Brian J. McCarthy,
Decorator and Collector.
Forget about cute flower pots and elegant vases when you enter the world of contemporary ceramics. My Collecting Design: The Legends conversation this week was with Jason Jacques, the world’s leading dealer in contemporary ceramics, who showed us how to approach this fascinating and innovative field. The artists that Jacques presents at his chic Madison Avenue gallery create pieces that are powerful, dramatic, energetic, and sensual. Their work in clay is labor intensive and stunningly inventive in form, technique, and glazes, forging new paths for this ancient craft.
An autodidactic expert in 19th- and 20th-century ceramics, Jacques discovers, promotes, and showcases some of the best contemporary ceramics made today. It was at the antiques shop of his friend’s father, while just a teenager growing up in Chicago, that he first discovered the medium. It was love at first sight. While his peers were out partying, Jacques as a young man perused journals of decorative arts, dreaming of touching the objects he saw on the pages. With commitment and drive he followed his dream, along the way earning the nickname “the eye” for his extraordinary powers of discernment in clay art. Touch, he told us, is the secret to understanding and connecting with ceramics. The materiality, plasticity, and spirit all come together through touch and, like magic, evoke primordial emotions.
Jacques’s passion for ceramics took him to Vienna and Paris in the 1990s. There he hunted through Europe’s flea markets, endlessly handling vessels and acquiring the best hands-on training in how to distinguish the mediocre from the masterpiece; how to recognize exceptional artistic quality and originality. In 1996, he returned to the US and immediately founded Jason Jacques Gallery in downtown New York, soon attracting worldwide collectors.
In 2010, like many of his colleagues in the world of design, Jacques moved away from vintage into contemporary; working with living artists has become his primary focus ever since. At his gallery—known as the Temple of Contemporary Ceramics—he presents solo and group exhibitions, while also participating in international fairs like Design Miami and TEFAF Maastricht, where he is proud to be one of only two galleries devoted to the medium of clay.
Jacques’s conversion to contemporary happened with his first encounter with the sculptural vessels of British ceramist Gareth Mason. It was then that he knew he had found the equivalent to the greatest historical achievements in clay. The work, he said, was so rich and layered—full of surprises, interesting, complex, and encompassing an entire world in one piece—that he was immediately hooked. Mason became the first contemporary artist to be shown at Jacques’s gallery.
Today, the gallery’s contemporary program includes 16 artists, women and men, who work all over the world, from the UK and Japan to the American Midwest. Each is a master who contributes in their own way to the history of ceramics, creating at the highest levels such that their work is routinely acquired by museum collections.
Beth Cavener, for instance, specializes in clay sculptures that depict uncanny animals in astonishing and exacting poses. With a super-labor-intensive technique, she explores the consequences of human fear, aggression, and misunderstanding through animal forms, transforming her animal subjects into psychological portraits. In her studio at the ceramic center of Helena, Montana, Cavener works for three years to create five to six pieces that are shown in solo shows, which attract people from all over the world and are sold out within minutes.
On Katsuyo Aoki, the Japanese artist who creates distinctly intricate white skulls in porcelain, Jacques said that she produces no more than three to four pieces a year, because her work is so detailed and all of the pieces are molded with her fingers. On the abstract ceramic sculptures by Polish-born, London-based Aneta Regel, Jacques spoke admiringly about how she mixes rocks with clay and how she lets the kiln determine the final, unexpected form, resulting in magnificent surfaces, textures, and colors.
In the end, Jacques taught us that clay has a soul. And only by recognizing its soul can you truly access its sensual, inspiring emotion.