Michael Cleff

Don´t say much. On Silence

What am I supposed to say – when everything is so still? How can I be expected to use many words – when faced with a system so totally dominated by calm? How am I supposed to analyze something in detail whose entire existence is based on its monolithic coherence?

For many years Michael Cleff´s sculptures have impressed with their concentrated power, a power drawn from their simplicity, from their compactness and from the stringency with Cleff pursues and powers forward his intention, continuously studying his concept, drawing new conclusions and gaining new insights.

Cleff works with just a few formal elements, thoughtfully varying them and placing them in new relationships with each other. His minimalist concept is based on fundamental recurring geometric forms – the circle, the square, the rectangle, the ellipse – and on a reduced, monochromatic use of colour. It is as though he has made a conscious decision to use certain notes or a certain number of syllables, combining them in different ways to compose new snatches of tune or to construct new linens of a poem. And when we have the opportunity to view several of Cleff´s work at one time, we become aware that it has its own meditative harmony – the quiet harmony of a man striving to understand phenomena by repeatedly declining anew those things which he observes.

His use of geometrical shapes most readily suggests parallels with architecture. Not only because the clay forms he constructs have been fired as hard as clinker, much more than this, it is the subjects he draws on, the relationship between the basic ground plan and the total volume, the way vertical and horizontal interact; it is the way the various elements composing the surfaces create their own rhythms, the way which the internal and external interlock, the subjects the sculptor chooses, and the features that coincide with classical architectural tasks.

One of the most outstanding characteristics of these small, edifice-like sculptures is without doubt the monumental aura they have. They appear to be enormous, free-standing blocks of dwellings, water towers or halls, places where large numbers of people can gather, where people can maybe share a common silence or listen to music; we have the impression they are reserved for a cultural, indeed even ritualistic, purpose; they are futurist and archaic at one and the same time.

What strikes one about Cleff´s pedestal and wall work is that he always operates with the principle of duality? We always find two elements representing contrasting systems, two elements he juxtaposes – or aligns – in his pieces; rounded and angular forms, vertical and horizontal elements, lines and spaces, light and dark, black and white, rough and smooth, matt and shiny, and in most cases he works with two parts of a space which he interconnects. In addition to these features, the spatial structure of the added parts is far less calm and much more animated than the smoothed walls of the main structure.

Cleff treats his pieces with pigments and slips which becomes part of the ceramic during the firing process. He thus obtains a matt, strongly contrasting colour tonality and emphasizes the surface structure and its gently resonating textures. The horizontal surfaces delimiting the volume like a flat canopy occasionally have a silky smoothness, which Cleff achieves by polishing the material after firing. This creates an even stronger impulse on the part of the viewer to touch the pieces and to investigate their tactile qualities with the fingertips.

Just as a rectangle is never exactly 90°, so the walls Cleff creates are also never exactly straight; just as the surfaces gently pulsate, the rising, closing lines meander gently, inclining inwards and then slightly buckling outwards again, yet never to such an extent that they lose their inherent tension. The sculptor´s freely creating hand decides intuitively on the balance between objectivity based on precision and the necessary degree of subjective creative freedom.

Cleff´s language is spartan, yet never cold. The forms he uses are strict, yet never dogmatic. What interests him is the reduction of phenomena to enable satisfying perception, of one´s own voice, one´s own creations, and ultimately of one´s own self. What he creates is the discovery, the plan and the accessibility of our own inner rooms? In the midst of a raging torrent of information and events, he constructs and opens up rooms for us, where we can withdraw into our imagination; refuges for our thoughts, oases of quietness, and places where we can encounter our own quest and experience.

Gabi Dewald
Lorsch, Germany