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  • Martin Smith, work in progress at the artist's studio (2017) image © Philip Sayer, courtesy of Marsden Woo Gallery

Perfectly formed

Ceramist Martin Smith showcases a fresh direction in his interest in space and place

For his latest solo show Places and Spaces at Marsden Woo Gallery, artist Martin Smith is displaying just 13 small, white vessels. ‘My previous show at the gallery looked at the archetypal form of the vase,’ he explains. ‘Once again, I’m taking a generic form and scale – this time that of the mug or beaker – and starting to explore its sculptural potential.’

One of the defining qualities of Smith’s work is his decision to choose creative rules for each new project: any work must develop within given boundaries. ‘If anything’s possible, I end up doing nothing,’ smiles the artist, ruefully. This time, the challenge is scale. Despite the diminutive size of these works – ‘the scale that fits in one’s hand’, as he describes it – they continue his decades-long exploration of architectural spaces through clay.

Smith’s interest in architectural space dates back a long way, to time spent in Italy: ‘My fascination began when looking at structures from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and thinking about how their use of geometry defines areas.’ Rather than using a specific building as a starting point, as Smith has sometimes done, these new pieces refer back to fundamental architectural concepts, qualities and forms. ‘Although they’re physically small, they are still about notions of space and place,’ he asserts.

It is not only this downsize that marks a significant shift in Smith’s work: his materials have also changed. Best known for architectonic sculptures of red earthenware, filled with metal and gold leaf, or glazed in matte black, Places and Spaces debuts a material new to the artist: unglazed Parian. This is the first time he has worked with a naked white clay. Characteristically, Smith has had to come up with a hybrid method to create these new works. ‘It’s a bonkers process,’ he laughs, ‘but I always start with a clear picture of what I want to make, then have to find, adapt or invent a technique to match this concept.’

For 16 years, Smith was professor of ceramics and glass at the Royal College of Art. He’s recently taken on a new role as senior research fellow at the RCA, where he is working on ‘The Potential of the Digitally Printed Ceramic Surface’. Where 20 silkscreens were required previously to produce 20-tone printed wares, making them economically unviable, Smith has invented a way to do it in a single pass. ‘A colleague and I have now started a bespoke tableware design company for restaurants and hotels,’ he explains. ‘We realised we knew more about this process than anyone else, and thought we might as well utilise it.’ Through these innovative laser-printed transfers, Smith’s research into industrial tableware is now feeding back into one-off artworks such as those on display here.

Each piece is cast in a mould, first with smooth liquid clay, then with a slip mixed with sawdust; the sawdust burns away during firing, creating a finely pitted texture. The first layer is then ground back, except for on a few key planes, to expose the rougher clay. This is sand-blasted to enhance its eroded quality. The smooth areas are then adorned with digitally designed, laser-printed transfers in a palette of greys, ochres and reds. The linear gradations and chequered grids of these transfers act as optical illusions, visually extending the space inhabited by the work.

Known for his site-specific approach to making, Smith has, in addition, designed all of the gallery furniture in Marsden Woo’s newly opened Belgravia premises. Far from a creative sideline, this is a key aspect of his approach. As he puts it: ‘That awareness of space within a place, and how you interact with it, is behind this new body of work – and many of the other things that I do.’ From designing the layout of the Anthony Shaw collection in the Centre of Ceramic Art at York Art Gallery back in 2015, to creating these new abstractions of domestic wares, this spatial preoccupation is visible throughout Smith’s oeuvre.

Despite a change of scale and a new material, he sees Places and Spaces as sitting firmly within a continuum. ‘Visually it will be quite different to the last show, but conceptually it continues the same conversation. New techniques evolve the outcome and generate these changes.’ Paradoxically, Smith’s pint-sized works will be sure to command a lot of room.

Places and Spaces is at Marsden Woo Gallery, London SW1W 8UT, 7 November to 22 December.



Martin Smith, work in progress