Haptic art is alive. Marcel Duchamp’s pale followers have failed, over the last hundred years, to snuff out the pleasure of making things with your hands. Squeezing red acrylic paint out of a tube and trailing it with a finger over a canvas still has irresistible appeal. So does mixing and shaping clay and hardening it into pots. And there can’t be many artists who have as much fun in making pots and other ceramics as Phil Eglin.
Phil is the 2017 winner of the Wakelin Award, given by the Friends of the Glynn Vivian to an artist not well represented in Welsh public collections. He was the choice of this year’s selector, Andrew Renton, who picked a series of stoneware jugs made in 2012 to enter the permanent collection of the Glynn Vivian. The Gallery has given a whole room to Eglinalia – not just the jugs but other work made by him – pots, plaques, fragments and drawings; and not just work by Phil but also objects that have surrounded him and given him nourishment – there are several Staffordshire pottery figures and a whole wall of large watering cans, complete, as Phil said, with their covering of dust. In reduced form the Glynn Viv has tried to recreate Phil’s studio in Abercrâf. It’s a grand sight and truly enlightening. Moulds show how Phil creates shapes from contemporary plastics, like the Macdonald’s arches incorporated into the bodies of his pottery Madonnas. The detritus of the commercial world finds its way, sometimes not altogether obviously, into Phil’s pots and figures. The bottom sections of the winning jugs originate in the ringed bases of plastic bottles.
These direct quotations of ecodestructive consumerism sit in strange harmony alongside something completely different – respect for a much older, vernacular tradition, that of English pottery making in the middle ages. This is a world away from standardised and perfectly moulded plastic. In the medieval and the early modern period almost nothing was perfect. Every hand-made pot is different. Most are wonky. Their shapes may be practical but they’re often ungraceful. Bodies are bulbous, feet look inadequate, mouths sag to one side. Glazes weep in odd directions, their colours are rarely even. In short, pots resemble the imperfect human bodies that made them.
When I was a student I spend weeks, even months gazing at Attic red-figure vases, and reading the learned commentaries on them by Sir John Beazley, John Boardman and Robert Cook. With enough practice I could tell my Berlin Painter from my Achilles Painter. But in the end part of me felt there was something anaemic about the perfection of all these graceful Greek amphorae and cups and lekythoi. Something had gone missing – the individual human touch. And that’s the attraction of the vernacular.
Phil’s six medievalish jugs are idiosyncratic, and they resemble real people. Ranged as they are in the Glyn Viv’s long glass case, they look as if they’ve been lined up in a hastily arranged identity parade. One or two of them are leaning, forward or back. None have symmetrical profiles. Despite their occasional shininess they all look shabby, as if they’ve seen better days: the body of one shows several bashes. In their colours, various shades of brown and beige, they make no attempt to conceal their earthy origins. They have handles of a kind that aim at some ideal of grace and sophistication, but they don’t really know how to pull it off. One carries a spout, tacked uncertainly on to the body with a strengthening strip.
The humour of these pieces – Phil calls himself ‘subversive and flippant’ as an artist – is repeated in many of the smaller fragments in the exhibition, and in the pot with a hilarious sketch of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. But other ceramics seem to call for something more than a smile. Phil has a liking for ‘flatback Madonnas’, inspired by wooden medieval sculptures. For all their modernity (one is called a ‘Poppadum Madonna’) they have a vulnerable, affecting look, partly because they’ve lost parts of their limbs, and even the Christ they were cradling. The biggest single piece is a pitcher on a grand scale. This too has a distinctly human shape, with its hip-like body and huge necky lip, but splashed over its exterior are unrestrained pools and streaks of red, the brightness of the colour unaffected by the firing. The effect is quite unsettling.
Phil Eglin is an artist with an international reputation who’s happy to work in his home patch – in his studio in Abercrâf or in workshops with children in Swansea. We’re lucky to have him among us.
The Phil Eglin exhibition continues in the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery until 9 April 2017. Phil will be in conversation with Andrew Renton in the Gallery on Friday 7 April at 12:30pm.