by Elinor Potts
"They were made with speed as though the maker was going to die tomorrow and he needed to get them done…."
On the online travel website Devon Guide, Bideford is described as “an attractive town on the west bank of the River Torridge”.
A platter of dusty adjectives justify their claim; “lovely,” “impressive” “thriving” “fascinating,” “charming,” and, again, “lovely”, painting a cosy image of this boat-lined bay, whose “town of white houses,” - described by its most famous export, Victorian novelist Charles Kingsley - is populated with 17,107 people, 98.3% of which are, also, white.
Whilst it once held the title of being 16th century Britain's third largest port, for as long as I lived in the region, Bideford was never the first port of call for cultural endeavours. But most of the time, it was the best we could get.
A 45-minute trundle from my home - potholed, hedgerow’d backstreets led the way from the dull waterlogged fields and dodgy internet connections of the rural sticks to more promising planes.
Occasionally, my friends would flock on the 21 bus for explosive New Years rampages and ad-hoc nights at Crabby Dicks Lounge Bar, and a dive nightclub renowned for its rash-inducing foam parties, now closed.
Burton Art Gallery: An archive with an open door
Far from the homely adjectives cited in the tourist books, to me, Bideford town was November evenings waiting for lifts on the quay, wet muddy jeans, cold public toilets and pastry-flecked scarves; an archive with an open door, a flow of cultural flotsam, jetsam, and shipwrecked dregs of deceased maids, buckling the shelves of the town’s charity shops on the ‘drangs’ which splintered off Mill Street.
I think about this town, the Bideford I knew and the one which exists today; fractured temporalities coexisting on shifting sands, as I walk into the Burton Art Gallery for the opening of Conor Coulston’s new exhibition in the art space which overlooks the local park.
Coulston’s practice recontextualises traditional ceramics through remaking and redirecting our gaze towards concealed histories. A comic charge orbits Coulston’s work and themes of sexual lust, self deprecating reflections and an obsession with celebrities from the Spice Girls, to Harry Styles, Timothée Chalamet, and other attractive tabloid men in their late 20s I am probably too boring to recognise.
Coulston centres himself playfully in the thick of his work, brandishing his identity like a plastic knife covered in peas and honey. The forms are familiar to anyone with an interest in British ceramics and the Staffordshire and Meissen figures frequently relegated to charity shops and old-fashioned hearths.
'You broke it you fat tw*t' uses an experiential lens to reimagine a Staffordshire figurine from the museum's collection of a young girl riding a zebra. Inspired by a holiday to Jamaica when he was 11, we see Coulston excessively sunburnt and overweight, a disgruntled teletubby sourly saddling the broken-down carousel horse in characteristically gaudy colours. It is bold, bloated and bloody brilliant.
'Some of us Prefer Illusion to Despair' is the exhibition’s unmissable centrepiece, a scrapbook Grecian urn framed with slapdash lettering and heart-shaped Styles’. There is a tactile counterpoint between the glaze and the exposed ceramic; spotlight by a chorus of neon pink hearts, a multisensory plea for attention and affection.
Thick smears of glaze slime down swollen walls, frenzied neon piping illuminating the dirty crevices. ‘Feelin a lil sensitive’ showcases this textural interplay with dense rivers of green and navy swampily pooling at the bottom of the vase, scrunched like a paper bag drowning in oil.
Conversational accompanying texts glimmer with musing sarcasm, or naivety, as the artist admits he’s “not sure” what exactly drew him to the Burton’s Tobacco Jars as inspiration for the Kat Slater Vessels:
“I think it is their expressive nature… they’re not immaculate.. They were made with speed as though the maker was going to die tomorrow and he needed to get them done…. I wanted to capture that speed and desperation to get them done whilst at the same time giving you everything I have, the terracotta, the gold lustre, the leopard print… the neon.”
The effect is powerful; like a damp living room spritzed with So...? Kiss Me body fragrance, or an ironic neon affirmation meme; for as long as it’s here, Coulston’s work brings a canvas of colour to this little white town. A melting pot of memories, sexualised and satirised, these ceramics are everything at once: old, new, kitsch, iconoclastic and expansive.