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