Renee So, review by Henry Little
As the boundaries between craft and contemporary art continue to disintegrate we can find a relevant context for the work of Renee So. One of a growing number of emerging and established artists who experiment with ceramics - a medium until relatively recently resigned to an unflattering niche somewhere between quaint, conservative and amateur - So’s enterprise also encompasses knitted woollen works in large format. While Grayson Perry remains the bombastic poster boy (girl’) for radical ceramics, alongside other artists like Rebecca Warren, Adriana Varejao or Anna Maria Maiolino, another generation of artists including Caroline Achaintre, Neil Brown Sword and, even more recently, Juliana Cerqueira Leite, have taken it in startling new directions. At the core of many of these investigations is an exploitation of clay as a material capable of registering process and change, but also as one which can be carefully manipulated to create a subtle spectrum of effects, often allowing for a desirable textural ambiguity to emerge.
In the case of Renee So, ceramics are used to populate a cast of figures based upon Bellarmine jugs - a Germanic tradition where tankards were sculpted to look like wild men of the wood. So additionally appropriates the double heads seen on playing cards (Jacks, Queens and Kings) to produce a heavily stylised aesthetic with clean, angular lines. Indeed, it appears to be this very process of stylisation, and the necessary move from the particular to the general which it engenders, that fascinates the artist. Most striking about her clay Bellarmines (2012) is the sculpting of their beards: exaggerated to the point where hair reads like a cartoon raspberry, the work’s form is ultimately both visually and physically satisfying.
The woollen works, where So’s characters fill a number of different scenes, are also visually stunning. Promenading (2010) employs imagery which is somewhere between a dandyish cartoon and a kind of folk abstraction. The medium - knitted wool - dictates that the composition is relatively restrained but it simultaneously appears that So enjoys the pressure this exerts upon the need for clarity of line. This drives the image comfortably towards a controlled but advanced stylisation.
One of the most peculiar devices So employs is the use of double heads. The format of her ceramic works as portrait busts and this doubling alludes unmistakably to Greco-Roman mythology and, more specifically, to bearded busts of the god Janus. The meaning of such an allusion could be understood in a two-fold manner (no pun intended). As the god who presided over change and transition we may link Janus to So’s interest in stylisation as the process by which an image or subject moves further and further towards a generalised style at one or several removes from reality. We may further attribute So with a nuanced understanding of the stylisation of classical sculpture and its analogue behaviour with the commercially driven stylisation of the Bellarmine jugs.
Finally, before leaving, and as you ponder So’s exhibition, you will no doubt be struck by the air of foppish conviviality which enlivens the works as charming embodiments of a bygone bonhomie, lending the gallery the pleasing atmosphere of a warm-hearted Bavarian beer hall. Truly, my cup runneth over.