The Solidified Poems of Monika Debus

In the poem ‘Dockery and Son’, first published 28th February 1964 in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ by Faber and Faber, Philip Larkin writes:

Why did he think adding meant increase?

To me it was dilution. Where do these

Innate assumptions come from? Not from what

We think truest, or want to do:

I wish to offer the view that it was with this kind of thought in mind: ‘Why did he think that adding meant increase? To me it was dilution’, that Monika Debus makes her many of her creative decisions. These are shapes unshackled from everything we know. They stand apart and generate a kind of otherworldliness in the space around them. They carry just enough making and markmaking. Any more, of anything, would dilute them. They are simple. They are just enough. They are poems solidified.

In an almost uncomfortable juxtaposition to the simmering quiet of her work, Monika Debus’ practice, on the other hand, has been a series of ruptures and oppositions as we shall see: from her traditional German pottery training; from traditional and conventional salt firing; from traditional surface decoration. And in all of these instances of opposing something, she has pursued an essentialisation, a simplicity, and a visual tension, that has resulted in an entirely unique body of work. And in all of these endeavours she has never knowingly mistaken adding for increase.

Through craft the maker and the purveyor talk to strangers. Meaning is located in the piece itself as well as in the space around the piece (the gallery, in this case) and the accompanying chatter. We approach it with our eyes, ears, and body first. Then the complex ‘self’ we bring to it, with our knowledge and our taste and our prejudices. Some may say that all abstracted work does is to vibrate with its own futility and meaninglessness, and walk away unhindered and unchanged. Some feel strongly enough to verbalise their dismay. Others will defend to death the idea that this kind of work moves them like little else in the world, and that it has the right to be here in Great Russell Street. In this exhibition there are clay pots and other objects that are the crystallisation of simple poise and coolness, and bold and confident abstract painting. They will move many.

Collectors and lovers of work where the abstract takes primacy over the figurative, the narrative, or the easily understood, often feel obliged to defend their choices. Most arguments in favour of abstract work are based in the materials (clay and glaze) and the response to these materials, usually described as ‘aesthetic’, or about ‘feeling’. I love it, but I can’t explain why, is a regular refrain. But why is it that Monika Debus finds such emphatic value in material itself, and abstract marks? And why does she think that others may feel the same way? All the maker desires, after all, is for the viewer to feel the same. The answer lies not in the history of pottery, but in much of the writing on the history of painting and sculpture. It is to be found in the writing of Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Alfred Barr, Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, and many others.

There have been untold attempts at explaining why such profound pleasure could be had – by some – from something so devoid of recognisable figurative or narrative content, from early 20th Century artists’ manifestoes and theses, from writings based in the spiritual to the socio-political, to the work of neuroscientists (Functional MRI, for example). I will give just a sample of those debates. In 1936 Alfred Barr, director of the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in his catalogue essay for the exhibition ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’, wrote that abstraction was the logical and inevitable result of artistic endeavour – that it was about directness and clarity and about exclusion of that which did not fit, resulting in something that was formalist, intellectual, and ahistorical. He was keen to stress surface qualities as of profound interest in itself. And that we could and should be moved by this. Clive Bell, from whom Alfred Barr took the baton, and who also wrote in a dark radicalised time, and in support of the work of artists like Gauguin, produced a radical thesis called ‘Art’ (1913) (available for free on Kindle) stating that abstract art was inevitable and available only to the few capable of it. He asserted, famously, that for those who did not appreciate Significant Form, as he put it, there was no hope of ever doing so. He begins the book with the lines: What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? The answer, according to Bell, is significant form which he goes on to describe as: lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, [that] stir our aesthetic emotions. Later, others, like Meyer Schapiro, who in The Nature of Abstract Art of 1978, a response to Barr, took issue with his decontextualisation, and insisted that ‘nature’ and ‘abstract forms’ are both materials for art, and that an explanation has to consider both. Clement Greenberg, also in the USA, continued to struggle with reasons why abstraction ‘happened’ and why it moved some people so. His critical essays, littered with terms like flatness, autonomy, and shallow depth are monuments to modernism and the persistence of abstract art. And so on and so on. To represent or unravel this textual struggle for an explanation as to why abstraction and material itself appeal, is difficult. I will not, therefore, in this piece of writing, succeed in explaining why abstraction moves people either, except to alert sceptics to the fact that it truly does. And why the work of Monika Debus does.

The pieces in this exhibition are three-dimensionalised abstract paintings, most in the guise of pots, most soft in shape, like bellies, thighs, or torso’s. The painting brings to mind Chinese and Japanese calligraphy and American Abstract Expressionist paintings as exemplified in the work of Franz Kline, Agnes Martin, and Jackson Pollock. They exhibit a painterly openness and freedom (or outrageousness, to some observers) that stops just in time. This is important, this stopping just in time. One more brush or pour mark, or a pinch too much/little of salt in the kiln, can ruin a piece, collapse it into the random, the arbitrary, into the over-expressed and overwrought. Never, in this work, does ‘too much happen on a pot of that size’.

But when it all works out fine we have clay objects that sizzle with an incomparable glow, despite the limited colour, and lightness, each capable of filling a room and capturing the eye. This effect, I wish to argue, without overemphasising the biography of the maker, is inseparable from moments of stepping away from something, in Ms Debus’ particular biography.

She stepped away from a Geography degree at Bonn University, where the only way to progress was to do more geography. She stepped away from the trajectory of traditional German pottery after her stay at the S. Hageman Pottery (1987 – 1989) and then the State College of Ceramic Design at Hoehr-Grenzhausen. In 1994 Monika Debus became a member of the small ‘Ceramics Group Grenzhausen’, famed for their rejection of the familiar, which had their studios in the former ceramics factory in Merkelbach, a historically important ceramics region. It was here that she met Susanne Altzweig, Martin Georg, and Fritz Rossmann. It was here that she developed her particular way of handbuilding. It was here that she developed her particular way of saltfiring. It was here that she found her unique voice.

To assemble her pots she starts off with an oval footplate of stoneware clay onto which she places two large basin-shaped slabs of soft clay on which she had already done her brushwork, her half-brush-half- pour technique using porcelainous slips. The piece is assembled soft and manipulated/touched absolutely minimally thereafter. Then salt-fired in a reduction kiln to 1140 degrees Celsius.

This way of making and finishing represents several removes from traditional German saltware and even traditional contemporary German studio pottery and its then conventionalising pressures. These pots and objects are handbuilt, not thrown, and fired in salt at a lower temperature than expected of this kind of firing. Her salt firing is about a delicate trace of salt, rather than an overwhelming of the clay, that pursuit of the orange peel effect. It is a trace, not a labouring for maximum effect. They are large and light, not fired till they are small, dark, dense, and steel-hard. These pots are, therefore, the result of quiet and considered oppositional thinking. They are a deep and subtle moving away from, not merely exploring a variety of available technical options because they are there. It is possible to argue that craft and art move forward best when it properly opposes, rather than pout or scream to get noticed.

So, Monika Debus’ body of work, despite her classical and, arguably, archetypal German pottery training, represents a conscious dissociation from its sociocultural context. This is amply exemplified in her treatment of surface finishing (as opposed to ‘surface decoration’, with its inference to embellishment and that ‘adding’, which Larkin writes about). Her means are few: a set of slips consisting of black and white, and grey, and a set of mostly large brushes. That is it. But with that she achieves her dreamy painterly effects that leave the attuned viewer truly moved.

Monika rejects the notion of the easily understood pot and familiar pottery shapes and surfaces (the studio pottery idyll), and sometimes her work tips over into the non-pot by way of wall-pieces and other objects. But the shapes are always simple and universal. Function is alluded to tangentially, but rejected, and in its rejection and apartness the pieces become more powerful. She rejects, also, the straightforwardly representational in her painting, and walks a painterly tightrope that would lay her open to charges of ‘messy’ should she fall. She never falls. Her painting comes from her hands, her arms, her upper body. Her painting is never ‘merely’ decorative. Her painting never succumbs to whimsy.

This exhibition has been made possible by a special grant from The Hargreaves and Ball Trust and is the second by a ceramicist from outside the United Kingdom. Occasionally the Contemporary Ceramics Centre shows work that offers a welcome resistance to the conventional. This is just such an exhibition.