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Review: To This I Put My Name, Claire Curneen

(March 01, 2014)

Review: To This I Put My Name, Claire Curneen
Mission Gallery, Swansea - runs to 16 March 2014
Ruthin Craft Centre, Denbighshire - 12 April to 29 June 2014

Mission Gallery, Claire Curneen. Image: Matthew OttenTo This I Put My Name, Claire Curneen
at Mission Gallery, Swansea. Photograph: Matthew Otten


Mission Gallery, at Swansea Marina, previously a mission for seafarers, continues its original purpose as a port in a storm. With the weather battering Wales, the solid walls successfully muffled the howling wind and hail on the day I visited and provided an embracing welcome.

This exhibition is the result of Claire Curneen's two years' work as an ambassador artist funded by an Arts Council of Wales Ambassador Award, along with Mission Gallery and Ruthin Craft Centre. Taking residency at the Mission Gallery and working with a curator at the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin - where collections vary from natural history to fine art - this work was part academic and part artistic.

Claire Curneen trained as a ceramicist, so understandably uses this material in her practice. Her material is also partly chosen to exploit the relationship people have with ceramics. We drink tea or coffee from a mug, learn young to take care with Nanna's china cabinet, and view dinner services and other porcelain pieces in museums. When viewing these works, our domestic and reverential experience of ceramic adds the layers of nostalgia and familiarity that experiencing other sculptural work lacks.

Using the gallery's drawing studio space for six months, high up in Mission Gallery, the artist turned her research and inspiration into shapes. Using clay was then a quick and direct process from the drawing stage, the alchemy of firing creating the final results.

On entering the main space you are greeted mainly by figurative forms. Against the wall, at waist height, is a lined-up gathering of full-body figures that are representations of religious or mythical people.

Mythical figures, Claire Curneen. Image Deirdre FinnertyAll Claire Curneen, 2013. (L-R)
Strange Fire, porcelain, cobalt, 68 x 13 x 20cm
Mary Magdalene, porcelain, gold lustre, 57 x 13 x 12cm
Bird Figure, porcelain, gold lustre, 59 x 13 x 15cm
Cut to the Quick, porcelain, cobalt, gold lustre, 56 x 13 x 15cm

Photograph: Deirdre Finnerty

Another wall has a row of busts at higher than waist height, larger in scale, with fully formed arms and delicate hands. Their eyes but a suggestion, their decoration varied from pure texture to delicate detail - with line work and real gold touches - from rough stoneware with raindrops, to perfect porcelain-glazed finishes. The arrows in St Sebastian seem to really penetrate the form and yet the bust of Rain seems like a whimsical allegory. The work is varied and yet makes a coherent grouping.

Rain, Claire Curneen - image Dewi Tannatt Lloyd
, Claire Curneen, 2013
black stoneware clay, 37 x 33 x 18cm. Photograph: Dewi Tannatt Lloyd

In front of you, two black stoneware figures, a couple, Builders welcome you into the space. The contrast of these dark figures against the white-glazed porcelain of the others makes you pause and consider the earth that made them. They seem more real and, being larger (the artist’s normal scale), they are more relatable as human figures, as if they may actually move or speak.

Builders, Claire Curneen - image: Matthew OttenBuilders, Claire Curneen, 2013
Black stoneware clay, 75 x 46 x 26cm. Photograph: Matthew Otten

An eagle figure, Preaching to the birds, watches over the room and, being life-size, is reminiscent of the best of taxidermy. It seems to watch over the others in a benevolent manner; maybe blessing them in the way St Francis did the birds.

Preaching to the Birds, Claire Curneen. Image Deirdre FinnertyPreaching to the Birds, Claire Curneen, 2013
Porcelain, gold lustre, red MDF, 74 x 40 x 33cm. Photograph: Deirdre Finnerty

The largest figure is the focus of the exhibition in the apse of the church. Portent seems to float as if suspended, a relaxed and in-between state, also made of black clay. The exhibition title is a literary reference from Thomas Hardy, I suspect portent here has the literary meaning - an exceptional or wonderful person or thing - and is in the most reverential place.

Portent, Claire Curneen. Image: © Matthew Otten
, Claire Curneen, 2013
black stoneware clay, red MDF, 2013, 89 x 39 x 20cm. Photograph: Matthew Otten

Marrow, a large head made of flowers, even more gargantuan before firing, sits like a herm on its plinth. The surface is like a mille-fleur pattern made three dimensional, similarly blurring the perception of the form, to give a feeling of movement and a lively presence in the piece. The eye-hollows particularly seem to relocate, making them seem as if they are actively looking.


Flower Head, Claire Curneen. Image Deirdre FinnertyBoth Claire Curneen, 2013
Book of Hours
porcelain, cobalt print, transparent glaze, gold lustre, 38 x 33 x 9cm and
(background), porcelain, gold lustre, 34 x 27 x 26cm.
Photograph: Deirdre Finnerty

In contrast, Book of Hours – a smaller piece placed at the front - is like an illuminated manuscript frontispiece in ceramic form; still and inert. The more you look, the more you see … a square nest-device frames birds and figures, and other nestled treasures are waiting to be found.

Book of Hours, Claire Curneen - image Dewi Tannatt LloydBook of Hours, Claire Curneen, 2013
porcelain, cobalt print, transparent glaze, gold lustre, 38 x 33 x 9cm. Photograph: Dewi Tannatt Lloyd

Those with an Irish Catholic education and/or an interest in mythology will no doubt grasp the symbolism and themes of the work more strongly than I. However, the exhibition is moving, engaging and impressive to all.

At the opening people wept, which does not surprise. Art that is this well executed, where you can still see the touch of the maker, resonate with our own human experience, these expressive figures especially.

I left feeling warmed by sharing a space with these powerful objects. Their fragility and strength affected me. Akin to when a person shares their vulnerability with you, making you feel closer to them.

Over my dead body, Claire Curneen. Image Matthew OttenOver my Dead Body, Claire Curneen, 2013
porcelain, cobalt print, transparent glaze, gold lustre, 73 x 20 x 21cm. Photograph: Matthew Otten

I suspect Mission Gallery's beautifully lit and high-ceilinged interior would be as welcome in a heat wave or a storm; I intend to revisit in either circumstance. Catch the exhibition at Mission Gallery, Swansea until 16 March 2014.

To This I Put My Name opens at the Ruthin Craft Centre, Denbighshire, on 12 April, running to 29 June 2014.

Claire Curneen, gold medal winner at the 2001 National Eisteddfod, has pieces on display in permanent collections, including National Museum Wales.

Jennifer Pearce, March 2014


Mission Gallery
Gloucester Place
Maritime Quarter

Ruthin Craft Centre
Park Road
LL15 1BB

Jennifer Pearce is the founder of Art Club and can be followed on Twitter

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To This I Put My Name, Claire Curneen, March 2014

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