Another year, another show. And, to paraphrase that old song, what a difference a year makes – the juror, the venue, the display, the winners. Lopdell House Gallery was able to take advantage of a cluster of international ceramic luminaries across at the Triennial in Adelaide, immediately prior to their own event, and chose Paul Scott from the UK to be arbiter for our show. As Scott explained in his catalogue statement and elaborated personally, he was interested in making a cohesive exhibition and so his method was to select what for him were the outstanding submissions and then build a show around those from the other entries. This curatorial jurisdictive approach has some similarities with 2009 when Scott Chamberlin from the USA also chose his outstanding works initially (and here lies the difference) then the selected artists were contacted so that other works might be directly added to the exhibition. The notion being to contextualise exhibited work. But this version was somewhat ineffective as few had extra work in reserve. This is not the USA where ceramists often hold stores of their earlier work that has been returned from exhibition and reflects the fundamental differences in approach, to ceramics practice, between that of an artist focus and a small business model. Here returned work is often actively re-marketed in some way. Both jurors’ tactics were aimed at avoiding the lack of any sense of relationships between the diverse works on display which has been our usual experience of the competition and what we have grown used to. That there were differing opinions on both Chamberlin’s and Scott’s procedures are unsurprising, but for me, a change in curatorial strategy is a pleasurable trail to follow. Instead of viewing each work individually in isolation, relying on imagination, knowledge of history and memory to offer context, Scott’s show offered another itinerary, where the viewer might frame the exhibits by its neighbours. This offered insights into how the juror saw the pieces on display and gave rise, in places, to conjecture as to which was the primary choice of the grouping. I found it an engaging show but one that demanded time be spent and in some instances required a return visit or two.
This brings me to the new venue – one that has been likened to a colossal caterpillar reclining on a downtown wharf that projects out into the Auckland harbour, but which is more politely, and officially, termed ‘The Cloud’. Built last year for Rugby World Cup events it’s really an elongated, white, billowing tent-like structure. At the seaward end is a double height zone with assembly room downstairs and display above, on a mezzanine – both essential for the opening event. The new venue was required because of the building programme being undertaken at Lopdell House Gallery and there was speculation, prior to the event, as to ‘The Cloud’s suitability. Verdicts vary but I found it, never having been there before, surprisingly accommodating with extensions to the downstairs room possible by stepping out on to the end of the wharf and using the seating provided there, watching the water traffic for a while. More viewing of the harbour was possible from the upstairs balcony directly outside the exhibition area. It was a balmy evening and the spectacular fireworks display (accidently coinciding) over the harbour, a fine bonus. Further, it is rare, in the white cube, to have seating adjacent to both display and bar where discussions around the show or simply a catch-up with the out-of-town attendees can be made away from the hubbub of opening chatter. It was far superior to the double venue at Lopdell where traipsing across the road between the ceremonial and dancing/music hall and the exhibition, particularly on a rainy night, means most stayed in one area or the other. Then the morning after, with Auckland at its sunniest and the harbour glittering, the change in venue was even more apparent. The full height windows and glass roof in places allowed brilliant sunlight to flood in for the exhibitors’ talks. It was hot. But the weather and the architecture actually served the works well, in my opinion. The space was small, but away from the static lighting of the white cube and the inevitable overcrowding of opening night, works could be seen as they might in a home environment. And ceramics could stand the strong dynamic light unlike any other media except glass. John Parker, leading a small band of helpers, managed the setting-up in one, very full-on day and with the addition of three or four small walls and quite high, quite low or no plinths allowed each work to be viewed individually whilst remaining mindful of its contextualising neighbours. The display contained the exhibition within the boundaries of expectations – requisite in such a choice of venue rather than using unusual materials or props as is possible in a more conventional venue. It worked well.
As for the works themselves, seriality, assemblage and multiples’ place in wider art production is reflected in this exhibition more than ever before. Sometimes it can be a very slight idea, even a well-worn one, gathered in strength via repetition or confusion of perceptions while in other instances the idea is used to examine personal histories, such as Rick Rudd’s revisiting of ten previous bottle forms reinterpreted and rendered coherent by a severely restricted colour palette, or used to illuminate a range of surface effects such as Graham Ambrose’s sulphates, carbonates and combustibles on terra sigillata in the pit, or Duncan Shearer’s twenty small ways of mixing the variables in the wood kiln.
Ann Verdcourt offered one of her now familiar still life groups, harmoniously hued and deftly hand-built by a pair of our most experienced hands while her subversive humour glimmered with the inclusion of a rendering of a cardboard Tetrapak carton among the more conventional and formal liquid containers. Sarah Boyle‘s 48 ice cream cones – an icon of summer but some with (Buller’s) weta inside – revived memories of the occasional downside of summers past and Kate McLean’s Merit winning, simple and elegant 3D forms attest to her interests in print-making and photography as well as her capacity to get the crucial tricky timing spot-on.
Other assemblages include Kate Fitzharris’s charming and sensitively seen montage around the customs and intimacies surrounding the complex relationships and the things involved with apparently simple family rituals while Madeleine Child made every Antipodean, who has ever visited a humble bach, smile at the familiarity of her, “somewhere to hang the stupid cups” where the stretch-handled cups, dangling away on their simple hooks with peg-board background, celebrated the vernacular, while (one is told) baffling the judge. Incidentally, Child is the only artist to have entered the maximum three individual works and had all three accepted. The colloquial is also fêted with her Popcorn Lifecycles and her Rain in the Hills and each work intelligently accompanied by an absolutely apposite artist’s statement, of which there were far too few in the catalogue.
However, it was Jim Cooper’s installation, Millbrook Holiday (the league for spiritual discovery) that was, for the judge, the piece de resistance for this show and the one that was given the Premier Award and a term of residency at Guldagergaard in Denmark. This latter addition was negotiated by the judge who has a long-term relationship with this, one of the world’s foremost ceramic residency centres.
Cooper’s paean to the thoughts, experiments and writings of William Burroughs, Timothy Leary et al, re-visiting their era of indulgence and excess by imagining an assortment of colourful characters at the luxe southern resort and haunt of celebrities and Presidents, in their own retro, alternate, chemically enhanced, sybaritic universe of psychedelic delights and Utopian ideals. With a paper background and happy trippers on the mountains and a foreground of kaleidoscopically-patterned flowers and ?do-nuts, the installation is a gaudy and vibrant montage of nature and culture. While it looks both casual and loose, and in a sense is both, the judge, nevertheless recognised the skill involved as well as the techniques developed alongside a uniqueness of expression. As Cooper stated in his morning-after talk, he had “done many now, so there’s no struggling to stay loose”.
The judge remarked in his catalogue statement, “I can’t help thinking that it would be intriguing to see Cooper’s take on the contemporary world, the politicians, thinkers and players who, in one way or another, fashion our lives today”. Cooper’s backward glance at an era embedded in the last century is reflected in the spirit of the work – the optimism, the psychic comfort, the collective outlook, but not the style. Forty-odd years ago, the figurative was almost totally absent from our ceramics and we’d have been treated to a range of exhibits of sober and utilitarian colour and stance developed in reverence to the philosophies of Bernard Leach. There we established our own boundaries of what was acceptable, some of which hover still. The hegemony lasted far too long but eventually we joined the rest of the ceramics world, looked further and became increasingly pluralistic in expression. If there is any dominance today, it is probably the tableau, the group, the multiple. This exhibition certainly indicates that. For those exhibits that do more than provide a sampler or take something well-worn or slight and muster a number together with the intent to produce something significant, there is pleasure in the viewing and delight in the contemplation. The whole must add up to more than the sum of its parts.
One work that did add up to more than the sum of its parts was White Trash from Mel Ford, made from landfill shards embedded into a new clay matrix and unified into a vessel (barely). Who hasn’t collected ceramic shards when fossicking in a midden beside some old kiln site when off-shore? I have an assortment collected from sites as far-flung as China, Turkey, Egypt, Viet Nam, Japan and Germany among others. Once prudently labelled as to source, my bad choices of marking instruments mean I can no longer identify many origins and I smile at the confusion for some future archaeologist who comes across them wherever they might end up. Ford’s work brought all those memories to the surface along with fresh appreciation around our particular ceramic past alongside the larger spectrum of the histories of ceramics everywhere. It’s not often so much can be encapsulated within one work.
It is great to see some humour here and there along with the return of the figurative while the vessels on display are of mostly dubious practical use, with the exception of Chris Weaver’s superbly chunky, cauldron-like teapots, a nicely decorated vase from Kim Henderson and a simple sgraffitoed porcelain bowl by Vivian Rodriguez, and offer more for contemplation than functionality. There is nothing wrong with contemplation of course and a little of that while viewing Margaret Ryley’s handsome, thick-walled, small porcelain bowl, with its central, seemingly casual vortex of scribble surrounded by more formal lines brought up thoughts of puddles of liquefaction, ranks of scaffolding and a sensation of spinning. In her artist’s talk, Ryley made apology – that we must be tired of hearing of the effects of the earthquake. No apology required when such things are expressed as subtly and elegantly as here.
Beautiful vessels also came from the Korean team of Sang Sool Shim and Keum Sun Lee. They make, what has been called, the ‘sculptural vessel’, at least for exhibition purposes. Very large in scale and fine of mien, their now familiar style of exaggerated form and obsessively, finely detailed, entire- façade-covered, organically inspired surface decoration make an awe-inspiring whole that reminds us how our immigrant ceramists, particularly ones of their calibre, can bring this unmediated oriental sensibility to leaven our Anglo outlooks. Such form and surface can only possibly originate in the Far East despite their claim that their location in the Waitakere Ranges is their inspiration.
Robert Rapson has reversed what many entrants did and instead of a central boat form with a scattering of ceramic detritus around representing everything from mountains to seagulls, he has combined all his ideas together in a single work, deftly avoiding sprinkling corgis and crowns and handbag-carrying Queens into the environment around the Queen Elizabeth liner. The joined-up bits worked better and cleaner and while I could do without the handle and spout – making it too close to the literal for me when that high tea label sufficed, I appreciate Rapson’s boats and their robust renderings.
Rapson kept his artist’s statement simple and was not tempted into the disproportionate narrations made for some other exhibits. However, on the whole, statements were generally an improvement than those in last year’s catalogue, possibly because there were more established artists this year than last and who have learned that succinct is often best. There are more ramblings around existentialism than anyone needs, as there are too many assertions telling us what the work does but with no justification for such claims; the viewer needs to know HOW the artist comes to this conclusion as most don’t readily accept being told what to think without that. Besides, the work may not do what the artist thinks it does. It was, I believe, Jasper Johns who said, “You may think you are making chewing gum, but society if using it for glue; you are making glue.” And few viewers need any recap of the day’s news’ headlines or a social studies lesson or details around some calamitous environmental circumstance. Of course some are drawn to make work around such subjects but titles and something subtly pithy, or even laconic, are surely enough to convey message. Works of art remain, but the circumstances surrounding them are contingent and in time interpretations will change. How to write an interpretation which allows space for the work and its meanings not stay still and completed, but which can transmute over the life of an object, is a pretty good thing to aim toward. It’s hard to get it right and often a good statement can take almost as long as it took to make the work. But it’s just practice. And not doing it at the last minute.
Andy Kingston, Chuck Joseph, Kate McLean, Kate Fitzharris, Margaret Ryley and Mel Ford were some of those who got it pretty right one way or another, but top prize this year, for this viewer, goes to Madeleine Child whose pertinent, concise, yet oblique texts strike a chord three times for three works.
The Portage Awards this year were different than before but main changes have been brought about by the variation in venue and in juror. I enjoyed the differences and only wish the show could have been extended closer to its usual viewing period. But this was an expensive venue in a costly part of town and budgets don’t stretch that much. The Portage isn’t the RWC. Perhaps for many of the ceramic attendees the dancing, singing and other entertainments were not the focus of the evening because conversation with colleagues is usually all on such occasions, but then again, there are maybe a number of guests for whom the ceramics is perhaps not the principal reason for being there (gasp!) and so entertainment adds to a reason for dressing up and getting in to town. The time of year added hugely to the success of the evening and for this viewer it all worked pretty well and until the new building is completed out at Titirangi, I hope it stays there. Those who disagree are cordially invited to state their oppositions – I hear there are a few out there…..
The ways the juror saw the show gains clarity from this year’s catalogue as its layout echoes that found in the exhibition and differs from the standard alphabetical approach. Catalogues can be purchased from Lopdell House Gallery’s website.