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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.