RCA graduate Gerald Mak creates vessels, sculptures and tiles decorated with motifs drawn from his surroundings and popular culture. He tells us more about the thought processes behind them
After sister Kwunyum (crackle), 2021; photo by Fangzheng
I describe myself as an interdisciplinary artist who works mainly with clay, but I am always curious to work with other mediums and processes. Clay for me is a material that crosses worlds – art, design and craft – where boundaries have long been contested and blurred. It is full of potential yet grounded over different cultures because it is such a universal material with long-standing traditions and history.
While I was doing my Masters at the Royal College of Art (RCA) between 2018–2020, I was very interested in researching Chinoiserie and its origins as a moment of commercial and cultural exchange. Chinoiserie can be read as a commercial innovation that represents global trade but also as a hybrid design contributed to by both Chinese and European artisans and merchants. Of course, the problematic nature of representation on top of this historical lens makes it even more interesting and still relevant. My time at the RCA coincided with political events unfolding in Hong Kong (where I was born) and was also set within the context of the global coronavirus pandemic. This has been pivotal to my practice and my work since then has been largely informed by these personal experiences and external circumstances. A dissertation later, I have come to recognise my latent concern in the notion of ‘otherness’, identity and human relationships.
I spent a few months before the pandemic undergoing different residencies in Jingdezhen, China, famously known for being a porcelain capital. My tutor at the RCA Felicity Aylieff was instrumental in setting up these residencies and has been incredibly supportive in giving me the confidence to find my voice and scale up my ambition within my work and practice. Matthew Raw has also been a supportive mentor and friend. Over the years I have learnt so much from him in terms of working with others and embracing collaboration in my practice.
In Jingdezhen it was amazing to work with experienced craftspeople referred to as shifu, who can hand-roll very flat porcelain tiles. These can measure multiple meters long but we had access to kilns big enough to gas fire them up to 1300°C. These panels become canvases for carving, one of the many traditional techniques I picked up while participating in the residency. I love the time-consuming labour and reductive process of shaving away clay to create dynamic, textural surfaces that are so inviting to touch. Carved porcelain looks great even when unglazed and only needs the right lighting to enhance the shadows and depths.
I love working on flat surfaces, hence my affinity to tiles, especially hand-rolled ones. To an extent I see my pots
as flat surfaces that are wrapped around and have become freestanding. The quality of a hand-rolled tile is very different to those produced from moulds. Even if hand-rolled to precision and fired flat, they still have a subtle undulation in form that makes them very special. And of course, tiles sit very well between that blurred line of art, craft and design. They are used for functional purposes in architecture as well as ornamentally and can be displayed as sculptural relief paintings. I like this versatility and the possibilities for storytelling.
I would love to explore transferring my drawings onto these surfaces so I can work with colour more through the application of underglaze and overglaze. This is something that I am still very wary of. Glazes in general scare me because of the hassle and their somewhat irreversible nature. Nonetheless, I have begun experimenting with glazing on these carved forms, but it is very much work in progress.
I have also been looking at a lot of sculpture and paperwork by the Spanish artist Eduardo Chillida, which led me to make some embossed motif pieces on paper with press machines. Whether pressing on paper or carving on porcelain tiles or pots, I find the two processes complementary and you can achieve similar aesthetic qualities in their outcomes.
I came to realise that my work is quite graphic and I like developing motifs. Whether a hand or a frog, these have evolved very organically in my work. It is hard to pinpoint the moment of their origin as these external items feed into my visual library naturally and then I begin to find more meanings within them. For example, I realised I kept seeing frogs in popular culture and real life – they are funny, almost humanoid creatures and I could not stop noticing them. Through these repeated sightings, they became the perfect character in the narratives of my travels to Jingdezhen and even during times of the pandemic.
The motif of the hand always strikes me as a symbol for labour, tactility and gestures for communication. As a ceramic maker and a human being, I feel close to this concept and it feels even more potent now during a time of prohibited touching. My series of carvings Desire for Communication and Relationships embodies this interest, finding their forms onto panels and vessels – two of which are being shown as part of Crafted Collectables with Sarah Myerscough Gallery. I am currently looking at hands and gestures in religious iconography, often very beautiful and elegant, such as those on representations of the bodhisattva Kwunyum, a goddess of compassion and mercy, and a figure I see a lot of in Hong Kong culture.
During my travels, I like to document and draw from images and videos. I have been looking into traditional Chinese scroll paintings and collaged arrangements of mundane city life.
I am also a big fan of the Canadian artist Marcel Dzama, the artist and designer Nathalie du Pasquier and British visual artist Paul Noble, who all draw similarly in a way that is otherworldly and fun. My obsession with this style also comes from my interest in video games. It is reminiscent of old simulation games that I would play when I was younger, such as The Sims or similar ones that involved building theme parks or hospitals.
I have been told when people encounter my work that they see my personality. They can see me in these expressions, sometimes humorous, sometimes elegant, which I accept with pleasure as the work does come from a semi-autobiographical place. Humour and levity is so important to me and my practice.
For more details visit geraldmak.co.uk; Crafted Collectables, online presentation at Sarah Myerscough
Gallery; sarahmyerscough.com; RCA Ceramics and Glass MA Graduate Showcase at the Design Museum from 23 July; designmuseum.org
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