FROM CANVAS TO CLAY: Exploring material limits with Hugh Black


Hugh Black, Untitled Series, 2019. Installation view for Jenny Birt Award 2019. Ceramic and glaze. Courtesy: the artist.

Ceramics is, by nature, a sculptural three-dimensional medium. Its malleability and unique material transformation lends well to the creation of a bowl, or a bust or infinitely anything. Yet does that mean it is forced to remain within the realm of three-dimensional sculpture? What if it wants to be a painting or a drawing? Does the physicality of clay mean that ‘ceramics’ is materially limited?


Artist Hugh Black is challenging the conventional limitations of clay and ceramics in his new body of work Untitled by saying, merely, that his ceramic wall hangings are paintings within his expanded art practice. They appear as paintings – there is a rectangular canvas shape decorated with colourful splashes of colour and texture hanging upon a wall. Yet the canvas is clay, the paint is glaze and it looks slightly clunky and heavy hanging upon the wall. Black’s work begs the question, is it merely the terminology and definitions we have given to material which have enforced their genre classification. Or is there something more about the nature of clay – as tactile, as transformable, as having a body – that separates it distinctly and purposefully from two-dimensional mediums? Black’s body of work was selected to feature in the Jenny Birt Painting prize (as the name suggests it is a competition for painters). Its selection is important as it highlights the current shift within the art world to want to expand the parameters of medium, classification and practice. He explains,


“This untitled series of text based works sit within an expanded painting practice and continues my examination of language in contemporary culture and the notion of the archive.”



While language is explored quite literally through hiss use of text, the materiality of the work and its subsequent classification beyond the formal genres of art is an exploration of the dichotomous and restrictive nature of the language directing and dominating art and its public dissemination. Challenging traditional art mediums and genres, his work is a material manifestation of our increasingly transdisciplinary era. The curated colour scheme of red, yellow and blue extends the works transdisciplinary nature further still, nodding to the RGB colour system used in digital computer displays.


So Blacks work is a painting; a ceramic sculpture; and a representation of the digital world (by which our modern society is dependent on). The slabs’ colourful yet modest existence is clearly the culmination of a wide reaching expanded art practice driven by a careful consideration of postmodern material theory (think America 1960’s crisis of the author and death of the subject) as well as contemporary reconsiderations of material presence and absence spurred by digital technologies. Black thinks of his slab works as tools for referencing and decoding the language of his time, he says, “They reference elements of vernacular that are facile, confessional and heavily coded by wider social and personal contexts… The slabs are fired numerous times until they break and are stitched together with coloured glass, still heavy and even more fragile, they are no longer just objects of words.”


In our increasingly transdisciplinary era it is unsurprising that artists should attempt to create work which is transdisciplinary in concept and material, and what Black has done quite cleverly is to blend three naturally opposing material genres in a way where all are celebrated in equal and informed measures.



Images: Hugh Black, Untitled Series, 2019. Installation view for Jenny Birt Award 2019. Ceramic and glaze. Courtesy: the artist.