Five artists that reinvent ceramics

Exhibition view of "BING ! BING ! 砰砰! Contemporary ceramics", ICICLE Cultural Space, Paris.

Each in their own way, Liu Jianhua (1962), emmanuel boos (1969), Geng Xue (1983), Zhuo Qi (1985) and Louise Frydman (1989) reinterpret the traditional art of ceramics in a contemporary way. On the occasion of the exhibition “BING! BING! 砰砰! Contemporary ceramics” at ICICLE’s cultural space in Paris, we look back at the work of five artists who play with the qualities of a material that is both fragile and solid and the cultural implications of an art that has become a heritage both in China (Jingdezhen, Yixing) and in France (Sèvres, Limoges).

Contemporary approaches to ancestral techniques

Liu Jianhua began his apprenticeship at the age of 15, in Jingdezhen, known as China’s porcelain capital since the 6th century. He spent fourteen years training in this art. After rather figurative beginnings, his work evolves around the late 2000s towards more abstract and minimalist forms that subtly question the evolution of Chinese culture in the age of globalization. Through a philosophical approach to shape and material, he experiments with various ceramic production methods, which he calls “traditional yet could be converted in today’s language”. His poetic and virtuosic works challenge the physical limits of the medium and the viewer’s expectations alike. In his hands, porcelain takes the form of drops, water ponds or hand-drawn lines. Liu Jianhua has represented China twice at the Venice Biennale.

With his Lines series, developed between 2015 and 2019, he reveals the basis of all traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy: the stroke, the line. As the artist expresses it, “In Western art, lines can be understood as the beginning of modern movements and, in the case of abstract expressionism and minimalism, they hold the very potentiality of a form. Whereas in Eastern art, lines materialize different expressions of nature – tension, tranquillity, elegance and power”. His lines, which appear to be hand-drawn, are formed in qingbai (“white green”) porcelain, an ancient manufacturing technique associated with the city of Jingdezhen – the first type of porcelain to be produced on a large scale.

Alongside silk and tea, porcelain is a symbol of China (indeed “china” is another word for porcelain in English). For centuries, porcelain has connected China to Europe, being one of the most imported products from the Middle Kingdom. Jingdezhen, a small town in Jiangxi renowned for its know-how since the 10th century, held a monopoly on the world’s porcelain production until the 19th century. In France, porcelain began to be produced end of 18th century, when kaolin deposits were discovered near Limoges.

Discover Liu Jianhua’s works on his website


Liu Jianhua, "Lines n°13" and "Lines n°25", 2015-2019. © Liu Jianhua / Courtesy of Pace Gallery


Exhibition view, "Bing! Bing! 砰砰! Contemporary ceramics", ICICLE Cultural Space, Paris.

Appetite for risk and playing with chance

Zhuo Qi refers to the same traditions and techniques as Liu Jianhua. Stemming from a performance, the series I lit a vase (2014-2018) and I ate a plate (2015-2018) were made in Jingdezhen, which the artist regularly visits. His intervention is noticeable as he leaves his imprint on the material to the point of becoming one with it, and yet the presented objects are also the result of chance. For I lit a vase, the artist made two typical Chinese cultural practices meet: porcelain and firecrackers. The results are deformed, broken, cracked and perforated vases, original and unique works created at random. For I ate a plate, Zhuo Qi sank his teeth into raw clay then made a plate come to life on a potter’s wheel. The traces left by his intervention are then underlined with gold.

Born in China in 1985, the artist lives and works in France since 2008. A “clash of cultures” that makes the foundation of his approach. His artistic practice is nourished by the daily experience of semantic and linguistic miracles, generated by cultural otherness and its share of misunderstandings. With humour, he confronts traditions and know-how through his ceramics.

In Zhuo Qi’s work, clay is transformed, mistreated. By “eating” it or by making it explode under bursts of firecrackers, the raw material, still malleable, is deformed, broken, collapsed or pierced, before being solidified when baked.

Discover Zhuo Qi’s work on his Instagram


Zhuo Qi, "J'ai allumé un vase", 2018, "Bing! Bing! 砰砰! Contemporary Ceramics", ICICLE Cultural Space, Paris.


Zhuo Qi, "J'ai allumé un vase", 2018, exhibition "Bing! Bing! 砰砰! Contemporary Ceramics", ICICLE Cultural Space, Paris.

Knowledge and know-how

This inclination for the fortuitous inherent to ceramics can be also found in emmanuel boos’ (born in 1969) works of art. The artist “tries to maintain a friendly relationship with chaos” and sees “beauty born out of randomness”. Considered as one of the best French ceramists, he started practicing this art from the age of 14. But it was only after spending a few years in Asia (Korea, China) that he made it his profession. Theory and technique hold a main part in his practice, yet if he recognizes their necessity, he is prompt to question their importance. After being the apprentice to Art Master Jean Girel from 2000 to 2003, he won numerous awards and was granted residence at the Manufacture de Sèvres (2016 -2019). In 2012, he wrote a Ph.D. thesis on the theme of “the Poetics of Glaze” at the Royal College of Art in London.

This connection between art and knowledge inspired his installation showcased in the bookstore of ICICLE’s Cultural Space. A selection of his “Monoliths” (2017-2019) and “Books” (2019) series, made during his Manufacture de Sèvres residency, are showcased for the first time. They are placed on the shelves, alongside the artist’s three-volume thesis and other literary works on China. Indeed, the works of emmanuel boos invites the viewer to contemplate enamel like an intimate and playful doorway to knowledge. The depth of colour and nuances on his art compels our eyes while our hands are attracted by its volumes. According to the artist, enamel has “a swaying and moving effect, and many things can be read in the viewers’ sensible reaction to art. The viewer is seen, and this material knows”. Like Liu Jianhua’s work, emmanuel boos’ artwork anchor those wide connections between ceramics and literature. In a somewhat encyclopaedic approach, he compiles various palettes, establishes a library of enamels, and transcribes his recipes (found in the appendix of his thesis). The contextualization of these works is however relative: at the beginning “Books” and “Monoliths” are only simple geometrical forms, devoid of figurative or literal decree, waiting for the artist to experiment with enamels. For it is only when enlightened by a ceramic process that these mundane objects become poetically charged.


Exhibition view of "Bing! Bing! 砰砰! Contemporary Ceramics", ICICLE Cultural Space, Paris.


emmanuel boos, "Sans titre (Monolithe de Sèvres n° XV)", 2017. Courtesy of the artist. ©Paul Nicoué /Courtesy Galerie Jousse Entreprise.


emmanuel boos, "Sans titre (Livre n°VIII)", 2019. ©Gérard Jonca / Sèvres-Cité de la céramique.

A large part of the artist’s research is dedicated to physical and chemical phenomena found in the ceramic manufacture. Slots, collapses, colour and texture discrepancies, holes, cracks: emmanuel boos begins with solid forms and lets the clay express itself through a process full of surprises and deformations. “Making enamel can be hard to foresee, difficult, untameable, and at times ungrateful, but it can be surprising, fascinating, wonderful, sensual, moving, and always generous. Thanks to it, I can reconnect with the world’s richness and depth as well as the limits over our control and knowledge. Only then, can we welcome complexity, chance, uncertainty, surprise and discovery in our lives. Enamel is a lucid and objective re-enchantment of the world”, specified by emmanuel boos.

Discover emmanuel boos’ work on his website

Accidents also come from trivial events, and when they occur, the artist is ready to shift his purpose. For example, “Stabile N°VII” (2019) broke during an exhibition and was repaired by fixing the shattered pieces with gold (Myriam Greff applied the Japanese kintsugi method), which bolsters the impression of fragility while sublimating the previous cracks. Artist’s attention is thus focused on the most elusive part of the artwork, when clay and enamel transform and escape as if driven by their own will.

Exhibition view, “Bing! Bing! 砰砰! Contemporary Ceramics”, ICICLE Cultural Space, Paris.
Caution (not so) fragile

Louise Frydman (born in 1989) began by composing works in light and delicate white paper. In 2015, she turned to ceramics as she sought, on one hand, the immediacy and sensuality of the material and its durability on the other. “My work is an exploration of Nature in all its forms. I model clay and give birth to delicate pieces which I wrap in powdery white that catches light making its lines vibrant”.

The artist treats the material like paper as they share the same white matt aspect and finesse. On one hand, she creates stoneware or earthenware sculptures, and on the other, artworks in biscuit porcelain – like those presented at ICICLE’s exhibition. “I have incorporated porcelain into my practice recently. I model the clay by stretching it with my hands. This gesture is an extension of my work on paper. I make small elements, ‘petals’ or ‘bubbles’, which I assemble to create compositions in mobile forms, on coated wood panels or on paper. It is a slow and contemplative process. “

Working in white monochrome allows the artist to focus on form and its interplay with lights and movements. “White allows me to concentrate on complex forms, where the colour adds no further effects. I like to create doubt in the viewers’ mind regarding the materials I used. It is difficult to determine at first glance if it is ceramic, plaster, or paper. There is magic in the purity of whiteness.”

In a subtle balance between power and finesse, between solid materials and fragile forms, Louise Frydman lets herself be guided by the material and its inherent properties to create works that are neither sculptures nor paintings, ceramics that seem as light as paper. Like “L’Envolée” and the “Bubbles” series (“Bubbles III” and “Bubbles IV” were created especially for the exhibition), the hands of the artist are visible everywhere, and yet her sculptures seem to come from nature, like organic forms: petals, leaves, trunks, shoots…. “By creating a work of art, one extends something of oneself, something that stems from the hand. I am touched to see how the imprint of hand lines resonates with the lines seen on a leaf. Skin resonates with petal. These associations amaze me. “

Discover Louise Frydman’s work on her website


Louise Frydman, « L’Envolée IV », 2018 (detail). Courtesy of the artist.


Louise Frydman, "Bulles III", 2021 (detail). Courtesy of the artist.

Exhibition view, “Bing! Bing! 砰砰! Contemporary Ceramics”, ICICLE Cultural Space, Paris.
Dialogues with earth

Graduate of the Central Academy of Fine Arts of China, Geng Xue (born in 1983) confronts traditional ceramic art with contemporary forms (video, animation, installations). Her theme of work is inspired by Buddhist cosmology, classical literature or Taoism, where ceramics are portrayed for their transformative capacity and its fragile yet solid nature. Shaping a magical universe where the boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds is tenuous, her works are tender and cruel explorations on how strong, yet light existence can be.

In her video The Poetry of Michelangelo (2015), the artist gives life to a block of raw clay as her hands sculpt the effigy of a man. The video is divided in nine chapters, like the creative stages of a sculpture before being moulded. The subtitles are excerpts of sonnets by the great Italian Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo (1475-1564): poems addressed to his lovers, in which he talks about desire, religion, art and life. In the film, the instructions on modelling the arms and face details resonate differently when coupled with Michelangelo’s poems. Geng Xue seems to be infatuated with her sculpture as she caresses the clay, shaping it into a being who could be her lover. The artist gives her work a kiss and it suddenly comes alive. But she must move on to the next step, casting the sculpture, and to do this, she must cut the work into several pieces – as if she were killing and dismembering her beloved.

This dialogue between Michelangelo’s poems and Geng Xue’s actions is puzzling: a sensual beauty emanates from the relationship between artist and her artwork, full of eroticism and violence. Without tools and bear- handed, the artist shapes her relationship with clay. Each trace she leaves on her sculpture reflects the imprint earth had on her. The video also plays with the notion of “creator” and the artist as demiurge, in a distant reference to the Pygmalion myth and the Renaissance artistic cult. Nicknamed “the divine” in his lifetime, Michelangelo possessed, like God, the power to create and destroy.

Discover Geng Xue’s work on Ocula

Geng Xue, “The Poetry of Michelangelo”, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.
Geng Xue, “The Poetry of Michelangelo”, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.
Geng Xue, “The Poetry of Michelangelo”, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.
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