Full Fathom Five
One widely accepted etymology of the word porcelain derives it from porceletta, the Portuguese name for a type of cowry shell. The historical accuracy of this etymology cannot be verified, but on the plane of poetics it is undoubtedly correct, for it acknowledges something about porcelain that even the most casual observer will have noted: the fact that it leaves behind all association of ceramics with the earth to recognize that, like shells, pearls, and coral, porcelain is a thing of the sea. The thauma- turgic quality of the sea, its capacity to render soft and fleshy things hard and brilliant, was captured perfectly by Shakespeare in the famous Full Fathom Five passage of The Tempest. Wonder at this transformation is also strongly felt in the work of the French Renaissance ceramicist Bernard Palissy, especially in the great platters teeming with fish and amphibians, even if these are actually more lacustrine in fauna and character. Indeed, for ceramics, the enduring appeal of the sea must have something fundamentally to do with the dialectic of soft and hard, the play of liquefaction and vitrification, ebb and flux. There is even strange poetic sense in the fact that this transformation is effected by the kiln, a means as far removed as can be from the gentle accretion of solids in a salt and mineral rich bath. Made of earth, wrought by fire, porcelain dreams itself marine.
The ceramic art of Neil Forrest abjures the conventional making of vessels to pursue instead the suspended condition of things found in liquids. In his installations, the sea is all around. His works create a kind of immersive briny atmosphere. Instead of taking upon himself the containment and control of fluids that has for so long been the destiny and burden of ceramic arts, Forrest plunges us into them. The very size of some of his net-like works makes them encompass space, which they gulp up with the placid voracity of a whale straining krill. His use of flexible and translucent joints extends this sub-aqueous impression. These works can’t be said to occupy space, they are not that obdurate; they stain or tincture spaces, like a bloom of algae making a cloud of color in a tidal pool.
Full Fathom Five also happens to be the name of one of the earliest masterpieces of Jackson Pollock’s drip technique. Indeed, Forrest’s work shares many qualities with Abstract-Expressionism, from the all-over mode of composition, to a web-like thickening of space, and yet this is not due to imitation; it is ultimately because his work also engages with the problem of decorative effects that informed Pollock’s mural scaled work. Both revel in the power of ornament to dematerialize the solid and architectonic qualities of space. Forrest’s ornament, unbound by any vessel’s frame, liberated from any substantiating ground, has the force of an apparition. Accustomed as we now are to forms without ornament, he shows what it might be like to have ornament without form. It is as if we could feel the ocean’s surge without its water.
- Kenneth Hayes
Neil Forrest would like to thank the Rhode Island School of Design ceramics department and especially Professor Larry Bush, who dedicated considerable energy to the fabrication of this exhibition using RISD’s industrial production technology.
This exhibition is co-presented by the Alberta College of Art and Design Ceramics’ Department as part of Decoration and Ornament in January 2004. (This line will be edited slightly.)