engage the eye and the exploring hand.
The phases brought together in this exhibition suggest that no time has been wasted; but waste has found its time and place. It is a scene of careful study, weighing and measuring, notating, material experiment. With a mix of scientist and artist, Sam cares more than most about how materials behave, and how colours play off each other, especially through heat.
I like the contradictory flow and pun of the title he has given the exhibition - so little time is free for wasting, or waste, in the general run of the things in the contemporary world. 'Waste not, want not' was the motto of a more modest era. But it is art's game, now and always, to reinvent glory with the residue of other behaviours and practices.
- a cultural history of dust
I look at the photographs of dust, these powerful and complex new installations by Sam Bakewell, and I remember that I had wanted to write a cultural history of dust but an exhibition got in the way, and then another and then it seemed crucial to write about Orientalism and then about my lost family and then about the colour white and that dust had been mislaid, swept away into the corners of my books. And so I sit down at last to think about dust.
I think of how any of us who work with clay work with dust, try to sweep it, extract it, remove it from our working lives.
And that we cannot. Clay becomes dust. The potter ‘exists in it and by it; it fills his lungs and blanches his cheek; it keeps him alive and it kills him. His fingers close round it, as round the hand of a friend,’ writes Arnold Bennett, looking over the Potteries.
I go back to the reports of the Doctor in Staffordshire, so warmly welcomed into the workshops of potters in the 1840’s, and hear Thomas Furnival, aged 58: ‘I think potters’ children are tolerably healthy; they look white, but that is from the clay, which is not pernicious…..I do not know that I have any other information to give.’
I hear Samuel Broster, aged 33 ‘I am the father of two children, and would not let my children work at it, not if ever so well paid’.
I think of the Martin Brothers, that quartet of potters in Edwardian London with their angry, cruel, lyrically metamorphic models and vessels and remember that a critic wrote that ‘The pots in their showroom are not arranged like the crockery in an ordinary shop, and there is no effusive display of antagonism towards dust’. Why should there be? The presence of dust indicates independence: it is the marker that these potters have left bourgeois life behind, the need to restore surroundings to some clean simulacrum of the ordinary.
For dust is work. We mark our days with it. Or in Sam Bakewell’s sculpture, dust marks the years. For ten years he has kept the waste products, the dust, the scapings, the trimmings, the parings, the filings. All those minute removals of substance hour by hour have been collected and collated. He titles this exhibition Time for Waste. And within the title is that unspooling idea of how time spent in creating something is simultaneously a wasting of time, an obsessional distraction, and a way of focussing time, bringing it into meaning.
To keep this dust and then create these installations is extraordinary. They are waste lands. They invite narrative – tips, spoil heaps, the ruined landscapes of industrial facture, an artist’s palette, scenes of a crime - and yet resist them. They ask us to think of transitive actions- scattering, tipping, spreading- and yet are stilled. They are somewhere between tenses- still inert to almost melting, just melted.
And the colour! Gloriously lacking in propriety, these are Sam’s transgressive hues, his connecting to those artists whose work matters most to him. These colours have never been adjacent before, but here they are spilled near to each other. They become a sort of visual short story: histories of lost works from different parts of his life in the same field.
Time for Waste is beautiful and it is interrogative and both these things make it memorable. It is rare to see work that is such a personal archaeology of how and why art happens, how the stuff that is forgotten and lost, discarded and brushed aside can be made central and in doing so can be renewed.
Edmund de Waal