There is a sense of provisionality about the works of ceramicist Johannes Nagel – we know they are finished because they are glazed, fired, and presented, but they allow for continued questioning of the concept of the vessel – what it signifies, what memories of other objects it evokes, the deep conventions of the ceramic discipline. Nagel has the agility to work in accretive and reductive ways: his vessels may be thrown, built, collaged, or cast in moulds excavated in sand.

His collaged works are made up of components which are often recognisably wheel-thrown, and which have been stacked or assembled, sometimes in discordant ways. Volume meets neck; neck meets lip; lip may hang under its own weight. They comment on the qualities of clay – to be brittle and angular, soft and pliant, smooth in places but in others harshly gritty with grogged additions. He makes and then breaks the profile of the vessel, the very principle upon which it depends. There may be a gap left between components, rendering invalid any semblance of function. Imagery or colour is deliberately superficial, applied like paint as an on-glaze, disrupting and re-establishing the lines of the work and the way it is articulated and read.

The vessels of the (New Jazz) Isolator series are like the cores made by a huge auger as it is withdrawn from the ground, bringing with it different textures and gauges of material: the strata of the earth. Vast, central cylinders, thrown and built, bear blades of clay on their outer surfaces. These are established in a regular distribution, and then variously torn and disrupted. He speaks of these works as analogous to jazz: improvised, riffing on a rhythmic form. In groups they play upon each other, while each work has its own compositional integrity.

He embraces the lo-tech of the sand-cast, using no tools and limiting his forms to those possible through the use of his hands, together and separately. The basis of thrown ceramics is the rotational form, around a central axis. Once throwing is abandoned for other techniques, there is no need to adhere to the rotational, but Nagel acknowledges the convention of the vessel by using rotation even in his cast works. He hand-gouges spaces in a loose material, imperfectly describing an orbit, before lining the void with liquid porcelain. He describes this improvised technique – direct, informed, intuitive – and the relationship between the imagined form and the result, as “sculptural unsharpness”.

© Sara Roberts


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