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Clay pride

Simon Bayliss reveres Cornwall’s art traditions with constructive irreverence.

Words by Martin Holman

Simon Bayliss is forthcoming about the direction he wants his ceramics to follow. “I don’t want them to be polite,” he says, “but I also love the idea of being part of tradition.” The tradition is studio pottery. St Ives, where Bayliss lives and works, exists near the core of that tradition. Bernard Leach, who worked in the town from the 1920s onwards, is often described as the ‘father’ of studio pottery. Indeed Leach, who trained in Japan, established the model that the genre still follows: his ‘ethical pot’ remains the yardstick – typically plain and utilitarian with a natural shape that ‘transcends mere good looks’ (in Leach’s phrase).

Left | One of ‘Three Ceramic Paintings for St Austell, Channeling Bernard Leach in The Age of Aquarius’ by Simon Bayliss, 2021, permanently installed at Chandos Place, St Austell (part of Austell Project’s Whitegold Ceramics Arts Trail). Photo by Jamie Darling

Right | Standard Sperm Jugs by Simon Bayliss, terracotta, slips and clear glaze

Ranged on racks in Bayliss’s studio are the cups, bowls and teapots that he creates as single works and in small batches. Also there is the kiln in which he fires the slipware decorated with coloured slips and transparent glazes, techniques that are part of pottery’s heritage. Last year at the Burton Museum in Bideford, north Devon, Bayliss put this aspect of his work on display in an exhibition with harvest celebration as its theme. Jugs and plates bristled with exuberant colour and designs that represented his take on the occasion: lovage leaves and phases of the moon, but also a flying unicorn, a zombie hand with painted nails and abstract shapes reminiscent of Terry Frost and his generation of St Ives modernists. Bold glazes of tangy yellows, aquatic turquoise and rich oranges flowed around conventional forms and mixed with blacks and pinks to evoke the spirit of celebration. In the background a soundtrack played that made use of the south-west folk ritual of ‘Crying the Neck’, a reminder that Bayliss deals with tradition on his own contemporary terms.

Bayliss grew up in east Devon where town and countryside meet. He has worked as a surf instructor and a landscape gardener, his parents having introduced him to the value of home cooking with good quality seasonal ingredients. They continue to grow their own food on an allotment and Bayliss follows their example, cultivating leaks, spinach, chard and other vegetables in the garden adjacent to where he lives. He also immersed himself in the local rave music scene, composing his own themes from age 14 with digital software. Synths and samples are arranged with a pulsing dance rhythm. More recently he has added video to the music, similarly edited from found clips and new material, that echoes its beat and grinding, physical undertone. Every output of Bayliss’s activity moves the space around it, unsettling expectations and arousing new ones.

Left | Simon Bayliss in his St Ives studio. Photo by John Hersey

Right | Simon Bayliss at Porthmeor Studios in St Ives. Photo by John Hersey

In fact, Bayliss makes constant links between his day-to-day life and the objects he makes. His pottery puts the everyday onto an aesthetic level where it approaches the status of ritual activity. Sharing an occasion to eat, create or dance is no less of a ritual for being familiar. In the Bideford exhibition – which he called We-Ha-Neck! after the harvester’s call when the last neck, or clump, of wheat is cut – the designs on pottery broadened out beyond the stereotypical image of country wholesomeness. Gathered in the museum staple, a glass-sided display case, were neat rows of black jugs bracketed on either side by fecund bundles of corn stalks that looked ready for processing into food. The jugs themselves also suggested the fruits of nature but from unexpected territory in these surroundings. Animated spermatozoa spilled over the decoration of the tableware’s smoothly decorated bodies with ecstatic glee.

A diffident individual who weighs his words before speaking, Bayliss talks about the rage he still feels for the limitations placed by society on his adolescence. As a young man, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 prohibited local authorities from promoting ‘the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. The legislation, of course, effectively branded a section of the community as ‘abnormal’, cheating a generation of the legitimate open expression of their most intimate selves.

Bayliss is part of that generation. His work now makes up for that lost time. Queer artists, he insists, want to see themselves reflected in the world as much as the heteronormative majority. With humour and candour, in music and words as well as with his ceramics, painting and performance, Bayliss integrates the pleasures of gay life into his life-affirming vision of the world around him.

At Bideford Bayliss carefully planned the show’s installation and content with that intention. One tradition he admires was evoked by selected pieces from the diverse historic collection of slipware formed post-war by R.J. Lloyd and conserved by the museum. Another was reflected in the table-like plinth on which his own work was presented. Triangular in shape and coloured pink, the table resonated with meanings beyond either pottery or the harvest.

Its shape recalled the installation artwork called The Dinner Party. Made by American artist Judy Chicago and first exhibited in 1979 from a collaboration with numerous fellow makers, it is acknowledged as a feminist milestone in twentieth-century art. Celebrating female accomplishments, like weaving and sewing, historically framed as craft or domestic work, it challenged their widely-accepted inferiority to activities dominated by men. Chicago changed minds. Bayliss also referred to the pink triangle symbol of the confident LGBTQ+ community, which reclaimed it from its shameful past. As a badge forced upon minorities the Nazis labelled as undesirables, especially homosexuals, its wearers were singled out for harsh and degrading treatment.

What relevance does either link have to ceramics? “The world of studio pottery,” Bayliss says, “particularly within craft traditions, avoids thinking about identity politics.” Yet, he points out, ceramicists deal with ‘the body’ all the time, naming parts of their tableware after the shoulder, lip, neck, terminology that is intrinsically sensual. So is handling clay, throwing it on a wheel or slab-building a structure. These histories are intertwined with Bayliss’s compositions. He made seating for his triangular table and invited to it the memory of ceramicist Michael Cardew who learnt pottery as a pupil of Leach before branching out to experiment with new shapes and decoration. One of Cardew’s inspirations was the earthenware stool, appropriated from the ancient pottery forms of West Africa he greatly admired. In the 1950s Cardew developed a successful ceramics training centre in Abuja, Nigeria, to help make artistic pottery an economic proposition.

Left | Installation view of We-Ha-Neck! (A harvest supper), Simon Bayliss’s solo exhibition at The Burton in Bideford in 2021

Right | Urinal (for Yankel Feather), 2022, by Simon Bayliss, terracotta, coloured slips and clear glaze. Photo by Nick Cooney

So Bayliss borrowed a pottery stool by Cardew from a university collection so that he would be symbolically present. In further homage, he placed examples of his own stools at the table. Bayliss respects Cardew as an ambiguous figure who challenged convention, an artist who rejected the art world’s preoccupation with fame to prioritise quality. And in life he was married in England while in Africa found ‘a great love’ with a handsome youth called Clement Kofi Athey. One of Bayliss’s stools is decorated with red lipstick kisses on a proudly garish yellow ground; another features line drawings of men urinating – irreverent images that ‘queer’ an entire technique’s inheritance.

Cardew also promoted a pottery type that Leach abhorred – the screw-top teapot – a design that might still provoke purists in St Ives, the home of the Leach pottery. Invited to display at Tate St Ives Bayliss offered his own Mermen of Zennor, which, of course, is a screw-top teapot. Its subject matter comes from Leach’s celebrated slip-decorated earthenware platter (1925) modelled on the popular Cornish folk tale, the ‘Mermaid of Zennor’, Bayliss ‘queers’ it into maleness with tenderness, humour and critical intent.

For him ‘queer’ means questioning attitudes so that fear is dispelled. His Mermen, therefore, is not a passive pot but a positive force. At college a tutor encouraged him to ‘be expressive, be free’, advice that he found liberating then and which inspires him still. Bold gestures show themselves in different ways. His music is particularly fast and particularly banging. His words, used as poetic text on walls or statements on objects, employ haiku-like intensity to make random private thoughts permanent and public. Riotous, exaltant colours ensure his work stands out in any company. For he delights in materials, especially glazes loaded with minerals like cobalt, manganese and iron. These produce bold results like the honey glaze over a rusty red slip of his Mermen of Zennor from simple recipes, similar to those used by figures he esteems, like American Betty Woodman or Mary Wondrausch, the British ceramicist. She trained as a watercolour painter and brought the fluid luminosity of that technique to the coloured glazes applied to cold slips that deepen colour and add depth and texture.

Bayliss began his career with painting. He studied at Exeter College before graduating from Falmouth University in 2006. Although he also made ceramics, he was obsessed with paint, looking critically at established artists like Peter Lanyon, John Virtue and Frank Auerbach, all of whom treated landscape, either of the country or town, the two locations Bayliss feels emotionally pulled between. It was not, he says, until 2015 that ‘I came out as a landscape painter’. Except that with Bayliss, all tradition is open to his interpretation. Since that date he has organised Landscape Painters Anonymous, an informal outdoor (or ‘plein air’) project that has brought together amateurs and first-timers in Cornwall, Plymouth, London and Margate. For them, painting from the television is as legitimate as being surrounded by air, land and sea.His return to ceramics is quite recent. In 2013 he came back to Cornwall and back to pottery. Access to Richard Phethean’s studio at Rosudgeon was formative: he experimented with slipware and terracotta glazes, transferring painting techniques to pottery and introducing figures into his imagery. His most painterly works are his pasty-like tablets with their distinctive crimped edges. They have grown in size, shape and design, with examples recently installed at a public site in St Austell.

Left | Installation view of Meditations in an Emergency, Simon Bayliss’s solo exhibition at Mirror, Plymouth College of Art, in 2018: from left SIMON BAYLISS / SIN ON GAY BLISS, neon fabricated by Nick Maylon; Harvest jug, terracotta; and Untitled (XL metaphysical pasty), slab-built terracotta (with assistance from Ben Kew). Photo by Andy Ford

Middle | Teapot (Saturn – apricot, black, citrus) and Teapot (Saturn – turquoise, yellow, black), both 2022, by Simon Bayliss, terracotta, coloured slips and clear glaze, in Feet of Clay at Kestle Barton. Photo Nick Cooney

Right | Teapot (Positive Action/Radical Hope)

Slowly, he also became aware of tradition, following Leach’s dictum that ‘the passage to becoming a potter is by making a teapot’. Many pots followed and many failed; but he learned from making and from looking, and then by infusing production with his own essential spirit. “The more skilled I become,” he says, “the more I try to bring unpredictability into what I do.” Bayliss has used the seductive qualities of ceramics and his other art forms to comment on and chronicle contemporary society with anger from the human perspectives of history, sexuality and social status. No sensibility is safe from examination. In his Porthmeor studio sits a loop-handled teapot, its body banded in black and yellow like an angry bee. Clearly spelled out in bold capitals are the words ‘POSITIVE ACTION’. It could be his manifesto piece. “When I talk about ‘queering the tradition’ I want it to be playful in a joyful sense. At the same time, it’s critical and irreverent.”

Standard Ware, the exhibition of new work by Simon Bayliss is at hweg, 34 Causewayhead, Penzance.

18th November to 23rd December.

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