Primordial Architecture

New Work by Pauliina Pöllänen

Ceramics Monthly, February, 2016

To hear Pauliina Pöllänen talk about her recent work, lacking any visual clues or prior knowledge of her practice, you might think that she has been busy building houses, or perhaps sculptures you could walk around in. Pools of glaze ‘flood like water to the basement in the Springtime’ (an annual event in Finland) and works take shape built ‘around space’. It is the particular phrase “primordial architecture” (Pöllänen’s own) that seems to capture the spirit of this idea with the most nuance. Curvy and sensual but structurally sound, each sculpture looks like a dwelling in which the placement of the walls, floors and ceilings have all been carefully considered, and a natural flow of light touches the surfaces of different ‘rooms’ in various ways. Layer upon layer of glaze colour each surface some indelible hue: magenta, cherry red, royal blue, chartreuse, all melted across a textured surface that looks gently shaped by hand.

Architecture for whom, one might ask? It is hard to look at these works and not see them as models for something bigger, even an ultra-bohemian doll’s house. As children, Pöllänen and her sister (also an artist) spent hours in their attic recreating the sights and shapes of their nearby village in rural Finland, complete with architectural details, plants and animals, each detail made small enough to be contained in a domestic setting. A familiar form from the outside world – trees, a grocery store, a pet dog – could be scaled down and arranged just so. Pöllänen has played with scale, form and colour, creating sculptures that look exactly like something you have seen before, only different. Recent creations that evoke the tools of the builder’s trade such as bricks and trowels, fashioned from clay and sporting what appear to be sturdy handles, like those one would find on a heavy door or a bricklayer’s float. They function, but only in the sense that they remind the viewers of something they recognise; they don’t do what they signify.

The sculptures in this exhibition capture Pöllänenin pursuit of abstraction. “In my works there is an ongoing exploration of how much things can be taken towards abstract and how far they should be taken,” she writes. “I seek connections between certain actions and the visual qualities that shape and structure our perceptual experience of the world and its objects.” Because of their scale, these objects can be understood as belonging to the same visual club as vessels and small sculptures, forms that can be inspected in the round, and studied in the familiar context of a gallery pedestal perch. You cannot walk around inside them, but to imagine doing so is almost irresistible.

Asked about the process of developing these forms, Pöllänen immediately refers back to the
material at hand. Working with clay and having both an intuitive and finely honed sense of the
material’s working properties, in this series, she allowed the material to drive the form. The resulting structures can be described as ‘primordial’ in style, but they were also art-directed by instinct. If her most recent work is her exploration of the aesthetics of building and construction by referencing tools and materials, this series goes further back in time, to something formed by direct touch. Subtle finger marks, glaze that pools here or there by chance and the curved, semi-enclosed chambers that articulate the sculpture’s centres all lend these works a visual association with organic matter. The cells and organs of the body, the complex structures of plants and especially aquatic animals whose bodies have compartments like shells or exoskeletons, are all imperfect organic containers. Each one has a unique structure, some even providing tiny houses for living creatures. The evocative and funny titles of these works – Stealth Barnacle Genesis, Crab Nebula Wave and Arctic Soul Pudge – suggest the existence of a world occupied by creatures with a well-developed sense of humour.

Pauliina Pöllänen’s working process, in which the material drives the form, is not unlike a natural process, in which a final form confidently unfolds according to some plan, but whose interior workings remain mysterious. In her case, the final product depends entirely on knowledge of how clay responds to touch, pressure, gravity and firing, so that a primordial form can ultimately emerge.

 Installation View.

Installation View.

 Golden Valley Trio (Detail).

Golden Valley Trio (Detail).

 Nuclear Nightclub Above.

Nuclear Nightclub Above.

 Patterns Against Users.

Patterns Against Users.