Guido De ZanTwenty Years of Work

A Note

I began to make ceramics out of a need to express myself with a strong material like earth. I was also looking for a way out of the study and intellectual work that had occupied me for a decade or so.

After learning the craft, I spent two or three years throwing clay on the potter’s wheel and making items for household use. Once that initial phase was over, I turned to experimenting with new techniques, in particular raku, which originated in Japan although it has been widely used by European and American ceramists over the past twenty years. Raku is based on a special way of firing the ware: the kiln is fired in the open, so the use of heat, water and air is more direct, meaning that the potter is freer to intervene in the firing process. The results are highly variable, often with unintentional effects. During that time I shifted from making useful objects to creating more symbolic forms – objects connected with the tea ceremony, tablets, small sculptures with figures and animals. And instead of working almost exclusively on the wheel, I ended up making one-of-a-kind items using a variety of techniques, including slab construction.

Then came my porcelain and stoneware phase. They’re materials that require much higher firing temperatures and more careful research into mixtures and glaze ingredients. But they can achieve a more lasting consistency, since the clay used is fired to the limit of its resistance. The resilience of these materials and the closeness of their colours to those of minerals make them more natural, less artificial.

The way my research was going led me to concentrate more on the material and its surface and less on its shape. To give you an example, chamotte porcelain, tempered with 30% grog clay before firing, has very little in common with the porcelain we are used to handling. The shapes I made could become more sinuous, softer – they’re like felt, cardboard or paper, something that makes you want to touch it… When you work at the utmost limit of resistance to firing, the clay begins to move, wilt and warp, spontaneously turning into a new shape.

I believe the apparent transfiguration of the material and transformation of its shape are among the most interesting aspects of my work. Alongside that line of research, for some years now I have been working on graffito, which for me has clear ties with oriental ideograms, and in a broader sense with Japanese culture and Zen philosophy. And with American painting of the 1950s, too (Cy Tombly, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell).

I don’t set out from an idea in my work, but from the action I am performing, in other words from the object that is taking shape, whether it be a vase or a cylindrical bottle. These shapes I press down on until they gradually lose their connection with the object. In that way I have transformed the spheroid of the vase into the two dimensions of boards or tablets, or at any rate towards shapes that are losing their three-dimensionality, but gaining in calligraphic or other signs.

And then they become characters that live in groups, or at least in pairs. One characteristic they have in common is extreme instability, their highly precarious physical balance – they certainly would seem to need more grip on the ground, more surface contact with the earth. I like knowing they are light, airy, not so tied to the earth, that they stand up in space despite their worries, their fears, their precarious equilibrium. Physically, they all have different sizes, colours and signs (graffiti). Every one has its own psychology.

Recently I’ve turned from graffito to signs made in positive impressions with oil pastels: the forms tend to grow visibly lighter, almost like sheets of paper that have been drawn on. This passage from form to sign, from the rigidity of petrified earth to the lightness and softness of a sheet of paper, this loss of corporeality creates a genuine temptation to alter states, to make one material appear as another. It opens up other avenues of expression, too. That’s why, in parallel, I’ve begun to do prints, engraving on zinc plates and drawing in pastels.