The Ceramists Ushering in a New Era of Surrealism

Berrow took up ceramics in early 2020 while on lockdown at her mother’s house in Dorset; her mother, Miranda, is also a ceramist, so Berrow availed herself of her earthenware, kiln and high-sheen glazes. Berrow makes cigarettes, she explains, because she’s drawn to things that are “caricatures of themselves.” She’s also done oysters, lobsters, prawns, Ritz crackers, pomegranates, a backgammon board — all vaguely retro, often glamorous relics that carry cultural symbolism or baggage. But the common denominator is whatever Berrow finds comical. “A prawn cocktail, for me, is funny,” she says. “I don’t know why, but I find them hysterical.”

The British South African artist Stubbs, 29, also finds humor in unexpected places. “I like to explore the really dark side of human nature,” she says, “but to make it light.” Stubbs, who studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York and now lives in London, makes bright, whimsical, cartoonish work — her palette includes a lot of superhero red, yellow and green — of unexpected oddities: large bowls of spaghetti and clams, a mountainous tower of crayfish and enormous round plates of meat (“disgusting and glossy,” she calls them), a nod to the Swiss artist duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Raised on the gothic stories of Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl, Stubbs is interested in gluttony and excess — “this human quality of ours,” she tells me, “where we want more and we want a big pile.” She’s fascinated by humans indulging their baser, more callous instincts, and much of her work tells that tale in some form. “I did one pot about a man kicking another man,” she deadpans. “Sometimes you just feel like kicking somebody.”

It made me think: Is the sudden proliferation of oddity ceramics, which I had previously chalked up to any number of art-world factors — a return to figuration, a renewed interest in traditional crafts, a long overdue focus on female artists — in fact a response to the ongoing darkness of this moment? After all, the original Surrealist movement, with its urge to systematically derange the senses, occurred in the wake of the First World War and its horrors. These are humorous, superficially light pieces — distractions — that also convey a wry awareness of an omnipresent and unsettling strangeness. What’s known and functional has been rendered impractical and pointless, which is fascinating but also kind of scary. As the author Anne Boyer writes in 2019’s “The Undying,” “Enchantment exists when things are themselves and not their uses.” These objects reflect back at us a world that both is and is no longer familiar.