The Contemporary Side of Ceramics

For the last ten years Officine Saffi in Milan has been supporting a new concept of ceramics through exhibitions, workshops, artists residencies, a dedicated award, and a magazine. Laura Borghi, the founder of the gallery, left a career in physics to pursue her passion for this artistic medium.

The Contemporary Side of Ceramics

Let’s start by talking about the current exhibition by Paolo Gonzato

“Pastiche” is Paolo Gonzato’s first solo exhibition with the gallery. We have assembled a group of new works, especially made for the gallery. The artist focuses on the artistic practice of Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778), the eclectic genius of the 18th-century who moved between Venice and Rome, with work ranging from Baroque to Neoclassicism. Piranesi influenced the taste of subsequent generations and fostered the idea of the artist as creator, architect, archaeologist, antiquarian, designer, merchant, impresario, and forger.

Gonzato focuses on Piranesi's large historic vases such as the Boyd Vase, currently in the collection of the British Museum. This is a 'pastiche', meaning a set of fragments plausibly reconstructed by Piranesi's own workshop, thus creating a historical counterfeit, but one with the power to stimulate the imagination, dreams and ultimately desire. In the same way, Paolo Gonzato’s works are decorative and architectural fragments of indeterminate date, entire ceramic artifacts rich in sediments as if they had just emerged from archaeological excavations of an ancient civilization, or even portents of a dystopian and post-apocalyptic world.

When and why did you decide to open Officine Saffi?

As often happens, I started as a collector. Then, 10 years ago, somewhat audaciously, I turned my passion into a profession, and I decided to open the gallery. I was inspired by Anita Besson, a charismatic figure and the first gallerist who, in 1988 in London, focused on contemporary ceramics. I went to London to meet her and we became friends. I told her about my project, and she gave me the opportunity to present in Italy for the first time exceptional ceramic artists Hans Coper and Lucie Rie, with whom she worked. In fact, one of the first exhibitions at Officine Saffi was dedicated to her career: I showed some of the great artists of the 1960s represented by Galerie Besson in dialogue with Italian artists like Lucio Fontana, Carlo Zauli, and Nanni Valentini.

Where does the name come from?

This space in Via Saffi has always been a production place. First a typography, later a mechanical workshop. Even after the renovation, Officine Saffi is today not only a gallery, but also a laboratory equipped with the best professional kilns to fire ceramics. We hold classes to learn and deepen our understanding the different techniques of ceramics. We also created a publishing house, to print a magazine dedicated to contemporary ceramics, and we set up a biennial award, now in its fourth edition, to foster new talents through a residency program.

Anders Ruhwald, The Thing in Your Mind, Installation view at Officine Saffi, Milan
Works by Zsolt Simon

Who was the last artist in residence?

A young Chinese artist named Yewen Dong. She participated in our ceramics award and won the residency. She worked in our workshop, where she realized a number of works for a solo show. She also gave classes and revealed some of the secrets of her technique.

Tell us about the artists you represent

They are more than 20 artists working mainly in ceramics. Some of them are closer to the world of design, others to the world of contemporary art. They are mainly international artists, both emerging and established. We also represent artists from Japan and from Scandinavia, two countries with long and important traditions in ceramics, with a focus on the most contemporary expressions of this tradition.

Serena Zanardi, Per ricordare, Winner of the Officine Saffi Award in 2017
Works produced by Serena Zanardi, winner of the 2017 Officine Saffi Award, during her residency in Sasama, Japan

How do you find your artists?

I love to search for new artists. It is a constant search that never stops. A fundamental factor in the discovery of new talents comes from our biennial competition. The aim is to promote ceramics in contemporary art, but also to identify the most innovative trends in language and technique. For example, thanks to the competition, I discovered two of the artists in our program, like the American artist John Shea and the Hungarian Zsolt József Simon. International residency programs are also always a very useful source to draw on for discovering new talents.

Can you introduce us to the work of one of your artists?

Johannes Nagel's ceramics are at the boundary between fine art and functional vessels. Nagel does not seek perfection, rather highlights the process of form development. By using of a technique called sand-casting, the artist accentuates the spontaneity of the gestures and the natural evolution of objects. The Danish artist Anders Ruhwald uses clay to create single objects and elaborate installations. In 2018, for his first solo show in Italy, Ruhwald created a large suspended installation called "The shades about to fall," which blocked the regular path inside the exhibition space and raised questions about the concept of border. Among the youngest artists is the Russian, London-based artist Irina Razumovskaya. Her works are visions of the aging of architecture, where each layer of peeling surface gives context to a story and a time.

Who is your most recent addition?

Although the focus of Officine Saffi is and will always be ceramics, sometimes I also let myself be captured by other media, like glass. I decided to present the work of a young Slovenian artist called Kaja Upelj. I liked her works, because they complicate the perception of glass and explore the characteristics of the material. She alters the perception of glass from being sturdy and cold and communicates a sense of fluidity, warmth, and emotion.

Officine Saffi's presentation at Nomad in St. Moritz

In the world of contemporary art there is a renewed interest in ceramics. Why do you think that is?

When I opened the gallery ten years ago, in Italy ceramic art was ignored by the worlds of contemporary art and design because it was associated with an idea of ​​low-level craftsmanship, so opening the gallery was not an easy proposition. Over the years, however, the interest towards this material has changed. After a very difficult initial phase, since 2014 we have witnessed a renewed interest in ceramics on the part of artists, as well as private collectors and museums. All this has given new energy and increasing research in techniques and materials. Today ceramic is one of the practices of artists who have a multidisciplinary approach, and we find it in contemporary art fairs and in the programs of some of the most well-known galleries.

Performance by Loredana Longo in Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy. Her works are the result of an explosion.
A work by Loredana Longo
A workshop with Robert Cooper