London

View of “Simon Carroll,” 2014. All Untitled, 2002.

View of “Simon Carroll,” 2014. All Untitled, 2002.

Simon Carroll

Corvi-Mora

View of “Simon Carroll,” 2014. All Untitled, 2002.

Establishing a studio in a Nissen hut in Cornwall, UK, allowed Simon Carroll (1964–2009) the opportunity to begin making drawings the size of a soccer field with specially adapted rakes on the nearby beaches. These gigantic drawings, eventually washed away by the tides but documented in photographs and videos—the latter included in a room-size retrospective at the Victoria and Albert dedicated to his work—display the ceramicist’s spontaneous and experimental spirit. Though smaller in size, his ceramics are just as ambitious in their own way. A fan of Abstract Expressionist painting, Carroll also appreciated the color and gestural freedom of the ceramicists who were directly influenced by them, especially Peter Voulkos and the Otis clay group in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. Less funky than the work of these predecessors, Carroll’s evinces a deeper engagement with the tradition of ceramics; hence pitchers, vases, teabowls, and other urn-like forms provide his point of departure rather than arrival.

At first glance, the wobbly and ungainly appearance of these pots, twelve of which were displayed at Corvi-Mora, belies their sophistication, each piece of earthenware or stoneware suggesting a plethora of references. Carroll’s employment of red earth and slip (a watery clay used to cover ceramics) to decorate their surfaces derives from methods indigenous to the British Isles. But instead of applying a smooth, delicate slip to create a seamless and functional surface, Carroll’s approached the material in a more physical fashion. He dipped part of his forms in the slip, allowing rivulets to dribble down the objects, drawing attention to the painted nature of his ceramics. In some pieces, thick brown glazes add another haptic counterpoint, while splattered slip, like graffiti, marks the uneven surfaces of various others. This expressionist quality, together with the drawn or representational marks on the vessels’ surfaces, makes Carroll’s approach rather distinct; in fact it also makes the work of his contemporary Grayson Perry, the well-known ceramist, seem almost classical by comparison. Take, for instance, Untitled, 2003: A spiraling coil is roughly pressed together with rectangular blocks at the base and top, then decorated by scoring and cutting its surface—and yet it resembles a triumphal monument such as Trajan’s Column.

Another point of reference for Carroll was Picasso. Several large, wonky water jugs, with their caricature-like broad, pitched mouths and baroque handles, seem straight out of one of the Spaniard’s paintings. However, Carroll’s deepest affinity with Picasso is in their shared sense of play—most evident in the obvious pleasure he derived from his handling of clay as physical matter but also in the playful imagery on his pots. For example, boldly painted brown marks on the body of one vessel (Untitled, 2003) appear to represent the leaves and stem of a flower, as if inviting us to use the object as a vase. Yet the columnar pot is topped off with a bulbous head that seems more urn-like. Carroll used typology as genre, substituting jugs, pots, bowls, and so on for still lifes, portraits, and landscapes; they became points of departure to reinvent and enrich his medium. At the V&A, ninety-eight of Carroll’s objects are classified by their form (bowls, jugs, etc.), and here even more than at Corvi-Mora, one can see the contrast between them and the refined but repetitive nature of most pottery. By making explicit and reflexive the processes of ceramics, Carroll offered a more celebratory view of the art form. His work stands as a good reminder that there are still reasons to be medium-specific. “It’s only pottery,” he used to say, but he makes us feel the joy of throwing clay.

Sherman Sam