Jean-Nicolas Gérard is one of those rare potters who brings genuine life and gusto to contemporary slipware, investing the tradition of terre vernissée with a fresh and expressive energy unlike any other. He takes the best of slipware’s history in Europe and infuses it with a deep appreciation of other traditions, from expressive Eastern ceramics to modern painting, all influences that contribute to the innate physicality of his pots. It is revealing that in talking to their admiration for Gérard’s work, people may refer not only to a whole range of country pottery, French and otherwise, but perhaps medieval earthenware and, in Japan, kilns such as Oribe and potters like Rosanjin, Koie and even Kaneko.
Like these artists Gérard has moved beyond conventional methods. Hs has moved beyond the overly tutored aspects of making, the craft skills and procedures which every potter needs but which must to some degree be transcended if a pot is to have real vigour. But the wrong kind of individuality can also make it too self-conscious. I recall a conversation with Ewen Henderson in which he discussed the danger of one particular potter slipping into mannerism because of his exaggerated detailing. It is a fine line. But every Gérard pieces, while fresh and different, is also controlled – objects which not only show a great understanding of form and the vocabulary of pottery, but also its functionality, its place in the rituals of good food and cooking, in hospitality and living. Pots to make us pause and celebrate.
Born in Brazzaville in the Congo in 1954, Gérard has been based in the south of France for many years, studying ceramics in the late 1970s, training with Jean Biagini at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Aix-en-Provence, as well as Clare Bogino. He worked for a short while in stoneware before building his first wood-fired kiln for slipware. Since the early 1980s he has lived and worked in Valensole, a beautiful medieval hilltop village bathed in Provençal light and in summer surrounded by purple seas of lavender. Here is a landscape redolent with the art of Van Gogh and Cézanne and, on the coast, with Bonnard and Matisse, a region in which colour has found some if its most potent expression, not only in the strong hues of Post-Impressionism and Fauvism, but in the luminous creamy yellows, ochres and greens of Provençal pottery.
Jean-Nicolas Gérard’s pots add much to this heritage and to slipware in general. But he also relishes the parallels of expression between terre vernisee techniques and 20th century abstraction, from the collages of Matisse to the paintings of the New York School. There are gestural colourists like Pierre Alechinsky, where line and drawing combine so richly with pigment. Gerard makes the strong visual and physical connection between the painterly slips he uses and the thick liquidity of oil and acrylic. Gerard is in every sense a modern artist, a potter with a touch of Voulkos about him. The work is imbued with a sense of performance, of creative action, of clay and slip as wet fluid substances, more so than most potters I know. The fact that he works in series, gathering together runs of pieces and decorating swiftly from one to another removes the stiff hesitancy of much ceramic embellishment. Gerard’s gestural rhythms develop their own momentum, extending out the freedom of each form so that every dish, jar or bowl has a special personality, a strong voice of its own. They are three-dimensional canvasses for his broad pourings and dips of glaze, his rapid painting and sgraffito incising. These objects from his covetable mugs to his big square platters, have an activity and interaction that makes them impossible to ignore.
Gérard’s applications of slip create surfaces of variation and movement onto which he can further mark and inscribe across the clay. He may add other details and flourishes, his cutting and modelling equally fast and loose. His big press-moulded dishes are similarly extemporised – the rims free and uneven – while some of his powerful jars have thick unglazed necks and bases, shapes with a real swagger. Monumental flared jars for the floor offer the broadest drawing areas. These qualities are concentrated into his smaller items too, from table bowls to jugs and beakers. There is no hierarchy. Every eminently usable pot is first and foremost a piece of functional art and loses much potters abandon useful objects in favour of just plinth and shelf. Gérard’s vivid work is an act of celebration in which we can all participate.
David Whiting, March 2013