It takes twenty-two minutes to walk from Peter Collis’s exhibition at Masterworks to Richard Stratton’s at Anna Miles Gallery. Twenty-two minutes and a light year or two. Peter Collis is showing his large scale, bone china, mainly deep bowl and vase forms. This is a subsequent outing after launching them at NorthArt earlier this year following time spent researching the vagaries of casting bone china. This time he knew better what to expect and, fine craftsman that he is, understood how to encourage the shifts and variations in what would otherwise be formally immaculate forms.
We have come to expect from Collis a close adherence to profile with an often exaggerated volume on a diminutive, impeccably turned foot with a small top opening affording balance. His forms were instantly recognisable wherever one saw them; and that was pretty much everywhere. Besides those marketing abilities, Collis is a highly skilled thrower and one of our leaders in technical aspects – he can make his own lustre, formulate a clay body for a particular purpose and adjust a glaze to give him precisely what he requires in an eyelash drop. Here he demonstrates he is not afraid to push other limits. The predictability and ubiquity of his forms and surfaces perhaps led to the grant application to develop bone china, something not tackled by a potter here. And not a lot elsewhere either. It’s a challenging medium. Bone china is usually cast and his moulds were of a scale beyond what is typically seen for this body formulation, even by industry, the customary producer in this material originally developed to replicate porcelain.
The slumping and deformations that evidenced due to the attempted scale must have initially offered a measure of disbelief for such an experienced craftsman. But many of these pieces are most satisfying particularly with some vertically furrowed pieces where there was an abrupt contort to a rim and a subtly restrained collapse beneath that folded – something like a half inflated datura flower, or an amplified outward shift in profile as the horizontally grooved piece is rotated. They dispute the conventional perfection of stepped Guggenheim/Keith Murray-like forms and interrupt that slide-around by the eyes when anticipating precision. It‘s a bit like a return to the 70s when all firings were fuel, usually oil, and unpacking day was a recurrent emotional frisson of expectant speculation followed by elation or despair. Sometimes both. Collis agrees that the old excitement is back. He has no idea what might present on kiln opening. I’m so far unconvinced by the almost completely collapsed forms. For me they depart too far from his usual controlled volumes and they cross a line I was unaware was there. As does the part of the slide presentation showing the completed forms lit by reflected vivid orange colour. This is not part of the work but projections onto, inadvertent or not, and while attractive doesn’t hold the ring of truth I need. Artifice has no place in recording art work. It then becomes the photographer’s art. Showing process and allowing visual effects in the same presentation confuses what is being demonstrated.
Peter Collis is a superb maker of the formalist pot, few can match his abilities and sheer application of years of hard-won knowledge, quite apart from his prolific production. This new venture into a difficult medium is deserving of applause and the best of the pieces are highly successful works, where the fullness of belly is off-set by an insouciant twist to rim or a small slump that exaggerates a curve. He’s at the beginning of a road here. Developments will be watched with interest.
While Collis’s work is about process and the formalist concern, Richard Stratton’s focus is also on process but less about his, than those developed by industry. Industry everywhere, anywhere and whenever. Stratton’s research into a large range of commercial production techniques, some of which have long been discarded, is prodigious. His works reflect the allure these methods hold for him and he will explain, with great glee, how industry came to do things the way they did, while his enthusiasm for ceramic history, further coloured by political observations, is introduced in ways that adds layers of aesthetic and conceptual complexities to the finished pieces.
In this current exhibition at Anna Miles Gallery, for example, Stratton musters a miscellany of elements that engage tracing ceramic history from Whieldon ware – 18th century Stoke-on-Trent table-ware that featured a three-colour glaze developed from what was seen on imported Chinese ware and much later landed in New Zealand with early migrant industrial potters and which can be observed on the domestic production from one or two of our own early manufacturers as sponge effects. Others appropriating this, in their different ways, have been Takeshi Yasuda and Walter Keeler. Stratton adds further complexities by the additions of miniature Staffordshire figures – often seen as shepherdesses or formally posed couples. These figurines are poised like architectural elements as finials on teapot lids. Or, looking closely, scaffold supported couples positioned into indentations on the sides of a teapot textured like vertiginous cliff faces and recalling shrines set similarly in Far-Eastern brush paintings. They are also present in tableaux set upon teapot and jar shoulders, supported by his current scaffolding motif, where titles like ‘Wellington Wheildon’ and ‘Crown Lynn Wheildon’ indicate how the work might be read. There are curious and engaging resonances throughout the collection of vessels Stratton has gathered for this exhibition and he has clearly had fun assembling the various components from agate ware spouts to jointed bamboo handles or replicating elements of silver tableware. His is a pick’n-mix magpie approach to tableware histories. In this he is in line with a number of English contemporary ceramists. Paul Scott, Carol McNicol and Neil Brownsword are just some who quote their industrial history, in whole or part, by hand-making often ironic references to what was a major export trade begun in the Industrial Revolution where Britain was the powerhouse, and is now reduced to historical museum displays as manufacturing of much of the world’s tableware has transferred to the Far East.
Perhaps the work most summative of this is ‘Made in China’, where a teapot is structured from a number of variously replicated styles producing an aggregate that spans media and periods. Stratton joins these ranks but maintains a necessary regionalism with his referencing of early small manufactories in New Zealand and, on some works, a scaffold embrace that serves more personal memories.
Stratton is unique in this country in his pursuit of these historical connections and while his political issues have softened from their earlier explicit presence, for those who wish to see they are still there, as is the personal. In ‘Chinatown Dunstan’, a jar is enfolded by his scaffolding motif, in this instance looking flimsy and temporary, which perhaps cites the bamboo structures used by Chinese miners in the 19thC Otago gold-rush. However it’s his layering of the historical and tracing the ways international trade has introduced diverse influences that have in turn produced new aesthetics in form and decoration of our domestic pottery that takes priority in the current show. It’s one-off work for connoisseurs; for it takes some knowledge of, or an interest in understanding, something of ceramic history in order to engage fully with what Stratton is about. This makes for a somewhat specialised audience that would widen with limiting to a single topic on each vessel. We are not so used to unravelling layers on a teapot or tureen as are the British. But it is intelligent, thought-provoking, well executed work for those prepared to connect, most appropriately displayed in a vintage vitrine.
images supplied by Masterworks Gallery (Peter Collis) and Anna Miles Gallery (Richard Stratton)