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7th December 2017

Crafts Council: Q&A with James Rigler

– words by Laura

To call James Rigler a ceramicist only scratches the surface of what this Glasgow-based artist does. He’s a sculptor, a storyteller, an inventor of strange – sometimes goofy – worlds. His large-scale clay pieces often feel like clues to a humorous puzzle or the belongings of a civilisation of cartoon creatures.

James, alongside ten other craftspeople, is currently exhibiting at Crafts Council and The New Craftsmen's British Craft: The Miami Edit, a five-day showcase of contemporary British craft and sculptural art taking place at FORM Miami. There he’s exhibiting a project inspired by a visit to China, which involves mixing experimental forms taken by the Chinese alphabet with a whole lot of gold leaf.

Inspired by everything from vernacular architecture to signwriting to handrails, James’ work is fun and unexpected. But developing ceramic objects of such size has taken many years of honing his craft, assisted by a stint studying brick-making and architectural ceramics.

Given James is a bit of an enigma on the internet, we wanted to chat to him about British Craft: The Miami Edit and his fantastical work. Here we chat to him about wandering around the V&A after hours, his commissions for Chatsworth House and finding inspiration in unexpected places like hardware shops…

Tell us more about the work you're exhibiting at British Craft: The Miami Edit…

I'm showing some of my new gold-leafed pieces. They grew out of a period of experimentation earlier this year, inspired by a visit to China in 2016. It was fascinating to be surrounded by script that I couldn't read, so just saw as shapes. I wanted this new work to be like that. I created an 'alphabet' of moulds that I used to build different 'words' in clay, sometimes taking recognisable forms, sometimes remaining more abstract. It was so much fun! It's a much looser, more experimental way of working than I might normally use, although the core concerns are the same as always: architecture, signs, scale and the juxtaposition of the precious with the everyday.

There’s always a huge amount of storytelling in your pieces, where do you find inspiration and what is your research process like? 

Pieces could start from seeing a particular combination of ordinary objects in a hardware store, or they could be prompted by an epic piece of grandiose architecture. Often it's a combination of the two. Having worked with clay for nearly 20 years, I'll be planning the pieces with one eye on the making process. I'll try to include some space for the unexpected, like the gold leaf I've used on my recent work. I tried gilding my ceramics on a whim, only to discover that it created a fantastic texture when sanded back, like the carved wood on old religious icons. Gold is such a loaded material that it seemed funny to use it on my cartoonish forms: it gives them weight, as though they have hidden significance.

Short Bench and Broken Column, 2014 and 2015, James Rigler

How autobiographical is your work?

Well, it obviously draws on my own longstanding interest in architecture and in ceramics. My surroundings have a huge influence on what I make, so my adopted city of Glasgow appears in the work, often via my choice of materials or in a sense of melancholy or tongue-in-cheek humour. I think that my sexuality also subtly influences my work; there's a sense of duality, of objects that are both one thing and another at the same time, which resonates with my experience as a gay man.

We read that when you were younger you wanted to be an architect, does the built environment still influence your work?

Hugely. I discovered via one unsuccessful year studying architecture that I'm too hands-on to be an architect! That said, I love the opportunity to work site-responsively, and I'm fascinated by the built environment. I think architecture is the most public of all the arts: it's ubiquitous and inescapable, yet we seem to have so little public discourse about it. There's a sense of communicating with long-dead architects, builders and craftspeople when you spend time in old buildings. Buildings speak all these different languages, trying to communicate or conceal things, trying to influence us. I'm still learning how to decode and understand the city around me but I love the process of discovery.

A lot of your ceramics feel structurally impossible given their scale and that they’re made out of clay. What are the challenges of producing such large pieces?

Clay gets exponentially more tricky as you increase the scale of the work. It gets slower and slower to make, dry and fire, particularly if you're working with a vocabulary of geometric forms and highly-finished surfaces. For me, the biggest challenge is psychological: how to retain a sense of dynamism and discovery during those long periods of waiting. 

I honed my ceramics skills making large-scale architectural work at Lamb's Terracotta & Faience [a brick and architectural ceramics specialist in West Sussex], and I still draw on that technical knowledge. Working in a modular way seems to fit the shape of my brain! Much of my work is in kit form, like giant lego, that I only assemble and compose after all the firings have taken place. It's a way to retain some creative decisions into the end stages of a project, to keep the work alive and changing until the last possible minute.

The Severed Head, 2013, James Rigler

We were first introduced to your work during your residency at the V&A, how have those six months shaped your later career?

The V&A residency is a challenge because you've got free rein of one of the world's greatest treasure house. It can be overwhelming! I chose to focus on the museum building rather than the content, examining how the museum's architecture demonstrates an evolving idea of what a museum should be. I explored the hidden, overlooked spaces in the building. The outcome of the residency was an installation of giant ceramic roses inside Trajan's Column in the Cast Courts. It allowed me to share one of the museum's most intriguing hidden spaces with the public for the first time ever. We shared this intimate, surreal space with 3000 visitors during London Design Festival- not bad considering it was strictly one person at a time.

The experience has influenced my work in unexpected ways. In particular, it brought home to me of the strange contradiction of a museum of functional objects that are too precious to ever use. After hours, when the lights went down in the main galleries, a whole different realm of objects suddenly came to the fore: benches, plinths, handrails. It's like the 'ordinary' objects took centre stage again. That really got me thinking about the importance of humble, everyday objects in my own life, and the possibility of artworks that also retain a function.

Your commissions range from pieces for Chatsworth House to Zizzi’s. Does how you approach these projects differ from how you work on self-initiated ideas?

The dialogue and constraints that commissions create can, perversely, be hugely inspiring. They can be the grit in the oyster that (hopefully) forms a pearl. I actually prefer having a site to work with and make for, particularly when it has an interesting history or unusual features. With Chatsworth, I used the house like it was music to be sampled and remixed: the result was a ceramic table that had grown from its location but still felt utterly new and different. 

Which other ceramicists should we have on our radar?

I expect you already know the amazing work of Phoebe Cummings, Nao Matsunaga and Andrea Walsh. I'm a big fan of Sam Bakewell's intricate, tender pieces, and Malene Hartmann Rasmussen's new corn-dolly-inspired pieces are spectacular. For more functional ware, check out Ian McIntyre and Owen Wall, both making elegant, poised ceramics that smuggle some extra beauty into your life every time you use them.

What does 2018 have in store for you? 

I've got a busy, mostly Scottish year ahead. Firstly, a baby due in January (perhaps this is more of a performance piece); later in the year, two new commissions, for Aberdeen's Look Again festival and the newly-reopened Aberdeen Art Gallery. I'm working with the lovely folk at Hector Finch to develop some lighting, and with The Bothy Project / Bothy Stores to create cast-iron cookware. Finally, I hope to finalise an interesting commission for St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh. Fingers crossed.

Cascade, 2011, James Rigler
Find the other nine designers exhibiting in Miami with James Rigler

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