Time and Imagination–steeped in Helen Johannessen's surfaces
by Purva Chawla
The grain of a surface or material can decide how we perceive it, and what reaction it invokes in us. Nowhere does this seem more true, than in the textured, mesh-imprinted surfaces of ceramicist Helen Johannessen's works.
Wall panels and vessels, cast in Parian porcelain by her, are designed to be experienced in a granular, intimate way by the viewer. Unlike many ceramic works, where one is urged to admire from a distance and rarely touch delicate forms, here the viewer picks up a pair of optical glasses and comes as close to these works as they possibly can–immersing themselves in a landscape of lines, forms, and their own imagination really.
Using a combination of printmaking with clay, and textured Parian porcelain casting techniques, Helen creates a series of graphically-rich works which draw viewers into their crevices and create the sense of time being slowed down, if not stopped.
The Cockpit Arts-based ceramicist also straddles two very opposite worlds–the digital and the analog–in an unusual way. On the one hand, her works seem to possess digital imprints and carry coded information within them, and on the other, they intend to pull people away from an overdose of digital media, and into a world of distinctly handmade forms, associated memories, and imagination.
Just before Cockpit Arts in Holborn opened its doors this week for its Open Studios (a unique opportunity for the public to engage with resident artists, makers, and craftspeople), we chatted with Helen. Our goal–to understand more about the signature work and processes of the recent graduate of the Royal College of Art, but also the legacy of her nearly two decades spent working with ceramics. Below is our conversation with Helen Johannessen.
We encourage London-based readers to follow reading this article with a visit to Cockpit Arts and its Open Studios in Holborn this week (23rd to 26th November), to see Helen's work in the flesh, and also that of several of her talented colleagues.
MD: Helen, you have a unique, layered process of creating your works. When and how did the unexpected combination of screen-printing, casting Parian porcelain, and imbuing intricate textures come about?
Helen: During the first year of my Master's degree we were offered a few short practical courses, to play around and explore techniques. Of those, I had a feeling that the print workshop was going to present me with ways and possibilities of working towards what I was trying to achieve. Print is all about dealing with the surface, so I enjoyed understanding the traditional processes, then chucking the rule book out.
For my works, I chose to use contrasting and bold colored clays and create specifically graphical patterns to expose onto the mesh. Then, by working the pieces onto plaster batts–some with subtle texture–I started to achieve the visual depth I’d hoped for. It was very exciting.
Parian clay as a material has a translucency; it is a type of porcelain with a very milky finish when fired at high temperatures. Each layer is applied quite thinly. The opacity of the clay body actually adds more depth, rather than covering up what has been laid before.
Being a trained model/mold maker for several years, I have a lot of experience in handling positive and negatives of final objects. The industrial process of casting means going back and forth a lot. I find that my mind is adept at understanding the reverse of something and unpicking the stages of a process. These skills, I believe, give me the ability to make things that can seem obscure and ambiguous, or give an illusion of being something else.
MD: You encourage viewers to come in close contact with your works, observe the impact of movement–often allowing them to view pieces close-up with optical glasses–and experience them in an intimate way. What effect do you see on those considering your work in this way?
Helen: Initially people can seem hesitant to get so close to view; they’re not used to it. Your nose virtually needs to touch the surface when using the optical glasses. The focus and exploration that ensues, and what catches their attention allows the individual experience to kick in. At that point, I hope for their imagination to drift and relax into it–afterall, the mind can invent a significant number of things when we give it time and space. When the optical glasses are removed, the viewer often looks as if they have been somewhere far away, as though hypnotized or just woken up. I love that!
My Master's dissertation was titled ‘Miniaturization; the power of Small.' It exampled creative scale in contemporary art, the historical context of miniatures in cultures, and how the detail of things can influence and play a part in our lives. I looked at ways in which perception and memory can play a part in how we feel about something, especially when the size has been altered from ‘what we know.' The conclusion proved that miniature worlds could affect real-time–almost stop it. The glasses encourage this to happen. They are a playful journey for the individual and his/her imagination. Condensing something and really focusing can be a quiet, positive experience, especially in the age of information overload that we are living in.
MD: Information, data, technology, industrial processes– all of these are embedded in the making of your surfaces. Yet the results are distinctly handmade and intended to draw people away from a digital realm. What is your relationship with these two worlds?
Helen: In 1971 I was a born into an analog world, and over the decades have witnessed digitization dramatically change our everyday life. I have embraced the excitement and possibilities of computers, information at our command and all that comes with it. Although, I can sometimes feel agitated and yearn for that simpler, more basic life without devices. To engage with the world in a visceral, imaginative way, being resourceful and making things by hand can fulfill this need.
I was originally trained in ceramics in the early 90’s. Ways of making, materials, and approaches were quite different at the time for me, though I’ve always tended to create clean and graphical looking work. Today, I use halftone printing patterns for my works, and this process itself produces marks that can look quite pixelated. People have thought they’ve seen tiny numbers in my layers, and the linear attributes and textures I choose tend to add to that feeling of the machine world.
On the other hand, I am always observing the visual world around me, and I try to condense all of that into my surfaces; making calm order out of life that can feel a bit chaotic to me sometimes. My work photographs well, but not all the effects can be captured in a static image; it is best experienced in real life, rather than on a screen.
MD: Before your Masters at the Royal College of Art, you ran Yoyo Ceramics successfully for many years–creating beautiful, practical and yet curious works such as “Is That Plastic?”. Which traits or interests from that period continue to feature in your work today?
Helen: The ambiguity and questioning of what you are looking at continues in my aesthetic. I also like tapping into memories and the spirit of the imagination. Both my previous work and current ceramics can stimulate this reflective state in the viewer.
My previous work for Yoyo Ceramics paid homage to the classic design of post-war times, often having a retro look to it. The abstract mark making, textures, and colors in my latest ceramic pieces encourage responses or tap into peoples memory bank. The era of Op and Pop Art appeals to me, the overall feel, palette, and spirit of that time work their way into what I create.
MD: What is next for you–in terms of materials, techniques, or formats of finished objects that you would like to explore and create?
Helen: I’d really like to work on a bigger scale or have an opportunity to cover larger areas with my surfaces. I’d also like to experiment with building form and facets, introduce specific lighting and movement to my pieces. Audience interaction is something I’d like to continue to push; to deepen the importance of curiosity–the way to observe and spend time with your imagination.
While at the RCA I was awarded a scholarship by the Anglo Swedish Society for a 3-month residency at Konstfack in Stockholm, starting in January 2018. I’d possibly like to use the opportunity to work with glass again since I had just started to cast it last year. It obviously has fantastic color, reflective depth and perceptive character to play with. I am excited to be immersed in Scandinavian culture again, and to see how it influences my creativity and output.