In the musical form lieder, music is often written in response to an existing poem, as Viennese composer Franz Schubert famously did with the poetry of the German poet Goethe. In
her upcoming exhibition Hauslieder, Kirsten Coelho does something similar, giving her own expression to existing vessel shapes and forms she then composes into considered pairings and groupings. As well as combining music and poem, lieder is given expression through just voice and piano, and a similar conception, of one thing paired with another, is threaded through much of this most recent work. Even in the works presented as singular objects, the idea of more than one thing at play is clear.
As a lieder fan, Coelho coined the term Hauslieder to refer playfully to both the place where
it was historically performed, and to the setting in which her ceramic forms are rooted: the home. Most of the forms in the exhibition are drawn primarily from the domestic sphere:
cup, bottle and bowl shapes. A small number draw upon the mechanical and the industrial either in shape or surface addition, but the home too is a place where repetitive acts abound in the functions and rituals of everyday life. Although the domestic space per se is not Coelho’s primary concern, she borrows from its traditions to perform a complex staging of her works where the narrating of ‘the insignificant and significant stories of our histories’ might unfold.
The majority of works in Hauslieder are shown as pairs or as ensembles of three or more forms, all recognisable either from Coelho’s oeuvre, museum archives or canonical painted representations. They have been produced using several porcelain clays, each chosen for a specific attribute. Almost opposite in terms of preciousness, a hardy red terracotta is used here for the first time in a new series of works.
Throughout her career Coelho has responded to objects depicted by painters, particularly evident in this body of work, where she has taken her cue from vessels seen in the works of seventeenth century Spanish painters Francisco De Zurbarán’s Still Life with Four Objects and Juan van der Hamen y Léon’s Still life with Porcelain and Sweets. Both paintings depict vessels made from porcelain, alongside red terracotta household water cups or holders (referred to as bucaro) as finely imagined and modelled as their porcelain counterparts. Terracotta vessels remain porous after firing and so evaporation takes place when filled with water, cooling both the water and the air around the vessel. To preserve this porosity they are rarely glazed, though Coelho’s works have been coated in terrasigillata, a fine red clay ground until the clay particles move to a plate-like orientation, reflecting light and giving a soft sheen to the object.
Looking at Coelho’s work over previous years, it is hard to imagine how it could be further refined, but it has been. She cites lieder’s ‘...reductive way of presenting song...’ as a guiding principle in this body of work and here all is reduced to exactly what she imagines. These
are not modern forms and function is not in play: impression, resonance and idea are the focal concerns. The works appear to be abstracted versions of familiar things with more in common, perhaps, with their painted equivalents, yet without relinquishing three dimensional solidity. In Coelho’s work the presence of the hand, which is so often cited as a feature of ceramic objects, almost disappears, such is her skill at developing meticulously wheel-thrown works and producing seamless form and glaze pairings.
But there are exceptions. Just as bucaro might be termed ‘machines for living’ (apologies to Le Corbusier) — working to cool the water, cool the air — it is the abraded surfaces of Coelho’s terracotta cylindrical vessels that conjure up the labour of earlier industrial machines and domestic objects. Placed amongst her formal arrangements of abstracted shapes and forms on shelves which hover between shelf and table, and in works which otherwise appear to be, in Norman Bryson’s words, ‘objects uniquely destined for the gaze’, it is the terracotta works that act as a bridge or transition between table and wall.
Likewise, the artist’s hand can be seen in the larger works through their regular rhythmic patterning with small added clay shapes; these have a more machine-like presence despite the forms being domestic in association. But they might equally represent musical notation and an attempt to pair rhythm with static form. These larger works are perhaps the most abstract of the works. Their larger scale takes them out of the sphere of the domestic and the clay and glaze, so resolutely one thing now after firing, gives them a quality of architectural form.
Coelho’s use of colour in this latest body of work is thoughtfully considered. Her blue glaze, for instance is matte and dense and she uses it to suggest a shadow, in some lights, amongst the ensembled forms. It is an intense blue loaded with cobalt oxide, the material universally used for ceramic decoration throughout history, here compressed into overall surface. In this way the blue forms also seem similar to the larger body of vessels in that they appear as abstracted and condensed forms of something recognisable, not yet fixed.
Lieder is an emotive form despite its formal staging, the charge coming from the interplay between voice and piano. Interplay is everywhere in Hauslieder as well: between formal arrangement and increasingly abstract form/surface fusion, between colour and surface quality, between historical and contemporary reference and between shape and juxtaposition. In this new work, Coelho points to disparate places, disparate uses and differing historical periods, and within the gentle tension between these elements lies the strength of her vision. Using her consummate skill as a maker and her encyclopedic knowledge of the field, Coelho liberates the domestic object to resonate both within and beyond the domestic space.