We have grown used to the idea of the permanence of war, given its Orwellian imprimatur with George W. Bush’s announcement of ‘the war on terror’ in 2001. But we don’t think much about soldiers and their suffering and their impossible role. Occasionally, an exceptional book comes along – such as Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds (2012) or Helen Parr’s Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper (2018). We might know that British troops have second-rate equipment or that some American officers like to wear spurs and Stetsons, like mad Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now (1979), but these are mere details that shield us from our ignorance.
In Carol McNicoll’s Expeditionary Coffee Set (2011), hapless ceramic solders are screwed down to a brass tray, a linked chain fencing them in, a jubilee clip between each man, a found coffee cup hanging from each clip. They look stuck, condemned to gaze forever at a junk-shop coffee pot that has been reglazed with transfers of more soldiers, branches and leaves. In Freedom and Democracy (2011), figurines of soldiers sit on an aluminium plate shouldering Coca Cola bottles wired to form a basket. In Fruit Kettle (2011), five standing soldiers form a circle. They are bolted together with metal strips and carry a fuzz of wire netting that, unexpectedly, does the job of a fruit bowl.
McNicoll’s work is waywardly ornamental. Before she turned her attention to the military, she used her fondness for the industrial process of ceramic slip-casting to reflect on national obsessions, forgotten colonial ambitions and the practice of art in general. Homage to Brancusi (2005) is a zig-zag column made of casts taken from a single cut-glass jug that echoes but undermines the portentous seriousness of Constantin Brancusi’s famous Endless Column (1918). A cast taken from a ceramic carthorse, a souvenir suggesting a Merry England of whistling ploughboys, is combined with a teapot and covered in unexpected decals of grapes and vine leaves. These decals appear again on figures cast from a plastic model of a turbaned Indian who once held a box of tea in a shop window tableau. Three characters hold a mass of cast grapes and appear to be dancing: they are the vine. They belong in a domestic interior, the familiar tropes of the mantelpiece souvenir confusingly mingled – the colonial memento, the debased figurine, a grape dish made of grapes.
A group of soldiers with heavy backpacks is sitting on the ground. We know that waiting is what soldiers do. McNicoll’s soldiers are frozen ornament: in the words of John Keats in his Ode on a Grecian Urn (1820): ‘Cold Pastoral / When old age shall this generation waste / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours’.
McNicoll has been making ceramics for a long time now; she came from a dazzling generation of women who graduated from London’s Royal College of Art in the early 1970s. She is therefore part of the studio craft world, a territory caught between fine art and design, a contested concept since ‘craft’ is a word with almost too many associations.
The art world has recently become interested in ceramics and in textiles, making discoveries, taking an interest in figures who have given their lives to one material – Anni Albers, Ewen Henderson, Sheila Hicks, Gillian Lowndes, Lucie Rie, Hannah Ryggen, Lenore Tawney. Why this should be remains mysterious. It cannot simply be a reaction to the ubiquity of the digital realm, this desire to rough-and-tumble with clay and hanks of yarn, to engage with glaze technology and rug-tufting guns. Nonetheless, art-world scouts do miss some good people. This is why I am writing about McNicoll, whose work as a potter now walks on the dark side. She introduced me to the borderland of craft, for which I count myself very lucky.
First published in Issue 200