What’s on AT OBJECTSPACE and other stuff

Entering Objectspace last Friday, one could be forgiven for thinking a mistake had been made and instead you were in any old white cube downtown. Greeted by walls clustered together at angles at room’s centre, walking around revealed paintings, photography, etchings and prints by six artists, one of them Australian, but not an object except what was represented on a flat surface with four corners.

A quick return to the entrance so as to check, and reassurance is there in the small window gallery space that reveals Kate Fitzharris’s contemplative clay tableau of kneeling figure and chain of pearls in full three dimensions – of which more later. But yes, this was Objectspace.

Perhaps in advance defence of hoisted petards or to ward off slings and arrows, (to use a couple of handy aphorisms) Objectspace Director, Philip Clark, in his opening speech led by asking what the hell were wall images doing in that space and immediately followed such use with mention of a precedent exhibition some years earlier where images of jewellery in photography were mounted. We forgave them once. He continued by quoting from the gallery’s stated purpose ‘…to provoke new assessments about works and practices’ but where was the first part of that statement which positioned those works and practices ‘in the fields of craft, applied arts and design’?

Invited to open the exhibition, gallerist Anna Miles also remarked upon the ‘perturbing spectre that is an Objectspace emptied of objects’ and quoted from New York Times arts columnist, Roberta Smith who wrote, in a piece about an exhibition called Bringing the World Into the World at Queens Museum, about ‘curatorial and artistic fashions’ where works display ‘a disdain for aesthetic decision making’ and she drew contrasts with the aesthetic decision making she was accustomed to observing in Objectspace exhibitions. Miles might also have quoted from another part of that ‘stinging’ review where Smith wrote of the Queens’ show being an ‘intermittently rewarding if ambition challenged exhibition’. The hard fact is that no matter how aspiring the curatorial intent, if sector depth from which to draw is largely absent, curatorial ambition is futile.

The underlying problem and root cause is that most fields Objectspace was set up to service have been steadily eroded over the past two decades. With the exception of jewellery, tertiary training in craft and applied arts has all but disappeared. The remaining vestiges stagger and will also similarly vanish unless respect for the accumulated expertise, haptic knowledge, rich culture and vibrant histories is supported by our principal funding body, as Education has abandoned these fields as too costly, space-greedy and unfashionable (despite, finally, some acknowledgement of ceramic’s revival and employ as ‘the new black’ or even ‘the new video’ – by fine arts and questioned, way back in 2011, by the same Roberta Smith – but let’s not go there for now!)

Creative New Zealand cannot save the situation by itself but can fund initiatives that hold promise and advocate on behalf of these attenuated areas. As Anna Miles remarked, The consequences of a loss of opportunities for assembling the skills and knowledge associated with object making have repercussions that reach well beyond the extinction of these specific practices’.

Which brings me to the mention of Kate Fitzharris’s small installation at the entrance to Objectspace as the only current representation of craft practice in the building. Her unfired clay figure survived the trip up from Dunedin and sits, as her smaller figures do, composed and serenely awaiting… what? This current work, The Stillness of Movement, is a further step in what she has been steadily developing over the past fifteen or so years. During that time her work has always been figurative, and small in scale with resonances of human/animal, domestic/wild and incorporating found materials that engendered intimacy with histories and place. Three years ago she made an exhibition for a Dunedin art space where she incorporated into a clay and wax matrix, found items gathered along the walk between her home and the gallery and made a long string of beads as narrative for that journey. For this current show she again incorporated items gathered on a long walk – cow hair, lichens, seeds and bark – along with wax and local clay, for another ‘string of pearls’ that hovers around the figure as connector with locus. Two years ago she attended a workshop by major figurative artist, Akio Takamori, a Japanese/American who was a guest at the Australian ceramics conference in Adelaide. This has encouraged the increase in scale we see for the first time, although the serene, almost receptive bearing accompanied by domestic objects – in this case a jug – and meditative ambiance the installation offers, continues. A clay skull hangs at the figure’s neck surrounded by dried lichens gathered on the walk and the face markings with white clay suggest ritual so is the jug for sacraments? Or simply signifier for something more intimate? While the core remains constant her articulation deepens as she musters various resources, steadily building a unique oeuvre that intimates a subjective credo around life.

Fitzharris is part of the last sizeable bunch of graduates capable of being in a group show of emergent ceramic artists. For that 2002 exhibition, at Lopdell House Gallery and touring to Hawkes Bay Exhibition Centre, more than 60 applied – most having graduated over the previous ten years – and eighteen were accepted into, of Heralds and Harbingers. Those artists included, besides Fitzharris, Richard Stratton, John Roy, Katherine Smythe, Lauren Winstone, Paul Maseyk, Robert Rapson, Rob Cloughly, Michael Tannock, Brian Staite, Nicola McLaren, Vincent Forster and Dixie Tunnicliff. Most of these derived from the Otago Polytechnic ceramics course where they were taught by USA/Alfred graduate, Bruce Dehnert and are still practicing in some way, with some off-shore, and form our youngest and newest substantial group of exhibiting ceramics-trained artists. The sad fact is most were born around the early>mid-70s, and there are few behind them making up the rear echelons that are necessary to give impetus. The almost complete collapse of tertiary education for applied arts in all but jewellery means that there is the odd graduate who might break through into exhibiting in public spaces or white cube ranks but basically, curators have a challenging task finding an exhibition premise for more than a sole artist that is not historical, industrial or a re-visit in some way. No matter how good the idea, there have to be artists working in a way that can fit the concept and thus make a show, or they must have received sufficient training to be able to adapt to a suggested premise. Neither has been the case for a long time. Ceramics simply no longer has the depth it once could take for granted. We have to hope that the current review for Craft/Object making, by CNZ, can result in offering artists something else that might advance their work. If something is not done very soon, to use anther aphorism, the situation can only be likened to turkeys awaiting Christmas.


Kate Fitzharris at Objectspace. The Stillness of Movement. Installation (unfired clay, mixed media)

Kate Fitzharris at Objectspace. The Stillness of Movement. Installation (unfired clay, mixed media)

Kate Fitzharris, The Stillness of Movement. detail.

Kate Fitzharris, The Stillness of Movement. detail.





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3 responses to “What’s on AT OBJECTSPACE and other stuff

  1. This is a very poignant plea to a problem gathering speed over the past 10 years. I came through the very last of the Diplomas in Craft Design in the Otago Polytechnic Art School. I then went on to obtain my Fine Arts Degree and Masters at the same institution later. When I graduated this particular section of the Art School was under the direction of a few great object souls…Kelly Thompson, David McLeod, Johanna Zellman and Clive Humphries. All who had the foresight to produce a quality program that was based as much on providing key craft skills as it was giving students a tool kit in design, application and conceptual quality. This, alas, disintegrated with the absorption of the program into the mainstreaming into the Art School. I graduated with some exceptional students who have struggled to find support in the echelons of ‘white cube’ directorship. When Object space first opened I was part of the exhibition Handicrafts curated by Rose Griffiths which featured an amazing array of techniques and ideas but sadly, since then I have had no opportunity to be part of the object based vibrancy that this space probably needs. This is a combination of my own poor time management to put a proposal in but also because I haven’t really seen any courting interest down here in the deep South Island for new object talent. There are many object artists all around New Zealand who are new or a little grey in the tooth who would put on many thought provoking shows…maybe we just need to be encouraged. As for the direction of Craft/Object education…I already have my thinking cap on and a large work boot to encourage a timely rethink of this. Surely we can do better that photographs of object art, which ironically is the antithesis of the pleasure of an object.

    • Hi Tanya and good to hear you are still battling away down there. How can folk know if you don’t send images or info? I am sure that the curator at Objectspace – Ioana – would be pleased to receive some up-to-date images from you along with an update on what you are doing and maybe some recent CV material…then she can file it and know where to find it once a potential show pops up. You might wish to send to Masterworks too or even The Front Room. Galleries want to know who is out there and what you are doing. If your work will fit what they are planning I’m sure you’d hear from them. We are a small country and internet works everywhere so go for it!
      You can also try an entry in Portage – if accepted then many will see your work – in person or in the catalogue. As well, if accepted then try to come up and join in the discussion session that will take place between the opening event and the judges walk-around – your other chance to have your say and swap ideas about what might be useful for NZ ceramics.

      Galleries have no budget to send down a curator on some artist-finding mission. You need to let them know that you are interested and what your work is about. If it fits what they are looking for then they will find you – don’t worry!
      And good luck!

      • Hi there, cheers for that! I will give it ago..although I’m not particularly worried about myself…exhibited in the portage a couple of times…won the supreme award at WOW last year with a ceramic entry, bla, bla, bla. But for all the other talented people up and down this country…maybe it would be good for galleries questioning if object art is alive and kicking to budget in a wee fact/artist finding mission once in a while and come n see what/who is out there. I think that they might be surprised! After all virtual handshaking can only get you so far. I am off to create something stupendously crazy for my next entry into the illustrious competition mentioned above…must remember to make something that will survive the dubious freighting in this country…I think that it is safer to freight to Aussie at the moment! cheers Tatyanna Meharry

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