Beyond The Glaze

by Aasim Akhtar

Salman is aiming at a challenging break through within the symmetry of thrown pieces to make every piece more dynamic and sculptural.

Roll a perceptive eye around the lines of ceramist Salman Ikram's ceramic pieces and a curious mélange of reference points appears. The ribbed texture of sedimentary rock; the voluptuous curves of a halved capsicum; the grid pattern of a cast-iron road grille; the inner whorl of a sea shell.
"Like any artist, I am aware of certain influences gathered through training and experience. But I'm regularly surprised by the presence of ideas or observations from the day-to-day environment, relayed subconsciously and seemingly guiding my working process, but only identified in the finished forms when the work is complete," he says
Playing a counterpoint to these often organic environmental undertones is Salman's elegant clean architectural approach to form and structure. Among the pieces on show at the Nomad Gallery in Islamabad were variations on his ‘standing form' or, less prosaically, ‘shell vase'; vessels built on a single or multi-celled base shape, with tall, tapering forms that reminded the viewer of the internal geodesic structure of a fuselage, and which, in plan view, echo the lines of a sliced bell pepper. Organic curves and an inherently strong shape were present in another series of vessels, whose gentle re-curves, perhaps recalling a hip flask, seemed comfortable nested with each other. In these pieces, Salman's chosen earthy colors — warm grey and arsenic ochre — enhanced the geological reference suggested by the fine stratification of the glaze reminiscent of volcanic lava.
The Salman's work irregularities of shape and pattern are sought as part of the process of making. He seeks a timeless beauty, inspired by a love of things as various as ‘old objects', flowers, architectural ruins and the flowing linear decoration on monuments. What he seeks is a quality unrelated to time or technology. His vessels register marks of metamorphosis as if worked by the plasticity of an archaeological site, geological pressures wrought over time and the forces of nature and growth.
Working in stoneware, Salman's thrown vessel forms are sometimes given hand-built additions which appear to transform before us as unique botanical specimens, animated by an inherent energy. Their green glazes and traditional reduced luster emphasize their already anthropomorphic qualities. Other forms, simpler still, stress the decorative possibilities of the structure.
The botanical forms seem to emerge from an ancient object, their personal and cultural associations lost in time. The luster surface acts as an accretion (literally and figuratively), obscuring any fixed definition of its ‘previous use', marked by the processes of time. The effect is a mask distancing us from a full apprehension of the object, leaving the maker the only one privy to its history.
Similarly, Blue Glazed Pot, with a mouth the shape of a flying saucer, seemed to hide layers of memory and experience, revealing only the detritus of former associations, its beauty found in the evidence of its ‘lost' connections. Its decoration hinted at a lost narrative as if we were witnessing the evidence of an unknown history — a partial memory. Yet, at the same time, the intense colors and luster were inviting and tactile.
Salman's recent vessels carry a rather anthropomorphic quality. There is fluidity between decoration and form, as if the form itself is taking on the life of the decorative surface. The bent and slightly bulbous forms have a quality of animus — a ‘spirit' integrating form and decorative surface into a unified animated whole. It is as if undefined memory and association are given life.
Some of his pots, for instance, seemed to sway in a gesture of awakening. The trunk-like shapes of the vessels appeared like some ancient antediluvian creatures, a quality counteracted, however, by the sophisticated and elegant surface. Many of those vessels were ringed with solid bases; as if he were anchoring them solidly back into the earth. This seemed to reinforce their timeless yet archaic quality. They appeared at once like archaeological finds, evidence of some past material culture.
Salman describes his work with clay as a process of exploration. While he uses the repetitive patterns of remembered forms and botanical growth, he seeks out their imperfections, usually interrupting the pattern, so that there is always a sense of the incomplete, a deliberate serendipity mirroring the unexpected results of the final luster firing in the kiln. He creates a personal beauty, one that requires us to bring our own sense of completion to it.
In marked contrast, Salman's work is particular and pointed, drawing on specific memories and experience to explore the rituals of domestic life. Yet he too requires an effort of completion from the viewer. There are forms, which elicit an investigation of the way personal domestic rituals have become a replacement for broader religious rituals. The items used in domestic ritual become transformed into venerable objects taking their ceremonial place on the dresser or table.
They reveal narratives of tradition and family life and become the receptacles of social values and inheritance. I call them ‘domestic altars' and indeed they ritually record the passing of valued items and their family associations from generation to generation. Salman is well-versed in a whole range of techniques employed by ceramic masters through time. The hardship experienced in his early years and the ensuing hard work, combined with his aesthetic accomplishments, culminated in an individual style characterized, in case of his current show, by using crystalline glazes as an artistic medium. His handling of this rich yet volatile material, putting it to the interpretation of the intense heat of the kiln, produced a glazed surface, which was vivid and unfettered. Both the fluid and profound effects of the Oriental brushwork, combined with the methods of modern abstract painting are present in his work. He uses a variety of techniques, such as pouring, sprinkling, scraping and galvanizing, to create an unrestrained space in which the imagination is allowed to free reign. The constant changing crystals exude in poetical dynamics. His work is powerful while of immaculate quality, especially when one examines it under magnifying glass. There, a whole micro-world of beauty becomes visible; under observation, each perfectly shaped crystal gives forth its radiance, unsurpassed by other known artistic media in their expression of this microcosm.
Salman's unique glazing techniques and his creative passion, coupled with a strong Oriental flavor, make his work unparalleled. It is fascinating how his modern artwork enlivens the vernacular tradition without staying traditional. With the help of his glazes, the artist succeeded in gaining an unmistakable glimpse into the essence of nature. Salman has in his grip the threads of years of silk weaving that he has woven into shimmering brocade of crystals. The resulting work is profoundly poetic and meditative. His glazing techniques and his control of kiln temperatures enable the growth process of the glaze to intensify and to further develop under fire — a continuous rhythm of growth and blossoming, a manifestation of living nature is thus steered by its creator who is able to bring to life a lifeless object and instill it with boundless beauty and harmony. Perhaps one of the most immediate and intimate connections between Salman and the process of ceramics is his relationship with the firing process. Sitting around the kiln as the heat pushes fiercely out of its mouth in invisible waves, stoking the fire through the small door that opens immediately into the body of the kiln, reading the clues the fire provides, Salman realizes that this act he and others are involved in is one that potters have participated in for thousands of years — one in which we seek each other, join in societies, find common threads and come together to be part of a community. The aesthetics expressed in his work reflect the orientation of his inner spirit. He translates what touches him in life, solidifies it by the fire in the kiln, into poetry. The material foundation of this aesthetics is to transform the traditional forms of ceramics into an artistic agent of entirely new significance, making it an innovative modern art. The process of this artistic attainment, through tireless tempering and polishing, is a shared trait signifying the true spirit of all great artists.
Originally presented in Dawn Gallery,28 February 2004 issue, pp. 6-7.