'Liz Williams - the Figure in Clay' in Body Language published by Wakefield Press 2017

Liz Williams: the figure in clay

This is an edited version of an article originally published in Ceramics, Art and Perception, issue 73 in 2008

The history of figurative sculpture in ceramics is marked both by its antiquity and the inherent limitations of the material.

Clay has always had the advantage of being malleable, abundant and virtually free, but it also has distinct drawbacks when used for sculptural purposes. Clay must be kept moist in order to be modelled but moist clay has limited mechanical strength. This can be somewhat compensated for by making the pieces thicker – and consequently heavier – but this thickness then becomes a problem if the piece is to be successfully fired, as the moisture contained in the clay has to be driven off slowly as the water turns to steam, but if the clay is not fires then it is nothing but dried mud, and so it goes. Put simply, making large sculptures out of clay is not the easiest thing to do.

Different cultures have found different solutions to these challenges. The apotheosis of archaic figurative ceramic sculpture is found in the so-called terracotta warriors ( in pinyin bingma yong or ‘soldier and horses funerary statues’), a collection of around 7000 life-size warriors, together with horses and chariots, that were made during the reign of the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang around 200BC.

As with all Chinese ceramics, an astonishing level or artistry was achieved through long familiarity with the material combined with a no-nonsense approach to manufacture that was more akin to industry to art. It is salutary to remember that Chinese ceramics, be they a terracotta warrior or a Sung bowl, reached dizzying aesthetic heights through a collective approach to making art that is antithetical to our contemporary notions of how art is made and the importance we place on individual expression.

Inspired by another Chinese ceramic tradition, that of porcelain, European manufacturers have since the early 18th century produced vast numbers of ceramic figures which combine an exquisite control of clay and glaze with imagery taken (albeit in a degraded form) from neo-classical traditions. The consequences of using that most difficult of ceramic materials – porcelain – to mimic a formal language grounded in the obdurate necessities of craved stone or the unfettered language of paint was that the scale of the porcelain figure was severely constrained.

What may have started life as an imposing figure occupying a central place in an Italian piazza was reduced to a bibelot sitting on a square foot of polished-timber dining table: where Neptune once raised his trident over splashing fountains and pulchritudinous mermaids, he now lorded it over the halibut.

It is debatable just which of these two traditions has had a stronger influence on modern figurative ceramic sculpture, but there certainly were places and times in this country where the delicate and rather effete quality of Dresden centrepieces took the upper hand, not the least being Adelaide in the 1970s where the precursor to what was later termed Skangaroovian Funk lived uneasily beside a curious amalgam of Japanese-derived folk traditions and English rural pottery that constituted the Anglo-Oriental tradition of studio pottery.

All of which makes Liz Williams work more remarkable, since she instead developed a language which finds its grammar in the hieratic, totemic and folk traditions of ceramic sculpture, rather than the florid and gilded excesses of the China cabinet. Just how this came about makes for an interesting story.

Williams has been making ceramics for forty or more years and she is certainly well-trained, although her sculptural work reveals no direct influences from Milton Moon, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott or Paul Soldner, teachers she had direct contact with during the 1970s and early 1980s. Her formal education encompassed both the Anglo-Oriental tradition of functional pottery (the celadon bowls which kept reappearing throughout her working life were markers of a tradition she honoured, even if her artistic output took a very different form) and the experimental approaches of Californian ceramics, all of this during a period when ceramics was arguably enjoying its most diverse and rambunctious phase.

Williams was among the first generation of ceramic artists trained in this country where everything – information, publications, techniques, materials and styles – suddenly became available. It was simply all there for the taking. Faced with this confusion of riches, Williams did the sensible thing: she began to work through her artistic options.

Her early work was not strident but neither was it shy. She moved from functional stoneware to raku, gradually altering the vessel form and experimenting with decorative techniques.

In Los Angeles she worked with Paul Soldner at Scripps College and she often travelled to San Francisco, looking long and hard at the Avery Brundage Collection, one of the world’s great collections of Asian art, then housed in a wing of the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park.

She became fascinated by the relationship of Chinese ceramics with bronzes, and her work at this time shows the influence of formal and decorative devices sourced from these archaic works, successfully translated into a contemporary, personal idiom. Although this work would not provide Williams with her mature artistic destination, it demonstrated an increasing ability to interpret, a facility which would stand her in good stead.

When tracing the development of her current work – these still, carefully modelled and rather reductive figures – one searches for the moment where the decorated vessel finally transited into the unadorned, sculpted figure: where glaze and colour gave way to plain clay and the subtleties of posture. None of this happens suddenly, over the course of a day or even a year, but looking back it is often possible to identify a time or place which seems to provide the necessary impetus for a profound change to occur.

In 1993, as part of the national Ceramics Conference held in Adelaide, Liz Williams held an exhibition of figurative ceramics at the Adelaide Central School of Art Gallery. Titled Recuerdos (which may be translated as meaning memories, memorabilia or even remembrances) this work called on experiences she had accumulated during a study tour of the US and Mexico in 1991. Groups of clay figures were lit by candles, at once evoking a church and a reliquary, Spanish Catholicism and the rich tradition of pre-Columbian America.

In modern parlance, it was an installation. It was a pivotal moment in Williams’ development, one where she publicly declared her own thoughts in a language she then refined for the next twenty-five years.

The changes to her work over this time have been incremental, thoughtful and restrained. The basic elements have remained the same, but there have been a myriad of subtle shifts. One of the most notable differences has been an increasing realism, a fidelity, born of Williams’ involvement in teaching and her observation of the movement (and occasional stillness) of children. The coltish pose of the young ballet student, the distracted expression of a youngster occupied with their own world, all of these things have been observed and noted to re-emerge in clay.

At times, there is an air of theatricality to the work, in the use of props like a bright red chair, an earring or a mirror. But, more and more, the emphasis is on the body, at rest and in motion, and in pushing the technical limits of clay to keep up with her demands.

This is made all the more complex when the figure is required to stand without external support, because Williams’ figures stand as we do. This provokes a sort of kinaesthetic exchange between the viewer and the viewed (that most under-explored topic of art theory) where we somehow intuit the fact that these figures are not pinned, fixed or glued to the ground, and that their stance relies a little, as we all do, on trust.

Williams’ constant challenge is to fulfil this need for balance without the poses becoming stuff and constrained. Her solution has been to invest the figures with a certain abstract quality whereby they are not realistic enough that we expect them to be fully animated, but by deferring to small gestures – the bunny-rabbit shoes worn by a young dancer – they mark us as human. After all, the aim of the work is not verisimilitude but empathy, or perhaps she would have said simpatico.

There are other discrete references to be found; the tutu made of real cloth worn by Edgar Degas’s famous 1880 bronze  La Petite Danseuse de Quartorze Ans is certainly there and the curious, pear-shaped figure that comes directly from the 15th century Northern-European painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. Contemporary work is also quoted, with Williams’ friend, the painter Gary Shead being directly referenced and one might easily think about the work of Charles Blackman, at least in the subject matter.

But these contemporary resonances seem always to be balanced (there’s that word again) with a much older tradition found in the anonymous works of pre-Columbian America, of China and in the folk traditions of Christendom.

During the last phase of her career, following her retirement from full-time teaching, Williams’ output increased. An inveterate traveller, she constantly informed her practice with observation of the contemporary and the art of the past, with her last prolonged residency in Japan leading to yet more refinements to her oeuvre. There now will be no more quiet figures, but those that remain stand in testimony to a life well-lived. They will, of course, outlive us all – for that is the nature of clay.

Damon Moon

Adelaide 2017.

Liz Williams, Body Language, Wakefield Press 2017