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.