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Delft Tiles Get a Playful, and Sometimes Raunchy, Update

A broad-shouldered farmer, scythe in hand, gazes out over a field of asparagus. At first, the young man, subtly veined with craquelure and rendered in cobalt blue on a tin-glazed ceramic Delft tile, appears to have come from the 17th or 18th century, when more than 800 million such tiles, often bearing similar pastoral sketches, were produced in Holland. But on closer inspection, there are differences: This cropper is shirtless, his backside a bit too pert, and the stalks of asparagus growing from the ground are, in fact, penises. Made in 2019 by the 54-year-old British artist Paul Bommer — who has also worked phallic imagery into tiles variously depicting what might be initially mistaken for a kite in ancient China, a prize squash and chickens being fed by an old lady — the provocative scene reflects a larger rediscovery of Delft-style tiles by a new generation of history-upending ceramists.

The London-based artist updates traditional blue-and-white Delft tiles with erotic motifs.CreditCredit…Jerome Monnot

The earliest examples of what we now consider Delft tiles date from the early to mid-17th century, when they were frequently found lining the insides of fireplaces so that the soot could be simply wiped away. Although the tiles’ blue-and-white palette would become synonymous with Dutch ceramics, colored pottery had been brought to Holland only a century earlier by Italian artisans in the form of majolica, a geometrically patterned style of decorative, tin-glazed earthenware that itself came to Italy from North Africa by way of Majorca. By the early 1600s, the Dutch East India Company was importing Ming dynasty ceramics from China — white plates and vases, often adorned with delicate blue flora and fauna — but demand was such that Dutch craftsmen developed their own less expensive alternatives. Many potters moved from Antwerp, Haarlem and other ceramic-producing hubs to Delft, a sleepy town on the Schie canal, where breweries were repurposed into cheap factories.

A bird of prey by Halter (at left) and two more phallic subversions by Bommer. The more saturated tiles in the back and to the right are by Ottelien Huckin, who began painting curvy women and flowers on smaller ceramic surfaces during the pandemic’s first lockdown in London.Credit…Photograph by David Chow. Styled by Victoria Petro-Conroy

Then as now, ceramics existed in the liminal space between art and craft: In early modern Europe, clay tiles were mostly popular for their practicality. In addition to being easy to clean, they were durable, affordable and waterproof — perfect for flooring, bathroom walls and backsplashes. But Delft tiles were also meant to be fanciful, and the cartoonish, sometimes irreverent painted embellishments on even the earliest ones — featuring milkmaids, windmills and begging dogs — became as recognizable as the blue-and-white glaze.

Today, the 58-year-old British ceramist Aviva Halter hews closely to traditional Dutch iconography in her rural Dorset workshop but, instead of mass-producing tiles, she concentrates on one-offs: Her commissioned tiles are hand-painted with portraits of her customers’ treasured plants and pets, including wire-haired lurchers, yellow-accented blue tits and Colorado columbines. She wants her soulful, finely detailed renderings to make permanent “what we value and love about life” in the spaces where those lives are lived. Old tiles can evoke a sense of history. “I hope mine will one day do the same,” she says.

The 28-year-old artist Ottelien Huckin, however, uses tiles to commemorate bodies not typically seen or celebrated in art. During the pandemic’s first lockdown in London, she traded her large-scale canvases for four-inch square tiles, on which she paints “very voluptuous women — women that I’d want to look up to.” Huckin’s tiles are at once erotic and heroizing, objects that celebrate both women’s embodiment and the female gaze. The South African ceramist Anton Bosch, 64, achieves something similar in the expansive tile murals he has created for the Conduit, a progressive social club in London, inserting Black people (Nelson Mandela; a young artisan showing off a toy car he’s built) and local places (baobab trees; the South African veld) into a medium inextricable from the Netherlands’ history of imperial domination.

Tiles by Bommer and Halter alternately stacked on top of each other, topped with a scene by Bommer depicting a man tossing seeds to a trio of penises. At the base, tiles by Huckin.Credit…Photograph by David Chow. Styled by Victoria Petro-Conroy

Bommer, too, is writing a different kind of person into history with his playfully sexy and obscene creations, with which, he says, he seeks both to “honor and subvert.” His work evokes what he describes as the “saucy or filthy element” of Delft tiles and, increasingly, homoerotic Greek vase painting. Sometimes it’s done with a wink: In one tile, a snake charmer sits on a Turkish carpet and makes an erection rise from a basket by playing a pipe. But lately, the sex is both more obvious and capacious, as with his depictions of leather-clad swingers, plein-air lovemaking and biblical Jesse trees growing from men’s crotches.

There’s nothing new about reclaiming traditional craft techniques, as evidenced by the textile artist Bisa Butler’s “The Storm, the Whirlwind, and the Earthquake” (2020), a quilted portrait of the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and by the interior designer Sheila Bridges’s Harlem Toile de Jouy print centering a Black couple dressed in 18th-century clothing dancing to music from a boombox, which decorates silk scarves, window shades and Wedgwood plates. “Sexuality and the bodily functions have always been there,” says Bommer — queerness, too, even if it hasn’t always been explicit. But the lulling familiarity of Delftware allows him to make the sexualized male body a central part of his aesthetic vocabulary in a way that seems pedestrian, even historical, while exploring the blurred boundaries between art and kink (bedrooms adorned with tiles aren’t just for sleeping, after all), as well as his own identity. “I like to keep pushing myself against the barriers that exist in my brain,” he says, particularly those resulting from a less-than-tolerant Catholic upbringing. That self-exploration, and self-knowledge, now guides his process. “If it doesn’t make me roll around laughing or blush profusely,” Bommer says, “I’m really not interested.”

Photo assistant: Timothy Mulcare

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