The Portage is billed as New Zealand’s major ceramics exhibition – it surfaced in 2001 in response, among other motivations, to the earlier demise of the Fletcher Challenge Ceramics Award – last extant in 1998. The absence of an annual event was noted and, adhering to the wishes of numerous ceramists, it declaimed its focus and constituency as national, not international as had been ‘The Fletcher’. The fact that it would take place in Lopdell House Gallery, regional art centre for west Auckland, traditionally New Zealand’s historical ceramics hub with its clay deposits, Crown Lynn and several smaller factories that had been producing bricks and pipes since pioneering days seemed appropriate as clearly, under the leadership of Rodney Wilson, Auckland Museum no longer had interest in being host institution for ceramics exhibitions, had removed their fine collections to storage and eliminated the long-term annual show by the ASP from its programmes.
Eleven years and much has changed. While the venue stays, changing management teams at Lopdell have meant variations in objectives, although aiming for the best show possible remains a constant. However, on looking back through those eleven catalogues, there have been some significant changes over the years. Some of which are……
The majority of early exhibitors were drawn largely from the ranks of well known names with few unknown; currently it seems more a competition for students, particularly of, or recently from, the Distance Learning Course run by Otago Polytechnic as many exhibits sourced there.
Where the exhibits do come from those few present with long-term experience, this is demonstrated both conceptually and technically. Ann Verdcourt and Chris Weaver submitted works of finesse – there really is no better word for the grace and poise and just sheer class involved in what they offered: Weaver’s perfection of glaze surface to accompany his addenda of handles made from found wooden rulers; everything presents with a subtle patina of use offering the consistency that accompanies experience and really looking. Verdourt’s equal surface mastery always acknowledges the clay of which her vessels are made yet conjure references to the other media she is representing be it glass, Staffordshire china, cardboard milk cartons or the surface of the etching from which sprang the original idea. Her still lifes, always meticulously arranged so they might be viewed from any angle were a little disadvantaged by being placed against a wall. Neither falls into a trap for the unwary – that of trying for the trompe l’oeil and falling into some nether space.
Experience shows also in work by John Parker, who has the confidence to send up his own oeuvre. Gracefully. One has to know his work well though in order to ‘get it’. But there was enough in his succinct statement to clarify. Which brings me to a second significant change – these days those catalogues contain the artists’ statements; or would if they were used for more than explications of method, as far too many are. Some of the rest can be a tad grandiose, even specious. Title and statement are the lead-in to the thinking toward a work and can offer viewers some additional background with which to view it, or confirm a thought around it with a few well-chosen words but please, not a blow-by-blow account of process. Or too weighty for what are really small decorative works. Lighten up sometimes; the work deserves it. Statements are difficult and the very short ones are the most difficult usually. But they should reflect the feel of a work as well as offer something about the motivation or meaning.
In comparison with early shows, the current one is over-endowed with exhibits that carry the label of ‘kitsch’. Kitsch has several manifestations. One material imitating another is one and the sentimental within the decorative but another of these (sometimes both in the same work). Both can be exploited in art. However the artist has to find another layer so as to leaven – the obvious one and the one that usually works best – is irony. Sadly, irony was almost absent from this exhibition.
I counted more than twenty works in this show on a theme of nature and the environment. If the work did not always directly evidence this then often the statement introduced it as explanation, even if the long bow was fully drawn in some instances. It seemed sometimes that artists felt they should offer some weighty raison d’etre and justification for the existence of the work and the environment/landscape is topic of the day. Well, not really, as particulars of our landscape as subject was begun by Brickell and Castle et al over fifty years ago in response to what had begun in painting some ten to twenty years earlier. It’s difficult, given such a lengthy history, to say anything new or fresh on this well-trodden route.
Some of the exhibits or their statements beckon for further comment…
Kairava Gullatz revives a Victorian commercial production technique called lithophane where layers of porcelain are removed in some pre-ordained design to various depths so that an image is created when light transmutes through the vessel walls in differing intensities according to the thickness of the remaining clay. I relish references to our long and rich histories. Not nearly enough honoring of what has gone before takes place in ceramics here in the search for a contemporary visual art expression. Gullatz handles the materials well and the images crisply project from the two lamps that stand either side of a doorway. I just wish she had not made reference or tried to locate the work with nature – in this instance the stately nikau. Not the stoneware bases, nor the flaccidly curved porcelain tops, nor the proportions could bring this strong image to mind. I hope she continues exploring this little-utilised technique but perhaps can contemporise it by introducing some present-day imagery while strengthening those profiles and making the ratios more interestingly dynamic.
Trish Seddon has two exhibits on show. Peking Man is a series of vertebrae forms arranged proud of the wall by somewhat clunky supports which nevertheless held the bony resemblances in a way that made the shadows cast on the wall engaging – but would clear acrylic have done the job better I wonder? The bone facsimiles might almost be transmuting to bird-in-flight forms but in the end were straightforward reproductions and one had to read the statement to discover the intent – which was simply to “remind us that we carry such things of beauty inside our own bodies”. The second exhibit (always unfortunate to display one artist’s work in two separate places I think) claims unicorn’s horns as “representing only one of any number of species on the brink of extinction…and force us to re-evaluate our concept of beauty” along with the question, “At what cost?” While quite beautiful pieces, statements don’t need to tell viewers precisely what to think. Too much methinks for a contemporary audience and who probably consider the unicorn to be mythological anyway.
There has been greater trend toward figuration in recent years – welcome respite from our solid vessel culture. Much of that figuration is cartoonish in nature and again sidles up to the kitsch. Everything does not have to be amusing or cute in some way. Figuration is the prime opportunity to express emotion via a work, There are emotions other than a slight smile.
Andy Kingston’s illustrations were very worth spending time with and while understandable, it was frustrating not to be able to pick his vessels up and look more closely at all that was going on around those vessels. No slight smile here.
There was with Marion Mewburn’s teapot that she labeled ‘constuctivist’. There was nothing constructivist I could find about her rotund jolly teapot. Suggest finding another art historical, or literary peg as Constructivism was nowhere near this teapot. It was nevertheless well made and probably pours well if given a chance. But that is not its purpose, which is to amuse.
Annie McIver’s hares with their sensitively modeled hands (?paws) and feet (?more paws) conveyed more than did the trunks – bland in comparison. Using animals to articulate human emotions can be powerful, provocative and often disturbing. It’s an interesting and sui generis route for this country that points toward distinction. McIver’s are progressing toward this. For a glimpse of the supremely visceral in this field – google the work of Beth Cavener Stichter.
Then, the non-figurative…
Darryl Frost is still enamored of the effects of flame and time but these illustrations seemed over-systematised – the ranks of same size circles presenting symmetrically arrayed elements of granite rocks and petrified wood across thick slip crosses. Anagama’s effects can be a delightful surprise on opening the kiln but control of these is not usually so evident. I still recall the kiln shelves he had the chutzpah to exhibit some years ago and enjoyed that journey through lengthy fire more.
An increase in scale drew attention to Nadine Spalter’s Mt Victoire coloration making them an engaging group that garnered a strength from the rich hues that did not transfer to the white group. One could, on close examination see the reasons for the unevenly bare bases but wonder about trying another approach that maybe works more sympathetically from further away.
Suzy Dunser’s teapots satisfy with their strong colouring and forms that are solidly grounded, crisply finished and functional – lift and pour would clearly be efficiently effective by the look of those handles and spouts. The functional is rare, and a welcome addition to the surfeit of decorative. Again, display, for obvious reasons, had lids and bases firmly attached by museum wax – but the last test of a teapot is always weight and this is the element that prevents a teapot, or any other domestic tableware from languishing at the back of a cupboard.
Dunser has developed the basis of a style but it might be good to see her experiment with allowing the clay itself to be more expressive? To introduce some notion that here the artist was dealing with a poke-able, prod-able plastic and malleable medium might add interest to those smoothly severe, glossy and symmetrical walls. Maybe in time, for some things take a while to come around to, but such evident technical expertise in a new artist (the result of applying hard work in several directions) offers challenging potential as a base from which to spring.
Some challenging tableware around once more would be a great pleasure. Perhaps a look at the work of Norway’s Elisa Helland-Hansen as tableware that no-one here in NZ approaches – thick delicious porcelain but completed by fine edges to contact the mouth or stop drips; handles pulled directly from the pot, fat and round – just one-finger size and tucked in under. Subtle variegated surfaces, quiet enough thast the form dominates yet holding interest. Tableware that seems robust enough to hint that if dropped they might even survive the encounter! While wood-fired (and there really is nothing like wood-fired porcelain) its main recommendation for me is the obvious attribute that it could only be hand-made. Take a look at the cups, pitchers and ‘other’ as well as teapots. Mouthwatering, and indicative of the fine work coming from Scandinavia presently.
The title Strategies and Outcomes was trying to tell me something I missed until I spent more time with Brendan Adam’s quiet wall exhibit. Then that investment showed me the logic of what he had done. It was the aluminium rod that did it. And the slip level. Thinking work.
Finally, the unpretentious, elegant, small cylindrical vessel by Amanda Shanley with its vivid interior and scribbled-on outside was a delight in its simplicity and confidence. I wanted more.
There are more changes over the years but these must await another occasion. One very obvious one though is the noticeable increase in budget allowing a rise in catalogue content and specifications. It is fatter, larger and glossier than previously – an expensive production. It’s conservative in design but that is not a bad thing particularly as it is the only regularly produced publication about New Zealand ceramics and thus serves as record of changes in the work over time.
The commissioned essay was a great addition from the beginning and continues with a different view around some aspect of our small ceramic world each time. The voices, and the opinions, change each year – some have proved more readable and valuable than others – rambling, obscure, defensive, quizzical, pertinent and amused have all been attitudes perceived at different times and that does not matter because overall, they provide another invaluable resource toward figuring out what is unique about our own ceramic culture.
Long may the Portage continue.