Three exhibitions of interest

Oldest first and that is Martin Popplewell’s A Storage Problem at Objectspace. It’s a sort of ironic celebration of all those bits and bobs of both fired and unfired clay that lurk in studio corners, loiter partially unwrapped under benches or find their way to previously quiescent spaces like windowsills or back porch quarters. This medley comprises those odd pieces that have been returned from exhibition, unsold or de-installed and others whose fate didn’t turn out as expected, mis-fired, kiln-crud laced or cracked beyond any explainable intent but much of it with his leitmotif grid or his characteristic scrawl across a plate’s surface – sometimes several words swarming across one plate and sometimes one word across more than one plate, or not a plate but a crudely circumscribed disc, or up a chunky cylinder. He still needs words.

Underlining the exhibition’s title and premise, most of these assorted pieces are housed in an architectural structure, open, roofless, almost wall-less, certainly impermanent but shelved and doing its job while intimating domesticity. It does what it should, providing an insinuation of the many studios, houses and sheds around the country that serve similarly. Derek Henderson’s large scale, large format colour images of Poppelwell in studio working at a desk, maybe making those words, is evidence that despite all the humour, as he says, it is not only a joke.

Lovers of the finely honed polite pot possibly won’t much like these works, but it’s a successful exhibition with all elements working harmoniously together, yes even the broken bits. It’s a decade’s worth of discards that haven’t been discarded and all that drollery aside, there is a poignancy here to which all potters could relate.

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Down the road a bit and round the corner at Two Rooms, Denis O’Connor is paving his way toward a return to ceramics after more than thirty years of eschewal. His 1984 epic travelling show, Songs of the Gulf was his swansong after about fifteen years of practice in clay, with domestic ware a necessity but also an increasing awareness of other channels for ceramic expression, particularly following visits to the USA’s West Coast ferment and to Japan and the redoubtable Ryoji Koie. Songs of the Gulf pulled every one of those strings together underlined by an evocative pathos derived from his Irish roots and his home on Waiheke – an island in the gulf. O’Connor moved his practice to carving stone and then other media and now he has a grant to re-explore what affinities he still finds with ceramics.

Again it’s a composite exhibition and called, Unearth: The Ceramics Room. The ceramics part, (sadly, in vitrines) is of old work derived from Stuart Newby’s collection. There are some very fine pieces here and those influences plus his own distillations of various histories are in evidence and hint at the riches in the original show (half of which is in The Dowse’s collection). His ovalled bottle forms and fat-rimmed bowls, many displaying his characteristic medallions or simple sprigged strip additions offer much to be admired and even if we have seen them before they are very worth further viewing, not only for the lushly generous forms but also the sumptuous surface treatments via flame, salt and fuming. The other point of the exhibition though is his wall works – carving and scribing into slate holds redolence of a childhood in Ireland at early-mid century as well as depicting something of O’Connor’s earlier experiences with ceramics, and packed with references – from a portrait of his former dealer, the late Denis Cohn, to composite illustrations of works on display or from Songs… and children holding one back, to images of iconic pots and makers he admires such as Momoyama ware, a Nagle cup or Meret Oppenheims’ fur-lined version in the Met or references to the Italian painter- Morandi, and Perry or De Waal. And more words. We shall doubtless be seeing more of O’Connor’s ceramics sometime soon so it’s good to view these referent images and his early works.

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Finally a stroll along K Road reveals a new dealership in town (well, been around about a year or so…) Bowerbank Ninow and it’s on the corner of East Street opposite Artspace. They have imported work from a young, and evidently quite successful Melbourne artist, Brendan Huntley, who exhibits both paintings and ceramics around a single subject. Growing up with a father who was a landscape painter and mother, a potter it’s claimed his works are ‘a textured marriage of technique and concept’ . He learned both media via observation of his parents working at easel or wheel. Now it seems he has a painting studio and separately goes to his mother’s house to throw components for his objects./sculpture but keeps the subject the same for both media. Earlier work shows that subject to be heads and eyes and there are images of this former work which are quite arresting – both the paintings and the ceramics. His current interest is the torso, particularly the female torso and I find them less so. It would be fair to say that the images of the earlier work showed them to be mature and fully resolved as far as one can tell without the actual pieces. Torsos as subject are new still (for him) so maybe once he’s worked it through further they too will generate greater appeal.

For now, I find claims that he is ‘subverting traditional methodology by layering terracotta, raku and stoneware’ to be, at least, naive for it is entirely possible to layer any clay or slip and there can be no seditious boundary breaking at the quite low temperatures to which these pieces were fired. Most coats of slip and other colour are quite thin and offer no threat of sintering , splitting, crawling or crazing. Ceramists avoid layering different clays, as a general rule, only when dealing with much higher temperatures than what Huntley is using. Ceramists such as Rafa Perez or Gregorio Peno from Spain deliberately layer such clays in their works and allow the kiln to wreak its fiery power so that they twist and cleave, effervesce and fizz.. But Huntley is looking through a different lens, one unconcerned with effects of heat except to make permanent what the painter in him has applied. His lens also seeks a dissimilar version of craftsmanship and indifferent that some might find his works grotesque in their semi-abstraction where the various parts are delineated, even dissected with crude colour in bright bands that further exaggerate this separation of parts. But the bits are presented on structures that are far from corporeal and even the cuts and flaps are non-threatening. There is no awareness of antipathy for the female body even as one sighs at yet another version. They evoked very little by way of any emotional response in this viewer even as I quite liked them in the end, but go take a look for yourself and test how you feel about them. I doubt we have heard the last of Brendan Huntley.

Go see them all.

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Some more Odds and Ends

One of the world’s best potters’ magazines, STUDIO POTTER, that comes out of the north-east of the USA, has just made available to members all the previous issues – free online and also at a reduced cost in real paper. Forty years’ worth of an excellent publication. It was started by the late, wonderful, Gerry Williams back in 1972 I think. I have subscribed on and off over years, enjoyed every issue received and as I am again a member I can now fill the gaps. You’ll find that it deals with mainly one subject in each issue. I have always kept my copies as they are very worthwhile to dive into again and again.

I remember one issue devoted to Copper (8/1) and wondering if what was (as was reported here) a sure way to achieve brownish/purplish liverish was always the case, tried some of the hints and suggestions and voila! – mottled pinks, rich purples and deep carmine reds became accessible! Another issue (18/1) was called The Road to Miyama, and carried fascinating tales about apprenticeship in Japan. Yet another about Urban Potters (9/1) and I discovered the wonderful work of Jim Makins who lives and works in downtown Manhattan, others on Color (14/2), Function (13/2), Drawing on Clay (13/1) or Wood-firing (11/1) and so on. Always was an investigation of the potters in a particular city or State eventually covering the country, (Gerry Williams told me he had journeyed to NZ once but I have never yet found that one, if he covered it) and once I read about Ben and Jerry – now makers of some of the world’s best ice cream up there in Vermont but before that metamorphosis they were country potters. Ben and Jerry’s has just opened its first NZ outlet on Ponsonby Road – ask for the Cherry Garcia = big chunks of cherries and chocolate in vanilla – the best!

The current issue is on sustainability and Jonathan Mess begins his article with, “From the beginning, I figured out A. I don’t want to pay for anything, and B. there’s so much waste everywhere. I feel bad opening up a new bag of Neph Sy or something that was shipped in from California, or wherever.” … and ….

Susanne Staubach writes on the meaning of objects after death. “Stuff. My mother is gone, my father before her, and what we are left with is stuff. … I am forcefully reminded that the inanimate outlasts the animate. … Of course, what I choose for myself is pottery … the smaller jugs are in my kitchen now, on a shelf, visible from almost everywhere in the room. I placed them so that I can easily pick them up, run my hand over the glazes, feel the curves, understand the potter’s moves…”

‘Clay Objects in a Changing World’ is in part on the cultural signifiers that the surfaces and forms of pots are, alongside those well understood practical uses…

And much more on a range of subjects around sustainability from the ‘Ethics of Making’ to ‘Beyond the Havana Biennial’ (in Cuba) to ‘On the Mend’ about repairs and material additions to broken ceramics… and much, much more… about fifteen or so substantial articles and heaps of odds and ends, good images and always, good writing, well edited.

It’s a great magazine still, even though it has gone through forty years and some changes, as it should. Gerry died a few years ago and he was succeeded by Mary Barringer (now Editor Emerita) while now, Elenor Wilson is at the helm but still they source the best writers they can find on an issue and still each copy that arrives is packed with interest. There are only two issues a year for your US$70.00 (NZ$104.60 at current rates of exchange) but truly, it takes about the full six months to work thoroughly through and then I find the next one is there in the mail box. When you join you get two free additional print copies of your choice. Now with the ability to access online all those earlier issues it’s even more worthwhile.

Go to www.StudioPotter.org and subscribe or email membership@studiopotter.org and check in with Josh Speers

Some of you will get C-Files, Garth Clark and Mark del Vecchio’s free weekly newsletter on a broad variety of subjects ceramic. Now they announce access to C-Files library – an online resource in ceramics from e-books and catalogues. The idea is they will publish, online, images and the essays from exhibition catalogues and e-books. They have already set up content from some 50 catalogues to start it off and will add another 4-6 each month.

The blurb says, “Our mission is to provide a knowledge centre that positions you for success…. giving you a competitive edge in this growing market” … and …“Traditionally, exhibition catalogues have top quality content, but they are printed and distributed regionally in limited numbers. For the first time, these catalogues are collected digitally in one place for an unparalleled opportunity for ceramic research.”

To join go to cfileonline.org and become a member then you will be directed to how to join the library. The first two weeks are free so you get a chance to peruse what is on offer and then you pay US$7-50 per month (which is US$90 annually and in real money some NZ$134-60 at current rates.

 

 

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Some Odds and Ends

For those interested in writing on ceramics, Objectspace has put online their recent publication, ‘EMPIRE of DIRT’- a collection of essays and poems around the subject, from very short to a couple of thousand words …a mixed lot but most very well worth the read, and the re-read. Or you can send to Objectspace to buy the compendium of assembled words – it’s a brown folder containing the essays, each on a separate page. You’ll find everything from a Greg O’Brien piece ruminating on a Tony Fomison clay cat’s face, Yvonne Rust and the Springbok Tour of ’81, to lists, two of them, from artist/ceramists Martin Poppelwell and Denis O’Connor, both revelatory, both worth ruminating on. There’s a bunch of history you almost certainly don’t know about Lucie Rie’s connection with (then) NZ based architect Ernst Plischke and even some you don’t know about the very busy factory that made those uranium glazed, bright orange, matt, hot-selling pots back in the ‘70s and some even Edmund de Waal may not know about Rococo revival ware from 19thC Paris that it ends up in a Mangere studio as ‘Punk’. There is much, much more and you can see all sixteen essays and/or poems at www.http://objectspace.org.nz/Downloads/Assets/5273/Empire+of+Dirt+Writing+about+Ceramics.pdf

For an alternative way to catch stuff on ceramics, you might try the podcasts of Ben CARTER and his ‘Tales of a Red Clay Rambler’ He interviews and comments on a range of topics. Latest one is an interview with Jacques Kaufmann on ceramics and bioactive architecture that reduces greenhouse gases. Carter is American so there is a bunch of advertising in there particularly for his on-line course on how to be a successful (or more successful) ceramics business owner. I gather there is advice of all sorts covering areas we could not even dream about back in the ‘70s but very possibly all essential knowledge today. Anyway, to listen to a recording (and there is a huge list) go to https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tales-red-clay-rambler-podcast/id523651655 To receive as podcasts on your whatever device you need to subscribe. Instructions on site.

 Finally…

Here is a piece on Hans Coper’s work taken from a British site….

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The valuable haul of Hans Coper pottery found in a Leeds Bungalow.

The desirability of collecting pottery was also highlighted last week, when an extraordinary haul, worth nearly £1 million, was unearthed in the humble Leeds bungalow of Alan Firth following his death. Frith and his late wife Pat amassed the fine collection of studio pottery over a number of years, spending a total of £27,000 on pieces by the likes of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, often buying directly from the artists themselves. Not a bad return on their investment, then.

Wonder where that collection is now?

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Thai/Australian-based ceramist, Vipoo Srivilasa,  has a crowd-funding venture in train. Do you fancy a mini, blue/white, porcelain portrait of you to hang on your wall and help him get his ClayLAB project up and running so that he can host his new studio warehouse space for community projects? He’d like support for this.  I have no further information so contact Vipoo directly… vipoo@vipoo.com or vipoo.srivilasa@gmail.com will evoke you a swift response.

 

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END of an ERA continued…

Barry Brickells’ Memorial Service on Wednesday last followed a private internment the evening prior for family and workers from Driving Creek and a few close old friends. The numbers for that were limited to how many the train could carry half-way up the mountain to his chosen burial site behind Driving Creek – 64. The Memorial Service the next day had to be held in the hall of the local, Coromandel Area School, as not only was half the town there but more friends and associates from Barry’s many-stranded life came from all over the country – the deep south, the capital, small and large towns and many from Auckland. Some of those even persuaded the Gulf ferry company to delay the return journey so that travel by boat, on a hot, humid mid-summer’s day might be engaged rather then the three hour journey by car down motorways and across long flat plains.  The hall was packed, extra seating had to be brought in from all over the school and a number had to stand at the sides, and gladly did, for the more than two hour event.  There were somewhere over 900 people gathered.

His brother and sisters gave an initial eulogy. Then many was the story told by old friends, of course. Contributions were made not only by the pottery and the arts communities but also from people involved with him in his conservation activities and rail restoration projects as well as Trust Board representation from Driving Creek itself.  There was a small choir that sang a cappella and joined with the assembled audience for a chorus of “He’ll be coming round the mountain”.  The ceremony was grand and well managed as was the country-style feast that followed. Barry would have loved it.

 

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End of an Era. Barry Brickell 26.10.1935 – 23.1. 2016

Barry Brickell is no longer with us. He died on Saturday afternoon in Coromandel. There is a private ceremony on Tuesday next and a Memorial Service on Wednesday at 1pm to which all are invited.

It’s the end of an era; one that has been called pioneering, and it was in many ways although those ‘50s blokes, of which Barry was absolutely one, were not pathfinders in the sense that they started the studio pot-making thing – here in NZ, that was women of the ‘30s, working in earthenware – but they were in the sense that pottery made in reduced stoneware and styled in the anglo-oriental manner prescribed by Bernard Leach and cohorts, was de rigueur by the mid-‘50s. It was part of a move towards a different way of life in the post-war world; one where there was a simpler, more creative, elemental and co-operative way of dealing with life. And Barry Brickell lived that life. In fact he, while the youngest, was in many ways the flag-bearer of that whole ethos. As a young man and several different attempts at education toward a parentally satisfying ‘respectable’ career and ‘a carpet on my office floor’ he turned his back and left school-teaching after two terms and became a full-time potter in Coromandel in 1961. He was preceded in that aim by Mirek Smisek, but as Barry would say, he was ‘the first New Zealand born, full-time, maker of stoneware pots’. He bought a small property and simply began. Building his own wheel the first to make a pot on it was Bernard Leach himself when visiting in 1962.

He lived there in Coromandel his whole life, moving to the present Driving Creek a little later, but many influences came his way. Once he had discovered pot-making the earliest was Len Castle when Barry was just 15. Barry, as became his lifelong habit, began a lively correspondence but Castle participated, ‘less so’; as was his wont. Barry, during one successful stint at higher education that culminated in a science degree, flatted with Hamish Keith in Newton – an enclave peopled with many from the arts – where they both built kilns and made pots and ‘generated amazing creative energy’. That year he also met Yvonne Rust in Christchurch who became a lifelong friend and who invited him to come meet Shoji Hamada when he visited Christchurch in 1965. Michael Illingworth came to stay in Coromandel and they worked together ‘and art blossomed’ until Illingworth was evicted by Barry’s father because of his habits with the other sort of pot. By 1963 many began arriving, drawn by the creative environment, and Barry built a railway, with much help, to transport clay, later commissioning the building of his first locomotive to pull his, by then, four wagons. He later bought his own boat, that was eventually followed by several others, so as to make trading his wares to Auckland much easier. One idea seemed to simply open up another and Barry was always busy, working long hours with his Herculean energy achieving more than seemed possible for one man. And it wasn’t really one man. Somehow, his inquiring mind and highly individual persona along with what could be viewed as a romantic way of life attracted all sorts. Many arrived. Idealistic young potters arrived looking for teaching but found themselves instead being asked to dig clay, hump river shingle or plant native trees where pines had been extracted. Older men came, looking to be engineers on the railway and hoping to drive the train and while there were requested to help build viaduct structures or plaster cutting walls with the mountains of empty wine bottles that were generated on the property. Arriving , seeking a place to meditate and hang out discussing philosophies, would be profoundly disappointing as there was no guru to be found for he was too busy working and planning the next development. Not that there was no time for fun. A couple of car-loads of potters, one day and following the imbibing of much good whiskey were given a train ride at speed that ended with derailment and ejection into the clay pits, fortunately with no serious injury.

Barry travelled to various places – Australia, Canada, Europe, USA, where the histories (of trains or ceramics) interested him but viewed all with a critical eye and an inquiring attitude returning with ever deeper convictions that his own path was where he needed to be and always, there were the pots. I use the term pots in the Kiwi sense that works of clay, made in studio, are pots but in Barry’s case that included domestic ware that never really left the 1960s behind, large one-off pots of scale and presence that were thrown and hand-worked, free-standing sculpture with subject matter ranging from curious llama-like creatures to totems of a more abstract nature and always his own ‘Spiromorphs’ individually, distinctly his and more sculptures around the subject of railways and engines sometimes on a scale beyond imagining. Finally, what were, in many opinions, his finest works – the commissioned wall mural bas-relief tile works where subject matter was usually concerned with industry. The domestic ware ranged from coffee mugs through a range of bowls to the handsome ‘Fatso’ and ‘Thinso’ Jugs where the corpulent numbers won hands down and where he and I once had a spirited discussion on the merits of various forms of handle – for which he asserted there was only one possible formula.

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Fatso Jug. Collection Andrew Grigg.

The large vessels were capped by his work for the Seville World Fair Exhibition and its subsequent display in the Niewe Kirk in Dam Square in Amsterdam. I saw the exhibition there and recall thinking at the time that it was Barry’s large, fat-rimmed heavily fingered vessel of distinctly Polynesian extraction that stood up possibly the best to the soaring architecture within that old 17thC church. It stopped me in my tracks when I came across it and that salty, heavily grogged, wood-fired surface somehow made me homesick.

The spiromorphs were distinctly his own and he did them in a variety of scales and surfaces but always they bulged in sensuous or spirited fashion or sometimes danced and sliced sideways in a variety of rhythms that made their expressions almost musical. Here are three…

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Salted Spiromorph. DCR collection.

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Brett McDowell collection

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Three Spiromorphs. Brett McDowell collection

The sculptural ‘creatures’… were singular beings, often four legged with peaceful expressions above long necks and with curled tails. A few morphed into engines in curious ways.

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Collection John Matthews

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Collection Andrew Grigg

Closer to his heart probably were the sculptures involving his parallel love of anything railway. This one lives outside the gallery at Driving Creek and has an iron body but with ceramic additions.

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Biggest of all was the commissioned one that belched real steam, for the Matthews collection in New Plymouth, and that was a part of the touring exhibition of two years ago. Sadly this, and others, was destroyed in the fire at Matthews Gallery and home last year.

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from Matthews Gallery

And here is a smaller but salted hybrid pot/engine from Andrew Grigg’s collection

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Andrew Grigg Collection

The large commissioned tile murals are hard to view because they reside in industrial works and offices from Invercargill to London; they are magnificent, thoroughly researched and designed works that rightly receive many plaudits. This is the one in New Plymouth at the Shell Todd offices.

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Shell Todd

Here are my personal favourites. James Mack commissioned a set of tiles commemorating workers on the railways for The Dowse collection.

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Dowse_1491These are the works that rise first to mind when thinking of the work of Barry Brickell. They contain all that was special about the man.

Finally here are two portraits, taken many years apart.

The first by the late Steve Rumsey who was only one of the photographers who made the pilgrimage to DCR fairly regularly. It shows a young Barry with an early rail version, no engine but his own muscle and one of the clay carts plus a huge pot.

The second, shows his good humour, hand-cut hair and relaxed mien when in good company.

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Photograph by Steve Rumsey

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Photograph by Haru Sameshina

There are multiple images of Barry taken over the years. Many of them really good ones and by a notable array of prominent photographers. Some were used for the excellent book, His Own Steam on Barry’s lifetime’s work produced by The Dowse on the occasion of his major retrospective exhibition in 2013 which toured around the country to most centres. The essays by David Craig and Gregory O’Brien are well worth reading and the one by David Craig, in unedited form, has been reproduced in the publication, Empire of Dirt produced by Objectspace in late 2015 and is still available and highly recommended as a superb rendering of the whole man, warts and all, just as it should be.

Barry was in many ways the poster boy for the entire clay culture of the time. His was the seemingly romantic retreat from city life, the peaceful rural situation, the idyllic lifestyle. It was so through to late in the 20thC. It was a singular time and has reproduced favourably in many images and publications. Far fewer saw the hard work, the dawn to dusk labour, the constant planning and the financial strains that were mercifully relieved once the railway was utilised for the enjoyment of visitors and then the hordes of tourists. Few saw the times he was isolated and even labelled eccentric in later years until the Dowse retrospective rectified that with a wide show that examined all aspects of the man and his oeuvre. It was a worthy tribute. Sadly, he never received the nation’s Arts Laureate accolade, which honour he richly deserved. But he would not worry on that score at all.

For a man who enjoyed his body, loved to work with no or barely any clothes (to the shock-horror of occasional unprepared visitors) it was his body that finally let him down. At 80, after all those years of hard physical labour from dawn to dusk, things wore out and ‘bits began to go awfully wrong’ as he said one evening. He bore the results of the very drastic treatments received with grace and fortitude however, and complained not at all. He would still manage a large helping of roast lamb, mint sauce and roast vegetables with ‘real gravy!’ His mind, always sharp and questioning was still enjoying a challenge to some theory of his and even as he lay in bed he would relish waiting impatiently until the argument reached some conclusion so he might demolish it, often using his own invented language from whose twists and curls and meaning he derived further delight to explain!

We shall not see his like again. He was truly a one-off.

 

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THE 2015 PORTAGE AWARDS

Entertainment has sometimes been a part of opening events for The Portage Awards. When the barn of a community hall across the road from Lopdell House was used there would be dance music, and even dancing sometimes. When the event was moved downtown due to the building programme,  one very balmy night at The Cloud on the waterfront wharf there was music (really needed a string quartet) and later, on a stormy night at the Silos under a flapping, snapping, wind-whipped canopy we were charmed by the popera trio O Sol3 Mio. The Pati brothers and cousin were not one bit fazed by any rain splattering overhead or howling gale and overcame the weather with what is now their familiar smiling humour and some high notes and harmonies. No one danced. It was a captivated audience.

I always imagined, but never asked, that the entertainment was a requirement for the Portage organisation – that as they are in one sense, hosting the evening and many folk pay to be there, that entertainment is de rigueur, so accepted it as part of the event. I’m not sure it is, or was always present but it has been of recent times. But like many of ceramic derivation there I preferred to spend my time looking at the work and catching up with folk from out of town and not seen for a while, than dancing.

But dancing again was a feature for this last one. To the throbbing strains of Cheryl Moana Marie, New Zealand’s very own Engelbert Humperdinck, John Rowles, all silver quiff and gleaming dentistry, was working hard and with good humour to get folk up on their feet. It worked a bit despite the largely ceramic crowd edging backwards so they could chat. There was dancing in the mosh pit.

All this took place at basement level straight off the carpark and considerable effort had been made to convert what could be bleak space to something celebratory with hanging roses, a few tables and chairs and enormous pots of flowers on stands. One problem for the otherwise splendid Te Uru gallery complex is that there is no obvious place for things ceremonial. There is the basement tried this year, or last year’s venue – the roof of Lopdell House next door which is architecturally adjoined to the gallery by a glass bridge. However then an unfortunate turn of weather meant a retreat indoors was swiftly made as soon as formalities were over. En plein air can be tricky when it’s not March. There is a schoolroom, a basically utilitarian space, with low ceilings, possibly best suited to the classes often held there but perhaps something might be done with it for celebrations. The foyer is too small and other gallery space, which would possibly serve admirably, is filled with other exhibitions. It’s a challenge, and one with no obvious answer, yet.

But the main event is the announcement of prizes for the competition and I was rightly castigated for not listing everything in times past so this year, the prizes went to – Paul Maseyk, Merit, for ‘Essential Equipment for a Competent Arsonist’, Virginia Leonard, Merit, for ‘Too Many Surgeons’, John Parker won the Residency Award with ’13 Blue Vents’, while the Premier Award went to Raewyn Atkinson for ‘Wasters III (Accumulate) 2015’.

 

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Raewyn Atkinson for ‘Wasters III (Accumulate) 2015’

This latter work, an accumulation of pieces of celadon-glazed porcelain tableware deemed unfit for utility or display some other way bore poignancy on several counts. It’s a quiet work that murmurs and hums its stories and despite its lofty connections is never grandiloquent. Initially it’s the associations contained within all that labour and exactitude with a difficult clay, now fused, warped, split, cracked, chipped or mutated beyond functionality, or the glaze flaws, pin-holed, blistered, puckered, peeled, corrugated, crawled or kiln crud blemished by their journey through intense heat. But layered upon this elegiac record, other relationships enter.

Making celadon-glazed porcelain tableware by hand is a loaded undertaking. There is that link with the Far East as that was the source of such wares until Europe, in the early 1700s, finally managed to produce its own. The colour, hovering quietly between green and blue was given lyrical names by the Chinese such as iced water or sky after rain, although some Emperors preferred their porcelain white, pure and translucent but again there were poetic descriptors. Celadon was the name of a shepherd, in a 17thC French performance, that wore soft grey-green ribbons and this name, a European one, stayed with the hue. Cross-currents abound. There are sunken boatloads of porcelain, along old shipping routes, periodically discovered after having been in the sea for anything up to five hundred years. Their re-emergence makes recurrent headlines and record auction values. There is a museum in Holland where, because of their age they are kept, as found, in water and seen underfoot through layers of thick glass. Considering the nature of porcelain this may not be entirely necessary but it makes a romantic exhibit that draws ardent visitors. Work such as this jostles with stories and histories.

Then, as all exhibits are damaged, other narratives accumulate and Atkinson mentions a beach of shards in California, near the site of a former factory. This facet chronicles the loss of skills as manufacturing re-locates from the west and returns to its roots in the East and the discards signify another inevitable effect of global capitalism. In the east, regular jettisons of freshly minted shards flash white stripes down the murky banks of the torpid river that winds through Jingdezhen while dusty mounds of unwanted manufactured ware lie stacked outside disused factories.

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All of which adds layers to issues around why make hand-thrown tableware in porcelain at the start of the third millennium? One response is, there is pleasure in working directly with materials and engaging with those forces in an era of fabricator-led, often outsourced, artistic and design-led endeavour and 3D printers steadily come into masterful use. Making an object with hands and fingers affords it a voice that articulates on materiality and making processes. The skills necessary for porcelain are acquired gradually for as a medium it presents very different challenges than do other clays; its lack of ‘tooth’ for throwing is frustrating, making it something akin to raising toothpaste rather than a minutely grainy medium. As can be seen in this exhibit, it is unforgiving of a nano- second’s inattention and intolerant of any slight incompatible adjustment in environment. Porcelain is, despite its apparent fragility, provocative and steely stuff.

Then there is that attendant lingering aura of palace rather than cottage. All those Emperors, Princes, Electors and Kings with their droit de seigneur over courts, cities and principalities. Meissen and Sevres; tableware for palaces and a source of those good connections. For the collector – for ‘collecting’ such high-value work is surely the aim rather than simply ‘acquire’ – the unmistakeable marks of something individually hand-made in an increasingly digitised world is covetable. The faint traces that cannot be eradicated, nor should they be, carry further resonances of palace. Atkinson’s abstract amalgam adds to a rich and regal narrative, notes beauty in the discarded and offers some beautifully packaged pockets of space while raising issues around how we decide values of certain objects.

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Paul Maseyk, ‘Essential Equipment for a Competent Arsonist’ (Merit)

Paul Maseyk’s group of five jars with illustrations around the subject of tools for starting a mischievous fire fits well with work we have seen earlier from this artist. However in these works, his classical, ‘in the round’ approach with continuous bands of patterns of familiar motifs betwixt some unfamiliar ones, is missing. These linear devices divided his large vessels into sections so that reading his messages and personal revelations was a simple matter. The current works are aligned with the Sweetbread series in his DPAG show of last year – there were no divisions; just accurately painted anatomical illustrations decorating one side of the pot leaving the other side empty of imagery. These were arranged along a wall shelf.

The current work is similarly designed with imagery only on one side and no banding devices. The difference being that this time the group is displayed clustered on a low plinth so that walking around, not along, was the way to view. In the bunch of unadorned ‘back’ views, of precisely turned, plain-surfaced, assorted vessels with only scale as principal formal element in common, there was little to engage. The imagery on the ‘fronts’ however, was well elaborated and accurately rendered when it came to the matches, gasoline can and lighter etc surreally topping linear figures.  However the all-round works with imagery as in, ‘Commando Maseyk vs the Zig Zag Man’ on his smoking habits, or, ‘Going to Shit’ around issues on farming practices carry a more personal ring and seem more successful works.

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Virginia Leonard, ‘Too many Surgeons’ (Merit)

Virginia Leonard’s large, variously capped and colourful, layered vessels laced with resin, are strong and visceral objects that look as though they came together solely by instinct. They observe the ‘sloppy craft’ movement that was a large part of North America’s response to increased status of theory in formal education in the ‘90s. As a movement it particularly affected fibre and ceramics and was bolstered by the resurgence of a hand-made look across media. Reaction to this theoretical input manifested differently in the UK and Scandinavia but nevertheless led to some vigorous cross-disciplinarity in all three of these leading areas that has rarely happened before.  The American clay expression often intentionally looks poorly made. Led by artists such as Nicole Cherubini, Beverley Semmes and Arlene Sechet it is characterised by an irreverence for technique and messy, loose handling often typified by heavily fingered coiling and surfaces left ‘spontaneous’ with supporting casually made plinths of plywood or reinforcing steel rod that can resemble workshop detritus but are a part of the work. Forms are influenced by traditional ceramic objects but also defy them by parodying domesticity using pot forms only as shapes rather than objects that are useful. Sometimes lustred all over and sometimes draped with junk jewellery or bedecked by small handles that could not possibly lift the vessel; they are frolics of excess.

We have had our own ‘sloppy craft’ adherents for a number of years in artists like Martin Popplewell or Jim Cooper. Both can make a classical, well formed pot if they so chose but instead Popplewell utilises casually formed and sometimes broken vessels or even shards to carry his various brush-painted illustrations or texts that needle ceramic, or any other, traditions he chances upon – grubby jokes, pungent comments on life, single expletives or mordant observations are rendered in idiosyncratic style aimed at deflating the portentous and undermining the serious and scrawled across surfaces often underscored by his leitmotif grid. His nonchalant and iconoclastic approach can skewer with trenchant intent or be there simply to amuse himself. Cooper follows a figurative path and vigorously models characters and situations often taken from a sliver of the ‘60s when a new generation fused music, meditation and LSD in attempting to see and understand the world in a different way. Cooper crosses media using cut-outs from seed catalogues, fake flowers, ‘finds’ from the $2 shop and absurd, shiny and psychedelic, drippy, syrupy, viscid ceramic surfaces where the apparent loosely naive, almost child-like quality of surface rendering has been consciously and timely acquired. Both artists have trained in formal systems at tertiary level and held major exhibitions in public galleries as well as enjoying support from ‘white cube’ spaces. Both happily work in other media. Where the Americans had antecedents for this post, post-modern work in George E. Ohr or the Kirkpatrick brothers, for those of Popplewell’s and Cooper’s generation there was the far more recent, but still removed, work of Peter Hawkesby.

Leonard’s addition of resin looks fresh and offers tempting drips that beg to be touched by fingers, (to see if they’re as flexible as they appear) but solutions to the curiosity aroused by additions of some decal ‘Willow Pattern’ imagery is evaded, although some links to the domestic via what has been the most widely used and imitated design for domestic tableware is tentatively there. Her allusions to chronic pain and their negation by abstraction is again mysterious (or is it ‘the lack’ that Cherubini talks about?) but a clay vessel is a ‘body’ (with neck and foot and stance etc) and this resemblance is most marked in the red work (‘Ward Rounds’) that on the outside rather looks like what’s inside in all its bloody mucilaginous viscerality. Quite remarkable surfaces indeed.

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Virginia Leonard, ‘Ward Rounds”

In complete contrast is John Parker’s work as he continues his extended pursuit of the wheel-formed vessel characterised by clarity of form, line and surface tension with a minimalist, reductive aesthetic that evidences his total control of process. His preference, over many years, for bowl and bottle forms, with no lids, feet, handles or marks of process has been a singular project. Surface diversities are provided by horizontal grooves and steps of varied widths and in this he continues his relationship with the work of Keith Murray, Ernie Shufflebottom and some industrial forms such as electrical insulators.

Much of this work has been glazed white with variation provided by alterations in surface from high gloss through various mattes to crusty volcanic textures which somewhat obscured the crispness of profile and linearity. Occasionally there have been excursions in to black or grey and at intervals, red. However this year has seen another variation. His shows at Masterworks and Avid and his entry in this Portage exhibition presented blue, deep and rich, and placed the thrown forms onto their side with no base leaving a tube-like form open-ended at both sides and displayed on a wall. Now their title is ’13 Blue Vents’, maintaining the connection with the industrial but without specific function although Parker offers a somewhat unsettling concept with a suggestion about their purpose being less benign than appears through links to science fiction cinema. It will be interesting to see if this engaging theme continues to develop.

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John Parker. ‘13 Blue Vents.’ (Residency)

Clusters, pairs, bunches and assemblages were strongly represented this year. They made a mixed bag and include what could be regarded as ‘the traditional’ with vessels in groups and pairs that were wood-fired and soda/ salt surfaced, by Duncan Shearer, Suzy Dunser and Carol Stewart. Shearer’s shelf-full of non-functional forms are about surface and repetition of profile with observance of the spaces between (something his albarello form doesn’t do a lot for). Albarelli were originally spice and herb jars of earthenware, often elaborately and colourfully decorated on a base tin glaze. The shape allowed easy grasp when taking down from a shelf so as to extract some contents. Shearer uses the albarello’s concave profile to allow a rib line to curve upward or support a vestigial, decorative, shoulder knob. How nice it could be to see allusively usable ware actually returned to some potential function and some decorative work under that salt-patina’d or orange-peel surface. They are fine as they are (something to look at) but we have been looking at them for a long time, and not only from Shearer. It might add a bunch of interest to push things further along and see where those base parameters might take things. Dunser’s teapots /pourer adaptations of oil can particularities are, in contrast, supremely functional with their perfect centres of gravity making pouring a pleasure. Individually each is successful; as a group their disparate addenda and functions don’t allow them to work.

Largest group of all was Susannah Bridges’, ‘The Library’, her collection of five rows of ‘experimental references’ in cylindrical form. Collected over years, Bridges exhibits all the tests, trials and speculative versions she has made during that time.

Exhibitions are just that. A display of the best of all the many researches and tests every artist must necessarily make so as to produce that occasional ‘cracker’. And it’s the crackers that should be exhibited. A compendium and summary of every idea conceived and mistake made is for the privacy of the studio. To serve as reminder never to do that again.

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Then there was a joint entry from Kate Walker as illustrator and Caroline Early as ceramist. The aims are many for these wall works which in turn are asked to bear numerous concepts. Perhaps the wall pieces, unadorned with flocking or line drawings of ‘ambiguous contacts’ and all those attendant ‘non-specific objects and activities’, might be sufficient exhibit alone?

This exhibition was also notable for some cross media works. Presumably a growing trend. Aston Christie’s video extension of a tile made from a sled dog’s paw print ….

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And Michael Potter’s ceramic pinhole camera plus image…

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Intriguing was Ezmic Partington’s , “ Ebola Bowl” which was an unheimlich number carrying promptings of a Petri dish and attendant multiplying sinister microorganisms…

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And I enjoyed Chuck Joseph’s riff on his interests in movies and NZ history and conservation with a neatly executed and titled, “ The Assassination of Mr Tui by the coward White-backed Magpie”.

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The exhibition itself is well displayed utilising the two galleries to full advantage, particularly for Atkinson and Parker’s work and the lighting, with its combination of natural light and gallery lighting works superbly.

The exhibition was again complemented by the ‘Clayathon’ bus tour (don’t you hate punning titles?) around galleries with ceramic exhibitions. These ranged from the judges ‘walk and talk’ of the Te Uru exhibition, to the new Museum of Ceramics in New Lynn and site of the Crown Lynn factory legacy, to Anna Miles gallery and Richard Stratton’s past catalogue, Front Room with Ande and Campbell Hegan’s show, and Corbans Estate where a firing was being started in a scarily vertical, hand-built and plastered kiln (that reputedly later collapsed). At Objectspace was a show of writer-selected ceramic objects, ‘Empire of Dirt’, and writing on them with a publication containing a range of essays of varying lengths around ceramics in the widest sense. And all well worth reading. Writers include Jenny Bornholdt, David Craig, Denis O’Connor, Martin Poppelwell, Louise Rive, Gregory O’Brien, Tessa Laird and others…subjects range from The Beach Artware small production factory back in the ‘70s, A poem about a Tony Fomison clay sculpture of a cat’s head, a notional piece about clay discards and another about the beauty of bagwall bricks to a Lucie Rie bowl representing many in Ernst Plishke’s collection to dental prosthetics and Day of the Dead devils and more… The compendium of writing can be obtained from Objectspace once they re-open again, and finally to Gus Fisher Gallery to round out the day.

Apologies for the lateness of this review. I was unwell and could not get back to the gallery for another and closer look at the show until a week ago. Then holidays got in the way. But its finally done.

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Book Review. Edmund de Waal. THE WHITE ROAD: a pilgrimage of sorts Pub. Chatto and Windus.

This is a slightly expanded and unedited version of my Listener review. That is, like I wrote it in the first place.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­I wish Edmund de Waal’s new book, ‘The White Road: A pilgrimage of sorts’, did not feel like a response to a publisher’s plea for another bestseller covering historical research and journeys, as his generational family memoir, ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’, translated into 30 languages and given by everybody to everybody else for Christmas 2010, on the way earning him an OBE and several awards. It does. But does that mean it’s an unsatisfying book? Not at all. For ceramics aficionados and lovers of a winding narrative it is awesome, in every sense. This episodic recount of DeWaal’s search around the arcana and histories of porcelain joins some long-missed dots along the passages of history’s ‘white gold’. It’s an exhaustive traverse from kaolin mountains in China to porcelain rooms and alchemy in 18thC. Germany; to Britain’s Cornish moorland pockmarked by mineral digs (who’s watching Poldark?) and Stoke-on-Trent’s dark satanic mills peopled with working children. To Cherokee-owned deposits in Tennessee and what is one of the darkest moments of the 20thC – Dachau’s concentration camp where the Allach Porcelain Factory utilised prisoner labour to produce Nazi-approved statuary; where the whiteness and clarity of the clay symbolised Aryan purity.

De Waal’s protagonists are an intriguing lot. There was Pere d’Entrecolles, the French Jesuit sent to convert heathen Chinese in 1712 and who wrote accounts of the making of porcelain from the place it was first formulated. His writing has been of value for potters ever since and copies can still be found (the originals in French of course). Or the German intellectual, Tschirnhaus, whose precision straightened the muddled attempts of the scattered youth, Bottger, who was credited with Europe’s first manufacture and their despotic ruler, Augustus, Elector of Saxony and libertine who kept both men under restraint to service his collection obsession, gathering 35,798 pieces before he died. There was the earnest Quaker apothecary, William Cookworthy, who realised how porcelain might be produced in England’s west country only to be thwarted by the avuncular yet merciless Josiah Wedgewood with his interests staked in Stoke-on-Trent rather than the south. Cookworthy’s partner, Richard Champion who lies forever where he bartered with the Cherokee for their ‘unaker’ – white earth, and we learn that Himmler claimed Allach porcelain was “one of the few things that give me pleasure”.

This is no simple linear narrative, but a sprawling journey interspersed with personal accounts of De Waal’s shifting studios, and preparations for his own porcelain rooms in grand venues like London’s Geffrye Museum and the V&A, or the Gagosian dealership in New York, alongside his transition from potter to installer of many bits of porcelain. There are so many multi-layered, interwoven stories that at times he seems uncertain about which tense to write in. His enjoyment, apparent in all his writing, of obscure words, in this case such as congeries (mass/heap), gelid (cold/frosty), mazy (cannot find – anyone help?), or jeremiad (complaint/lamentation), shines through the lyrical artiness of his writing style. Nevertheless, this sometimes irritatingly fragmented scrapbook, laced with digressions, is also bearer of some superbly evocative phrases, “the sad smudge of smoke” (from a dying kiln), “cobalt allows the world to be turned into stories” (marvellous and how very true…) and, “Porcelain consumes hills, the wood on the hills, it silts the rivers and clogs the harbours, enters the deltas of your lungs.” And more ways of describing white than any reader could imagine.

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Absolutely worth a read in my view if you have any interest in the history of porcelain.    While many in ceramics will know bits and pieces of this series of tales, or even large chunks of it, The White Road describes it all in roughly chronological order although most is layered in the 1700s where the majority of significant events happened. De Waal has made the history of the research and hard graft that went into producing a European version of ‘white gold’ a much more engaging narrative than does the author of The Arcanum, Janet Gleeson, as far as I know the only other account of this development in early 18thC Germany. Her version is fuller and more worthy but less interestingly written. I am sure it could be ordered from The Ceramics Library which specialises in those out-of-print ceramics books.

In contrast, here is another review of The White Road taken from Private Eye and sent to me from England. It’s an ‘ouch’ kind of review as rather than content, on which I mainly concentrated my allowed 500 words, it focuses upon De Waal’s meditative, digressive style where he pauses narrative to examine words and thoughts that arise. Style is a very personal thing. This piece really mocks De Waals’ cleverly and it must have struck bone. It’s also funny and you need to read the book to know how funny. However there is the point that if ceramics is now subject (or butt for that matter) of nationally read satire, it must have made a dent or three somewhere. For, when you think about it, if writing on ceramics had been knocked like this, even five years ago, folk would have wondered what the hell this was all about. Or it would be profoundly ignored. So now, thanks to De Waal, Ai Weiwei, Grayson Perry and the Great British Pottery Throwdown et al, readers and viewers have a much better idea about what ceramics, pottery and the joys of the hand-made are all about.

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