Back in black

The Arts

March 2, 2020



The Mint Museum Randolph highlights a side of Wedgwood that is rarely seen.

by Page Leggett

Forget what you think you know about Wedgwood. Unsee the powdery blue vases and plates adorned with dainty white silhouettes. 

That famous Wedgwood blue is what Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 1795) is best known for. But Josiah had a dark side — ceramically speaking, that is. 

Wedgwood wasn’t just a potter; he was an entrepreneur, who is often credited with inventing modern marketing. Truly ahead of his time, he also was a staunch abolitionist.

He’s well-known for his jasper ware — the baby blue, unglazed stoneware with relief detailing in a creamy white that’s still produced and collected today. You won’t see any of that in Classic Black: The Basalt Sculpture of Wedgwood and His Contemporaries, on view at Mint Museum Randolph through Aug. 30. The exhibition features more than 100 ceramic objects, some of which are on loan from various public (the Victoria and Albert Museum in London!) and private collections in the United States and England. This is the first exhibition anywhere to focus exclusively on the black basalt sculpture made by Wedgwood and other Staffordshire potters in late 18th-century England. There are life-size portrait busts, statues, vases and other three-dimensional, ornamental forms and works in low relief, including plaques, portrait medallions and medals. 

Wedgwood perfected black basalt stoneware in 1768, creating its dark hue by adding manganese and carr, an iron oxide-rich mixture, to the clay. Other potters in Staffordshire followed suit, creating utilitarian pieces — teapots and bowls, for instance — out of black basalt. The Mint exhibit showcases purely decorative works, with an emphasis on those with ornamentation inspired by ancient Greece and Rome. You’ll see busts of Homer and Socrates, statues depicting gods, and coins with portraits of Julius Caesar.  

Red hot

Now, forget what you know about museum exhibitions. This one is as different from the ordinary as black basalt is from Wedgwood blue. The Mint partnered with Charlotte-based muralist and street artist Owl (of Arko + Owl) to create what they call “sunset-hued graphic murals” in every room. HannaH (the capital H at the end is correct) Crowell, the Mint’s exhibition designer, says red was the obvious choice for a backdrop. 

“There was a huge resurgence of classical themes during Josiah’s day,” Crowell says. This was right around the time that Pompeii, the ancient city destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted, was discovered and excavated. “Basalt comes from lava,” she continues. “Red tones are earthy tones. The warm color palette makes sense.” 

The palette sounds deceptively simple. It may be all red, but there are 22 different paint colors in four color families used on the walls, ranging from pale pink to tomato red, from lavender to deep purple. “We’ve gotten to be good friends with the people at Benjamin Moore,” Crowell says. “They’re amazing.” 

Black basalt pieces have an “undertone that varies from reddish-brown to purplish,” says Brian Gallagher, the Mint’s curator of decorative arts. The red-hued walls accentuate that, and they offer a surprising contemporary milieu for these neoclassical works. 

“Owl’s murals elevate these objects visually,” Crowell says. 

Pairing a street artist with an 18th-century decorative artist may seem incongruous, but it works to the museumgoer’s advantage. 

“The visitor needs to be engaged,” Crowell says. “I think of my role as that of a creative cruise director. I’m not an artist or curator. I’m responsible for creating the environment where visitors and objects interact.”

Gallagher gave Crowell the freedom to create something unexpected. “I didn’t want this exhibition to look traditional,” he says. “I want people to look at these objects in a different way. We’re deliberately steering away from the been-there, done-that of the jasper ware blue and sage green. HannaH took my vision and blew it up. And what Owl did is beyond my wildest dreams.”

Gallagher hopes the wild juxtaposition will entice those who might not ordinarily see a decorative-arts exhibition to discover a revolutionary artist from an earlier era. Crowell is already a convert. “I’m a huge fangirl of Josiah,” she says.  SP

SEEING RED: Classic Black is on view at Mint Museum Randolph through Aug. 30. The museum at 2730 Randolph Rd. is open Tuesday through Sunday. mintmuseum.org    

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