Sculpture in ceramics: an interview with artist Johan Creten

Johan Creten is an artist who lives in Paris. The Belgium-born sculptor has been an influential figure in altering the perception of ceramics within the sphere of contemporary art. Ceramics were widely regarded as materials for crafts a generation ago. Now ceramic artworks are gaining broader acceptance.

When we spoke, Creten was preparing for an exhibition in New York City’s Perrotin Gallery (130 Orchard Street). The exhibition, Alfred Paintings, runs from 8 September until 21 October 2018.

“I made the ceramic paintings in 2013. 2013 was too early to show them in New York. They were afraid to show them,” comments the artist, whose works often draw strong reactions.

Museum Beelden aan Zee

Until 23 September 2018 his work will also displayed at the Museum Beelden aan Zee, by the promenade in Dutch seaside resort of Scheveningen, just five kilometres from the centre of The Hague. Naked Roots is Creten’s first solo show at the seaside sculpture gallery. The exhibition is curated by Joost Bergman.

Naked Roots features inspirational objects from his personal collection plus 50 of Creten’s works. The works span various phases of his life. Several have never previously been shown in public.

“I have got a long history with the Netherlands. It’s an exciting moment on different levels, I love the museum because it is close to the beach, so the public is diverse. The public comes from all over. You have people from the art world but also people who come in from the beach because it’s a cloudy day. That direct contact with a very diverse audience is something I find wonderful,” he says enthusiastically.

“Also, I’m Flemish, The Flemish and the Dutch, we are like family,” he utters with a chuckle.

Showing in the Netherlands

“It’s wonderful to show such a large group of works in the Netherlands,” adds Creten, who was one of the international artists invited to participate in the Eleven Fountains project.

That project was unveiled in May, part of the Leeuwarden-Friesland 2018 programme, celebrating the region’s status as a European Capital of Culture. Creten designed a bat fountain, De Vleermuis, that has been erected outside of the Gothic façade of the Broerekerk in the city of Bolsward.

“It has had a lot of controversial things happening around it,” admits Creten, who liaised with the city’s residents while creating his design.

The Eleven Fountains project

“In the month leading up to the unveiling there was hate mail and petitions against the work. It’s been very controversial. That is starting to turn now it’s installed and people have seen the piece in Bolsward. We are happy to show the mother model and studies in the Museum Beelden an Zee,” he adds.

“The full-scale model — the mother model — is also in the show. People can see the small study in bronze, studies in ceramic and then one-to-one model. For people who love sculpture it’s interesting to follow the process as to how a sculpture is born,” says Creten, who was born at in the Belgian town of Sint-Truiden in 1963.

“The most recent piece I made, The Herring, is also in the show. It’s a five-metre high female figure, a naked woman with a fish in her hands. She is standing in the courtyard. When I saw the courtyard of the museum I thought ‘what a beautiful space, I want to make a special piece for this space — even if it costs me a fortune and I don’t know what to do with the sculpture in three months!’ I found it a challenge to make a special piece for outside. With the sea and the birds that fly around, I think it’s a beautiful location,” he explains.

De Vleermuis by Johan Creten on display at Beelden aan Zee museum. Photo: © Gerrit Schreurs & Johan Creten Studio. © ADAGP, 2018.
‘De Vleermuis’ (2016-2018) by Johan Creten on display at Beelden aan Zee museum. Photo: © Gerrit Schreurs & Johan Creten Studio, © ADAGP, 2018.

From taboo to trendy

“You also have Couch Potatoes and Pliny’s Sorrow: important works in my career…When I started to make ceramic sculptures in the 1980s that was considered a taboo in the art world. Today ceramics are a hot, trendy material,” says Creten.

“They appear colourful, joyful, but when you start looking at the subject matter they soon turn into political pieces. That type of mixture between traditional colourful ceramics and politics was something very new. When the New York Times said Johan Creten was a front-runner in the revival of ceramics in contemporary art, it meant there was a real shift in what you could do with the material. It became no longer just a craft material but a contemporary art material — a sculpture material,” he continues.

A pioneer in ceramic arts

“I know for sure that in my world I have been a pioneer. I see the number of young people who have taken me as an example, not only for the changes in what you could do with the material, but also how you could run a career in the contemporary art world. To say I always show in a contemporary art context — that has been very important as an example for young artists. There was subject matter that was not talked about. Whether it’s justified, history will tell,” suggests Creten frankly.

“I know I have changed the playing field for a lot of young artists. When I went as the first invited artist at the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres we created a new type of paste that is used by sculptors today and we fired in a different way. It opened the possibilities to young artists who followed. I have done this for 25 years now very consistently, in the contemporary art world, as an outsider.

When I showed at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York, Mr Miller’s artists included the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Lucien Freud, David Hockney and Eva Hesse. Most of those artists were, at the time, outsiders because they were women, gay men or black. Some were working with clay or photography, not considered done materials 15 to 20 years ago. A lot of those artists are now considered major figures in the development of art,” says Creten passionately.

“I think what I have done with clay and the way I have shown it has opened a gate for a lot of people,” he adds in a matter of fact tone.

'The Herring', at the Museum Beelden aan Zee. Photo © Gerrit Schreurs & Johan Creten Studio. © ADAGP, 2018.
‘The Herring’, (2018) by Johan Creten, displayed at the Museum Beelden aan Zee. Photo © Gerrit Schreurs & Johan Creten Studio. © ADAGP, 2018. 

A difficult career path

“I’ve taken a difficult route. In the context of the flower torsos of Odore di Femmina there’s enough for the career of an artist through an entire lifetime. My dealers, they say to me, ‘Johan, why don’t you simply stick with repeating that series, it’s a wonderful series?”

Occasionally, Creten’s works will alienate members of the public.

“A couple of examples in my recent Paris show, people did not dare to even look at them. They are innocent sculptures but, for some people, were so confrontational that people didn’t look at them. It will take another five or six years before people are comfortable with them. That position comes with pushing the boundary and taking on a new theme and angle,” he suggests.

“I like to choose to be free. But when you choose to be free you pay the price. In the world of Instagram and Facebook, in the world of branding, people want to immediately recognise something such as a logo. I’ve always believed that art is about something else. It’s about a kind of unique experience,” he comments, raising issues that could spark discussion among marketing and PR experts.

“I still believe when I do the things the way I do, that people can be moved, and I can have an impact. I have seen that in the reaction of young artists, who have become free,” he adds with conviction.

Choosing sculpture over painting

As a teenager, Creten began studying painting at the academy of fine arts in Ghent but soon moved to sculpture.

“It was a kind of chance encounter. The arts school was filled with hundreds and hundreds of young painting students. There was one spot in the whole school that had just two women: the ceramics studio. I touched a piece of clay and it gave me an instant joy. I said, ‘this is something’. The clay took on emotions in such a direct way,” says Creten, recalling the experience.

“Then also, more strategically, I saw there was a space to grab. There was space in art, in a sense: a space where nobody was taking advantage of the material. Was it intuition, strategy or just luck? I could use the material and do something different. I could talk about politics, social issues, beauty – all these things, in my way, with this material,” he says.

“It was impossible to get a spot as an artist in Belgium. So, I had to leave. I moved to the south of France and after a couple of years people saw there was something going on in my work. I was pushing boundaries.

One thing led to another and it was 20 years later! I’d lived in Miami, Rome, in Wisconsin and New York. I’d made work in a free way with a suitcase and a lot of guts. To say ‘okay, let’s go to Wisconsin there’s someone who has a kiln and is ready to accept artists’: at that time the idea of an artist in residence was very new or non-existant. Today lots of young artists travel. I enjoyed it tremendously to go from one culture to the next,” he adds, touching upon one of the chief benefits of travelling and spending time in other cultures.

Creten now has far less time available to spend abroad. It’s now a luxury. However, during the spring of 2019 he is looking forward to spending three months in Japan and concentrating on new ideas.

Glazed stoneware from Sèvres with grog, crystallization. On the wall : Alte Mutti, blistering lava glaze on modeled and incised stoneware. Photo © Gerrit Schreurs & Johan Creten Studio, © ADAGP, 2018.
‘Grande Vague pour Palissy’ (2006-2011), glazed stoneware from Sèvres with grog, crystallization. On the wall : ‘Alte Mutti’ (2016-2017), blistering lava glaze on modeled and incised stoneware. Photo © Gerrit Schreurs & Johan Creten Studio, © ADAGP, 201

Growing up in Belgium

“When I was young boy in Belgium, in a provincial city, I understood there were two choices. One was to stay in the society and become what society wants you to become, or to leave and find a way to create a new world somewhere. For that travel was essential. Today, lots more people travel than 20 years ago.

I remember taking the night train between Brussels and Paris and it would take all night. Now you can do that in an hour and fifteen minutes or so! Things have changed tremendously,” he reflects.

That prompts me to ask if Creten feels himself an outsider.

“What is this, psycho-analysis?” he counters in such a way that I burst into laughter.

“I think I’ve always felt like an outsider,” he answers.

“When I was a kid painting in the streets, I was 11 at the time, an older couple — Monsieur and Madame and Leonard — they saw me paint and they said come to our house after school on Wednesdays. They were antique dealers. For years, every Wednesday after school, I would go to their house to look at art and touch art. Their house was fantastic, it was filled with art from the cellar to the roof. In their place I wasn’t an outsider.

The funny thing today, with something like Instagram, is that you find a kind of family, worldwide. If you’re into brown ceramics you find people across the world that like brown ceramics. It’s funny how that happens now,” he says, citing one of the benefits of social media for creative souls.

“My parents are wonderful people. My mother taught history, my father loves books. They are very cultivated and were always very supportive, but there was a limit. You have to look for your own crowd. You have to escape,” he suggests.

The creative process of an artist

I’m intrigued as to Creten’s creative process.

“There are drawings, then maquettes — small pieces in clay that I can keep with me for two, three, four years. Ideas that circulate in my sketch books that I’ll work on for a long time. Once it exists then it will often change and become something else,” he answers

“The big rule for me is that a piece has to have everything in the inside. What I mean by that is I try to make work, even if it was left at a flea market or on the street, that the potential to tell its story is in the piece, not in its context.

A lot of art today — that I respect enormously — only functions in a white cube or the right condition of a show in the context of the artworld. Take it out of there and it loses a lot its power. I like pieces that, if they are let loose in the world, have the strength to survive,” explains the artist.

“There are some pieces that I made in the ‘80s that I showed in galleries in Paris during the day and took them out into Paris in the evening. The idea was ‘does what you make have the potential to tell what you feel even if you’re not around and even if you’re not in the context of a museum?’ That, for me, was a crucial question. That is an important element in understanding my work,” he says, providing an insight into interpreting his oeuvre.

Artist Johan Creten by his fountain De Vleermuis (The Bat) in Bolsward, the Netherlands.
Artist Johan Creten by his fountain De Vleermuis (The Bat) in Bolsward, the Netherlands. Photo © Stuart Forster.

A typical working day

I learn that a typical working day in the life of Johan Creten can vary markedly and that his routines are largely cyclical.

“It’s not a typical contemporary art studio with 15 people working with one artist or getting up and having breakfast then going to the studio,” he reveals.

When we are talking he’s been busy planning with his secretaries and interns. Not all his time is spent focusing on being creative. He also works on catalogues and mailing lists — the business side of being an artist.

“That can take up weeks, months even. That can be frustrating,” admits about activities that are essential to making a livelihood through art.

“I don’t get money from the government. It’s all produced with my own funds from the sale of previous works. I make all these things without knowing where they will go afterwards,” he adds, about his sculptures.

Creten credits curator the Joost Bergman for his support in preparing the Naked Roots exhibition at the Museum Beelden aan Zee. “It’s a huge endeavour to get it on the road. It’s not something you can do in a bohemian room under a roof: you have to have a lot of skills to make something like that happen,” he adds.

Artists that provide inspiration

I always find it interesting to understand which artists inspire other creative minds.

“I like Philip Guston; Joseph Beuys for his social engagement and understanding that art was a political tool; Sigmar Polke, the German artist, for his liberty to change styles — the freedom not to sticking to the routine to making the same wallpaper for the rich,” answers Creten.

“I’m happy I’ve got rich collectors who can support me, I don’t spit in the soup, but I don’t want to make wallpaper for the rich. It’s the ambition to want to make something that endures,” he clarifies.

“There was an older woman from Bolsward who came to the opening at Museum Beelden aan Zee after seeing the fountain in Friesland. She said to me, ‘Mr Creten, do you know, this is the first time that I’ve come to a museum and this is a new world for me. I never thought that is would be possible for me.” That’s what I love about Museum Beelden aan Zee. You can just walk in from the beach and see the work and be moved by it. See it; look at it; love it or hate it,” he says passionately.

“The ambition is to convey that emotion I felt as a kid, when I looked at a crucifix in the house of the Leonards and felt as if somebody was talking to me who had been dead for centuries. That’s a huge ambition and maybe a huge burden to aim to create something that will speak for itself?” asks Creten rhetorically.

Naked Roots continues at the Museum Beelden aan Zee, in Scheveningen, the Netherlands, until 23 September 2018.

View of Johan Creten 'Naked Roots / Naakte Wortels' exhibition at the Beelden aan Zee museum in The Hague. Photo: © Gerrit Schreurs & Johan Creten Studio, © ADAGP, 2018.
View of Johan Creten ‘Naked Roots / Naakte Wortels’ exhibition at the Beelden aan Zee museum in The Hague. Photo: © Gerrit Schreurs & Johan Creten Studio, © ADAGP, 2018.

Further information

For ideas on other places to visit in and around Scheveningen, see the Den Haag and Holland tourism information website.

The photographs within the body of this post (with the exception of the portrait of Johan by ‘De Vleermuis’, which was photographed by Stuart Forster, along with the headline image) were supplied courtesy of Johan Creten Studio.

Stuart Forster, the author of this post, was named Journalist of the Year at the Holland Press Awards of 2015 and 2016. He is based in the north-east of England and available for commissions. Stuart can be contacted via this website.

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