It’s a gamble that Johan Creten is willing to take: tackling the serious issues of our time. In his most political exhibition yet, he asks the important questions, discussing topics like war, racism, immigration and capitalism through deeply poetic works. It’s his way of unveiling the harshness of the world around him and being able to confront the problems facing humanity without losing hope.
In Sunrise/Sunset running until 10 March 2018 at Galerie Perrotin in Paris, his recent series of portraits of veiled women in glazed stoneware such as La Vierge d’Alep, Aus dem Serail, Het Doek and Vrouw – inspired by real women he walked past in the Netherlands – are filled with disturbing ambiguity and haunting strangeness as they stare back at the viewer. While the veil today evokes negative connotations, he removes it from its religious context to place it in another, showing how this headdress concealing the face is also an object of seduction, mystery and fantasy, as the Occident has long been obsessed with the Orient.
These artworks dialogue with Creten’s early production like The Gate (2001), where he blocked the anti-gypsy gate of a municipal carpark in the centre of France with a wall of swastika-motif bricks; C’est dans ma Nature (2001), where he restored the facades of a derelict social housing project on the outskirts of Paris with ceramic wall pieces and address what we do as a society with our suburbs and minorities, which gave rise to conflict; and Madame Butterfly (1991), where tiny flowers and butterflies on a pair of glazed stoneware baseball bats became the female antidote to an object that’s both a phallic symbol and a weapon of aggression, rendering it powerless.
“My work is a reflection of the world around us without aggressiveness or disrespect for other opinions, but it still is a vision of the world we live in.”
Creten explains the political nature of his exhibition, with works selling for between €6,000 and €350,000, “I don’t think artists are only making beautiful wallpaper for rich people. I’m very happy that my work is expensive and lives with collectors, but our duty as artists is also to deal with the world and to translate it into artworks that can help people better understand why we’re here. I know that today that’s a very difficult position because a lot of the art produced is joyful and colourful, where the idea is to make something pleasing to the eye and that works on Instagram. I don’t make pamphlets; I don’t make work that’s so in your face that it becomes unbearable to look at. My pieces are beautiful because beauty helps us to look at something that otherwise we wouldn’t even dare look at. My work is also a reflection of the world around us without aggressiveness or disrespect for other opinions, but it still is a vision of the world we live in.”
Flying in the face of convention, Creten has always broken the rules. His clay sculptures reveal different skins, determined by the glazes used, which crawl, shiver, blister, drip, scar and can be rough and messy – “forbidden things” in classical ceramics. Addressing the rise and fall of empires, our lives as a society and the cycle of time and life, the exhibition title also references the sun, but he’s unafraid of getting burnt, striking at subjects considered off-limits. His works are shape-shifters in terms of form, medium and meaning, depending on the viewing angle, light or context.
Take for example the mammoth De Gier bronze that metamorphoses from a vulture to a seahorse, which greets visitors at the entrance, or The Pearl and The Sphinx, mysterious hybrid creatures in stoneware that have been glazed repeatedly.
In fact, Creten’s world is populated by a menagerie of wild animals. He’s not interested in producing realistic representations of them, but in capturing their qualities and linking them to the central themes of his oeuvre: nature, the female form, human relationships, power, politics and spirituality.
“Good artworks are batteries in the sense that they have a lot of energy inside of them. Viewers can recharge their energy from them. At the same time, they are like gates, doorways, portals or openings onto another world.”
Creten describes the imposing The Price of Freedom in bronze, the centrepiece of the exhibition, “The image is an eagle, which since the history of time has been a symbol of absolute power. It flies the highest in the sky and has an overview of the whole situation, but its position can be turned towards the good or the bad. It’s about the joys and trappings of power. It’s a very expressionist sculpture: you see my fingerprints in the lost wax casting and the tools used. You see the markings of aggressive gestures in the same way as the treatment of power.”
The Sign of Times in patinated bronze depicts the dollar sign overrun by insects, which signifies how money and capitalism can be used for good or bad, can be constructive or destructive. Creten states, “Good artworks are batteries in the sense that they have a lot of energy inside of them. Viewers can recharge their energy from them. At the same time, they are like gates, doorways, portals or openings onto another world.”
In this way, his small, intimate and precious Vulva wall reliefs in bronze are a kind of keyhole, a Freudian vision of the gate. Both the visual double entendre and symbolism that pervade these works make simple interpretation of them impossible; audiences must look below the surface to uncover concealed meanings about the story of man and the human condition, taking the time to look at them from different angles.
“Clay is a very loaded material because it’s the earth we walk on,” Creten says. “In a lot of cultures, it’s called Mother Earth. It’s sacred but at the same time it’s the poorest of materials.
Born in 1963 in Sint-Truiden, Belgium, to a middle-class family, Creten saw art as a way to escape from the narrowmindedness of provincial life. In the 1980s, he studied painting at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, but as a non-conformist gravitated to the school’s unpopular ceramics atelier (Belgium at the time was enthralled by conceptual and minimal art), where he discovered clay – a damp, dirty, sensual and poor material that was looked down on in the fine art world, but that immediately spoke to him.
“Clay is a very loaded material because it’s the earth we walk on,” Creten says. “In a lot of cultures, it’s called Mother Earth. It’s sacred but at the same time it’s the poorest of materials. It’s basically human waste, so normally the people who work with clay are the dumbest and poorest: labourers, farmers, road workers and potters. God took clay and turned it into the first human being, and when you put this material through fire, it magically turns into something very resistant and beautiful.”
“I love the idea that I’m bringing ceramics to Asia because it has been bringing ceramics to Europe for centuries.”
Paving the way for younger artists, perhaps Creten’s greatest achievements have been to elevate ceramics from the status of craft to that of fine art, and to bring bronze back into fashion. He was among the first to eliminate the boundaries between sculpture and ceramics, choosing instead to make a name as an artist instead of a ceramicist, and exhibiting in art galleries and museums. “In Europe, when I started as a young artist, ceramics in art was considered taboo,” he recalls.
“It was something for women or for applied arts, and you couldn’t make a sculpture using ceramics because that wasn’t done, so for years I was in a very difficult position because nobody wanted to show my work. I’ve always only accepted shows that were about sculpture; the fact that it was clay was something extra. But in the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of change: lots of young artists are now using ceramics. I love the idea that I’m bringing ceramics to Asia because it has been bringing ceramics to Europe for centuries.”
He’s currently in talks with Shigaraki, one of Japan’s oldest pottery-making capitals with an ancient kiln and museum, about participating in an artist-in-residence programme in the future.
Sunrise/Sunset running until 10 March 2018 at Galerie Perrotin in Paris