What Art Reviewers Know

Here is an extract from a review in last Saturday’s NZ Herald by the (very) long term regular reviewer – T. J. McNamara – where has he been for all these years? Just concentrate upon the first two paragraphs but I left in the rest to give you, dear readers, some extra context.

Retrospect, is a contemporary jewellery show curated by Jo Mears. This work is not by manufacturing jewellers. All the participants are fine arts graduates into individual expression.

Jewellery seems to have replaced the pottery movement that dominated New Zealand craft last century. As the pottery movement developed it was prone to tend to ceramic sculpture. The essential vessel quality that is the basic characteristic of good pottery was smothered. Here the function of jewellery being next to the skin is often lost as the work is made to hang on a wall or remain static.

The exhibition is strongly influenced by Wellington-based jeweller Peter Deckers. A huge cabinet involving 64 lenses that magnify pieces of his jewellery within the case is the centre of the show. The jewels include a large silver hand-hammered nail and details from The Night Watch impressed on a spoon. Deckers, who spoke at the opening of the exhibition, emphasised that jewellery is often associated with gifting which he said was a “primal urge” and the gift must have value; a gift must be in some way precious.

In this craft jewellery, the value often lies not in precious stones or valuable metal but in originality and imagination.

The materials range from circuit boards, with their glittering electronic detail, to rabbit excrement, baked and varnished to look like jet. Something like a conventional necklace called Noisy Blob Strings by Sharon Fitness is colourful plastic and incorporates ipods and earphones. The transformative power of imagination and skill is best seen in the exquisite fan shapes made of silver and takeaway containers by Kristin D’Agostino.

The range of effects has something to please everybody, whatever theory they embrace.

T J McNamara

Jewellery long ago took over from ceramics as the dominant craft/dec. arts discipline of interest. The principal reason being that jewellery is still taught at tertiary level in many/most tertiary institutions around the country. Ceramics only has Otago as extant tertiary institution and news on that front is also portentous… more later. An institutionally based tertiary course is still the most complete method for learning – here are the experienced and qualified teachers on tap, here is the library, here are the facilities and abilities to research beyond the dimensions regularly encountered, here are those students from different years also making in a completely different style/genre/medium as stimulus…. and so on.

But, to return to T.J., his ‘prone to tend to ceramic sculpture’ bit irritated particularly as he seems to regard ‘the pottery movement’ as a 20thC phenomenon with no history. The figurative preceded vessels by a long period and while it has not been a large part of ceramic expression in this country, neither has the functional vessel been much in evidence for quite a while. Our ceramics is dominated by the decorative – traditionally a smaller area of expression and, when looking at the long view of our history, fairly recent. While I don’t expect much verification that art reviewers understand a lot about our medium/expression, T.J. has been reviewing for about fifty years now and we might expect that he has seen his share of ceramics shows during that time and be capable of demonstrating greater knowledge than this.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “What Art Reviewers Know

  1. Yes, totally agree. Tertiary institutes/courses just by their nature can have a huge influence over the “health” and future of particular areas of study. (but remember, even the ceramics movement had it’s fair share of glazed excrement!) It is a tragedy that ceramics courses have closed/are closing everywhere but I wonder what has caused the demise? Perhaps it is a symptom of a wider malaise whereby tertiary courses are being controlled by the $ and the expectation of jobs at the end. After all, the classics have virtually gone too. Or maybe its a complex result of fashion, architecture, the digital and design dominating the arts and nothing to do with tertiary institutes. I hate to bring up the hoary old art/craft debate but, as Grayson Perry said recently, even painting is being turned into a craft, thus heralding its demise.

  2. Moyra

    Is that Grayson Perry comment out of context? Surely painting has always had its craft dimensions. I have heard painters comment on another painter’s craft – meaning the way they lay on the paint. And historians etc can help confirm authorship of a painting – whether fake or not – by the ways paint has been applied, not just imagery and subject matter. I missed that by Perry so can you expand a bit?

    As for the input of a tertiary institution on a genre – it is essential for every aspect of its health as it can offer avenues deeper and wider than any other teaching.
    Yes, one of the reasons is the bums on seats issue as ceramics needs more cost investment by the institution than jewellery or computer design, for example… in terms of space and equipment/facilites. How those courses were originally set up and staffed is another determinant.
    However, numbers of students are a compelling factor for institutions in that if there were high numbers applying to Otago (the last extant venue) then the courses would be provided no matter those costs because there lies profitable income and institutions are charged with an economic model. Instead students prefer it at a more recreational level and closer to home, again probably mainly for economic reasons.

    The bigger picture you offer also must have some credence as fashion is a huge button-pusher for the young and surely other fields look more ‘cool’ these days quite apart from the fact that most of that ’70s population bulge of potters could, in the old days, sell that glazed excrement and anything else, pretty much! Therein lay part of the problem of course.
    What is being made, where exhibited, by whom and how much attention this receives are all influential. But to do anything about the current decline would take a huge co-ordinated effort, and that is unlikely as most just seem to have time and energy to mind their own little patch.

  3. Hi Moyra, sorry I didn’t see your response until now….see this link to Grayson Perry http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAdcD4ZCKak&feature=share
    I think this is the right one where he mentions painting in the tragic context of “even painting” being demeaned by becoming a “craft”. I agree there has always been craft in art but his point was that anything associated with craft gets the gong in the art world (nothing new!). Btw, did you know here in Melbourne, RMIT Uni has just merged Ceramics and Jewellery undergrad courses into one course called Object Based Practice? It has merged all the 9 undergrad courses into 4 somewhat strange combinations that may or may not work – my conclusion is that skill acquisition will become a less important focus ….in the meantime I am about to expand my private ceramics school “Slow Clay” and we have a waiting list of 200 people to do classes! Mysterious indeed how Uni’s can’t do it! And, yes, I agree they do it best and wish they were doing it but my friends and I will jump into the gap anyway! Love your blog, thank you!

  4. Moyra Elliott

    Thanks for that link – I rarely look at youtube except when someone sends me something – not enough hours in the day. Looked further while there and loved the Slee and Perry chat about Slee’s work.
    I also recall reading somewhere that Perry expressed great dismay at the fact that technically he was getting so much better at his pot making, which sort-of ties in with that talk and your points. He preferred his work when he looked like he was playing at making pots I guess – not when he actually could make a good job of it. Interesting how they (the visitors to ceramics – for that is how I see Perry – never as an insider) can line up alongside in a most responsive fashion yet at the same time maintain a clarity of distance.

    Interesting what you say about that RMIT course – Jewellery and Ceramics? Presumably so they just have to teach principals of design rather than skills and let the students learn those by trial and error? Guess it does not matter for things like life drawing or art history as long as they also get lectures in the history of their medium on an individual basis. (probably offered, in jewellery and also in ceramics as a series of readings!
    No wonder your school has a huge waiting list – there is more than enough to discover, when beginning to learn about ceramics, that any short cuts toward some of those very necessary skills will always be welcome and sought after. The higher education institutions usually ignore the fact that clay does require acquisition of necessary basics before some expression can be made. They (the institutions) can indeed do it best if they put in the thought and effort, the equipment and resources but signing up students to already existing classes for a bums on seats result with no particularisation for individual media, as seems to be on the cards here, does not promise a lot. It’s really about the quite vicious competition for students and those fat government subsidisations that accompany them while condensing classes so that fewer teaching staff, less space and resources/equipment are needed.
    So pleased you are doing so well! Nice to know some of the readers in Oz….seems to be quite a few – how interesting.

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