Works of Porcelain and Paper, Plausibility and Pause
by Hannah Thompsett
[click on images to enlarge]
We all accumulate knowledge of our world through experience. Unconsciously, we learn to trust our perceptions as truth. But when this truth is challenged, our trust falters. We’re suddenly aware of the malleability and subjectivity of each of our constructed realities, our beliefs and expectations.
To explore and test the boundaries of that trust, I created Deft Perception: Allusions of Reality, a body of work in porcelain, paper, and photographs. When is something easily perceivable or believable? When do we need to take a second look to reassure or reevaluate our expectation of truth? To address these questions, I decided to slow down the process of visual perception by using constructed objects in spatially arranged situations. As an artist, I want us to consider the delicacy and individuality of our assumed truths and to become newly conscious of how the world of exterior phenomena informs and reassures — even as it contradicts and challenges — our perceived realities.
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I have been working in ceramics since my days as an undergrad. I began working with paper several years later and photography another year after that. Eventually I took up the process of folding paper forms, translating them into ceramic, and recording their arrangements with photography. I was interested in how information could be transferred through different materials and dimensions: from a flat drawing to a dimensional paper form to a ceramic object to a record. How does information change through these transformations and what roles do material and form play in translating and expressing that information? These questions and processes have all led to my thinking about perception (specifically visual perception) and are the impetus for my current practice.
When we step into Deft Perception, one of the first things we may realize is that the sheets of “paper” leaning against the wall are actually made of thin sheets of colored porcelain. They began as folded or crumpled pieces of paper, which I directionally sprayed with various white, grey, and black liquid porcelains called “slips”. These shades of slips recorded the paper’s peaks, valleys, creases, and puckers as a tonal image. At this point, the porcelained paper was very wet and pliable, so I could smooth it out and, when dry, fire it in a kiln. This burned away the paper and yielded a thin, flat, rigid panel depicting the original paper’s topography. The resulting porcelain object was no longer paper, but a representation of paper, a memory of paper.
What’s revealed in the slow, meticulous process of constructing these porcelain panels is a striking tension between two kinds of information: the representation of crinkled paper as an image and the materiality of the flat porcelain object. The panels allude to paper through their representation of paper’s surface, their rectangular format, and their thin, white edges. But though the panels reference paper, they are never mistaken for paper because the materiality of the porcelain is so prominent. And because I set the panels on the floor, leaned them against the wall, and stacked them against each other, their stiffness and physicality as objects is even more clearly emphasized. Moreover, because I used a different range of grey scales to create each of the panels, they’re distinguished even further as individual objects while being drawn farther away from the allusion to paper. It is this give and take, between image and object, that gives us pause and asks us to question what information is more important or truthful, if any, in forming our perceptions.
These kinds of tensions and contradictions exist in all representational images, often without our realizing it. Out of habit, and without consciously thinking about it, we recognize familiar situations in images and automatically transgress our own spatial and temporal reality to enter into their constructed realities. However, it is not possible to completely ignore our own real place in time and space, and so there is a paradox whenever we view pictorial representations: we simultaneously recognize, believe, and accept two separate situations or realities. Trompe l’oeil and illusion are attempts to eliminate this paradox through deception, but I enjoy the sense of this paradox, and I employ allusion instead of illusion where allusion is suggestive, but not deceptive.¹
To further complicate things, the framed images hanging on the wall in Deft Perception are actually enlarged photographs of the ceramic panels. At first, they appear as crumpled paper or images of crumpled paper. However, they are actually images of the ceramic record of the original piece of paper. By translating perceived information again, this time though photography, another layer of material information is added. Displaying the photos closely with the ceramic panels, it’s easy to compare the two. We see their similarities as images, but also recognize the difference between the materiality of the panels and the photographs as objects.
On closer inspection, we see that the photographs are enlargements of the ceramic panels, emphasizing the texture of the sprayed slip particles. This dotted texture is reminiscent of pixelated information, an artifact of digital photography, but the “pixelation” here is actually an artifact of the ceramic process, not the photography process. This pixelation is often interrupted by flaws in the ceramic surface that happen during the firing, such as ruptures and cracks. Ultimately, the photographs simultaneously depict both paper and ceramic as subjects.
But how truthful are these photographs? Even as they record the flat surface of the panels, the light and shadow depicted are fake. Instead of actual light and shadow, the photographs capture a flatly lit representation of light and shadow. This information becomes evident because of the presence of the ceramic panels nearby. Comparing the photographs and the panels slows down the process of perception and allows time for the viewer to consider the many levels of information presented.
I am still a novice in photography, but as I utilize it, I enjoy what it contributes conceptually to the work through its process and history. At its dawning, photography was regarded as a mechanical reproduction of reality, capturing visual phenomenon with truthful, objective authority. It has since become clear, though, that this process is distinctly separate from actual visual perception for many reasons. Authorship, disengagement from time, staging, framing, and manipulation of process are a few examples of why this implied veracity cannot be assumed. However, as a medium, photography is primed to explore both the notion of truth and that of representation.²
To interrogate those notions in Deft Perception, I installed two large ceramic pyramids and a field of smaller ceramic pyramids within the space as a break from allusion and representation. These physical solids, pure in form and mass, provide a visual and haptic experience bound to the present. They engage the entire space and emphasize the materiality of the other objects. The wallpaper, on the other hand, is a photographic representation of the pyramids from a separate viewpoint, digitally repeated to create an abstract pattern. The three-dimensional objects and their two-dimensional translation create a kind of easy fiction, or uneasy friction, an opportunity to compare the experience of perceiving both.
Our accumulation of knowledge through experience is constant; we continuously perceive our surroundings and build expectations and beliefs that inform our future encounters. Our mentally archived stores of knowledge are constantly in flux, distinctive to each individual. The process is automatic, and we are unaware of it until our trusted beliefs or expectations are challenged. My aim is to slow down the process of perception — visually and spatially — to draw attention to it, while gathering moments to consider, and consider again, our personal truths.
¹Jonas F. Soltis, Seeing, Knowing, and Believing: a Study of the Language of Visual Perception (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Inc, 1966), 137-138.
²Lyle Rexer, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography. (New York: Aperature, 2009), 195.
Hannah Thompsett received her MFA in ceramics from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in 2016. She received her BFA in ceramics from The State University of New York at New Paltz in 2011. During her time between degrees, she was an artist-in-residence at the Flower City Arts Center. She is currently a Ceramic Art Technician at Alfred University and continues her studio practice in Alfred and Wellsville, NY.
List of Works:
1. Deft Perception: Allusions of Reality, digital prints, ceramic, wallpaper, 2016, installation view
2. Arrangement 3 (five panels), ceramic, 2016, 64” x 32” x 4”
3. Arrangement 7 (three panels), ceramic, 2016, 32” x 33” x 2”
4. Deft Perception: Allusions of Reality, digital prints, ceramic, 2016, installation view
5. Photograph 3, digital print and wooden frame, 2016, with frame: 28” x 42” x 2”
6. Detail of White Pyramid, ceramic, 2016, 24” x 24” x 36”
7. Field of Pyramids, ceramic and wood, 2016, 58” x 58” x 14”