Iskandar Jalil / NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE

No matter how “smart” our objects may now be, we don’t expect them to discern whether they’re used correctly, or if it all. But Iskandar Jalil believes there is such a thing as an ethical pot or vessel: It embodies the maker’s aesthetic ideals and value placed on the medium. A pot made in the right frame of mind would actualize the spiritual dimensions, time, and place of its creation, similar to how a bottle of wine can disclose much about the conditions and influences of its site of origin. Such a theory may carve out a space, in fine art, for studio pottery—a mode of artmaking that has come about only within the last century—cracking a strained boundary between the categories of artist and artisan, one tested by the mid-twentieth-century emergence of modernism’s insistence that art refuse any functionality. Iskandar, a Singaporean artist whose course of practice dovetailed with the ascendancy of the nascent group movement of the Modern Art Society in Southeast Asia in the mid-1960s, initiated the discourse around the intersection of ceramics’ functional underpinnings and modernism’s fascination with the new; here, he presents a survey of works made from that time to the present.

References from decades of extensive travels appear throughout Iskandar’s sculptures, all made from local clay: Vessels are covered in Arabic-Jawi and Roman text and incorporate influences such as Japanese shibui and wabi-sabi, while his signature blue glazes are inspired by land- and skyscapes across Scandinavia. Certain works such as the undated (Untitled) (Mangkuk Tingkat)—a stack of stoneware tiffin boxes—and (Untitled) Water Container, 1999, can fulfill what are apparently their utilitarian purposes. However, many others serve more poetic means, including the ongoing, undated “Culture” vessels, a series of totemic pillars, each one too narrow for the wooden ladles that crown them; Untitled (Mother and Child), 2004, a pair of codependent, multitextured donut-shaped azure moldings that prop each other up; and the undated amorous S curve of She, a vertical stoneware strip that folds back in a slight, provocative recline and is adorned with a single delicate broach sphere. We may no longer employ ceramicists to make dishes; these humble forms transcend tugs of obligation.

www.artforum.com

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