Spaces and Places Marsden Woo 7 November - 22 December 2017

My first encounter with Martin Smith’s work was in 1979 when I had just joined the V&A and taken responsibility for studio pottery alongside my speciality in mediaeval Islamic art. It took the form of a large deep-sided bowl, in black raku with a striking geometric pattern in white (or white raku with a black pattern if you prefer). The texture of the bowl, the slightly smoked crackle in the surface, the nibbled upper edge were all pure raku, but the precision of both form and design seemed at tension with this most organic and random of techniques - here was a controlled and thought-through raku. But it had a serenity (something that is always claimed for best of this technique), and a great feeling of space and light.

The V&A’s next piece (Baroque Wall Piece no. 1, from Martin’s 1981 Leeds exhibition) was very different - an curved and angular vase in polished red clay, the rougher interior only just visible through the cut-slate rim applied to the top. Elegant, powerful, highly considered. This work, not the raku, seemed to provide the aesthetic foundation of the decades to come: clay is machined, cut, polished, assembled, juxtaposed with other materials (glass, stone, metal), metal foils cover key surfaces. Cut and assembled dissected bowls in the 1980s; extruded organic forms caught in precise angled stances (Line and Displacement) in the 1990s, increasing use of metal foil as reflectors for colours (Oscillate, and Binary Shift) in the 2000s. Only here and there a glimpse of something apparently (but actually not) random (the scratched lines in Cord and Discord of 2007).

Some find this work cold, calculated, too cerebral: too much brain and not enough heart. Music has strong resonances in Martin’s work, but it is contrapuntal and polyphonic music of the Baroque and earlier (Bach, Tallis) or the recent mathematically-driven compositions of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Maybe this is all true, but why then do I, musically firmly in the classical and romantic camp, find his work nevertheless compelling, moving, engaging , while Reich and Glass’s work leaves me cold? Do we really have to go back to the early 1970s to find something organic, sensual, visceral in Martin’s work? To the random effects of raku before he learnt to control them?

Well, no, of course. No good work is ever monothematic. Yes, a large part of Martin’s work is about control, measurement, precision. Many of his themes are related to that most cerebral of arts: architecture (space, light, shadow, containment), to concepts in maths and science (phase shifts, refraction, interference), to the accuracy and precision of fine engineering. But underneath there is a continuing tactile engagement with materials, above all with clay, and a call to an emotional visual response in colour.

Martin is a potter - deeply engaged with clay as a material, and in the processes it has to undergo in being transformed into a pot. Not for him Hans Coper’s alleged dislike of “unresponsive” clay only using it because no other material gave him the

results he wanted. Martin revels in it as a prime source, in all its materiality, in its variety of colours and textures: over decades he has used ordinary red clay even in the most highly-crafted works, where through the machining, grinding and polishing the textures and colours of the humble house brick are often apparent. He hasn’t taken an interest in conventional glazes, but the refinement and colouring of surfaces are essential pottery processes.

In 2015 he produced a series of “Triptych in the form of a vase” - a garniture in all but name, that dominant form of vase making from the seventeenth century onwards (tho’ Martin’s references are more to Wedgwood’s black basalt invented in 1768). His more recent interest has been in complex pattern-making whose basic technology of transfer printing has been a core pottery process since its invention in the eighteenth century. These started with blue and white (Two Corners 2012: you can’t get more traditional than that!) but Martin has pushed its boundaries through technological innovation to allow a precision and depth of colour previously unobtainable (Blue on Red, Red on Blue, 2015). (It is an irony that Martin first went to College to learn to be a production potter of hand-made wares in the Leach mould, but followed a very different trajectory and is now about to realise his first ambition by enabling the mass-production of coloured transfer-printed wares!)

These latter two explorations - higher fired clays and complex coloured patterns - come together in his latest work shown here (Places and Spaces, 2017): constructed geometrical forms in white parian clay (Minton’s 1845!), with angular planes bearing coloured perspectively-rendered patterns in strong colours. My first reaction was surprise: “they are tiny!” Yes, smaller individually than any other body of work he has made. But size and scale act in mysterious ways. Pots always reference architecture in defining space, containing, and making space useful; these small pieces have an strong architectural quality about them - all the more effective perhaps for being small. They articulate extraordinary spaces and evoke a sense of spaciousness and sense of scale as though seeing monumental architecture from a distance.

They mark the culmination and combination of all explorations over the last decades -
architecture, clay, colour, pattern, light and shade, the controlled and the random, the cerebral and the visceral. For me, they are his most powerful work to date.


Oliver Watson 6 Nov 2017