The reception of the November 2016 ceramics exhibition of work by Anne Mette Hjortshøj was overwhelming. Originally consisting of an astounding 380 pots – a number that could comfortably fill 2 independent shows – Goldmark sold over half the exhibition pots before we had even opened. Since then, more and more pieces have been flying out the gallery doors to new homes. The response has been remarkable.
Hearing Anne Mette Hjortshøj talk of the great risks of being a potter, of the trauma of failed firings (the worries increase when your kiln is a big one to fill), gives that phrase ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’ an extra frisson.
The commitment of being a functional potter and thinking about large exhibitions makes this a stubborn breed. Anne Mette has that tenacity, that quiet self-belief that you need. It is all about clear-mindedness and focus, finding your own pace as you set to making runs of forms; bottles, bowls and whatever else is in your repertoire, a tempo that involves many quiet deviations, of ‘playing with proportions’ as Anne Mette says, each object subtly different in shape, surface and marking.
The first Goldmark exhibition (2012) and its accompanying film, one of the most evocative about a potter in recent memory, helped to make Anne Mette something of a celebrity. But the notice taken in her homeland of Denmark should come as no surprise in a Scandinavian culture that has valued the hand-made object so highly and where studio pots are commonly shown alongside paintings and sculptures in museums.
Denmark, rather like Japan, does not differentiate between visual disciplines to the extent that Britain does. Art, craft and design are all on a par, closely interconnected as most of us (via William Morris and the Bauhaus) realise, but still something many commentators and curators in this country find difficult to grasp.
Anne Mette’s Danishness also comes down to an innate quality shared with the best of Scandinavian work: clarity. Her forms are simple and unfussy, as clear-cut as the crisp light of Bornholm, the Danish island where she has lived and worked since coming here to train in the late 1990s. The Danish sense of form is a little different from our own. There is a concision and modernity that derives much from a Northern sense of colour and surface. In ceramics the textures are often grittier, the impression bold and powerful.
Anne Mette appreciates that salt-fired work is at its best when the shapes are clean, on her flared bowls, oval dishes, and big round jars. The jugs have a medieval quality tempered by a modern economy of touch. Incised and impressed decoration or brushed slip on slab bottles suggests a line of horizon, a minimalist landscape.
Anne Mette can invoke history but still make pots that are about her own way of working. Are such pots about self-expression? I prefer to borrow the late poet Geoffrey Hill’s liking for the phrase ‘expressiveness’. Such work goes beyond the limitations of the former, because it enriches all the strengths of an accepted tradition while full of the imprints that make these pots her own.
She is part of a strong functional language in Scandinavia, of making things fit for purpose but also beautiful to look at. Her use of clays, of Bornholm materials for her slips and glazes, is applied with great freshness, such lightness of touch. Her sense of renewal illuminates.
David Whiting, November 2016