Waiclay is the awkward name for a Hamilton-based ceramic event. But it’s nowhere as naf as its name. It is an energetically assembled bunch of events put together by a small group of Waikato ceramic enthusiasts led by the redoubtable Janet Smith. They raise the money, arrange co-operation by the Waikato Art Gallery, gain support from other local galleries for concurrent shows, make a catalogue and generally place shoulders to the wheel for all the necessary tasks involved in mounting an exhibition that this year will run at the Gallery for almost six months. Alongside this is a residency taken up by an American ceramist who also served as judge for the exhibition, was principal guest exhibitor and who taught a workshop at the local Waikato Potters rooms. No mean feat and a successful event all round.
They gained support from the Fulbright organisation for the guest’s attendance, who is New Jersey based Head of Ceramic Programmes at Peter’s Valley, Bruce Dehnert. Dehnert is an Alfred University Masters graduate who has already visited New Zealand twice – once, a visit to Steve Fullmer in Nelson which whetted his appetite for this country and later as lecturer on the ceramic programme at Otago Polytechnic School of Art for several years during which time he contributed towards producing some of the most accomplished graduates from there that we have seen to date. While here he also took part in three of the FCCA exhibitions garnering an Award of Merit and a Commendation, gained some juicy commissions and had work taken into the collection of the Dowse Art Museum and that of several other public and private institutions.
Dehnert worked solidly during the residency month generating his exhibit that included both his sculptural figurative work and his tableware. It was specifically the domestic-ware that one hopes may influence functional pottery here more than a little because it evidences that American vivacity that is distinctly missing from the minute amounts of sedate, utilitarian tableware currently begat. Showing a range of cups, mugs and drinking vessels and one perkily articulated teapot, Dehnert’s exhibit provided interest not least because what we generally view as sets or groups – because they are domestic ware and expectations are that all fit together, scale and design-wise, because of that dishwasher – were dealt with as individual works. With their animated glaze alongside slipped and decorated surfaces, each handled differently, over clay that had been stretched and sliced, poked and prodded, nudged and coaxed and generally played with while maintaining attention to functionality, they formed a dynamic company laid out in sprightly strand along a narrow shelf. Had I been lucky and fast enough to acquire one I’d be more than pleased to fondle it once more during hand washing!
And Dehnert chose a good exhibition while he was at it. With Portage still showing up in Auckland it’s possible to compare these two nationally ‘representative’ exhibitions on several fronts. Roughly the same size and with many of the same artists, the two shows nevertheless had distinct differences. Display was the most obvious aspect as one approached the show. Perhaps we are more familiar with Portage and the architectural limitations of Lopdell House Gallery, Waikato’s sinuous benches, somewhat reminiscent of photographers ‘cycs’, with continuous curves in front and at back instead of sharp changes of direction, allowed works to be displayed in a way that encouraged their individual consideration while also seeing them as groups that resonated one to another via colour, form, intent or some other consideration. It was a thoughtful display that did the best for the work in a limited space. Portage has evidenced few variations in recent times – architectural limitations can be turned into interesting, even arresting displays given some fresh thinking.
Waiclay, like Portage, showed a high proportion of student/recent student work – perhaps not as much – but acknowledging this the committee invited a number of more experienced artists to show alongside the competitors. This offers the exhibition a range of depth unlikely in competition mode as it currently manifests in New Zealand. This year variety and interest were provided by Kate Fitzharris, Matt McLean, Paul Maseyk, Royce McGlashen, Cheryl Oliver, Mike O’Donnell, Fran Maguire, Peter Collis and John Parker. While, as a group, they might be considered oddly assembled – “a motley crew” as someone said – their work was treated individually and given ample and appropriate space so that consideration could be afforded each diverse exhibit. Each exhibitor had doubtless been consulted as to height, colour and environment for their work and it was apparent that some had actually been present to install. This was demonstrated in the final display where each work was shown to intelligent advantage. This was appropriate as the guest’s display made up over half of the total exhibition area and the greater experience that evidences will be on show for a long time.
Another difference is the prizemoney. With $15,000 for Portage’s premier award and $2000 for Waiclay’s, it was clearly not the first consideration in many entrant’s minds as the same makers entering both shows sometimes placed stronger work in to the Waikato exhibition. Raising the prize clearly does not a better exhibition make!
I was not at the Portage exhibition’s ‘walk and talk’ session but was able to hear Dehnert in Hamilton. His two hour marathon session thoughtfully explained what went through his head as he viewed initial images, then reviewed with the actual works and the changes instigated by this process. He gave each artist present ample opportunity, often with some helpful prompting from him (and here the teacher showed….) so that perspective might also be considered by the audience. Even where thinking was not clearly articulated, Dehnert’s teaching background shone through as he generously guided an exhausting session to a satisfactory conclusion. So he was excused his quiet presence at the after-lunch panel discussion moderated by Royce McGlashen. He need not have worried as the session was both lively and informative, opinionated and generally fully engaged. The panel, Dehnert, McGlashen, Janet Smith, Duncan Shearer and Simon Manchester was matched by a stimulated and articulate audience and a variety of ceramic topics were dealt to and with. This has now become an established part of the Waiclay event, where it has only occasionally manifested at Portage. Such sessions are invaluable so that issues can be aired and more and longer sessions are sorely needed by a community that has many common concerns to address. The only grumble I heard was that it had started late but finished on time leaving several points in question little addressed.
Other sites of comparison derive from the catalogue. With two such publications now regularly produced here we must be grateful for the contemporary record afforded. The Portage publication showed its greater experience and budget with each exhibitor receiving at least a full page, sometimes more, for images and statement. However, with statements at question for ‘naffability’ and embarrassment factors perhaps the Waiclay custom of leaving out those from competitors and only including those from the guest exhibitors, where the greater experience generally manifests, is the better idea? The Waiclay catalogue’s layout looks crowded and awkward in comparison with Portage. More like a seed or t-shirt publication and the format adapted with little heed for content. Type layout and style with price of work and catalogue number in bold and together was maladroit and scale of work image beside scale of typeface inappropriate when it’s the work we wish to view, not what it costs. History also could use the HxWxD information. Both publications used a good paper weight so that ‘heft’ felt just right. Both seemed to have photography especially carried out for the publication – usually an improvement in consistency over using entrant’s images with their differing backgrounds and lighting. Portage’s reproduction values, colour and contrasts were a superior product but both presented problematically in places with shadows – one direction or another, some or none, multiple or single and crisp or blurry. Lighting is the essence of an art photographer’s work and they get it right, or they don’t. There is no in between. Nevertheless we now have two regular publications, with illustrations, around ceramics being produced regularly and isn’t it great to have something for discussion after the void left by ‘The Fletcher’.
Portage’s custom of one commissioned essay is an invaluable annual addition to the ceramic lexicon. Waiclay’s attempt to cover many subjects by many writers is a confusion. With what feels like an intent to be inclusive it becomes a once-over-lightly in too many areas. A Foreword from the gallery Director is expected – it is her house after all. Thanks from the President for her team is also appropriate as is the Selector’s statement – and in this case it’s not the usual banal bromides but something graceful, thought about and worth reading. But then the addition of a three-page tribute by a friend and patron for the late Len Castle perhaps took up more space than originally envisioned and there were two more, apparently shortened, essays amounting to around 4-600 words apiece also included. Both would have been better placed elsewhere so they might be addressed fully by the authors. Simon Manchester’s article on the secondary market fared better than did some undeveloped prose by a curator from Waikato Museum whose (presumably) truncated piece was left full of stereotypes, hackneyed adjectives and some notions far removed from anything much to do with contemporary ceramic practices. As Portage shows, one well written, well considered essay, even if one can argue with the concepts advanced, penned by a knowledgeable viewpoint serves the community for whom it is intended more than any variegated miscellany. It may even be better if there is disagreement with the notions put forward because this provokes discussion and controversy that in a small community surfaces far too infrequently. Lively debate is the life-blood for an art form. So in the interests of this I post this blog! Feel free to disagree!
As far as work is concerned, do send to Waikato Museum in Hamilton for the catalogue, at only $5 it is a useful addition to the bookshelves. However some images from the show are also posted below.