Artist Simon Bayliss’ Rural Ceramics.
The countryside isn’t typically thought of as a queer place. Many are familiar with the well-rehearsed story of young LGBTQ+ people ditching the rural and finding themselves in the big smoke of the city, hanging out in the gay districts, clubbing and falling into friendships with like-minded queer people.
But the reality that’s rarely told – or imagined – is that many queer artists live a life more connected to a local context and it’s ‘genius loci’; able to find happiness, creativity and an independent queer identity without the restrictions and pace of urban living. Of course, there are some notable examples of radical artists departing the urban and embracing the provincial – Derek Jarman, Claude Cahun, David Hockney – but few famous artists stay exactly where they were born, untempted by the city.
Based for a long period in St Ives, artist Simon Bayliss recently spoke about this phenomenon at Pink Manchester alongside Ian Massey, an art historian and curator. Massey’s forthcoming book, Queer St Ives and Other Stories, seeks to map out the history of the ‘fabled Cornish art colony’ that has existed in the Cornwall fishing town – often associated in art circles with the modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth and her magical sculpture garden. ‘We’re both motivated to question and expand the usual narratives on Cornwall’s art scene,’ Bayliss noted. And quite the experimental community it was and continues to be. From Francis Bacon to Marlow Moss and Patrick Proctor, the seaside town on the western tip of the UK holds a rich and elusive history of queer collectivity and creativity.
Bayliss’ own practice, incorporating performance, sound, installation and plein air watercolour painting, seeks to transgress histories and norms that we take for granted by ‘queering’ the cultural legacy of St Ives and beyond. When defining the term ‘queer’ in relation to his work and practice, the artist eloquently elaborates on how the term pertains to him:
‘I’m often described as a queer artist, and recently with a capital ‘Q’, which can sometimes feel liberating and politically necessary, yet can at other times feel like a label which overrides some of my other material and contextual concerns. I think of my queer identity mainly in terms of my same-sex desires, and how I operate in the world, which is queer in the literal sense – i.e., societally strange or non-normative. In terms of community, I am interested in queer cultural histories, and the idea of ‘queering’ a tradition or an already-established culture.’
This intersection between ‘established cultures’ and ‘same-sex desires’ can be seen in a previous edition he produced for Birmingham’s Eastside Projects which fabricated a world-famous Cornish delicacy – the pasty – out of ceramic. The carbon-black piece appeared burnt with the gay dating app Grindr’s logo emblazoned on it. This humorously makes a connection between two very different types of quick treat.
Conversely, one work from the ceramic pasty series that was shown last year at PINK in Manchester, Pasty (Calligraphic / Spun) (2021), is strikingly colourful, with the crimped pasty edge appearing like a frame for a pillow-shaped painting. Writing on the piece, artist and curator James Harper said his ‘swift brush strokes… appear to depict a used condom over a Turner-esque sunset, further emphasising the sexual connotations in [his] work.’ Bayliss concedes that while this visual reading was by no means what he set out to render in the work – that was actually inspired by ‘Japanese potter Shoji Hamada’s calligraphic glazing, which is a result of decorating many pots at the same time without much fuss’ – he enjoys how in certain contexts his work can be read as queer without any intention on his own part.
These glazed versions of the iconic baked filled-pastry treat sit somewhere between Howard Hodgkin’s paintings where the colourful oils spread over the frame, Warhol’s late Heaven and Hell paintings from 1984–86, and Jarman’s heavily-impastoed text paintings from the early ‘90s. The latter, whose works also included tropes of humour and absurdism, also incorporated affirmative language to experiences and understandings of queerness, community and identity.
Other ceramics feature textual components, such as a teapot reading ‘Positive Action’ that was acquired by Manchester Art Gallery, transforming everyday domestic objects into political props. Another ceramic, reading ‘Citizen of Nowhere’, subverts politician Theresa May’s infamous quote – devised to encourage UK citizens to vote to leave the European Union – that ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’
Alongside ceramics, Bayliss’ multi-faceted practice incorporates music production, deejaying for the likes of NTS Radio and Splash Addict, an ongoing audio, video and performance collaboration with artist Susie Green. An upcoming project brings together Bayliss’ interests and more recent explorations with ceramics. Feet of Clay is a group exhibition curated by Rebecca Lewin taking place at Kestle Barton, an ancient Cornish farmstead in Helston, Cornwall in September 2022. Incorporating several artists working with ceramics, the group show will navigate the ‘causes and effects of human interactions with materials and the ecologies that produced them’ and how ‘clay plays a great part in origin myths all over the world.’
For the show, he will produce new teapots in addition to a larger scale ceramic urinal. Bayliss uses the ‘slipware’ ceramic technique which ‘involves painting with liquid clay ‘slip’ on earthenware forms, before firing them at low temperature.’
The urinal is to be one of his most ambitious ceramic pieces to date. Large in scale, the work simultaneously references art history and queer culture in line with Bayliss’s project to reinterpret history through his art. Describing its domestic and sexual form, he notes how ‘it is often overlooked that the shape of a classic pear-shaped urinal is complex and beautiful’ – which is true. It certainly isn’t a stretch of the imagination to compare a urinal to, say, artist Barbara Hepworth’s biomorphic white sculptures.
Unlike artist Marcel Duchamp’s famous ‘readymade’ Fountain (1917) artwork presenting a shop-bought, mass-produced urinal in a gallery context, Bayliss is to make the urinal from parts thrown on the potters’ wheel, giving no illusion that it has been handmade.
‘I want to make things that look rural,’ he tells me, indicating markers of the artist’s hand and presence are crucial to the allure of the final piece. Also, the sculpture will contain a ‘piss poem’, elegantly carved with calligraphic handwriting exactly where one would urinate:
When I was in my native place
I was a lump of clay
then by man I was dug up
and so was carried away
but now a urinal I am become
by potters’ art and skill
and your servant I will be
and catch good piss I will
Carefully grounding the work by revealing the source of its creation, the verse ends by indicating the alternative use for urinals in gay culture: cottaging – where men meet up at public toilets to have sexual encounters, avoiding being seen in known gay spots. This significant practice, also known as ‘cruising’, has been explored by other prominent artists, like Yankel Feather’s The Wheel of Fortune (2007) painting in the National Museums Liverpool collection and Prem Sahib’s solo exhibition Hidden in plain sight (2015) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
‘I want to queer the Bernard Leach pottery tradition,’ Bayliss elucidates. Leach, often dubbed the ‘Father of British studio pottery’ is celebrated for bringing Japanese ceramic aesthetics (simple, utilitarian forms) to mass attention during the mid-20th century in the UK. One of Leach’s (1887–1979) most-known apprentices, artist Michael Cardew (1901–1983), is a key influence for Bayliss. Cardew was openly bisexual at a time when this was illegal, and Bayliss often pays homage to his work – including borrowing his unusual and strikingly modern black and yellow colour schemes.
For both Cardew and Leach, it is essential to make ‘useful useable things’ detracting from the notion that ceramics should be ‘a background for living.’ In this vein, Bayliss is also currently devising Standard Ware, a solo exhibition curated in collaboration with artist Joe Lyward at Hweg, Penzance, opening in November this year.
The show will include a suite of new pots for sale which are designed to be used. The title takes its name from ‘Leach Pottery Standard Ware’ which has been manufactured continuously, with slight amendments and updates, since 1946. The new works will be ‘recognisably for use in the home; robust and deftly made, with unfussy, painterly decoration’ and – in typical Bayliss style – will look to St Ives and Bernard Leach’s old pottery brochures, juxtaposing them with sperm images and, he reveals, ‘probably a rave poster aesthetic…’
Segueing from rave posters to music, watch out for Bayliss’ upcoming eight track album due to be launched at some point of the next year. Produced in a period of four years, the tracks synthesise techno and minimalism, often incorporating samples of found or recorded sounds throughout.
In a direct attempt to challenge how ‘samples in dance music are overly self-reflexive of rave culture’, other tracks incorporate found audio that subverts our expectations of what sounds break up loud and bassy tunes. Whether it’s church bells, bird song, or a teaspoon stirring a cup of tea, Bayliss understands how to crank the rural and domestic up a notch in rhythm and volume.
While Bayliss makes no claim to his interest in dance music and ceramics intersecting in a specifically conceptual gesture – he makes clear that an artist should have the agency and confidence to carve separately defining facets of their practice and fearlessly pay homage to their bucolic histories. ‘Both pottery and rave music are rural traditions and I like the incongruity of holding them together in view,’ he contends. Rave on!
1. Ian Massey, Queer St Ives and Other Stories, (London: Ridinghouse, 2022).
2. Simon Bayliss, How my ceramics fit the narrative of place and identity, 2022.
3. Kestle Barton, Feet of Clay. Exhibition Text. (2022).
4. Simon Bayliss in conversation with Laurie Barron.
Words by Laurie Barron