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26

Jan
2013

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Facing Our Foibles With Humor, Grace and Whimsy: Cleo Mussi

Cleo Mussi "I is for Idea" from The A-Z Handbook (2008) 42 x 17 cm

“I is for Idea”  To help save our planet and our souls from selfishness.  Plenty of good ones, but far too few seen through. It is what we do with them that counts.  Testing . . . is your light bulb on or off?  

Cleo Mussi is an artist with plenty of good ideas for us to consider.  Each of her mosaics is a manifestation of her intensely personal connection to the Earth and what she sees as the possibilities and potential perils for us, her fellow travelers on and stewards of the planet.

Cleo Mussi with three Kokeshi Dolls from "50/50 ~ Working in Parallel" (2010)

In a series of installations and exhibitions that began in 2008 with The A-Z Handbook, Mussi has created works that delight and provoke us – beguile and expose us in all our sometimes dangerously unthinking humanity.  That she does so with humor, grace and a defining sense of whimsy is evidence of the loving heart that guides her intellect.  Mussi may be pained by what she sees, but she remains ever hopeful and encouraging.

Cleo Mussi "Zesty Bunny" from Pharma's Market (2009)

The UK-based artist graduated from the Textiles department at Goldsmiths London in the 80s.  A passion for process and technique led her to ceramics; the low-cost and accessibility of vintage china led her to mosaic where she was inspired by the pebble mosaics of Maggie Howarth.  In an interview for TheMaking.com, Mussi talked about the links between textiles and mosaic:

 Both my textiles and my mosaic-making share the same emphasis on pattern-making and building up patterns from simple blocks, as well as re-cycling materials, and the understanding of materials is crucial to both media.

Cleo Mussi "X-Ray" 2012

Mussi’s genius lies in her ability to combine the historical and cultural references inherent in her materials with her intent to create a strong narrative for each one.  This propels them from being simply charming – which they undeniably are – to meaning-filled objects ripe for further study and contemplation.

Cleo Mussi "Twins" from The A-Z Facebook 2012

When we asked Mussi about what we characterized as the “childlike” nature of her imagery, the artist responded with:

I don’t think my images are childlike at all.  Perhaps you observe a naive quality that is akin to the folk tradition?  Or the simplicity and spontaneous quality that I strive for – something that children have the ability and to achieve naturally and unconsciously?

Beginning with The A-Z Handbook, we’re going to take a brief look at four of Mussi’s exhibitions/installations from the past six years.  While each mosaic in these events stands alone, it is also a unit in a cohesive, visual story that Mussi has composed.  Often, the works are paired with poetry written by either the artist herself or her friend and collaborator, the psychologist Paul Patterson.

The A-Z Handbook 2008

Cleo Mussi "D is for Dove" 2008 55 x 59 cm

D is for Dove.  The gentle bird that found safe haven for the ark, a sign of peace in transcendental times, a reassuring symbol of goodwill in troubled times – Ave!  Paul Patterson

In A-Z, Mussi mines the Western World’s basic building blocks of communication  – the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet – to focus us on the power of words to empower and entertain, deceive and enslave.

Cleo Mussi "E is for Eyes" 2008 30 x 19 cm

E is for Eyes.  Warding off evil, often the hands commit acts that the eyes cannot see, better that the hands are led by the all-seeing eye of wisdom, a peacock’s feather; a cloak of Uriel that sees all things, a window to the soul.  What state the soul of man in the 21st century?  Look to his acts.

Paul Patterson’s poetry gives the viewer a starting point from which to contemplate Mussi’s mosaics.  The combination of visual references with associative thought is quite powerful.

Cleo Mussi "S is for Shake" 2008 28 x 15 cm

S is for Shake.  ’Put it there, partner’, symbolic acknowledgement of each other’s humanity, meeting of east and west, of hands but not always minds.  If crusading competitors stopped counting fists full of dollars and starting counting the cost we might have enough change left over to buy some miracles.

Cleo Mussi "W is for Waste Not" 2008 21 x 20 cm

W is for Waste Not . . . Wasted words spent selling unnecessary lifestyles to the ungrateful. Wasted youth wasted words wasted life. Wasted youth wistful words working life. Welcome youth wise words wonderful life.

We are struck by the fact that Mussi’s alphabet is composed of primarily white china and black grout.  They are, in effect, her scribblings on the wall – a sort of graffiti of image-based storytelling.

Pharma’s Market  2009

Cleo Mussi "Robo Bunny" 72 x 228 cm, "Blue Rinse Babe with a bun in the Oven" 68 x 208 cm, "Bunny Workers" from 44 x 123 cm: "Odd", Bunny Bioler", "Son of Robo" "Bunny Boilers Baskets" 57 x 51 cm

In Pharma’s Market, Mussi uses the traditional English farmer’s market and contemporary agricultural icons to comment on “the dark science” of genetic engineering.  With her anthropomorphic/robotic bunnies, test-tube wielding “Scientists” and assorted GMO “Fruit Branches”, Mussi asks:  Just how much can we tinker without dire consequence?

Cleo Mussi "Add Hox" 2009 67 x 123 cm

 

Cleo Mussi "Strange Fruit Branches" 24 x 55 cm

Of the exhibit, Mussi says:

The show is an amalgamation of many ideas and the work of previous years. I always like to combine the beautiful and benign with more uncomfortable undertones.  However, the show is not a criticism or a Judgment of our evolution and predicament.  It is an Observation.

The video below shows Mussi working in her studio and visiting the exhibit in its first of several showings.

 

50/50 ~ Working in Parallel  2010

This exhibit was the first time that Mussi showed in tandem with her husband, the textile artist Matthew Harris.   The two met while studying at Goldsmiths and their work resonates well together with a visual glue born in repetitive patterning, the fragmentation of materials and the technique  of creating a new whole out of disparate pieces.  Like Mussi, Harris has shown internationally and his works can be found in prominent public and private collections.

Cleo Mussi and Matthew Harris

The duo took their inspiration from a trip to Japan – a journey which took them from the contemplative temples and gardens of Kyoto, to the maddening chaos of Tokyo and finally, by the good fortune bestowed upon them by an erupting volcano in Iceland, two unplanned weeks experiencing the simple life of a small village.

Cleo Mussi with three Kokeshi Dolls from "50/50 ~ Working in Parallel" 2010

It will be no surprise that Mussi’s aesthetic translates easily into astute observations on Japanese pop culture.  Mussi’s life-sized kokeshi dolls were influenced by a raging phenomenon in Japan called Fruits which she describes as “a bonkers teenage dress culture that mixes and matches clothes” in the same way that Mussi mixes and matches china.

Cleo Mussi "Temple Buckets" 2010

In Temple Buckets, Mussi has filled the ubiquitous fire buckets found in wooden Shinto shrines to overflowing with ceramic figures destined to become kawaii or “cute.”  We see the kawaii-making machinery at work in The Production of Cute.

Cleo Mussi "The Production of Cute"

Cleo Mussi "The Production of Cute" 2010 Detaiil

One definition of kawaii we came across in our research was  ”Cute, but with sort of a creepy edge.”    What could be more cute and creepy at the same time than these mismatched animals inspired by the Japanese mania for mobile phone charms?

The A-Z Facebook  2012

Cirencester’s Corinium Museum – “Where Roman Britain Comes Alive” – was the site for Mussi’s latest installation, The A-Z Facebook.  A follow-up to the A-Z Handbook, this collection of works enabled Mussi to revisit some old ideas around the theme of faces and to begin exploring new variations.

The A-Z Facebook installation was wildly popular  – one can imagine the delightful juxtaposition of Mussi’s exuberant, often tongue-in-cheek portraits against the work of the ancients elsewhere in the museum.

 

Cleo Mussi "Twins" from The A-Z Facebook 2012

Cleo Mussi "Mind" 2012

We are especially fond of Mussi’s Phrenological heads which, she tells us, were the starting point for the Facebook.  The reference to the faux science’s diagrams of the 19th century gives Mussi the opportunity to comment on what we currently stuff into our brains today.  Is “Mr Happy” really happy?

Cleo Mussi "Control" 2012

We live in an increasingly complex World of information and choices, bombarded by media sound bites and attention grabbing sensationalist news.  The internet brings knowledge and the opportunity to research and discover and allows us on the one hand to feel like we are able to take control, but also unleashes the overwhelming weight and responsibility that knowledge brings.

Information overload is a recurring theme in Mussi’s work.  In Control, we see her literally cutting through the chaos with garden shears to leave nothing but the beauty of the planet behind.

Other groupings in Facebook included a series of guaranteed grin-inducing Robots and X-Rays . . . 

Cleo Mussi "Cheddar" 2012

 

Cleo Mussi "X-Ray" 2012

. . . and some new, rather streamlined works where Mussi says she “really enjoyed playing with simple expressions drawn from just a few gestures of ceramic.”

Cleo Mussi "Long Face" 2012

Cleo Mussi "Baby Bunting" 2012

Cleo Mussi "Icon" 2012

Pique assiette, the mosaic technique of using broken china and pottery as tesserae, is very popular with mosaic-makers.  There are very few artists, however, who use the technique in the meaningful, thoughtful and artful way that Mussi does.  Our world is much the richer for the worlds she constructs from bits and pieces of the discarded.  Don’t they just make you smile?

INFORMATION

  • Poetry for The A-Z Hand Book by Paul Patterson, PhD
  • Photography for The A-Z Hand Book and Pharma’s Market by Peter J Stone; all other photography by the artist
  • Cleo Mussi Website here

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Comments

  1. Sharon Svenson

    You have inspired me to no end, wonderful wonderful! Thank you!

  2. Tony

    Awesome…you are such an inspiration to others. God given talent….just superb. !!

  3. Laurel Skye

    Cleo’s work was my very first influence in modern mosaics in the 1990′s. She was cutting edge then and remains ‘cutting edge’ today. I am a big fan. You can see her knowledge of art and pattern, her respect for it, yet her irreverent cutting and laying style, places her beyond the formal constructs of correctness in her approach. I love the relaxed, yet careful way her pieces are broken and arranged. Chaos within order…the universal condition found so beautifully (artfully) expressed in her work. Cleo you have brightened our world with a smile as we look upon your creations! Bravo!

  4. Patrice Thomas

    The article and artwork are so inspiring! Thank you both so much for challenging my limitations about what mosaic art can accomplish.

  5. Esther

    Awesome work! Totally cool stuff!! Love it!! :)
    Very inspiring indeed!

  6. NancyB

    I love these pieces! I have been struggling with letting go of all my dish tesserae, but seeing Cleos work has inspired me to implement it into my work! That’s got to be a couple of years worth of work there. Very impressive.

    • Nancie

      Cleo’s work makes us all look at our crockery a bit differently, Nancy. Happy creating.

  7. Deborah Williams

    Delightful. Smart, heartfelt and just wonderful. I am in awe. It is the type of mosaic that gets my pulse racing and acknowledges that creative whack on the head. My own work has been non-traditional and this gives me courage and the desire to keep on my own path rather than stress that others do not see my thinking behind the art just because it doesn’t look like everybody else’s.
    Deborah

    • Nancie

      That’s what we’re here for, Deborah. Thanks you for writing.

  8. Debra Hagen

    Cleo – I love your work! I feel humbled and inspired at the same time.

    Nancie – thank you for another wonderful article. Cleo’s work does indeed make me smile.

  9. Cleo Mussi

    Thank you for the feed back , I am delighted with the article . It has been so positive for me . I appreciate that a great deal of time and thought was taken researching this piece and at last -a well balanced overview of my creative process.

  10. sandhi schimmel gold

    Fantastic! So inspiring and fun – I love every bit of it!

  11. katherine englanad

    All of my creative being just altered a bit. Whew, it felt great. Thank you Cleo. What a gift.

  12. Betty Cleffman Hager

    I loved this article and the wonderful examples of Cleo Mussi’s work. She is a gifted and inspiring artist.

  13. Julie

    Wonderful work and powerful messages. Thank you for sharing her work with us!

  14. Marcelo de Melo

    What I like the most about Cleo Mussi is the fact that she seems to be having a great deal of fun. I love that! Many artists take themselves far too seriously and never achieve such a level of confidence to do what they want. I have always been a fan of her work. Well done!

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