Danish-born, USA based ceramist, Anders Ruhwald left New Zealand a couple of days ago after a brief visit of about three weeks as guest of Whitecliffe College of Art. He, and family, had some social and vacation time initially in Auckland and on Waiheke then in Central Otago. His final week was taking seminars for Masters candidates at Whitecliffe and as part of this he gave a talk on his own work at Auckland Art Gallery. Which is all a rather boring way of introduction for what I found to be a most engaging talk.
Ruhwald was introduced to the audience as ‘one of the world’s leading ceramists’ which is the sort of hyperbole to be expected from those hosting and paying the bills, and the sort of remark it is usually good to stay clear of because such claims are, of course, contingent upon a host of ‘ifs and buts’. Nevertheless Ruhwald has, since graduation from Bornholm School of Glass and Ceramics in 2000, carved an extensive trajectory through some impressive educational and residency programmes first in northern Europe then in Canada and the USA. Bornholm is a Danish island in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden that has a long history of arts and crafts practitioners. I visited last year and thought that, although larger, it had much the same feel as Waiheke. Maybe it’s just islands but in both there resonates echoes of earlier communities of artists and craftsmen in the numbers of art spaces, galleries and former production places and present celebrations of those still current.
Ruhwald went from Bornholm to Copenhagen then England and Royal College. He is now Artist in Residence and Head of Ceramics at Cranbrook Art Academy, a private educational institution with only graduate programmes, outside of Detroit in Michigan, USA. Cranbrook has ten departments designated by medium or product –Fibre, Photography, Printmaking, Metalsmithing, Painting, 3D Design, 2D Design, Sculpture and Architecture each headed by an established artist or designer who is the primary mentor for students and the head of their studio program. Each has a personal studio located within their department and graduate students work directly alongside their Artist-in-Residence and learn what it means to be a working artist and how a leading practice is built and maintained. Artists in Residence (and their partners and families) live on campus – very close to their studios. In this, Cranbrook is not simply a graduate program – it is billed as a unique community of artists and designers living and working together, on a campus designed for this kind of exchange by Eliel Sarinen the first Architect in Residence. It sounds like a dream job – no worries about accommodation or studio and expected, first and foremost, to produce work and exhibit, and with students already graduated in ceramics beside you to assist, challenge and feed into the projects. Tony Hepburn was Ruhwald’s predecessor, who went there from Alfred, SUNY. There is a long history of excellence there and seems there is no shortage of students even though they are paying with upwards of 30,000 dollars annually. It’s a different world.
Ruhwald’s talk covered three areas: His own recent work; an intervention he carried out in the Saarinen House which sits on campus as a sort of monument to the famous architect and another project in an empty house Ruhwald has bought in Detroit (where property is on an opposing track to Auckland’s!). All were interesting and the Saarinen House work can be seen on the internet while the new house project is currently in gestation. It was his personal work that engaged my interest most.
We had earlier contact a few years ago as I included his work in an exhibition I curated for Yinnge International Ceramics Museum in Taiwan. Divided into a series of rooms, I included Ruhwald’s work in the ‘domestic interior’ area which I saw in that Freudian term, ‘the unheimlich’ and along with other works: Marek Cecula’s curious, ostensibly sanitary and bodily intimate but otherwise unclassifiable objects, Richard Slee’s trajectory of flies, Raewyn Atkinson’s glowing, wall-hung, over-scaled necklace of anti-depression pills, Shu Mei Su’s table and chair made from writhing, twisted apparent reinforcing steel and Kristin Johansen’s ironically humorous and ambiguous, Crotch Mirror, Handle and Shaving Foam Holder. Ruhwald’s Purple Interior was as comfortable, or uncomfortable, as any other in the blacked out, spot-lit space we conjured for them. These were the works most difficult to discuss in the training sessions we held with the docents, upon whom we would be reliant once opening events were complete and the museum settled to regular exhibition mode. I realised one of the many cultural divides which was that while the west is not averse to visualising the home as repository for mixed responses, often several deriving from different emotions at once, it was unusual in Asia where the home is viewed very differently.
Ruhwald’s work sits astride some of the strands of what is considered current or avant-garde in ceramics today – minimalism, surface, references to the body and to play, the increasingly permeable spaces between ceramics and design or ceramics and art, both at the same time, and above all – installation. Yet it has a distinct presence that echoes no other and is unmistakeably his.
His work maintains subtle resonances with pottery in the modelling and fingering marks on many surfaces. Rhythmical and even, they solicit reminders of, and probably indicate, careful and skilled, hand building and offer surface activity with rhythmical patterns of shadows. These are contrasted here and there with an almost industrial sleek surface which perhaps links with Danish design in their clean reductivity. However, the forms are not so glibly identified. Often over-scaled, and initially apparently simple, they represent nothing much in particular but somehow manage to hover between minimalist sculpture, bits from children’s broken wooden toys and parts of implements like cake mixers or vacuum cleaners – just sliced-off bits that might have been ever so slightly functional … logical familiarity disintegrates and you find yourself seeking clues in his occasional apparent references to decorative elements like candles. This might be a giant candle, that a chair frame hanging on a wall, maybe these could be giant mechanised stick insects or those up-scaled shelf brackets. But it’s no use. Easy connections are rarely forthcoming and titles, often clues to content, don’t help a heap. Although, some might. “If all man’s products were well designed, joy and harmony would emerge eternally triumphant” was one where all works surfaced in an even, dense black sheen, looked like they were taken from an overpriced catalogue and seemed to me commenting upon Denmark’s on-going reputation for domestic design objects. Another was, “Almost Nothing” where this time all works were token and white, again possibly commenting upon tropes of interior design. But what to make of “The View from the Sides of My Nose” or “Temperance!” or “We float in space and cannot perceive the new order”? It’s not straightforward, or effortless.
Consistent is an eschewing of conventional foundations. His works can sit firmly upon the floor, slouch or lean against a wall, be suspended from above or propped up on multiple fragile-looking striped sticks, but they don’t occupy a plinth. There are few obvious means of support anywhere. A leitmotif seems to be a blue light bulb and this maintains that recurrent connection with the domestic, even the frivolous domestic when hung with three or four glass beads around its strange glow; a sort-of ultra-minimalist chandelier. The domestic is always present but is more a sense than any divination or logic. It’s fairly apparent in forms that can only be interpreted as window frames despite their lumpy surface treatment but then you are confronted by a structure with some resemblance to a ships funnel except that instead of a depth into which you might dive, there is mirror at the opening and it becomes more like an eye glaring back. Constant is an odd interplay and tension between being just slightly menacing and poking the mickey.
All exhibitions I have sighted are installation – another constant. And Ruhwald does not install into a white cube but instead makes an entire environment for his little-bit discomforting works that I read somewhere he calls, ‘inconveniences’ – how apt! He hangs curtains of plastic strip like those that droop in doorways in warm weather as fly repellents. Or he builds walls and floors of tiles, carefully colour co-ordinated with the works themselves. These ‘inconveniences’ demand their own space that is carved out from whatever the exhibiting institution offers, rather than being fitted into surrounding architecture.
Then the colour – strong, and flat and even. Some shows are monochromatic. In others there are just two colours involved, like a strong orange and deep turquoise blue and these can add yet another layer of disquiet when almost spectrally opposite in hue and it occurred to me that if photographed with black and white film they would probably appear to be the same boring mid-grey. Layers of intrigue…
For those who were in town and able to attend his talk, Ruhwald’s commentary was straightforward, easy to follow and thankfully free of art jargon. I enjoyed it and it clarified plenty for me although he left much unsaid so that the viewer might mull those ambiguities, incompatibilities and feelings of unease the work can engender. Certainly his work makes clear that ceramics is no longer a discreet practice with clear boundaries. It sits easily into that spectrum where art intersects with ceramics and is shown in private or public galleries which usually exhibit contemporary art and which, very few years ago, would have firmly closed doors to anything labelled ‘made from clay’. But what I enjoyed most was the fact that his work is all about what a large majority of ceramics has always been all about and that is the humble domestic interior.
Images that follow are taken from the artist’s website where more of his exhibitions might be viewed. Individual works are not titled. The exhibitions were between 2005-2013.