Ceramicist Clementine Keith-Roach: ‘Clay has this primal relationship to the body’
Clementine Keith-Roach started taking plaster casts of her own body when she was pregnant with her first child. Fascinated by her rapidly changing breasts, she would cover them in seaweed gel, and fill the mould she’d created with plaster, producing highly detailed representations of her own breasts.
She began moulding these casts on to large terracotta vessels sourced from Turkey or Greece, and then using trompe l’oeil painting to blend the plaster seamlessly into the aged surface of the vessel. She was interested, she says, in mapping the transformation of her body from something familiar into “an almost mechanic thing that you don’t recognise”. The resulting works are striking: bulbous pots with small round breasts and hyper-detailed nipples, with every tiny bump and crease visible.
When the set-designer-turned-artist began creating anthropomorphised vessels, she was living in Athens with her partner, the painter Christopher Page, surrounded by the city’s ancient ruins. One day she encountered an ancient Cycladic vessel that had small nipple-like pinches in the clay. “It spoke to a very universal idea of the vessel representing the female body,” she says. “To actually see this bulbous shape with simple nipples was really strange.
“There are untold histories on the skin of the vessels,” she continues. “I try to mimic that skin in the skin of the body parts.”
The ultimate goal is a kind of anachronistic confusion, whereby the viewer cannot tell when the sculptures date from. She wants us to feel the contrast between the highly decorative — “impressionist”, as she calls it — rendering of the surface and the realism of the nipples and the hands. It’s a way, she says, of connecting her with the unknown makers and users of the pots.
Three years on, Keith-Roach’s works have morphed. They no longer have breasts; now plaster hands rest against them and touch them. The new set of works, entitled Labours, forms a solo show at Ben Hunter gallery in London, and another piece will feature at Ben Hunter’s stand at Masterpiece.
Her hand vessels are also a reflection of her motherhood. “These new pieces are born out of an interest in the hand through this next stage of bringing up a child,” she says. She became interested in the way her baby used its hands to understand the world. “When you’re raising a child and nurturing a baby into language and watching them sense this new world, you really see how touch, taste and smell are more subconscious senses for us. You realise the hands are these incredible sense organs,” she says. She began casting her hands in many different poses and gestures as a way of thinking through these individual moments of touch and connectivity.
The shift was also partly a pragmatic one. “In many ways, the reason I decided to use my own hands was because of living in the countryside and having a schedule made quite irregular by having my child. So I wanted to be able to work at any time I could, in the evenings or early in the morning. I wasn’t relying on somebody else.”
Elsewhere, too, Keith-Roach’s work physically engages with the subject of maternity. One of her most arresting works, made for the Pervilion exhibition at London’s Oasis Farm Waterloo as part of Art Night 2018, was an ornamental milk-substitute-spurting fountain. Included in Labours is a piece called “Surplus”: a large bowl of white resin, made to look like milk, held up by three hands.
It is here that the title of her new show, Labours, comes in. “I started to think about the polyvalence of the word ‘labour’, and how it relates to the labours of childbirth, but also wage-paid labour and the labour of caregiving. The title of the show started to bring all those ideas together, and that opened up a political dimension in the work.”
These are ideas Keith-Roach is hoping Masterpiece will open out further. “What’s interesting about Masterpiece is there are so many different types of objects, all with different histories,” she says. Her work might feel more obviously in conversation with the classical sculptures showing at the fair. While of course pots and vessels displaying female body parts date from antiquity to Picasso, Keith-Roach’s work chimes with a recent Instagram-generated trend for pottery with sculpted breasts, in all their many shapes and sizes: the Instagram accounts “Group Partner” and “Pot Yer Tits Away Luv” have each garnered over 70,000 followers.
While Keith-Roach doesn’t intend her work to be in conversation with this trend, she finds it exciting. “It shows some kind of overriding shared consciousness. Clay has this very primal relationship to the body. It feels very natural when you’re working with clay to somehow bring out the body,” she says. “Maybe that’s what I was seeing in the archaeological museum; maybe it’s just a natural thing to anthropomorphise these clay vessels,” Keith-Roach muses. “They’re just calling out to be given characters.”
Keith-Roach’s sculptures and Instagram “boob pottery” are both finding enthusiastic audiences: now is the time, they both seem to say, for art that celebrates other women.