Review – Reflections on clay: AJ Stockwell, In The Guise of a Rock

Ellen Bell reviews In the Guise of a Rock by artist AJ Stockwell – a multimedia installation reflecting on kaolin, a soft white clay, at Oriel Davies Gallery in Wales.

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Work by AJ Stockwell. Photo Oriel Davies

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The artist AJ Stockwell’s ambitious project White Rock imagines a society fixated on the production and preservation of precious porcelain objects. Focusing on an excerpt of this project, AJ has developed In Guise of the Rock: an installation on the ancient material of kaolin, as it comes into being.

Kaolin is a fine, soft white clay, formed over centuries as hard lumps of granite break down and decompose, and it is pivotal in the history of porcelain. In Guise of the Rock draws on the legacy of the porcelain industry in Europe, its aspirations to produce the most desirable of objects, and the parallels with our contemporary western attitudes towards consumer goods.

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Work by AJ Stockwell. Photo Oriel Davies

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This newly commissioned work is not what I expected. It’s the blue that hits you first: a deep Prussian blue from floor-to-ceiling. Then there are the drawings – crude, simplistic faux-cave-paintings drawn straight onto the walls. There are disembodied arms, some crossed, some bent, some holding hexagonal, rock-like forms, and arrows pointing down to other falling hexagons. The white lines on the blue are vaguely like the chalk-marked body shapes at crime scenes. Except for two bench-like structures built into the walls, the tiny room is empty.

Sitting down, I wait.

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AJ Stockwell. Photo courtesy Oriel Davies

Listening to the sound installation. Photo courtesy Oriel Davies via their Instagram

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And then I hear it – a ‘grrr’, a grunt, a low, rhythmic growl emerging from a speaker under my seat. Quiet at first, it starts to build. ‘Arr, um, errum’, continues the voice. Is it an ogre, or a giant awakening? ‘I be the rock’, booms the voice, sounding solid, strong. ‘I push out of the ground. Gran – ite. Granite.’ The voice roars in a mighty primeval rasp. Then there’s the sound of a boulder being pushed aside, a cartoonish scraping, and another voice emerges from the other bench: a narrator’s voice. ‘Now exposed to the elements’, this voice says, ‘he changes, he softens.’

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Work by AJ Stockwell. Photo Oriel Davies

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Associations come thick and fast. I remember Jim Crace’s novel The Gift of Stones, a beautifully-written tale of a stone-age tribe at the end of the Neolithic period threatened by the advent of bronze; Michael Hordern reading long mythic sagas on Jackanory, and the treacle-like, disembodied voices emitting explanations from hackneyed museum AV displays.

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A finalist in the 2015 Emerging Makers Award at Aberystwyth’s International Ceramics Festival, the Cardiff-based artist’s concept of an imaginary society obsessed with porcelain is intriguing, but without the eloquence of her accompanying text the installation bewilders.

What did I expect? Well, the presence of matter – actual, tangible matter. But Stockwell is not averse to teasing with absence; the artist’s video Soft Matter (above) shows a potter throwing an imaginary form on a turning wheel.

Then, once outside, I find a shelf. A lump of kaolin lies upon it. I grasp the clay, momentarily sated: my fingers stain white.

– Ellen Bell

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Catch In the Guise of a Rock by AJ Stockwell from 29 July to 20 September 2017 at Oriel Davies Gallery in Newtown, Wales; orieldavies.org

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