Carl Merten’s latest exhibition, Iron and Clay, opens on 15 June, 5pm to 7 pm. The exhibition showcases recent sculptures focusing on the disparate qualities of these two materials and expresses Carl’s ongoing explorations of figurative and abstract forms.
How has your work improved/changed since we last interviewed you in 2010?
It’s a lot more playful! Clay allows an intuitive creativity to satisfy my interest in hand-built forms and figurative sculpture. The recent addition of two kilns to an already well-equipped studio and being a member of the Armidale Pottery Club have opened up some major changes in direction. While I’ve always sculpted with clay as the first step in the complexities of creating a bronze sculpture, it’s a fairly recent development in my art practice to take the clay further in the form of finished ceramic sculpture. Lower material costs encourage experiment (clay is so easily recycled!) and the freedom to push an idea without the financial constraints of bronze casting is a real bonus, enabling a greater creative flexibility. I enjoy this release from inhibition.
Some of my recent works are sculptural vessels; others are quirky, satirical, fun and may interest psychiatrists. The technical aspects of finishing ceramic sculptures present a whole new challenge. I had no idea how complex, how alchemical, is the mixing and testing of glazes, the different types of kilns and firings and the variety of results when the kiln is opened.
Iron in its various forms affords the equally satisfying but different approach of cutting, welding and finishing. The iron sculptures in this show are another kind of creative exploration, a sort of sketching in steel, that I’m increasingly drawn to as I get older. Perhaps this reflects a natural urge, a desire to utilise one’s creative time more effectively, to bring ideas into reality within a relatively short time. The iron sculptures in this exhibition include wall, table, indoor and outdoor pieces, some from core-ten and others finished in two-pack polychrome.
How is this exhibition different from your last showing at Gallery 126?
This is totally different! The last show focussed on bronze and pastels. The elements in this exhibition are pretty eclectic – sort of free-range sculptures that have gone a bit feral.
You are also a silversmith. How did you learn this craft?
I have an identical twin brother, Rex (yes, there are two of us!) who is an amazing jeweller and silversmith. We both entered trades – Rex at Hardy Brothers, and I as the last apprentice Diesinker and Steel Engraver at G.A. Miller and Sons. Coming from a myopic family of jewellers, engravers and silversmiths, my apprenticeship added medallic art and toolmaking to the Merten repertoire. The silversmithing skills were the result of an extended apprenticeship in the design and hand-building of prototypes for manufacturing various items of silver-plated and stainless steel tableware. This led to even more skills by repairing antique silverware.
One of the best ways of learning is to iron out the dents, replace the spouts and handles and repair the damage inflicted on sterling silver – often the hand-raised work of highly skilled gold and silversmiths.
What inspires you?
Just about everything. The older I get, the more astonishing is the diversity and multitude of new things and our understanding of old things. New technologies of 3D printing have enormous creative potential.
An increasing speed of communication and availability of information is opening up such a plethora of images and ideas for artists, that there’s a risk of being under or overwhelmed, depending on your age. I have to confess I’m something of a computer luddite and not addicted to constant smartphone dependency. This is something that allows for those uninterrupted quiet moments of creative contemplation I find essential.
Who knows? Hopefully, more of the same. I still seem to have lots of ideas left in me. Combinations of various materials, the privilege of making something enduring –and hopefully meaningful – to future generations.
Perhaps after Joan Relke and I finish the Pensioners Hill BHP Billiton project at Gunnedah, I’ll start carving those blocks of marble we have on the property for another exhibition.
This story was published in issue 61 of New England Focus