This Year at The Portage

Last year’s Portage Awards’ opening took place at the end of the newly built caterpillar form of the “Cloud”, far out on the wharf overlooking the harbour. On the mild and pleasant evening we sat round outside noting the steady thrum of the ferries and their lights reflecting on the calm harbour; moon and stars illuminating everything below as we sipped a good red and the bubbly and toasted the winners. Inside, John Parker’s elegantly simple arrangements displayed the tight selection of 43 works. This year was a little different.

The wind blasts made the semi-attached tented structure heave and snap vociferously and while it was but a short sprint to the drinks van, the water-filled overhead tarp sagged threateningly and you were thankful the high heels had been left at home or they’d have swiftly sunk into the sodden soil (ignore unintentional excessive alliteration) and slowed you down. You had to be desperate. Alcohol consumption was probably at an all-time low for this opening.

Somebody said something about the turbulent weather being ordered to make all those many Southerners present feel right at home. They were there to collect their prizes – seemingly all the prizes, but it was difficult to be sure as origins were nowhere to be found in either exhibit labels or catalogue.

But despite the boisterous wind and rain it was a grand opening. For a start there was unexpected and marvellous entertainment from a trio of Samoan operatic tenors (Sol3Mio = The Pati brothers and Moses MacKay)who effortlessly overcame all the ambient noise of wind shrieks, snapping tent ropes and flapping canvas, with soaring renditions of some familiar tunes. Having seen a doco on tele just last week about them and their classical training in Wales, it was a treat to catch them live. Move over Dame Kiri. These guys are good and have the added gift of a lightness of manner and some self-deprecating humour.

Still the main event for the evening was the show of course. On opening night, amid the frisson of the occasion, I found it all most exciting. There was, in the first room, a splash of unaccustomed bright colour and names I did not know. I was excited by the freshness of the display within the post-industrial grunge of the inside of a cluster of old grain silos and enjoyed the process of working through them finding some interesting work in unexpected corners. But it was opening night.

I returned a couple of days later having had time to digest the catalogue and allow the wind to die down. A more familiar waterfront was sunny and warm.

Silos on a good day

Silos on a good day

I looked in vain for some signage telling me what might be viewed inside or even that it was an exhibition space so that the public would know there was something to see if one entered. I realised that though I have seen several exhibitions there – it has always been because I knew it was ‘on’ rather than found and entered by accident. So it seems likely it’s Council policy or neglect that makes them appear inaccessible.

I still enjoyed the interior of the Silos… they are a cluster of six now enjoined by a variety of architectural means and opened up, one to another, by arched doorways. Old hoppers still hang overhead in places and the walls carry the patina of their histories.

Entry to the show

Entry to the show

The first room

The first room

 

Ominous hopper and Mel Ford, Time and Tide.

Ominous hopper and Mel Ford, Time and Tide.

The design team of Kenny Willis and Greg Smith had a challenge they rose to with confidence and panache. Plinths were few and far between, instead discreet discovery spaces were provided here and there via short ply walls, subtly finished to echo the palimpsests on the walls. Most works were supported upon transparent plexiglass circles of varying sizes supported by structures of plumbing pipes and l-bends. They allowed many works to float while reflecting the flavour of the neighbourhood and the resultant shadows cast by some unexpectedly excellent lighting were an added interest. The display was unusual and yes, I agree it did not superbly suit every work in the show but then, neither does our standard white rectangular plinth. We’re just more used to that.  While plinths were used here and there, to good effect …

Rachel Carter, Solitude in Numbers

Rachel Carter, Solitude in Numbers

I enjoyed the floating of works I usually view on a solid white surface. Breaking long-term conventions to interesting effect is rarely a bad idea.

Carol Robinson foregrounds Owen Bartlett

Carol Robinson foregrounds Owen Bartlett

Tatyanna Meharry’s work

Tatyanna Meharry’s work

The considerations entered by this year’s judge, Amy Gogarty, paid dividends. She clearly knew she had five rooms with which to work and so grouped works to make something of a coherent narrative in each. As Paul Scott, last year, clustered images utilising the artist’s titling as guidance for the catalogue’s presentation of the show(which is, after all, the permanent record),so this year’s judge went further and also applied it to the display. As a writer she introduced each section with succinct,topical revelations into what was occurring for her as she viewed work. Titled texts: The End of History, Chimeras Cameras and Weird Science, The Materiality of Time, Serious Play and Intimate Narratives, Domestic Truths were used as overture to wall text for each room and offered the viewer some prologue to how she viewed the works in the show. Words are important and the precision of their use gains significance all the time, as much in ours as any other field. We have been uniquely fortunate in the last two judges, both members of particular domains internationally, who each demonstrated this for us by their attention to appropriate texts and their application.  I hope such inspired choices continue to draw on such quality to keep us up to date and enlightened.

Kate Burchett: 3 Groovy Street.

Kate Burchett: 3 Groovy Street.

As for us, catalogue statements were in general an improvement on last year’s nadir but still raise questions in this reader’s mind, particularly some of the claims made or lessons given. Like… do I really need to be told some work ‘demonstrates ongoing experimentation with form and glaze’, ‘explores form in a subtle inter-relationship of shapes’, that it will ‘simultaneously confound and delight the viewer’, that it can ‘involve contrasts between soft and solid…’, that it comprises, ‘bold and simple yet striking contemporary pieces … the scale of these art bowls compels the viewer to engage with the works’,  or that ‘the idea of fluidity and containment  is consistently present’,  or can I decide for myself?

Its not that the statement is necessarily basically wrong or that the work is not worth viewing. It’s the fact that the artist is instructing a viewer what to think.  Maybe it’s better to state what the artist is striving for and leave it to the viewer to be a grownup and decide if it has been achieved. There were more than these.

Then, some claims can be too instructional, even preachy; no-one needs moralising no matter how good the work or worthy the motives or how bad the state of our oceans.

Phillipa Durkin. TeMoananui-a-kiwi

Phillipa Durkin. TeMoananui-a-kiwi

Some challenge, like a long-standing paean to Ernie and Keith. How can a vessel’s concepts be pushed into severe minimalism when the nominated paradigms are already severely minimal? And where is the concern with the ‘Still Life cliché’?

Then there were the remaining explanations on how the work was made and from what. Someone years ago, I forget who, just used to write ‘clay’ in the ‘medium’ box and that always made me smile. Telling me it was slab-built by paddling,  made from  moulds taken directly from trees in the wild or explaining it was made from recycled clay; used to reference ‘our complex connection to nature and the universe’, is a tad pontificaland ultimately baffling but there was a lot less of the manufacturing side this year.  And it really does not matter.

Img9148 Irena KennedyEnrichment, Kirsty Gardiner, Dawn Chorus and Carol Robinson‘s  Pods and Husks tucked around the corner.

Img9148 Irena KennedyEnrichment, Kirsty Gardiner, Dawn Chorus and Carol Robinson‘s Pods and Husks tucked around the corner.

But there were also some scrupulously precise statements that in places also offered a lyrically expressive ring. ‘Organic fecundity’, ‘record the ordinariness of today, ‘the drawings above our horizons’,   ‘what constitutes natural or artificial will eventually blur into ambiguity’, ‘occupy the transitional space of the horizon’, ‘the dynamics between intention and luck’,  and Amy’s quoted, ‘shaky demarcations between waste and value’, on the mimetic work by Maria Hewitt, that received one of the Merit Awards.

Tony Bond Triformunculae 2 on a slippery slope

Tony Bond Triformunculae 2 on a slippery slope

Our Judge reflected, in her choices for awards, her responses to the use of words,knowledge of ceramic history and practice and background in painting. Her responses to surface ranged widely from the graphic sensibility and restricted palette of Kim Henderson’s crisply illustrated pair of large jars through to JaneMcCulla’s painterly, layered and abstracted piece of poetry to nature and culture. Then, Robert Rapson added painted destinations t oone of his energetically formed ocean liners – this time The Himalaya from the 1950s/60s, making a tableau both nostalgic and romantic but at the same time not sentimental. While Rapson’s boats are now familiar on our exhibition scene and we know of the accuracy of their physicality and the obsessive background research along with the animatedly vigorous modelling that he and Jim Cooper seem to have corralled into some personal and exclusive province, I still remember my own surprise and excitement when I first viewed his boats in a furniture shop window somewhere down a Wellington side-street.  There they were, paddling around between the leather Laziboys and upholstered footstools.  I’m not surprised a judge chose one to take the Premier Award, it was probably but a matter of time. And that is one of the reasons that our single judge policy is so valuable – we look with new eyes at what might have become routine and savour what an informed individual eye can do applied to what must be much the same entry each year. This judge saw the painterly in his renditions of San Francisco and Sydney alongside the mermaid, the whale and the Chinese junk. He’s going to do some travelling of his own on his winnings so we can maybe look forward to new vistas in the future.

Helen Yaue-Book Era and entry to the next room.

Helen Yaue-Book Era and entry to the next room.

There was a lot of interest this year in the residency awards. They are new and valuable additions to the prizes that while carrying no monetary reward nevertheless offer valuable entrée to opportunity and potential boost for career. The Canadian residency at Medaltanear Medicine Hat (yes, the town really is called that) went to Mel Ford whose work begins where most leave off as she works with detritus – shards and sea-worn bricks. Medalta, with its history as a former manufacturing base for industrial ceramic production will offer much toward her practice. This is a one-off residency opportunity but perhaps some sponsorship might be found on an on-going basis so that it can continue and strengthen the links begun by our judge.

The other residency is ongoing, so we understand, and is for Guldagergaard– a very valuable base for living, learning and working in fine surroundings in the south of Denmark – it is regarded Europe’s premier place for working with the best – visiting artists and teachers as well as facilities. Richard Stratton is our first recipient and a very worthy one as of all our artists he can possibly most benefit from a period of research in Europe. His win last week in the Objective Awards will be a little help along the way. Jim Cooper is also lined up, by the instigator of this residency, last year’s judge – Paul Scott, to do a special project at Guldagergaard – no starting date yet as he is still busy in Taiwan while Paul is on tour with an exhibition in the USA.

However there was other noteworthy work in the show even though, on subsequent viewing, all did not retain for me the full lustre of opening night.  The delicious looking surfaces on the teaset by Suzy Dunser reminded me immediately of the crunchy coated salty caramels I used to enjoy as a kid. We’d nibble off the hard white icing, bit by bit, and then make the most of the chewy core. Based upon oilcan forms the stiffly awkward utility focus worked well and clearly could fulfil their functional intentions superbly. The bonus was the interesting shadows cast. Some of the most engaging functional ware I have seen in a while.

Suzy Dunser, Social Workbench 11

Suzy Dunser, Social Workbench 11

 

Suzy DunserSocial Workbench 11

Suzy Dunser, Social Workbench 11

I’ve been enjoying Charlie Seakins’extrapolations on geological forces, spotted in most Portage shows over the past few years. It’s a theme he continues to explore in varying ways.

Sam Ducker Jones little narrative, ‘A headstand with Lloyd in 1986’ offered a very personal ring while occupying a dangerous space on the floor

Sam Ducker-Jones

Sam Ducker-Jones

Linda Bruce still working in a linear fashion, as she has done for a long time, presents us with a very fresh take on the theme along with some new  ways of thinking about it.

 Linda Bruce, Illusionary Machinations: Clouds

Linda Bruce, Illusionary Machinations: Clouds

I thought Philippa Durkins floating sea of plastic sludge was the most persuasive of her many recent environmental concerns.  Well done and the message effectively passed on with no need for the accompanying wordiness really.

Andy Kingston’s Infamies bore prolonged scrutiny as did Chuck Joseph’s historical animals.

Chuck Joseph, Pioneer Pets

Chuck Joseph, Pioneer Pets

I was sorry Kate Fitzharris’s work was incomplete because of breakages in the mail and wondered about scale for several artists, like Owen Bartlett and Frank Checketts with their discs-on-edge and there were others where it felt like it should be a lot bigger… and on it goes.

The images chosen this year are to show the environment and what it does for the work as much as the work and its place in the exhibition.

For your own assessment and a good view of the winning works plus everything else in the show, send for the catalogue from Lopdell House Gallery at its off-site temporary home in New Lynn.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “This Year at The Portage

  1. Ben Richardson

    Seems to be a tad problematic when the space and some of the exhibition furniture seem to overpower the ceramic work . While the white plinth is long dead thankfully, I am not sure that what I am seeing here works that well for much of the work.

    • Is it possible that much of the work was simply not strong enough to be so overpowered?
      What could you suggest that might have done the job better I wonder?
      Any offerings would, I am sure, be gladly considered as the organisers had a number of problems to overcome to present the show at all. That I liked it and others did not is a given but what were the alternatives?

      • Ben Richardson

        I think its very hard from the distance here in Tasmania to make comments about this exhibition other than to comment on what the images presented, and I think really difficult to suggest alternatives without direct experience of the space and a knowledge of the work and the display options available to the curator.
        It is possible that the work was not strong enough for the space, but that is the curatorial challenge that you have to work with, and sensitive framing or siting of the work in space can still help the viewing experience. Strong spaces easily overpower work unless it is both strong and well presented.
        I thought the metal stands with glass tops were potentially both intrusive and limiting for the display of work. The shape and size of the glass top, the number of pieces on it, the visual complexity of the metal pipe support
        all seemed problematic to me. The shadows cast by the lighting
        created an added layer of confusion in some cases and the crowding of both the stands together in space and of the work itself on the limited space of the glass tops, all made for a display that failed to convey the defining presence that some of the other work had.

  2. Having attended the opening night for this exhibition, I was truly impressed with the curator-ship. I have been to some extraordinarily dull, poorly lit, white roomed, sad ceramic exhibitions in my life and thank god this was not one of them. The catalog, although as always beautifully published, had nothing on the the actual exhibition. The grey industrial concrete walls made most ceramic pieces hum to a new tune. The man made silos were unexpectedly perfect in my opinion. The very few walls that were erected invited the viewer to take a closer look inside intimate spaces. The plinths made of tube and glass allowed those works to float and become three dimensionally wrapped in the grey of the concrete. I recall one of my drawing tutors at Art School who fanatically painted his exhibition spaces grey before he would hang on it, maintaining it was more sympathetic. I have to say that I agree in this case. The comments re the artist statements are interesting, I think that artist statements are a fascinating gauge of how or if artists are able to succinctly conceptualize and explain their work. Catalogs that include artist statements capture the ebb and flow of creative dialogue around art practice at that particular time. However, if written language is not your thing then the pictorial eye candy provided in the catalog should do the job. I loved the mini exhibitions inside the space. It was like eating a 5 course meal…just enough to engage with before moving onto the next delectable course. Also it builds an awareness of others who maybe exploring the same subject matter as you are, very clever. All in all I thoroughly enjoyed it and I lament the fact that I was unable to return the next day to capture the work in situ without the crowds. Yes, a bit of signage needed from Auckland City Council to encourage the general public to come along and enjoy would have been good. p.s love your review!

    • Good comments. Thanks for your contribution. Feel free to add at any time.

      • PS… I agree the catalogue had a number of omissions this year that would have raised its standards to that which we have seen in it from the past. It’s probably overdue for a re-think and a re-design which may well eventuate given new leadership at Lopdell House Gallery (or whatever it gets called) A number of aspects were just not up to their usual standards but it remains our most valuable regular document by a long chalk. I do know that this year was particularly taxing behind the scenes for a number of reasons and all that should be resolved next time. Watch this space.

    • Kamal

      I agree with Tatyanna, the space was amazing for ceramics and the stands left the work floating. Great show!

  3. Glenys MARSHALL-INMAN

    The next best thing to being able to be present (living overseas) at an exhibition such as this, is a detailed, graphic writeup such as has been presented here. Thank you Moira Elliott.

  4. Glenys Marshall-Inman

    Apologies for spelling Moyra’s name incorrectly, but a small thrust of the sword in my defence is that there is absolutely no indication that Moyra is the writer of the main blog. At the top of the blog it always states –
    by RFW and the date and time. I don’t think that that is Moyra. Perhaps I am incorrect, or there is a reason for this.

    Only point I would have liked to be made clearer about the show would be the names of the actual winners and the prizes they won in a more concise form. I will send for a catalogue.

  5. Hi Glenys
    You are right. I am the main, and usually only writer for this blog. But I’m just that and the posting is done by my very technically able blog-mistress – Raewyn Walsh (not sure what the F-word refers to….. ‘fantastic’?, ‘fabulous’?
    I simply write text and sort images; Raewyn posts as able for she also runs a busy jewellery practice and several other blogs as well as a household. Any errors that occasionally appear are solely my responsibility as I have probably been too vague in instructions or suggestions.
    My name is in the route that following Mr Google to get here elucidates but you are right… its not clear and we are taking steps to clarify… it’s just time.

    You are also right about not being clear about the winners. My feeble excuses are that I have written on Robert’s work a lot in the past and thought I’d probably be repetitive plus I thought the review had gone on long enough and reader boredom would surely set in if I carried on more. I forgot that this blog is read almost as much off-shore and in Enzed, or so I am told by those who read statistic stuff.
    New Year’s resolution – must try harder!
    best to you.
    Moyra

  6. Hey there I am so excited I found your weblog, I really found you by mistake, while I was
    researching on Aol for something else, Regardless I am here now and would just like to say cheers
    for a incredible post and a all round exciting blog
    (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time
    to browse it all at the minute but I have book-marked it
    and also included your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back
    to read much more, Please do keep up the awesome work.

  7. Noelle Schroder

    Excellent review Moyra. Can’t wait to see the show. Noelle Schroder

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