Sarah Kent

"Clay Ketter at White Cube" from Time Out, London, #1330, 14–21.02, 1996

There's nothing more abstract and unreal than a kitchen.
When you build it, you see it; then you use it for the rest
of your life and you no longer notice it. Things are only
real when they come into consciousness.
When you realise something, it becomes real.

(Clay Ketter) (1)


Clay Ketter has done his fare share of building work. Whereas most artists who earn a living by painting and decorating regard it as a necessary evil, Ketter enjoys the similarities between creating a painting and building a stud wall. To a wooden support you attach canvas for a painting, plasterboard for a wall; to acheive a smooth surface ready for painting on you then apply size, filler, plaster, underpainting or lining paper.

An impression of solidity makes the wall seem permanent and stable, an impression of depth turns a canvas into an imaginary world. Both are illusions - but one encloses the body, the other opens the mind. Considering they are so similar, it seems unreasonable that one activity should be viewed with contempt, the other eulogised. But Ketter is not on a crusade. His work is less worthy than that, and much more humorous.

Since the 1960's the American minimalist, Robert Ryman, has devoted himself to an exploration of the relationship between paint, surface, frame, fixtures, and the wall. Ketter approaches the discussion from a different direction and produces ironic echoes of minimalism. The term wall painting takes on new meaning - to become painting made as rather than on a wall. In Sketch for White over Grey Wall Painting (1995) two sheets of plasterboard are screwed every 20 cm. to a wooden support; joints and holes are then filled with plaster. The finished "painting" resembles a Ryman, but is constructed like a wall.

In "M.6 – CAT. 147" (1996) the references are more various. The plasterboard is screwed to a wooden frame edged with steel beading. Holes and joins are filled and finished with a wash of pale plaster that creates a minimalist composition and a seductive central veil, reminiscent of a Morris Louis stain painting. Added complexity comes from a thin coat of varnish, a wash of white emulsion and a grid of double pencil lines that suggests an arrangement of cupboards and shelves.

If this is the plan for a kitchen, its layout is strikingly familiar. You might recognise the design from Mondrian's "Composition in White, Black and Red" (1936). Ketter emphasizes the fine art connection by painting the channels between the lines pale blue or yellow, and affirms the link with interior design by adding strips of wallpaper. The object is a hybrid; exquisite but ironic, as beautiful as a Mondrian, but lacking the Dutchman's mystical idealism – an actuality rather than an ideal.

In exploring the interface between art, architecture, and design, Ketter is celebrating the legacy of visionary modernists like the Russian Constructivists, Mondrian and De Stijl, and those at the Bauhaus who believed that good design would promote moral and spiritual wellbeing. The dream turned sour, of course; social housing became mean and shoddy and social engineering turned out to be too complex an issue for their nicely laid plans. One problem was paternalism. People didn't want good design thrust on them; they preferred to make their own choices.

The end of a century might be an opportune moment to mourn the failure of utopian schemes that flourished at the beginning, but Ketter enjoys pointing out that the situation is more interesting than that. Modernist ideals have died, but their influences survives – albeit in strange and adulterated forms.

In 1976 Ingvar Kamprad, founder of the Swedish furniture company IKEA, published "The Testament of a Furniture Dealer". The tone of his mail order manifesto is as messianic as a modernist tract. Kamprad declares that his ambition is "to create a better everyday life for the majority of people"(2) IKEA has succeded where modernism failed because it empowers people: D.I.Y. offers the chance to control a corner of your life.

Clay Ketter's recent sculptures resemble fitted kitchens. Familiarity mingles with an uncanny sense of absence and stillness. The units are recognisable from an IKEA catlogue – the parts are bought off the peg – but some cupboard doors are sealed, others have been replaced by glass. There are no sink units in the counter tops and no stoves in front of the splash backs, nor have any gaps been left for the missing elements. The pieces may await the arrival of appliances and people (they function in the future tense), but the future is endlessly deferred.

Resembling segments through a room (complete with wall, floor and ceiling), they are more like stage sets than show kitchens. They may occupy real space, but they will never enter real life. Pans will never clatter in these kitchens; the work tops won't be scratched or stained, the cupboards won't get chipped and dirty. They will remain pristine – works of art rather than slices of life – an ideal rather than an actuality.

Like "M. 6 – CAT. 147", they have been designed with an eye to composition rather than usage. The balancing of solids and voids, dark and light, whiteness and colour, and of smooth, textured, mat and reflective surfaces governs the arrangement of the units. If IKEA is a measure of how far modernist design can be diluted and still be recognised, Ketter puts the process into reverse. Judicious selection and presentation elevate crummy decor into abstract art. Sullied ideals are salvaged from suburbia.

His reclamation is an act of love; it reminds me of a painting by the English Pre-Raphaelite, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. "Found" (1856) shows a young man rescuing a "fallen woman" from the gutter in the hope of returning her to a virtuous life. Having saved the modernist aesthetic and restored it to its rightful place, Ketter similarly intends to preserve its new-found purity. Some women refer to rape as being "broken into" and liken burglary to rape. Ketter's sculptures can't be broken into; they are sealed. Yet they knowingly seduce; the glass hymens may deny access, but they afford views of forbidden places. Titillation generates desire; but these interiors remain invulnerable.

In real life ideals get compromised, crappy kitchens get battered and broken and relationships fall apart. But art resists entropy; it denies the failure and depredations of daily life. Ketter's euphoric mix of puritanism and prurience guarantees that desire will never be sated, and love will never die.

His "Trace Paintings" are a luxurious fusion between the plasterboard "paintings" and the sculptures. Onto plasterboard he attaches an array of kitchen fittings – cupboards, shelves, tiles, work tops and splash backs. Layers of household gloss are sloshed inside the cupboards before the fittings are removed to leave a ghostly map resembling a kitchen that has been stripped and abandoned.

In "Trace Painting #6" (1996) a set of pale blue rectangles indicates eye level cupboards. Beneath them the plastic splash back is still in place. The cupboards below the work top were painted pale apricot and yellow. Thick with drips, the paint indicates a D.I.Y. enthusiast devoid of skill. An area of scrim adds texture and a wavy line leads the eye down a former flex to an absent electrical socket. Plastic wall plugs form punctuation marks that indicate where the fittings were attached.

Clay Ketter has worked out how to have his cake and to eat it. His luscious paintings are abstract yet figurative, gestural yet inexpressive; their grunge beauty is achieved by default – as the by-product of a process that leaves him free to do what he wants without it appearing arbitrary. He practices painting without being enslaved by it; he employs aesthetic values but is not in their thrall; he celebrates painters without falling under their spell. Paradise is a plan that sanctions infidelity and flouts convention.



1. Clay Ketter in conversation with the author
2. Ingvar Kamprad, "The Testatment of a Furniture Dealer",
quoted by Daniel Birnbaum in "IKEA at the End of Metaphysics"
Frieze no. 31, pp. 33-36