The Front Room is literally that and Brendan and Catherine Adams have made theirs into a fine space for displaying ceramics in suburban Point Chevalier. They don’t exhibit all the time as the gallery is principally a retail spot for their own work, but every so often they extend an invitation for an exhibition of some work they like and are happy to show.
This is the case for the current exhibition by Suzy Dunser. Called Constructed Memories it comprises a range of vessels for domestic use – teapots, pitchers and other pouring vessels, storage jars, bakers, but sadly, no coffee mugs. Based upon precedent forms constructed from metal sheet – oil cans, milk churns, buckets, tubs etc and carry the characteristics associated with those forms – wide, assertively looped strappy handles, generously broad or beaky pouring lips, extended, straight or curved spouts and articulations where metal would have been folded and joined. The forms are immediately familiar; not in a contemporary way but redolent with memories of Dad under the bonnet of the car in those pre-electronic everything days or washing being carried outside in a tin tub to a rotary clothes hoist near the lemon tree. It’s a show packed with nostalgia in a number of ways but principally for the haptic knowledge that those proportions and apparent construction arouse in the fingers. We know what those objects will feel like and how they will heft.
The elephant in the room here of course, is that this is territory that the UK’s Walter Keeler has explored in depth, developing his oeuvre over more than fifty years. He even sent some here as Fletcher entries in the ‘80s (wonder where they are these days?) Keeler’s were highly original and idiosyncratic objects of joints and junctions that moved British domestic ceramics away from the organic throwing associated with Bernard Leach and opened up new reserves, particularly historical, from which to draw whether those were metal forms from early-mid 20thC. or 18thC. industrial production by Staffordshire’s Thomas Wheildon. Keeler’s current production continues with both strands and even evidences an occasional cross-reference. The earthenware Wheildon pieces allow baroque extensions and lavish glaze effects but his equal devotion to articulation and the austerity of a strong form has meant those tin-sourced work’s surfaces have been largely restricted to fine salt glaze in sombre, and often uniform, slate greys, inky blues and warm browns.
Dunser’s forms extend and thrust straight upward, rather than the stately set-back upper part that many of Keeler’s pouring vessels carry where they seem to be rearing back almost and scrutinising the observer in return. Dunser’s forms however introduce a medley of surface not so evident with Keeler’s (which we here see mainly in reproduction of course). She saved work for this, her first solo show, for about a year and has experimented with surfaces to great effect using a variety of treatments: buff stoneware, or white stoneware and porcelain, with flashing slip, salt-fired in a diesel kiln; porcelain with flashing slip, wood and soda-fired; white stoneware and porcelain glazed and fired in an electric kiln and porcelain with copper carbonate wedged into the clay – some with partially glazed areas, wood and soda-fired. These have produced a range of surfaces beguiling in their diversity, and some perhaps unrepeatable. These ‘gifts of the kiln’ seem most in evidence when made from porcelain and soda- fired in a kiln carrying copper-bearing clays – the resultant fortuitous flashing animating vividly both smooth sides and odd joinings while the fluid glaze gathers on articulations producing further intensifications of colour. Contrasting this, others offer an unrelieved white, salted surface that places all emphasis on form and demand the most sprightly configurations to be really effective. Teapots are a potter’s recurrent challenge. Getting all elements – the body, lid, spout and handle – to visually work together and function well is demanding and Dunser has worked on the form for a while with some success. For this show she had the added hurdle of complying with her chosen parameters of forms based upon those of metal but it was teapots that were the original concept. As her statement explains, she spotted an oil-can and ‘it seemed like a teapot waiting to happen’, so she obliged. Most teapots in the show are a delight for she generally gets the necessary low centre of gravity spot-on so that they balance well when pouring. One or two carried a bit of extra weight that will be felt when full of hot fluid but the majority are both pleasing to the eye as well as filling functional requirements admirably, as the red stickers attested. Finding a good teapot is challenging and potters, who made up the majority of those at the opening, know a good one when they see one. This is a confident and satisfying first exhibition with plenty to offer and we can look forward to the next gathering of her work and development of her oeuvre.
CLAY CARPET The other exhibition of new work recently opened is also functional but this work’s function is to make bicycling or walking across one of west Auckland ’s new footbridges – this one is cross-motorway- a more engaging and enjoyable experience and succeeds admirably. Kate and Matt McLean have been working on this project, on and off, for some four and a half years. It was interrupted, after they had contracted for it, by the transition from Waitakere City to Auckland’s super city and the resultant change in bureaucracy and re-regulation of conditions meant a hiatus of some extended time. However, it’s now completed and what a great project it is! It is part of a series that has continued in West Auckland for a number of years. Virginia King, John Edgar and John Lyall have all made foot bridges in different locations around what used to be Waitakere City; it was one of the city’s successful periodic projects. There may be more I am unaware of and it’s not yet clear whether the new management processes for public arts that now prevail in the greater Auckland City will continue the projects. Kate and Matt’s is the furthest away but recognisably theirs as both bicycle everywhere and present as ferociously fit! The forms they have made and decorated reflect their personal interests as well as their thoughtful study and groundwork. Taking a number of research trips by bicycle around the area Matt was struck when looking down at the motorway’s construction process where huge diggers and bull-dozers had laid bare long strips of the area’s massive deposits of pale clay, parts of which had tire tracks from the enormous earth moving machinery. Matt has previously made a pair of massive tiles that displayed rhythms of bicycle tracks across curved clay surfaces. Impressive and handsome at one and the same time, they reflected the personal and signified one of clay’s unique characteristics. These fine works received Commendation in the Fletcher Challenge Ceramic Awards and were subsequently bought for the collection of the Dowse Art Museum after Matt was subject of an extensive one-man survey exhibition there in 1997. The connection was there, as west Auckland’s earliest industry was manufacturing pipes and drainage tiles using the rich deposits of earthenware beneath its impoverished farming land. Using the tyre imprints as recurrent motif Kate and Matt made impressions into a range of clays using a variety of tyres as well as retrieving sections of local clay that had been marked as part of the motorway excavation and building process. Beside the steps that climb to the bridge, the forms they made surge and billow their way down the hill. It’s rather like a rumpled up carpet near the bottom of some stairs. This ‘carpet’ is illustrated in ways that offer insights into the locality, as carpets historically have been used to impart narratives. The silk-screened imagery relates to the bridge’s location and function- maps and weather patterns, shadow patterns from bicycle wheels, telegraph poles and their linear suspensions. Installation has seen small gaps planted with erigeron (a type of daisy) that in time will clump, soften edges and reassert nature amongst the representations of the technical and man-made. On the bridge proper, on either side of the walking /bicycling section, are angled lines of tiles, less rugged than the forms enclosing the steps but still bearing textures and imagery relating to the uses to which the graceful, gloriously chrome-yellow bridge will be put. A grand illustration for the expanded field that is possible in ceramics, it’s a unique and successful project; a work of ground art that required thoughtful considerations and processing of ideas. The scale suggests that space must have been an issue and require logical and probably uniquely individual answers to the variety of construction conundrums that occurred. Being the McLeans they were considered and resolved one-by-one although they could not see the project in its totality until all was finally installed. If you are out west one time and are on the Upper Harbour Motorway, you will drive beneath. But that way you’ll only see the flash of yellow bridge. So, head for Hobsonville and take a look at the footbridge at the end of Clark’s Lane, named for the family that first made pipes and drains for other farmers from what was their annoyingly unproductive, sticky sub-soil. It’s worth the very small effort and detour required and you can arrive there in your car – you don’t have to go on a bicycle!