The first was at Masterworks for the exhibition of the five finalists’ presentations for the “Is This the Last Supper” award and the announcement of the winner of the event.
The competition set out to find new tableware as Masterworks were aware of a number of inquiries by potential clients looking for tableware of a more individual and contemporary design. Their brief for the competition had the key phrases of …domestic ware for a 21stCentury aesthetic and been designed/made in the last 12 months.
Entries arrived earlier this year – I know not how many were received – and six finalists were asked to expand on what they had initially proposed and present their submission for exhibition this month. The five were… Julie Collis, Peter Collis, Aaron Scythe, Barbara Skelton, Catherine Tamou and Chris Weaver.
And the winner was…. Julie Collis – who was judged as best having answered the brief’s key phrases.
She tendered an all- white palette, and before you clutch forehead and mutter ‘six white everything … again…’ yes, that is more than well established – and what Masterworks’ potential clients possibly wished to avoid with those implications of ‘container-load of Chinese import’, you needed to see the presentation which stylishly capitalised upon what can happen to paper when folded or lightly crumpled with a dash of origami tossed in. It also exploited possibilities inherent in slip-cast bone china when led by a designing eye rather than from the viewpoint of fast repetition/quick turnover as that process can often be seen. Her plates were based upon an unfolded letter with accompanying note – hand-written (which is possibly a whopping vault back to the 20th C – does anyone hand-write any more?), but the issues were current with their references to environmental safety for users. The plates and bowls served their purpose well and the perkily folded beakers with their puckered stabilising base projections felt freshly creased. Only the jugs seemed a tad awkward with a form that would function but could maybe also be chip-prone because of odd projections. It was a challenging task Julie embarked upon to base a range of various units on creases, wrinkles and unfolding.
Crinkly paper and card as inspiration for ceramic is not new of course. As best I understand, it was Rob Brandt of The Netherlands who first wittily slip-cast from those ubiquitous striated paper beakers used all over the world for coffee or water with their neatly rolled edges and crushed walls that have collapsed under pressure from clasped hands. You can find the ‘originals’ at Vessel in Wellington – I was surprised to see, as I bought mine in Amsterdam in the mid-‘90s. Since then they have been copied in many places, not least the Yingge Ceramics Museum in Taiwan – to my further surprise. But that version was a clunker when compared with the ‘original’. But this is Julie’s own version of what can be done when an idea is developed and worked on over time. It follows another, smaller, series that was based upon scrunched plastic wrap and continues her theme of working from discarded materials. Her popular win and delighted response resulted in a generous acknowledgement of Peter’s technical input.
Much the same might be said of most of the other exhibitors.
Peter’s own entry was also an idea well-honed and skilfully produced. Sharp of profile, with beaky jugs and minimalist, almost architectural clarity of form they could be of industrial facture – except one knows they are hand-made. They gather logically together in groups because of the pot wall angles and the evenness of the spaces between which produce their own rhythms. They are forms that are instantly understood and their functionality clear and unambiguous. The colours offer a bright jolt of sharp and softer orange against dense matt black and this offers vitality when viewing a cluster. They are pots as a spatial concept with a relatively small vocabulary of repeated elements and work effectively when grouped. Such seriality, repetition and minimalism makes a striking display.
It’s their ancestry that is of interest for this particular exercise, for this suite was designed for the shop that appears before your eyes at the end of the Auckland Art Gallery’s California mid-century design exhibition currently on display. It’s a mid-century design shop with either licenced reproductions of seminal designs from the period or new work that fits with the exhibitions’ premise. Peter’s work sits there most comfortably – the minimalist, industrially and architecturally inspired forms with their uncluttered and purposeful presence are an appropriate signifier of the ethos and the era. And the colours are pure 1960s! So what were they doing in a show that purported to be for the 21st century? Had even the colours been Post-modern – although post-modernity began well back in the 20thC and is unstable as a term – it would have taken the work into a later time-frame.
Barbara Skelton also makes simple, minimalist vessels with straight sides in a wide variety of sizes. They escape any industrial connections via the rims that, in taller vessels intended for soufflés and serving vegetables, bravely taper off and waver slightly rather than end in a firm concluding statement of some sort. They appear to possess an increased fragility because of this but they are made from strong porcelain that well supports the semi-matt sugary surfaced glaze that will survive the most rigorous dishwashing machine. She completes vessels with low walls more evenly and this is a practical element that enhances functionality. It’s her use of colour that offers punctuation. Most pieces are in a semi-lucid pale turquoise – often associated with porcelain – but its softness is up-scaled to a level of sophistication by the addition of a deep navy blue on some works. It’s skilled execution, but again more mid-century than 21st.
Aaron Scythe offered two sets of plate/dishes that, with their deeper-than-usual sides, could be used for multiple purposes in the current polycentric range of cuisines we employ, from sausage and mash or a spag-bol to fried cauliflower with salsa verde. (Thanks Nigel Slater!) They are well sized if limited in range. No vessels for miso soup or apple pie. However Scythe has a solo exhibition shortly on the calendar at Masterworks and there will be more to see.
His surface decoration is a lively mix. The basic system and colour range capitalises on Oribe – a 200+ year-old decorative traditional Japanese tea ware beloved for its flamboyant splodges of bright green glaze contrasting areas of off-white with iron brushwork that usually appears as abstracted nature. Scythe uses this as he spent more than ten years in Japan as a producing potter before returning post-Tsunami devastation, with Japanese wife and their children. He mixes this decorative stratagem with symbols from his Maori ancestry and areas of script that could be Roman on a bad day or Katakana when a tad under the influence, in a post-modern mix that is engaging. It works well but again is not yet in the 21stC.
Catherine Tamou’s presentation was also a hark back to the past. In her case to our fairly recent past with 1970s stoneware styles. It was, according to the gallery’s listing and the titles – porcelain, but one wonders why go to so much trouble making porcelain look so like stoneware, with iron spotting, tea-dust or shino-style glazes and small, dark iron-brown rice bowls. I enjoyed best a platter where the base was thrown and used off-centre with a crawled glaze in the corners with the walls that would not compromise hygiene. It had a variety of surface lacking in some other areas of the offering. There is skill here and we can look forward to some development in future but we are surely long over entitling works with their medium as intrinsic part.
Finally Chris Weaver who, like Scythe, perhaps thought about food we eat now that maybe we didn’t far back in the 20thC, with olive dishes and accompanying spoons that were new in design but infinitely functional once thought about, if a tad challenging when first encountered. Many of Weaver’s characteristic signifiers were present – the immaculately finished Rimu handles, the lids that never drop out till the user wants them to and the glaze finishes, in semi-matt black and soft green semi-gloss could not be bettered. It’s a new variation on a theme he has well explored for some time now as perhaps our most accomplished maker of utility ware. He seems able to come up with new variants and modifications of functional pots regularly and depending upon the context in which he finds himself or is required of the work.
It wasn’t particularly 21st C but neither was anything else in the show and one wonders quite what was meant by tableware for the 21st century as tableware design has been worked on for quite a while now and real variants are rare. If your parameters are utility, there is only so far one can go. Maybe if the competition is run again, the gallery could perhaps specify making wares for a particular food that is currently in fashion or season rather than an all-encompassing banner like tableware. It becomes an apples and oranges employ with not enough in common to make salient comparisons. We have, after all, accepted those awkward shallow casserole dishes with their oven-space challenging conical lids, called tagines. How about the necessary accompanying bowl for the couscous and personal dishes that are deeper than a bread plate but not deep enough for soup? Or, something to present a sorbet so as to maintain cold and stop it melting away as everyone serves themselves, escorted by a vessel for a fancy fruity topping perhaps and individual dishes…. I don’t know, but so far it seems a good idea that could do with more development. It maybe needs further refinement and particularity. Then trying again.
The next Occasion for standing room only was…. The Front Room opening at The Adams’ Family new gallery space for ceramics in Point Chevalier. A new gallery for ceramics shows is such a rarity these days that everyone and his uncle arrived and jubilant was the celebration! It would have required more elbows than I had on hand to see the exhibition too. Well done Brendan, Catherine and family who not only manned all spaces while offering food and wine but also supplied festive music. When next in Auckland – go see. 300 Point Chevalier Road. Buses go along that road past the door.