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Caught in the middle of something: decoration and transcendence in the art of Ruan Hofmann  by Frikkie Eksteen (Frikkie is a practicing artist, arts writer and a lecturer at UNISA)

Not one to force pressing philosophical agendas when talking about his work, Ruan Hofmann's use of ceramic as a medium might sound a lot like a quirky technical choice. In my own correspondence with the artist he has also emphatically downplayed a "conceptual reading" of his materials, which makes the body of work he has assembled over the past three years a rather odd, and dare I say, confusingly aesthetic thing. Yet as a backdrop for his sometimes offbeat and often disconcerting narratives, ceramic is not quite a neutral platform.

The involuntary picture that comes to mind when we think about ceramic and its history is mostly that of a "warm and nostalgic trip through glaze discoveries, quaint old pottery studios, accompanied by a picture gallery of charming, non-threatening pots that one can take home to mother".  Hofmann's rather unsettling brand of ceramic art fails to do justice to this wholesome template. His painted tiles, bowls and vases, which have recently found a crossover appeal penetrating both fine art and design circuits, are probably some of the more curious decorative objects being produced locally.

Ceramic's "easy" appeal, or its "high unseriousness" as a notable art critic has put it,  has made it possible for Hoffman to insert some peculiarly visceral and macabre images into viewing circuits that artists are generally excluded from. Whether knowingly or not, he has - in a way that reminds of Turner Prize-winner Grayson Perry's equally improper, semi-autobiographical pots - turned the innocuous intimations of the medium into an advantage. Like Perry, who has said that he wants to "make something that lives with the eye as a beautiful piece of art, but on closer inspection a polemic or ideology will come out of it",  Hofmann's tactic is an inconspicuous seduction. So much so that collectors of his work might only be slightly perturbed by the sometimes scatological subject matter that stares out from their walls and display cabinets.

It is this invisibility of ceramic as an art medium that has made the unlikely transfer of "dangerous" content into more sociable surroundings possible. It seems no matter what images are fired onto, and sealed into its surface - a process that is sometimes repeated up to five times in Hofmann's case - the ceramic object will always be a domesticated thing that could harbour no ill intent. Even more so if it is that most docile of objects: a "vessel" (read: bowl, vase, pot).

As much as I would like to avoid getting into the pangs of the fine art versus applied art row that informs much writing on ceramics, it is an unavoidable sub text that needs to be contended with. Ceramic has had a treacherously close alliance with the so-called decorative arts. And it is probably "anxieties about the value of the decorative"  that might have caused it to be thought of as a sterile, inchoate craft medium that simply offers too many possibilities for manipulation to be constrained within a distinct area of competence. Or so the backlash against the crafts by the likes of American art critic Clement Greenberg contended at mid-century.

For the sceptics the process of shaping with clay seems dangerously, and aimlessly, unstable. Maybe because, as writer and ceramic artist Edmund de Waal explains, the aim of decoration - the offence of which ceramic along with other crafts stand accused - has less to do with creating the pure and elevated forms which modernist critics  spoke of, than with disguising them behind effects.  But a lot has happened since this kind of talk had any real significance.

One cannot be ignorant of the fact that ceramic, and also the notion of the decorative, has in more recent art, been charged with an unexpected potency. And often with clearly political overtones. Ornamental surfaces are not always a mute veneer as those hostile to the so-called crafts have found out. In a number of noteworthy examples of feminist art, with Judy Chicago's Dinner Party (1979) being the most prominent prototype, decoration is thought to have become the voice of the formerly voiceless. In Chicago's collaborative installation, various crafts, among them ceramic or china painting, have produced something that is meant to speak about concerns affecting the marginalised.

The rejuvenation of craft as a persuasive vehicle for addressing gender issues and power relations is however not the only association that could saturate Hofmann's use of ceramics with surplus value, and neither is it the aspect that is most apparent or interesting. As a case study it might be worthwhile to investigate the significance of male artists appropriating traditionally female skills for their own purposes, but what is more important to take from this discussion is the idea that ornament can be approached in terms of the challenges it presents. Hofmann, like a number of likeminded artists who engage with decoration, to borrow a phrase from Laura Hoptman, "embrace it cheerfully but wield it knowingly".

Hofmann, as we would expect from a ceramicist, paints on tiles, vases and bowls. The compositions he fires onto their surfaces are often also decorative, but a strange metaphorical relationship between these most homely of supports and what covers their shapes reveals itself. A plate is not just a plate and a pot not always a pot; firstly not in a strictly utilitarian sense. The artist is very quick to point out that none of his objects are meant to be functional. The plates are often covered in thick clay textures making them clearly unpractical as serving bowls, and the vases, replete with unsealed imperfections, will not hold any liquid. From what I gather, the artist sees their dysfunction as a sign of autonomy.

But secondly, and more significantly, for Hofmann a bowl is sometimes also a cosmic field, an area of confinement, a vast region of emptiness, and a vase can be a throbbing, mutating mass upon which an array of characters and words swell and churn. Decorative impressions aside, the artist appears to have inhabited his simulated domestic objects with a cast of diverse creatures and sentiments that engage in introspective and transcendental acts, or phrased in Hofmann's sweeping words, grapple with "the transient nature of everything". In what might appear to be predictable decorative conventions, dark, cynical, sometimes funny, yet often poignant subject matter causes an uneasy stirring.

One also gets the distinct impression that his formats are sometimes measured, tested or challenged. It happens with the formal dissection of their planes by decorative divisions and linear elements, and more obviously, with threads and figures that seem to be searching for a way out as they circle and confront the edge of the format. In two recent bowls for example, a male figure in front of a red background is contorted to fit within the confines of his circular world. He appears to be performing some kind of overzealous yoga posture with his body bent backward and his feet resting on his head. Except for the shape's referencing the edge of the bowl, with the body becoming a loop within a circle, the figure's acrobatics seem to cause distress, with no bliss or transcendence accompanying the effort. His contortion can be interpreted as an attempt at escaping from the constraints of the format, but instead of reaching out, his body turns back in on itself and becomes what it would like to transcend. There is a strange resignation about the figure, and like many others in Hofmann's work, it seems to have some awareness of being a comment on the metaphors implicit in the format as much as being a decoration of sorts.

In another series of bowls, concentric contour lines trace their topography, only leaving a small, blank, circular gap at the centre of each. The words "I DRAW, WALK, SLEEP, THINK, EAT I READ, I THINK ABOUT WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN TO ME, I WORRY MYSELF, THEN I", are closely cropped by the vibrating mass of lines that frame the middle of one bowl. In the accompanying pieces, the blurbs are "GO AWAY" and "IT MIGHT NOT WORK OUT MY SWEETIE". What is interesting about these examples is how the viewer is set up for inevitable disappointment.

As objects, the bowls resemble mandalas, focussing devices used in meditation. Symbolically, they are supposed to be simplified maps of the cosmos and the psyche, where the mystic is supposed to identify with its centre (bindu), "the symbolic seed of the manifested universe and the threshold to the transcendental Reality".  In Hofmann's reinvention of the motif, however, the negative sentiments in the text at the centre of the bowls returns the viewer to the cynical lowercase realities of daily life. After being drawn in by the optical illusion, it is especially the phrase "GO AWAY" that causes the biggest jolt. It is a revealing example of how the viewer is seduced by the decorative effect of the work, only to be rudely awakened once comfortable. I consider these examples as signifying an emblematic tactic in Hofmann's work. The formula or pattern that emerges shows that transcendence and release is never attained, but remains a constant preoccupation as the many figures shown in meditation-like activities would suggest.

Although Hofmann's subject matter engages with a kind of cynical mysticism in many of the objects, with the mandala motif recurring in various guises - even becoming an emblem that is sometimes signified in its absence - some of the pieces can hardly be called esoteric. Many engage with everyday happenings that are encoded within the decorative constraints of the medium and the format. It is equally significant that a number of objects contain stylistic references to the history and status of ceramic as an art form. These clues seem to suggest that he is in the process of compiling an eclectic ceramic workbook where the technical promise of the medium, along with its legacy, becomes a sub text to what is happening in his own life. But the format challenge I have spoken of is almost always apparent. With the utmost linear economy, and barely dependent upon illusionist tricks, Hofmann creates idiosyncratic spaces and contexts of confinement. His compositions, like his characters, are trapped within the bounds of a circular world where things seem to be caught in a perpetual loop.

As with much art being produced at the moment, setting parameters is an important component in Hofmann's work. By isolating options within preset boundaries, he has created a range of alternative propositions that not only speak about those limitations but sometimes turn them inside out. Bound by the format and the legacy of his medium, he has negotiated a range of surprising and potent compromises.

Sources cited:

Chicago, J. 1975. Through the flower: my struggle as a woman artist. Introduction by A Nin. London: The Women's Press.

Clark, G. 1998. Between a toilet and a hard place: is the ceramic avant-garde a contradiction in terms? Available at: http://ceramicsmuseum.alfred.edu/perkins_lect_series/clark/clarktalk.html. Accessed 15 July 2005.

De Waal, E. 2002. High unseriousness: artists and clay, in A secret history of clay: from Gauguin to Gormley, edited by S Groom. Liverpool: Tate Liverpool: 37-65.

Feuerstein, G. 1998. The yoga tradition: its history, philosophy and practice. Prescott: Arizona.

Greenberg, C. 1961. Art and culture: critical essays. Boston: Beacon.

Grunenberg, C. 2002. Director's foreword, in A secret history of clay: from Gauguin to Gormley, edited by S Groom. Liverpool: Tate Liverpool: 9.

Groom, S (ed). A secret history of clay: from Gauguin to Gormley. Foreword by C Grunenberg. Liverpool: Tate Liverpool.

Hoptman, L. 2002. Drawing now: eight propositions. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Jeffries, S. 2003. Top of the pots. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0.3604.1089933.00.html. Accessed 3 July 2004.


 From Garth Clark's (1998) Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture 'Between a toilet and a hard place: Is the ceramic avant-garde a contradiction in terms?', presented at the International Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University.
  Hilton Kramer's reservations about ceramic art are expressed in Christoph Grunenberg's (2004:9) foreword to the Secret History of Clay: from Gauguin to Gormley catalogue, an exhibition presented at the Tate Liverpool in 2004.
  Grayson Perry is quoted in Jeffries (2003).
  From Edmund de Waal's (1998:38) essay, titled 'High unseriousness: artists and clay", taken up in the Secret History of Clay catalogue, an exhibition presented at the Tate Liverpool in 2004.
  Greenberg (1961:23)
  De Waal (1998:50)
  Chicago (1975:208-210)
  I am quoting Laura Hoptman (2002:31) with reference to decorative approaches in drawing. The context from which the phrase was borrowed deals with the art of Laura Owens, Chris Ofili and Richard Wright.
  Feuerstein (1998:176)


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