The marriage between ceramics and narrative is a timeless one. It is ancient, yet familiar, and profoundly human. Whether painted, carved, or sculpted, stories have been told in clay since antiquity. In her first public exhibition in the UK – running until the 5th of February at the House of Illustration near Kings Cross – Laura Carlin has honoured this tradition with heart-warming sensitivity and childlike joy; it was a privilege to step for a while into a world she has moulded from a unique blend of human history and pure imagination.
Carlin is a well loved figure. The Art Directors’ Club of America voted her as one of the 50 most influential creatives under 30, and she is an established illustrator for international newspapers and publications, as well as a number of children’s books; most notably The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, for which she won a V&A award in 2010. It is this exhibition of illustrated ceramics, however, that provides a glimpse at the true extent and freedom of her creative expression.
The room is loosely divided into five installations, ranging from the spontaneous frivolity of a tiny face drawn on an egg, to the awe-inspiring scope and detail of the entire history of London told in a mural comprised of 650 painted tiles. It might seem that one would appear to be a lazy afterthought in the shadow of the other, but it is only through this stark contrast that the breadth and depth of her commitment to narrative expression is made visible. By examining the intricacy of her miniscule figures with their tiny smirks and frowns, we can understand something of the care and compassion with which Carlin looks at her fellow humans and at the range of emotions they share with the world.
On the other side of the room, her recreation of Noah’s Ark, made using pairs of little animals ambling along a windowsill, is not merely a playful reimagining of a biblical myth, such as a child might create at a Sunday school. More than this, it stands unassumingly as a sensitive nod to the responsibility shouldered by humans to care deeply for all things, not just for ourselves, but for the world we live in, and to recognise the inevitable outward impact of an inward-looking species. It is a conscientious tempering of Carlin’s own fascination with people, and it perfectly encapsulates the sensibility present in all her work.
Carlin’s choice of medium may be, in a sense, traditional, and her subject matter may delve into human history as and when it chooses, but there is something decidedly contemporary about the way she realises her imaginings. There is a swiftness and vibrancy to her illustrations that belies the historical permanence of the clay on which they are painted. Carlin’s work is nothing like the statuesque rigidity of ancient Egyptian and Greek ceramic figures; it is far more alive and engaging. The illustrations with which she has adorned her ceramic creations demonstrate both Carlin’s fastidious attention to detail and the time she has invested in these artworks. All of this is made visible in her rich mural of the history of London, which itself stands at odds with the carefree immediacy of her moulded clay figures and found objects. Even the way that these objects are displayed, in a glass display case like so many archaeological treasures, is deliberately contradictory to their nature as more playful contemporary objects. Carlin’s ability to adjust the weight and tempo of her expressions so effortlessly indicates not only a mind overflowing with creative dexterity, but a rare connection with that most wonderful and elusive quality: the curiosity and spontaneity of childhood. It is indeed a connection worth treasuring, and certainly one worth experiencing if you can get down to the House of Illustration before the 5th of February.