The sureness of hand and eye gives the work a childlike spontaneity only mastered through years of experience.
This is the third solo exhibition of Jean-Nicolas Gérard’s pots at Goldmark. What more can usefully be written? I suspect many of the gallery’s patrons are already converted, enthusiastic to see his latest works. They will not be disappointed: it is an outstanding body of work. They will already know one keeps rediscovering Gérard’s pots through use; they may already have a favorite mug that lifts the spirit each morning, they will be aware of the inspiring choice his pots provide when dishing up a meal and the dialogue between food and clay they offer. They will have already discovered how Gérard’s work draws us together while connecting us to a wider world. Some, new to his work, may find it a challenge, for his pots are not passive. Like the playing of cellist Pablo Casals, they are visceral. Gérard requires us to ignore convention, rejoicing in the sensuality of clay, and to adopt the concept of ‘élan vital’ described by philosopher Eugène Minkowski as a feeling of participation and of flowing forward.
There is a compelling theory that we became human when we learnt to tame fire and cook. Cooking allowed us to make more effective use of our food. Our brains grew bigger and our gut became smaller. Cooking reduced the time spent eating, allowing us to make things – pots, for example – which in turn enabled us to cook, eat and drink in ever more sophisticated ways. Cooking and potting have much in common. Both process raw natural materials; both are transformative, using fire to produce a cooked cultural outcome. Many of the techniques used in both are similar: rolling, kneading, crimping, trailing, glazing. And of course the two unite when we gather as social beings: family meals, wedding feasts, parties and all the other occasions when humans meet to eat and drink. To use the pots of Jean-Nicolas Gérard is to celebrate the centrality of food in human culture and, in our industrially mediated world, to be reminded of its importance in nourishing the mind and spirit as well as the body.
Gérard’s work reminds me of a visit to Japan when I discovered in Nara Museum a tiny pot from the early Jomon period, one of the oldest pots in the world, formed by little more than pressing the thumb into a lump of clay. This ancient pot is playful and generous, slightly banal in scale and ambition, its expression of clayness and fire so powerful that the maker is almost eclipsed; nevertheless I felt the presence of another human, a personal link across millennia of time, space and culture. It has a quality of what Heidegger calls ‘thingness’, in part connectedness, which emerges when we can see beyond objects’ socially encoded value: the jug holds wine, the wine is linked to the vine, the vine to the sun… Gérard’s work has this same quality. His unconventional forms and robust, expressive handling of the clay connect us to a rich world of images, ideas and memories. We feel the clay being torn, squeezed, splashed and scraped before we see the object. While the utilitarian function exists, it does not dominate – indeed it is more some-thing we discover, and when discovered takes us way beyond a simple utensil to a world of possibility.
Gérard works in the small town of Valensole in southern France. As Van Gogh recognised, the light in this part of the world is intense, clear and bright, the night sky a mass of stars. The town is surrounded by olive groves, dappled silver leaves and dark crusty trunks; fields of sunflowers, tall, with yellow velvet brown faces, stumpy vines stretched in ordered rows, and, most famously, lavender, which in early summer blooms in a fantastic exhibition of intoxicating scent and irresistible clouds of mauve. The dry limestone plateau is crossed by refreshing streams that flow from the Alps, seen in the distance as jagged ridges in different tints of blue. Sparkling water irrigates lush gardens and smallholdings of rich red earth that supply the local markets. The stalls are a banquet of colour, smell, and form: succulent cucumbers, blushing yellow and green, writhe in prickly chaotic piles; families of tomatoes, plump and stripy, all sizes and shapes that bear little resemblance to their bland, uniform, supermarket namesakes. Great barrels of fleshy brown cheese with shiny aubergine rind are sold next to delicate white goat’s cheese, individually wrapped in vine leaves, while the humming meadows and scrubby arid bluffs are captured and distilled in jars of sun-filled honey and bitter sweet herbs. Despite this apparent idyll, Valensole, unlike so many Provençal towns, is not dominated by tourism and second homes. It is a working town with its région artisanale of modern industry and clearly retains its sense of community. Neighbours take time to speak in the street or meet for coffee or a glass of wine. But the thoughtful visitor will see its picturesque lanes bare the scars of hardship: ancient sun-bleached doors, their cracked planks meticulously repaired with recycled tin carefully hammered flat, crumbling yellow houses, blue shutters, coated with generations of peeling paint, visually rich but born of poverty. Illegible enamel signs, scratched and corroded, inform us of the abstract beauty that can be found in the redundant and forgotten. The polished, rounded stones of the communal wash house, their patina tells of hard repetitive labour as well as the shared stories of women, while the low maintenance lavender first planted in the 1920s are markers of the many farm hands who failed to return from the killing fields of the Great War. It is this landscape, rooted in joy and sorrow, that feeds Gérard the artist.
Gérard shows no interest in easy, narrow-footed elegance. The broad feet and rims of pots are robust and generous; the forms sometimes possess a relaxed, comic wonkiness. Soup tureens with lids like bobble hats and jugs with pouring lips that deliver an almost unseemly volume of liquid reminiscent of the town’s water fountains. Gérard looks for unconventional solutions to familiar problems: bottles where the shoulder and neck are thrown separately and subsequently joined to base and trunk with visible thumb marks, both practical and decorative; dishes made from a single slab of clay, cut and rejoined with the rich imagination and disarming simplicity of a sailing boat made out of two dried leaves. Gérard celebrates the act of making, and the trace of his fingers in every stage of the process can be found as evidence of each pot’s individual history. This eccentric playfulness, however, belies outstanding skill and deep knowledge of his medium. It is a freedom that allows him to balance frenetic energy with sensitivity and restraint. The sureness of hand and eye gives the work a childlike spontaneity only mastered through years of experience.
Over time Gérard has developed a wide range of domestic pots: dishes and bowls, bottles and jars, teapots and mugs, jugs and plates. All unmistakably his, no two identical. It is this element of choice that is such a joy. Not between better and worse, but offering a preference depending on use or weather or mood. He makes magnificent slab dishes that spend much of their life on the shelf, but they are more than decoration: they function as reminders of the special occasions when they are brought into practical use. Over time they become richly layered with family history. They are the stuff of heirlooms. Other pots will be constantly put to work, their forms and surfaces appreciated by hand as well as eye and, defying the dishwasher, enjoyed as much in the sink and in revealing their undersides on the draining board as they are displayed on the dining table; an opportunity for the guest to reciprocate the generosity of the host.
In this exhibition, for the first time at Goldmark, Gérard has included a group of black and white ware that he has been developing for several years. Apart from the Chinese Cizhou ware, few have successfully attempted the aesthetic challenge that such a stark contrast presents; those who have tend to keep it tightly controlled within geometric pattern. The juxtaposition is much more severe than his familiar black, tan and warm yellow glaze combinations, or traditional European blue and white Faience or Delft. The unforgiving divergence of tone, combined with Gérard’s informal style of decoration, makes these pieces daring in prospect and exhilarating in accomplishment. The addition of tin oxide produces a startlingly white, or occasionally in places a milky grey when thin over the black slip, which is applied first. Some have additions of intense primary and complementary colours in bright sparkling enamels that chime with the work of the many other artists who have been beguiled by the quality of Mediterranean light.
Where does Gérard fit in contemporary ceramic practice? His work has something of the feel of European peasant ware. His clays, slips and glazes are of that earthenware tradition. His forms are robust and energetic, and have the simple but profound beauty and spontaneity that shines out from those who are alive and happy. They do not mimic historic artisan pottery, and, despite capturing something of their essence, might be better understood as post-industrial rather than craft revival. The characterless uniformity of industrial ceramics, its dead bodies and bland glazes, its slick, stylised designs that feed the promiscuous conceits of consumer culture, have prepared the way for something more sustainable, satisfying, real. Gérard may be reminding us of what has been lost, but he is a thoroughly modern potter. During his time at art school, he consciously developed his own unique style; particularly remarkable as, at the time, ceramic departments in French colleges were dominated by conceptual fine art. His work asserts the idea, well understood in the Far East, that while pots have a distinct language and meaning, they are of equal value to other art forms. He understands, as they do in Japan, that to use pots for food does not diminish them; with their tactile as well as visual engagement, they enhance consumption. Despite the strong sense of place that Gérard’s pots possess, his work is widely appreciated, leading to many invitations around the world by those who marvel at his magic and mastery. There is something intensely human about work that is universally recognised; something refreshingly new, growing on deep roots. Gérard takes us warmly by the hand and leads us out into the world to share in what he has encountered. His pots are a gift.
Professor Sebastian Blackie, August 2020