At Emma Hart’s studio, two assistants are helping the artist with last-minute touches to graphic patterns inside a group of outsized ceramic heads. The heads appear to be consuming them as they lean deep inside, torches strapped to their foreheads, delicate paintbrushes in hand. In a little over a week, the finished works will be moved to London’s Whitechapel Gallery where they’ll be strung from the ceiling like lamps: the centrepiece of Mamma Mia!, Hart’s show as laureate of the biennial Max Mara art prize for women.
Formed, fired and glazed in Italy, during Hart’s six-month residency for the prize, the heads show the influence of time spent both in professional ceramics studios, and as an observer in a centre for family therapy. “Both are driven by patterns,” Hart explains. “The psychiatrist is trying to unravel human behavioural patterns, and the studio to generate a visual pattern.”
Inside one head, the pattern shows young women entangled in a vine of jealousy, among the stylised jaws of Venus flytraps. In another, manicured fingers push hot red buttons, rendered in the greens, blues and yellows of a thermal imaging camera. A third shows overlapping rows of curves, which transform from McDonald’s golden arches into a line of pink breasts as the pattern mounts the sides. Freud would have a field day, but that’s the point.
In her early 40s, Hart’s work marries academic foundations (she has a PhD in fine arts) with emotional honesty and a sharp sense of humour. A current touring exhibition – Love Life – with fellow artist Jonathan Baldock, features ceramic-stockinged feet that terminate at the toe end with open mouths, like sock puppets nagging about some mundane chore. A sculpture of a pair of squeezed-out, rolled-up paint tubes suggests both a pair of weeping eyes and sore sagging breasts: more domestic angst, perhaps from a self-pitying artist struggling with new motherhood.
Hart studied photography and only started working with clay – in what she would be the first to admit was an amateur way – a few years ago. In earlier interviews she had spoken about her relationship to it as an expressive medium, relishing the tactility and even slightly cathartic experience of handling and forming the stuff. “There was a big fight to get the clay to do what I wanted. That was really important – it was interesting to be dumb and not know what you were doing – but it comes with a lot of stress. The problem is that it maybe takes 20 goes to get three pieces and that can grind you down.”
But her residency in Faenza changed all that. The small Italian town plays an important role in the history of ceramics, lending its name to faience – also known as maiolica – tin-glazed pottery that has been produced in the town since the 14th century. And while there, Hart learned alongside ceramic historians and artisans steeped in traditional techniques. “Now I can check in with experts along the way, and, to be honest, I feel relief and excitement that that’s how it could be in the future.”
That study has fed into the pieces she has made for Mamma Mia! The ceramic heads are modelled on the inverted form of traditional maiolica jugs (in a sly domestic reference, the artist has scored lines on them as if they were merely humble kitchen measuring jugs). Fired in a kiln “the size of my bathroom”, they were glazed with the assistance of a traditional faience studio. Inverted, the mouth of the jug transforms into a nose, and the heads will cast pools of light on the floor in the form of speech bubbles as though they were conversing.
Before arriving in Faenza, Hart had spent two months in Milan watching families attend therapy sessions (the “Milan Systemic Approach”) at the Scuola Mara Selvini Palazzoli. She watched therapists identify cycles of behaviour within family groups, and working with genograms – family trees that express emotional relationships between individuals through the use of coded coloured lines, references to which appear in the installation of the finished works.
Hart even engaged in a process known as “sculptura” with her own husband and young daughter, which saw the three of them standing in a sequence of emotionally expressive postures for half a minute at a time. (The experience was she says, “actually quite positive”.)
Much of Hart’s art has a kind of gallows jocularity. Love Life is riddled with morbid puns, both visual and verbal. In one work, hanging salami sausages are shaped to read, ominously, “Your Back”. At Whitechapel, ceiling fans made of giant cutlery appear to slice through the hanging heads as they rotate.
Hart has returned to Faenza half a dozen times since her residency finished, and has developed a close working relationship with ceramicist Aida Bertozzi. “She’s seen it all and done it all,” says Hart. “She’s not fazed by me saying, ‘I want to dig in the clay like a dog for a week.’”
Perhaps more valuable than the skills and knowledge she has acquired, Hart’s time in Italy has taught her that, in art as in motherhood, it’s OK to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing, that you can’t cope by yourself, and that actually, you’d appreciate a little help.
- Emma Hart: Mamma Mia! is at Whitechapel Gallery, London, 12 July–3 September
- Emma Hart and Jonathan Baldock: Love Life is at the Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, until 12 August; then De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, in the autumn