The Portage Awards have a new home. And what a home! After a couple of years shlepping around in the city under clouds and in silos (both of which I thought most successful for different reasons) the exhibition is set up back in Titirangi at the brand spanking, newly finished, Te Uru: Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, next door to the old Lopdell House Gallery which can now revert to more appropriate functions like fine dining, offices and service rooms and community purposes – maybe even its former ballroom dancing will reappear (it has a fine sprung floor!)
But next door, behind a colourful copper tiled facade is a series of new spaces that will provide for exhibitions in ways not formerly possible and with the panache and flair that used to be a part of Titirangi when it was Auckland’s ‘arty quarter’. There are now five gallery spaces of various dimensions connected by curves of daffodil yellow sweeping staircases, and the Portage exhibition is displayed in two of them with Award judge, Takeshi Yasuda’s work on higher level up another arc of rich gold. From every level there are views that allow the surrounding bush to feel close and across out to the Manukau Harbour that in the fading light of the opening event took on a range of hues from violet to soft grey. As a building it seems to welcome embracement by its environment. The old Lopdell House is connected by a high glass walkway and its roof, formerly covered by an unsatisfactory capping, has gone revealing the original open space with splendid views south across the Manukau. There cannot be a view from a gallery like it anywhere else in the country.
The roof was the venue for the opening events, a good plan considering it was early November but unfortunately it was chill with a south-westerly wind (the Te Uru) but we huddled a little under the canvas canopy erected for the occasion and all was fine as we waited for speeches to be completed and Takeshi to announce whence he had allotted the prizes. Then we were allowed to cross the glass bridge, collect a catalogue and see the exhibition.
Gallery staff had toiled right up to the wire to get the spaces open on time. The previous week had seen a series of opening events for various audiences – we had taken Takeshi to one where his personal exhibition opening was a part of one event. We learned then that ‘these are the spaces the Portage will fill’ so realised that despite the essence of ducks serenely floating on water’s surface, clearly there was still some pretty frantic paddling to complete beneath. John Parker stepped in to help with the display of the award and a busy social programme was set in place for the judge thus allowing the gallery staff to do what they do best. And considering that the Portage was a small part of a large series of events, incidences and dramas involved in the opening celebrations, the fact that some still had energy to dance to the band that enlivened the Portage opening was staggering.
The catalogue is the same but different. Following the same scale and format as earlier years, much is unchanged. All works are represented, artist’s statements are on the pages with the work (and seem better written and briefer than in previous years – maybe some are edited, hallelulya!), the cover has a close-up of some surface detail of a work (this time Liz Fea’s Thaw ), at front there is a useful essay of contextualisation, a Director’s intro and Judge’s comments to read in some quieter, later moment. But it seems a little cleaner and a little glossier, sponsors have expanded and artist’s bio’s are transfigured to third person and laid out at back….all improvements. I’m picking that next year, once the new team at Te Uru have chance to draw breath and re-think facets of the event and the catalogue we shall see more changes introduced. Catalogues can be purchased from the Gallery.
And what about the ceramics? Anyone expecting Takeshi to choose something along the lines of his choice for the 1995 FCCA prize would be surprised as Louise Rive’s Premier Award work is about dead opposite to that of Prue Venables’ tiny, unadorned, simple, porcelain, trio of pouring vessels. Rive’s winning work was one of her three entries that were included in the show and all were stunning in their vibrancy and execution. The Space Between, a figurative work about, as she put it, an ongoing conversation with self, was a depiction of photographer Diane Arbus’ quote that attempted to describe the gap between who someone is and who they think they are. This may seem a little weighty for ceramics but it is skilfully illustrated by the hard-to-read expression on the larger figure’s face – was it derisive, distrusting, disconcerted or simply grieved? The mien is almost passive and that mouth – neither smiling nor scornful but also not relaxed gives but little away. Looking down, perhaps pensively, at the drooping figure of herself she clasps in her hand, the space between is immeasurable. It’s a deserving win.
Rive has been an illustrator and modeller of surface for many years. With her painter’s training she has consistently worked at effective surfaces across her straightforwardly articulated, often slab built pots. Her three jugs are a splendid example and, it seems to me, more vivaciously colourful than previously. Perhaps it’s a greater use of black, in backgrounds and as part of the composition that so enlivens these surfaces but they work beautifully in more ways than simply dynamic colour. It’s more usual, when decorating a vessel surface, to clarify the motif edges – a painted line, an added coil or a scribe are often used, so that the vessel encloses the illustration. In these pitchers, it’s as though the imagery is already painted upon a cloth and this is what had been arranged across the surface and then the cloth’s edges trimmed to fit the pitcher form so that the painting of simple domestic scenes – apt for a domestic vessel – envelops the jug, not the other way around. Fine work.
Other awards included the Peter’s Valley Scholarship (New Jersey, USA) to Chris Weaver where, once their new catalogue is published he can choose which of the many courses on offer, throughout the spring, summer and fall, he would like to be part of. Weaver’s group of five, pitched pourers are quiet, like much of his work, and very akin to Takeshi’s choice of Venables for the grand prize in the Fletcher and to his own work. Small, unassuming, yet a brief handling illustrated that they would function to perfection. There was no need to actually pour, one could see that those notched planes at top would serve as generous channels for whatever was contained within.
However, what most links Weaver and Yasuda is inventiveness. Everything has a rationale and an underlying clarity of thought for both although they approach it differently. Both utilise historical precedents – Weaver thinks about NZ items of domesticity and how they can be adapted for a ceramic expression while Yasuda quotes from Japan’s use of glazes or Britain’s industrial production. One difference is Weaver’s perfectionist streak makes him firmly reject any imperfections in work and indeed, his style works best when results are as intended. Yasuda enjoys imperfections and often finds cracks and tears ‘beautiful’ and can even celebrate them by painting with gold or platinum.
Weaver’s statement writes of the challenge of problem solving; that interest in pitching a vessel slightly off-axis invites more visual dynamism and grouping further magnifies that effect. Weaver’s thinking often works this way. After having his work copied for an Asian market, when headed to Asia himself to work Weaver considered how he might make work that either could not be easily copied, or work that if copied would not readily find a market. He also set about making work that derived from the models spotted in Asian museums like ceramic pillows that suspended elaborate hair-dos and where there was no point to copying because of cultural differences.
Weaver acknowledges his consummate precisian side. When he could not get wooden handles as he required, he learned to make them himself and then turned that learning to inventing handles made of other wooden sources such as rulers which then instigated further series of work. What is always evident is a delight in boundary stretching that grows from and relates to what has gone before but that is a distinctly unique approach without precedent.
‘No precedents’ can also be applied to Yasuda’s way of working. Clay, especially in the very soft state that he prefers, is always in argument with gravity. His strategies provide his objects with gravity defying elevation by throwing upside down or suspending the work, after throwing as thinly as possible, upside down so that it stretches and twists in ways otherwise impossible and leaving it there until firm, or, in the kiln, elevating some pieces that are then fired upon stilts. The stilts allow runny glazes to collect under the base and form beads which gently lift the piece so that, on cooling, it seems to hover above the surface on which it stands. Then, during recent demonstrations, in dramatic use of gravity he pulled up the walls of a vessel, deliberately thinning beneath a fat heavy rim. The work is not cut from wheel head at this stage which would be usual, but instead the lower edges turned and trimmed then the work, on its batt, is lifted from the wheel and held aloft before swinging down so that the weight of the fat, and heavy, rim tears the rim away leaving a ‘natural’ edge that could never be produced even with many hours of fiddling with the material. His approach, like Weaver’s, is conceptual around how and why it is made and used, but both leave ample room for intuition. Sometimes I think that our Mr Weaver would also enjoy world-wide fame if he lived somewhere more readily accessible than Hokitika.
That’s sufficient upon the Portage for now. More in the next post perhaps.