“it’s a marriage of surface and form” - Betty Woodman

The American artist Betty Woodman works primarily with clay, sculpting and glazing delicately enormous slabs of the stuff into asymmetrical waves, twists, and planes. She has long been known for her fantastical vases, but the vessels have given way to a new movement in her work, and thin, colorful remnants of baked clay are now textiles: rugs, wallpaper, elaborate backdrops for those same vases. 

I was lucky enough to spend an intermittently sunny & dismal morning at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London last week, where Woodman’s work is on view through this weekend. I’m not sure whether my babe or I loved the show more. Not that there is anything childish about the work, but that Woodman deals so tantalizingly with the visual equivalent of sugar, for babies: her obsession is with creating and confounding surfaces. 

Her wild vases, their adornment and backdrops, the walls surrounding them: it’s almost as though her sculptures are on the retreat into two dimensions - paper, paint - disturbing the concept of the plane on the way. The sunniness inherent in Woodman’s work is more bold than sweet, more a statement about clay than one about the state of the world. Which is, of course, a statement about the world: we are borne of the earth. Unto it we shall return. And then there is the fact that for fifty years she has spent half of every year working in Tuscany.

There is a ceramics craze at the moment, isn’t there. It’s been growing, and it reminds me of a contemporary craze for textiles. It's more than an acknowledgement "domestic" arts can be fine art - not that Woodman’s ceramics should so easily pigeon-holed as domestic. She sculpts; she’s more than a potter making dishes for food or flowers, but neither is she shy about the fact that her vases are decorative. In fact the catalogue that accompanies the current exhibition is studded with images of Woodman’s works serving as vases and dishes. Moreover the ICA’s show presents her three-dimensional tableaux in which vases stand in relief against backdrops of bright rooms: Alessandro’s Rooms, Fra Angelico’s Room…

The tension between art and domesticity catches me off guard - especially as I snatch moments to write this while my child is asleep.