“I think L.A. is one of the best places in the world to make ceramics,” says Matthias Merkel Hess. “There’s a rich history here—I read somewhere that there used to be 800 or 900 potteries in L.A. County following the war, mainly producing chotskies before they were outsourced to Mexico and the Far East. All this equipment was left over—a practical aspect that has enabled artists since to make work in the kiln.” Hess is chatting with me on Skype—it’s just past breakfast time in Los Angeles; in London, where I am, it’s already wintry dark. Thinking back to a time when L.A. was scattered with pottery treasure troves brings a little warmth to the day.
“Teaching in Californian art faculties, you had Peter Voulkos and The Otis Group, John Mason…” Voulkos, Mason, and Ken Price propelled the California Clay Movement in the 1950s, helping ceramics find place in the context of fine art. Like Voulkos, Hess’s work crosses the bridge from ceramic craft to contemporary art, a crossing now supported by the current vogue for ceramics in the art world.
“The rise in interest has been great to see. I would argue that ceramics is at this point where photography was in the ’70s, where there’s a subset of people working with the medium in a way that’s directed at the art world. I was lucky that this material became interesting to art people five or ten years after I started working with it. Seeing people like Sterling Ruby working with clay in interesting ways gave me [the encouragement] to keep working. Now I’m also learning more and more about design.”
The question of function separates the different strata of Hess’s art-design practice: his glazed ceramic objects, recasts of buckets, milk crates, trash cans, and domestic items, play on the place of the vessel in the history of pottery as much as they refer to the readymade in modern art. The lighthearted “Merkel Craft Art & Novelties,” produced for the Venice Beach Biennial in 2012, consisted of chintzy souvenirs—oversized opaque pottery sunglasses (“Don’t stare into the void without protective ceramic eyewear”) and other “Pacific inspired” objects—throwing a tongue-in-cheek reference back to those original Californian chotsky makers.
For the FOG Design+Art fair in San Francisco this month, Merkel Hess will fill Artsy’s booth with objects mainly from his “Bucketry” series—basic containers détourned into high art, with a likeness to the original model meant to fool the viewer. These objects will be amassed on shelves designed by fellow designers Nik & Winston to recall an ethnographic museum’s archive.
“As with my show at Salon 94, ‘Hereafter’ (2013), I wanted to pay homage to the backroom of the Museo Larco in Lima, Peru, which houses Rafael Larco’s incredible collection of moche ceramics from pre-Columbian cultures. I was surprised to learn that they were all made from molds, which was essentially the same way that I had been working with clay.”
“The more exact my work looks, it’s probably made from a plaster mold. Some of the milk crates are hand-built from slabs, but still following a pattern. I’m drawn to forms where I’m assuming the original shape was made either in modeling clay or wood by an industrial designer, and then refined over time. The museum also made me think about how so much of the history of ceramics comes to us from burial tombs. So I tried to sort of make my own personal burial tomb.”
The not-quite-neon but nonetheless bright glazes of Hess’s pieces speak more to life than death, however. His work counters obsolescence: in recasting an object of 20th-century design, whether a KitchenAid mixer, an 100 oz travel mug, or the limited-edition Max Klein Desk Organizer he created for Artsy, he playfully transforms it into something else, to give it new life as art.