On the Portage and Taiwan Awards for Ceramics





The Portage continues this year despite the fact that its usual home, Lopdell House, will be in doors closed mode towards a new building programme that will give the gallery extended and contemporary, well equipped exhibition space. It will be held in temporary space. Entries close shortly and the exhibition opens on October 11th.

The judge this year is Paul Scott from England following his appearance at the Australian triennial ceramics conference in Adelaide. (The Aussies only do one every three years but they make it large in scale and invariably excellent  – if interested look up www.australianceramicstriennale.com )

Paul Scott (PhD) is that highly talented and skilled maker of digital intervention to the imagery upon what looks like industrially produced tableware, particularly large plates and platters that bore Willow Pattern or European blue and white images of bucolic countryside. His engagement is with surface rather than the clay and his highly politicised practice is at odds with any idea of truth to materials. His is an art of subversion and a blast at any self-delusion around romanticism of landscape.  What he might make of the ceramics from a country where much work still revolves around a quixotic view of our landscape will be interesting. His work gains much power from the absolute veracity of image reproduction – you know it’s been manipulated but it’s completely covert. One of my favourites is “Three Gorges Dam “ where that ostensibly Chinese Willow Pattern is almost completely submerged by rising waters and only the two doves flutter over the floating tourist boat. A recent one is “A Willow for Ai Wei Wei” and there is that subversive Chinese artist standing on the bridge along with other interventions into the imagery. His titles are important and the viewer needs some apprehension of contemporary politics. He is author of the book Ceramics and Print, now into its 3rd edition.

Following the large amount of correspondence on the Portage show last year where some of the thrust was that now that the requirement for entries not being made in a class of instruction has been removed, many entries arise from students rather than practising artists, and the resultant effect upon the exhibition. Well, it seems to have had effect in that the jungle drums report about a number of our senior artists entering once again. May this have an elevating effect on the show’s standard – look forward to it!

Our single judge policy gives us a unique take upon what must be much the same standards and parameters of entry each year. This applies to any free entry competition whether applied here or to the international scene. Entries come from much the same group of work – this has to be the case and is today the domain of the emergent rather than the established because of the nature and conditions of such exhibitions many of which these days arise from Asia where the policy is to have more than one judge.

I was recently in Taiwan where the number of judges was seven!.  At least in Taiwan only two of those seven came from that country.  My task was to give a talk, and write on the International Ceramics Biennale. The exhibition had been divided into four parts under various headings and I was assigned one of these parts on which to focus my attention. The title of this part was ‘Mental Manifestations’ which had some explanatory information to the effect that mental manifestations were the result of a self exploratory process and interpretations for this. There were images, usually one for each work along with the artists’ statements. The four writers were invited to comment on all, or some of, the works, or upon the category under which works were placed.

Following is a part of my talk which focuses on the artist’s statements. Some of it may offer help towards those statements that will appear in the Portage catalogue. It is catalogues, after all, which remain long after the show has been dismounted and sent upon the way to wherever it is destined.



If we start by taking what seems to me to be the essential basis of the peg on which the pieces that were chosen for me to address under the rubric, “Mental Manifestations”, I think it is the phrase, “art creation is a process of self-exploration” and it is how that might be observed, or not, I found of great interest while working my way through the images in the section. And, I should add, changing my mind about them several times in the process, occasionally helped but as often hindered by the artist’s statements. 

I wonder about artist statements. It’s an art in itself giving clues to what were the thoughts behind making the work presented, yet at the same time offering sufficient scope for the viewer to decode in his own way; allowing a critical space to open up into which the critic, the collector or the curator can step, as into some interpretive vacuum.

This, without falling into those ever-helpful shorthand phrases from the standard list of unthinking banalities. What Garth Clark has pungently called the ‘treacly, sentimental, overly subjective, belly button gazing, warm and fuzzy, mud as spiritualism school of personal poetry’

We have, until recently, made the contention that our work speaks for itself. For much of our long and rich history this was largely true, for works consisted of vessels for use and only the formal visual values applied as the potential for the intended function was easily perceptible to a practiced eye and the maker formed part of that capacious cast of anonymous craftsmen – unselfconscious yet authentic.

Training was based upon traditional, empirical lines and viewing was close to essentialism – a belief that there are necessary properties to things and the makers simply channelling those predetermined conditions via that elective submersion into repetition and process. Further back our expression was more personal and linked with our spiritual natures and connections with the intangible. These conditions, obviously, differed to an extent between maxi and micro-cultures and degrees of unselfconsciousness. 

Our discourses have been around good practice, innumerable murmurings on glaze recipes and disquisitions on technique. Our magazines have traditionally asked mainly for texts on these subjects, and profiles on artists. These have occupied the vast majority of writing on ceramics – the foundation stones if you will. Presumably that is what ceramic magazine readers wanted, or were steadily trained to expect.

However, those times are behind us and today, students of courses in ceramics in particular, or as part of a more discursive training as artists, must go far beyond this approach in their reach to make the personal statement, in work and literally, that is expected as part of their degree programme. This newer approach has been around for many years, since long before the turn of the century and is now well entrenched in schools of higher learning in most countries of my acquaintance, to some extent or other.

Art, for that is what we now make in the name of ceramics, or at least, what is expected in the international ceramics competition such as that which we deal with here, has its own discourses. Within those dialogues, and despite some discussion on the subject, we have failed to evolve much by way of particularities that apply to ceramics and instead, and again to some degree or other depending upon the maxi or micro culture from which it emerges, adopted many of the complexities of terms used in fine arts, and lost touch with many of our existing public in the process while sometimes also missing connections with those conversations usually attached to fine arts practices of today.

To paraphrase Edmund DeWaal, “we must reground ceramics within the material cultures from which they come; that is, in the materiality of their making and in the matrix of their commoditization as objects.” That is, the objects we make are more than physical forms: they cannot be dissociated from the bodies of knowledge, practices and values through which they are given existence, what has been called their ‘social life’. Objects are never what can be called, “a thing in itself” but arise from the complexities of their making, and meanings are contingent, as an object is recontextualised over time and place.

Attempting to follow an artists thoughts step by step, to trace the processes involved in the transformation of clay into art, of inert objective matter passing from the simpler levels of fact and use towards the sophisticated expression of clear non-verbal meanings, which may rightly be called aesthetic, is a challenge and the function of the artist’s statement is to assist that process.

But my impression is that sometimes the artist’s statement comes last, when filling out the form so as to send something off to an exhibition or competition or towards inclusion in a publication even. It’s a chicken and egg situation.

I don’t think ideas toward work, or statements, come from nowhere.  But these days the conceptual sometimes seems to be before you start making not what you do while you are in that process. 

Art is about getting something down, not thinking it up.

In my own country we have students in fine art courses working, according to some current theories, in process, and some of those have chosen clay as a medium. But such students are dancing to a different tune. One obvious problem here is that without knowledge of the rich histories and traditions with which we are endowed and therefore of the expressions and uses and cultures that clay has been put to for millennia, how can they begin to comprehend the possibilities and therefore those initiating jumping-off points – even if to challenge them.

Also, without time invested understanding the various properties of clay – its responses to manipulations like pounding, stretching, pressing or rolling and then what happens when it is subjected to intense heat, can be a parcel of surprises for the un-practiced.

Clay is not inert but invested with attributes seemingly predestined to foil many an artist’s vision. The ability to put that vision, that mental manifestation, into a physical, material embodiment requires prolonged interaction with the medium.

Only experience offers the tools to transfer idea to realization alongside input from other areas of education and an emphatic rejection of the now old notion that the student learns the technique as needed -as Peter Dormer has said – as if craft knowledge can be taken down from a supermarket shelf and used.

 There is import in the process of making; and in particular the idea of making – not simply as some troublesome intermediary between idea and end result. 

Working in clay is a self-reflexive procedure and working through processes, over time, feeds into reflections of the personal and around memories; it unravels emotions; there is a fermentation of ideas through figuring out how to make things that involves a personal journey towards producing an object.

Development in ceramics must be grounded in materiality. George Kubler in The Shape of Time, said “Innovation is a matter of drift within otherwise repetitive series brought about by various means such as tools, increasing or decreasing quality, or simply inexact copying”. 

 He also said, “What a thing means is not more important than what it is.”

It’s a visual medium solved visually, often via trial and error as the work must be more than an illustration of an idea, for the visual qualities stay, no matter how long the art exists.

Meaning however has a lot to do with social conventions of the time and meanings can change, for that comes from other contexts and is a conglomeration of associations seen through a distorting personal lens and a viewer’s reading of what they observe. 

The work may not do what the artist thinks it does despite the artist’s statement which seeks to make a connection for the viewer. It was, I believe, Jasper Johns who said, “You may think you are making chewing gum, but society is using it for glue; you are making glue.”

So, no matter the statement which too often attempts a literal explanation, over-simplified through constraints imposed by the space allowed on an entry form; to write that interpretation which makes space for the work, and its meanings not stay still and completed but which can transmute over the life of an object, is the aim.


Possibly this may offer some food for thought when making that important statement or applying that title?



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