Standing Room Only – Twice!

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.

Julie Collis

Julie Collis

Julie Collis

Julie Collis

 

Julie Collis

Julie Collis

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.

Peter Collis

Peter Collis

Peter Collis

Peter Collis

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.

IMG_9012

Barbara Skelton

Barbara Skelton

Barbara Skelton

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.

Aaron Scythe

Aaron Scythe

Aaron Scythe

Aaron Scythe

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.

Catherine Tamou

Catherine Tamou

Catherine Tamou

Catherine Tamou

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.

Chris Weaver

Chris Weaver

Chris Weaver

Chris Weaver

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.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Standing Room Only – Twice!

  1. Tableware for the 21st Century
    There is a profound difference between Modernity and Fashion.

    • Yet Modernity may well be in fashion! Where modernity is a particular set of principles that developed under specific circumstances it is a movement that continues to develop. It may be the fashion today, but something else will be very soon.

  2. So true Cam, but would you like to elaborate on what you are particularising here…? Moyra

  3. Hi Moyra,
    I have read your review of the Masterworks show.
    I would like to correct one thing with you.
    the pieces designed for Masterworks were made early this year and only for that exhibition.
    The work at the art gallery was commissioned by the art gallery shop and not made until our return from Japan. July the 6th. to be precise.
    Your comments are fine; as the work is similar work but different. But after the talk at the art gallery yesterday the only statement the kept coming up was that good design will always stand up.
    Maybe I have cracked that ,or is it just that the modernist have been a huge influence on my work. The latter probably ?/
    Well done another outstanding review Cheers Peter

  4. Point taken and yes, clearly the modernist ethos long had influence on your work. You have never been your standard mud, grit and water man after all, but someone who worked to clarity of line, sharply honed profile and strong colour with the occasional move into the decorative which undermined the modernist, paralleled by bursts of creativity that worked well alongside a baseline of the functional for domestic uses.
    I think the issue is both lots of work, seen some time apart, had enough similarities and ties to modernism to be seen as, if not identical, sufficiently alike to be labelled mid-Century. My point was not whether it was ‘good’ or ‘stood up’, or not – they are pretty vague terms that don’t carry a lot of meaning – but about its being placed into a show for 21st Century tableware along with other work that could not fill that classification. It’s a prescription too hard to fulfil and if the competition is run again, deserves a re-think. So I think anyway. Cheers Moyra

  5. Jenny Robertson

    Reading Moyra’s blog about Masterworks Gallery ‘This is not the Last Supper’ exhibition over the weekend, I was reminded of the opening chapter in Emmanuel Cooper’s book Contemporary Ceramics (2009). The first chapter entitled Beyond Utility – The Useful Pot opens with a quote from Edmund de Waal:

    “Handmade tableware objects are like the Trojan Horse. Making tableware is a way of smuggling ‘dangerous’ objects into people’s lives without them noticing. They seem initially as unthreatening, familiar objects which one can get close to, hold and handle, yet they are dangerous because they can affect people and change them in ways they are unaware of and cannot control.” (p12)

    I live (very) dangerously. Over the years I’ve smuggled (quite literally at times) many handmade objects into my home – domesticware as well as objects whose function is ‘just’ for aesthetic appreciation.

    What constitutes a 21stC response to functional domesticware and why the objects in the Masterworks exhibition might be ‘dangerous’ would seem to be more matter of how we think about and make sense of them, rather than be limited by our understanding of the utilitarian function they serve. The ‘danger’ therefore is in the cognitive/intellectual, and emotional responses to the objects that coincides with their functional use.

    So what characterises aspects of a 21stC existence that may have some links with the everyday domesticware objects we use, that then define them as 21stC objects?

    The archaeological record suggests the oldest pottery vessels are some 20,000 years old (pottery objects being older again), and it’s the lasting nature of pottery that can instantly date an archaeological site and say something about the lives of the people who once occupied that place (I’ve watched way too many episodes of Time Team). Anthropologists can track our current human form and function back millions of years – the way our hands are designed to hold objects, the shape of our face and mouths and how we eat, etc. That is, we’ve had a long time to get some basic design principles for utilitarian objects ‘right’. So a 21stC approach to domestic ware would seem to need to respond at a different and more abstract level of thinking, rather than limiting the discussion to being only about function and the exercise of making/production.

    Thinking about the works in the exhibition (and this is by no means an exhaustive list of ideas):

    1. The impact of globalisation and the way cultural values, practices, language and symbols are being evermore blended means the decorative arts increasingly draw on a pick-and-mix of ideas from across a wide range of culturally-based offerings. Noting this is nothing new and that viewing just a handful of Antiques Roadshow programmes highlight how, for centuries, European and Asian traditions have influenced each other in the production of pottery. Aaron Scythe’s plates would seem to be a new localised take on these past ideas blending Māori and Japanese ideas.

    2. Materials and objects change in usage over time to be replaced by new technologies so that the utilitarian objects and materials of the past become a resource for design ideas of the present and future eg Julie Collis’s vessels and plates (and noting that the properties and use of ‘paper’ as a source for design ideas has been reworked and reinterpreted – and given different meaning over time). Of all the work presented I believe Julie’s work responded most comprehensively to the creative brief for the exhibition making it a difficult, but nonetheless obvious choice for the recognition it received.

    3. As part of an aging and growing population, how we define our generational culture and identity now (this century) – often involves reclaiming our past – hence the retro, blast-from-the-past that is so familiar and comforting eg Peter Collis’s black, white and orange pieces (which are so acceptable again – not so much ‘in fashion’ but recognised for the significant contribution this type of design has made to our design history and that ‘good design’ principles and ideas are always recycled). Not to mention that some of the original stuff is now worth more than we paid for it back then. So were you into Punk Rock in your youth Peter? There’s my next challenge for you!

    4. I was wondering how I would think about Chris Weaver’s work because I saw multiple things going on here that could call a response to 21stC ideas. After a quarter of a century of collecting (and living with so many CW objects already) it’s difficult to step back from them having been so ‘damaged’ by them for so many years …. But perhaps I’ll lean on this idea for now …. The production of Lapita pottery that defines the migration of people’s across the Pacific didn’t make it this far south. It wasn’t until post-colonial settlement was well established that UK pottery traditions, arriving with the colonists, established a home-grown industry in the late 19thC (or was it into the early 20thC?), and then the mid-20th C saw a local development of the Anglo-Asian traditions that still dominate a lot of NZ studio pottery practice. It’s as though Chris’s work epitomises a ‘home-grown’ tradition – influenced from elsewhere but found nowhere else. So what makes that 21stC? Perhaps it is more in the way Chris’s work parallels and reflects the on-going project to shape and define our New Zealand cultural identity, as a population and as nation. Or is that getting too abstract?

    5. Although it may not be in the spirit of the creative challenge posed by Masterworks, copying a pottery design thousands of years old – still as functional now as it was then, could be a 21stC response – to point out some things have not changed and do not need to change to be functional – that despite social, cultural and technological evolution/revolution, that some objects we make and use to support and enhance our human existence, are timeless. I was thinking about Catherine Tamou’s works as along these lines … rustic style 1970s pottery that I grew up with that doesn’t need to change because it’s perfectly functional as it is, and if anything it’s the white glaze rather than the 70’s earthy-brown (and who hasn’t got a few white plates in the cupboard!) or a slightly less conventional form, or a flush of an earthy coloured glaze that wasn’t quite as I remember it forty years ago that has perhaps been ‘tinkered’ with and manipulated over the years that hints this isn’t 1970’s pottery.

    6. If I have to make one confession about domesticware, it is that I like drinking tea and coffee out of fine porcelain cups. Growing up the ‘good’ porcelain dinner and tea sets were always tucked away in the china cabinet, or at least out of reach of young children. Porcelain was always associated with quality, expensive, ‘for best’. Hence one of the first things that struck me about the exhibition was the fact that several potters were working in porcelain. Modern lives favour convenience which often means that wares that are dishwasher, micro wave (and other modern appliance) proof are favoured over those that require some degree of care and consideration. Alternatively are demands that wares are available for the preparation or serving of every conceivable food type for every possible occasion (the sorts of things that fill the shelves of tasteful design shops). Barbara Skeleton’s fine (non-white!) porcelain – repeated cylinders of different heights, proportions and sizes nicely contradicts this – almost as a reaction to 21stC convenience – almost saying ‘what are your needs’ and to pick your own combination of sizes and shapes for your use. And it’s also saying that porcelain, that for centuries has been associated with quality and refinement is, despite its delicateness, a strong material and it most certainly has a place among bespoke domesticware offerings.

    I couldn’t read the following into any of the work in the exhibition but some other 21st C responses could include:
    • A hand made response to digital design and other e-technologies
    • The politics and practices of being environmentally responsible
    • Decorating plates and vessels with 21st C political messages as has been the tradition in previous centuries
    • (and other readers may like to add their thoughts)

    The brief provided by Masterworks for the creative challenge presented by ‘This is not the Last Supper’ stated that ‘we believe bespoke 21st century domesticware has a real place and value in our society’. Bespoke was once the exclusive domain of royalty and the rich but, now many so-called exclusive ‘designer labels’ are mass-produced by cheap labour in developing countries, knowing objects are handmade and who made them seems to be being used as a revised measure of exclusivity.

    Perhaps that is the 21stC approach here – being able to buy bespoke pieces of ceramic domesticware from a dealer gallery!

    So is this what Edmund de Waal meant by these familiar objects being ‘dangerous’ in the way can affect people and change them in ways they are unaware of and cannot control? I hope after years and years of such objects coming into my home I am a little more aware of their impact but what remains out of my control is the insatiable desire to live with and use such objects on a daily basis.

  6. Thanks for the alternative/analogous corresponding/optional review of the show Jenny. Another opinion into the mix is a welcome addition as it comes as a rare and valuable stimulus to go back to what was written in the first place and think on that again – always useful.
    I have to confess to always having struggled a bit with what De Waal says at the opening of that essay of Cooper’s as it never made a lot of sense for me. I took that he was finding some more poetic justification for tableware. . . but not convinced it needs it. That may be because I have only used the hand-made in my adult life (since I could buy my own), do not own one single white plate and prefer drinking my coffee from a capacious, hand-made porcelain mug – being a latte girl and not one for short blacks. Always wish I had bought more of those mugs when in China, tough, good rim terminating a simple form, appropriate weight, perfect handle for my fingers – from the functional point of view, and Sino-Socialist imagery as political and aesthetic statement for the headspace. As Cooper says, later in the essay, ‘… any maker of tableware will assert the potential to produce beautifully conceived, well-made and thoughtful ware is just as possible with their work as it is for decorative or sculptural pieces; functional pots, they argue, can be quietly or loudly expressive and as meaningful as other art forms’.
    Maybe they do act as Trojan Horses for folk who are new to the hand-made and it’s right to say that the basic design principles for tableware have been worked out for a long time. So adjustment, for any century, is most likely to come from changes in surface design or developments in what we eat which may affect conformations of what we eat from and how we do it. New technologies are already on the horizon elsewhere with 3D machines that can make what is developed on-screen. And can be made bespoke. However it’s only one form of new technologies that will (not might) affect our field, given time. But it’s the brainstorms that are needed and how to resource/develop them is the challenge.
    We don’t have a long history of tableware as can be found in Europe, or the USA for that matter, let alone Asia. But those are our histories too, to some greater or lesser degree, and it should not stop us mining them. (Richard Stratton has no such scruples and makes a grand job of this.) I don’t think it need be confined to the regional only. But it may be incorrect to say Lapita did not travel this far south. There is reputed to be a shard in Auckland Museum that was dug up in Northland that is, I am told and so I read, clearly Lapita. Despite asking, I’ve never been shown it but there was an MFA degree endowed for the work and writing its presence engendered. It can be found in the Elam Library, but for me it was a long bow drawn.
    I do think, however, that it was beyond the intent of the brief to develop new bodies and hope, should the Gallery do this again, and I hope they do, that the considerations are redefined. It’s a grand thing to re-draw the lines again and get it even more right. Most worthwhile events are taken closer to excellence this way.

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