It’s hard to know how to approach Kelvin Bradford’s exhibition at The Wine Shop in Mount Eden Village. There are contradictions on a number of levels for which resolution was beyond this viewer. The pots were apparently made for a show in Japan which was cancelled due to the earthquake aftermath. So they are shown here in an oddly shaped room, above a wine shop, that clearly had an earlier life as a living room with its own awkward corner fireplace and kitchen attached. Exhibited on a series of even height square tables covered with black cloths, the work gains no assistance from architecture or display furniture. Had the work been more sophisticated, or spare, the living room element would perhaps have complemented in some more sympathetic fashion. Alternatively, had the work been more specifically domestic in intent then bog-standard living room furniture could well have shown it off to advantage and made sense of it all. Instead, the work, like the room, hovered around being indeterminate.
A series of jars, dishes and platters of domestic scale but otherwise obscure intent were displayed along with a few tea bowls. According to the maker the work was ‘deliberately casually made’. The casualness appears self-conscious as dishes seem to have been pushed deliberately off-round, fat fingers of clay work in triplicate to raise a base from tabletop and bases are often left untrimmed. Wall thicknesses are at maximum very often, and surface textures robust with bare areas or heavily furrowed, crawled glazes which don’t find much harmony with contemporary furniture or our metal eating and serving cutlery. But such dishes may work more sympathetically on the low heavy tables found in Japanese domesticity and where food is both taken and eaten with chopsticks. Wood makes a much more agreeable noise than metal when in contact with rugged surfaces. However in Japan one does not find the large scale serving dishes that are here. Most of these dishes seem entirely Western, for in Asia scale is reduced (for about everything, even airplane seats!) and serving dishes are not a lot larger than the bowls eaten from – about Western bread-plate size. For a show intended for Japan, where were the small dainty dishes and plates and beakers that one finds all but completely cover a table top in Japan by meal’s end? So it’s the aspirations for these pots that precipitate uncertainty as they are just too ruggedly surfaced for Western foods and too large for Asian.
The single grand tea bowl was a nod to Asian use but absent were the other water jars, dishes and flower vases also involved with tea and usually seen in an Asian exhibition alongside the drinking vessels. ‘Colonial shino’ (Castle’s label for the orange and white semi-glossy glaze developed here in late ’70s) differs vastly from what one finds labelled ‘shino’ in Japan which is often pale, delicately crusty (looking a bit like those foamy gastronomic confections of haute cuisine)and pin-holed with heat-sealed scars – the “piss-holes in the snow” of repute with barely a flash of apricot color mostly hidden below and glimpsed on edges. Single objects are radically unstable and dependent on framing devices, both physical and conceptual. The physical absence of other objects, amplified by the display, might have been overcome by a white cube setting but alas, no help from the architecture either. A thing of restrained beauty laden with tradition and history and made to fit into very particular structures of custom and status. Sighting one on a table-top in Mt Eden did not quite do it for me despite the bowls’ adherence to the signature characteristics of foot, numbers of dips in the rim etc.
The other glaze much in use was a soft celadon, ‘made with Len Castle’s ash’. Well, excellent potter that he was, even Castle cannot add sacrosanctity to a pot via gifting a bag of ash. Bradford can take credit himself for a soft, pellucid, pale blue-green of great beauty where it ran thick; the sort of glaze those ancient Chinese prayed for so that the Emperor would acquire their work. While the pot forms in no way attempted to approach the delicacy of ewer and bowl from Song or Yuan times, the glaze was quite up to it. Gorgeous.
So the contradictions go on – the ying and yang of a show over a decade into a new century but resembling nothing more strongly than an extraction from 1974. There are some high spots but these are contraindicated by the pieces that just leave one flummoxed for comprehension. Still, Bradford has had a number of exhibitions in Japan, as he has hosted several exchange students from Asia at his former studio in Warkworth so one imagines he is au fait with all those points and simply chose not to address them in this show. And there were red stickers.
The last question hovers – what might be if this exhibition had reached Japan?