Having just opened ‘The Fading City’, his first solo show at Marsden Woo Gallery in London, James Rigler gave a fascinating summary of his work when he visited the Visual Arts department as guest artist. Speaking to the full-time students in West Dean House, James began by describing a brief period studying architecture in London, quickly followed by an undergraduate degree in 3D Crafts at the University of Brighton and an MA in Ceramics & Glass from the Royal College of Art. The influence of these three periods of education recurred throughout the talk as James discussed how he developed a sculptural practice that engages with the various forms of narrative – either personal, societal or historical – implicit within material elements of the designed world. His interest was not only for the everyday, crafted or utilitarian object, or indeed artefacts possessing established meaning or use value, but also those which have been disregarded or otherwise overlooked. From recognising the potential significance contained within, for example, family heirlooms, or the ways in which specific arrangements of objects can indicate the presence of people or a specific process, James’ work soon focused on object typologies that either connect communities together or serve as testament to such connections. He showed examples of his of modular ceramic forms, using ‘kits’ that could be constructed and reconfigured according to specific exhibition sites.
Albeit in radically different forms, ceramics would remain the core element of James’ practice. An important influence here came via the skills and experience gained from employment at Lambs Terracotta and Faience, an architectural ceramics company based in Portslade, East Sussex. It was particularly interesting to note how James spoke of the processes by which ‘formless’ clay is transformed into tangible and, crucially, recognisable forms of cultural significance. The ceramic tradition provided both a visual and processual language – not only in the use of techniques of moulding, finishing, firing, glazing (etc.) but also through a lexicon of architectural conventions that could be adapted, extended or otherwise disrupted. The added influence of industrial design, as well as an incorporation of contemporary manufacturing materials, were accompanied by a fascination for architectural flourishes and signatures of style, decor and cliché. Commenting on an excerpt from a book by William Chambers (an eighteenth century architect best known for designing Somerset House), James likened the contemporary persistence of certain motifs of classical building design (Chambers’ illustrations neatly showed a grammatical range of decorative inflections that have emerged over time), as being like a near-dead language, rarely used today except in a wry and arguably non-generative postmodern fashion.
James’ interest in bringing together the precious and the mundane also tied in with his interest in the affective power of physical memorials, whether on architectural or intimately domestic scales. Images of medieval reliquaries and other decorative symbols again echoed earlier work focusing on markers of different status: temporary or permanent, porous or resistant, and so on. Considerations of scale and how it functions in relation to the viewer were highlighted throughout – too vast and the work risks being domineering or alienating, too small and the sense of domestic familiarity could be lost. Part of this consideration fed into James’ practice of referencing or mimicking interior design, or the colour palettes of home furnishings, often introducing faux materials and veneers like Terrazzo, Lucite and Formica, which succeed in placing the work within the context of everyday stylistic affectation whilst maintaining connections to subtle forms of theatricality.
Of course, James’ work has its own sense of irony and an arch use of convention. The results are often compellingly strange formations of stylistic mores – lanterns, cornices, elaborate follies – that are suggestive of latent archetypal forms common to all stylisation. The work knowingly cherry picks what is already heavily stylised, indebted or compacted, but also suggests that those traits are only there to be salvaged after they have been slightly ‘worn out’ by being put to use in the world. Again this seemed to tie in with his interest in the collision of utopian ideals (so often invoked by architectural design or municipal planning) with the eroding realities of life – leading to a fascination with amalgams, not only of style but of effect: visions of idealised objects, landscapes, interiors, etc. that have already become corrupted, as if that status provided the starting point rather than the promise of the blueprint.
As James began to discuss more recent work, including showing photographs of his recently installed show in London, he described making the slow transition from producing self-contained pieces to a more interrelated, inter-connected form of installation, particularly the idea of producing scale in a relative or cumulative fashion. Overall, the presentation gave a fascinating insight into the development of his ideas and the originality of his approach. In the discussion that followed, it was intriguing to listen to his view of artistic work positioned between the contested realms of the Fine and Applied Arts, in relation to Craft and Design specialisms, and so on. The morning ended on the question as to whether the work of an artist engaged in materials-based practice risks becoming insular if they get ‘lost in the specifics of technique’ – the danger being that the work speaks only to a select audience of experts or technical insiders. The ambition of James’ practice, including his highly skilled use of materials and methods, seems much more expansive and inclusive than that.