Review – Politics and porcelain in Roger Law: From Satire to Ceramics

Angela Youngman reviews a career-spanning solo exhibition of work – from political satire to serene celadon-glazed ceramics – by artist Roger Law, currently on show at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.

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Roger Law, Paradise Pot, Photo John Lawrence Jones

Roger Law, Paradise Pot, Photo John Lawrence Jones

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For most people Roger Law is best known as a satirist, famed for caricaturing celebrities and politicians alike during several decades of the satirical puppet-based TV show Spitting Image. Anyone wishing to discover more about his work, creative journey and techniques, should visit the exhibition Roger Law: From Satire to Ceramics at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich.

Law’s work as a ceramic artist is less well known – but as this exhibition proves, he has incredible skill in both drawing designs and translating them into clay. The imposing vases, jars and cauldrons capture attention thanks to their beauty, finely-wrought designs, and sheer size (indeed, some seven-foot high vases are so large they are exhibited downstairs, away from the main exhibition).

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Mrs T-pot and the Reagan Coffee Pot, Photo Spitting Image Workshop

Spitting Image, Mrs T-pot and the Reagan Coffee Pot. Photo: Spitting Image Workshop

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The exhibition charts Law’s development as an artist in every sense: from his early satirical work, made shortly after leaving the Cambridge School of Art, to his current incarnation as a ceramic artist. A display of familiar Spitting Image puppets (including a memorably grotesque Margaret Thatcher) inevitably captures attention, as does the range of commercially-produced teapots and other memorabilia. It is impossible not to smile at the sly skill with which he captures their characters.

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Roger Law, Fogg Dam Charger, 2016, Photo John Lawrence Jones

Roger Law, Fogg Dam Charger. Photo John Lawrence Jones

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As you approach the ceramics section, there is a perceptible change of atmosphere: from politically charged parody, to a more contemplative mood. Even the colours transform, as the luridly-coloured Spitting Image puppets shift to the subtle blues and greens of glazes.

Soon after Spitting Image ended, Law spent several years in Australia where his attention was caught by the beauty of the wetlands and exotic wildlife. At the same time, he developed an interest in Chinese calligraphy and brushwork. A massive wall of drawings reflects the transformation in his artwork. Vivid watercolours of leaping kangaroos, creeping frogs and a swimming platypus clearly reflect the influence of Chinese brushwork. A celadon brush pot bears a frieze of preying mantises, while large pots, such as Cheerleader Crabs Charger, bear a hint of Aboriginal influence with their all-over patterns.

Whatever medium Law uses, it is clear from this exhibition that drawing is at the heart of his work. He sketches incessantly, and these drawings form the basis for the designs of his ceramics. These are the pots of a master draughtsman.

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Roger Law, Jesus Bird Plate', 2016. Photograph by John Lawrence Jones

Roger Law, Jesus Bird Plate. Photograph by John Lawrence Jones

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Over the past decade, Law has spent a lot of time working with master craftsmen in the porcelain city of Jingdezhen, China. During this time the scale and ambition of his ceramics has grown dramatically, with his work clearly rooted in the history and tradition of the country. Short films demonstrate precisely how he works collaboratively with Chinese potters, drawing designs directly onto newly-made pots. The pot is then moved across the workshop to the carver, allowing Law to work directly with him to cut away background clay, leaving designs in high relief. This has created a new approach to large scale celadon and flambé glazed porcelain, involving traditional Chinese skills being used in new ways.

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Roger Law Brush Pot. Photo Sainsbury Centre

Roger Law, Brush Pot. Photo Sainsbury Centre

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This exhibition leaves the visitor feeling as though you have learned both about the creation of Chinese ceramics, how traditional techniques can be harnessed in the contemporary context, and how a career can straddle worlds. Law’s unique vision has resulted in the creation of ceramics that are eye-catching, monumental and different. As Law says: ‘I would like this work to be as engaging and attractive as my caricatures were rude and ugly.’

– Angela Youngman

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Visit Roger Law: From Satire to Ceramics at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich until 3 April 2018; scva.ac.uk 

Read about Roger Law in his own words in his article ‘The Long March to Jingdezhen’, inside Ceramic Review issue 272, March/April 2015. Read it today with a digital subscription – now only £15.99 – available here, or buy a single copy here.

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