The ASP Annual “Fire and Clay”

I have just had the interesting task of selecting this exhibition. I seem to have given it a bit of a hard prune, at least, that’s what is around the traps so I’m told. The word ‘exhibition’ is often misused. I have even seen it applied to placing a few pots in a local butcher’s window – there among the sausages – and similar circumstances. There is a difference between an exhibition and a sale of work and we should not confuse them. My own view is that an exhibition is something to be worked for and if the work is not ready for such a term this year then next year it may be. Or the year after. But, if it is labelled an exhibition it should, in my view, be treated as such so my regrets to those I removed or partially denied access to showing but, for some reason or other, to me as judge for this year, there were reasons. After I go on a little about some of the winners I’ll go on a little about some of them.

I enjoy work that deals to some of our long- held clichés, some very long and very tightly held. In this instance I mean our landscape. Barry Brickell and Len Castle began addressing this as subject back in the early-mid 60s. Brickell was flatting with and near a bunch of art-trained individuals and the concept of our own landscape, as opposed to one filtered through a British or a European lens was then fresh and under regular discussion. Castle also knew a range of contemporary artists and became aware of the issues. Brickell and Castle addressed these issues ceramically but each in different ways. Castle with translations of the texture, character and structures seen in nature to the surfaces of vessels and a dramatic use of glaze, always with his highly developed sensibilities to the aesthetic of the work. Brickell chose to incorporate the clays, minerals, rocks and shingles from the landscape itself to make the clay body and glazes he worked with, and coal and the trees from his land to fire his kilns. Castle stayed with it as principal subject matter for all his long career. Brickell often had other subjects but maintained this principal.  Following this lead there have been myriad interpretations of landscape. Every generation has produced its versions, most straightforwardly sincere and occasionally there’s the relief of a glimpse of tongue in cheek. With so many predecessors and about a score of variants submitted to this last ASP show one wonders if it will ever go away as the subject begins to feel more than a bit tired. But it needn’t go away, as not all versions are those seen before…. many are, but just occasionally there is a fresh angle.

So it was something of a serendipitous revelation when I viewed the work Kate McLean entered for the exhibition. Here was familiar landscape but rendered anew as the view was low in angle and apparently from water. It initially seemed like simple screen prints on faceted surfaces around forms that might be rocks but maybe not, and it did not matter. However when examined more closely, and particularly in 3D, and thought about, it was clearly ingeniously and thoughtfully done with repetitions subtly introduced, shafts of subdued colouration and care taken with the horizon line and how that fitted around the irregular forms. Her statement confirmed my initial positive reaction, appreciation of the time invested in resolving the evident associated problems and filled all possible gaps. It said,

During summer I swam towards this view daily on the high tide, and it became a challenge to capture in the medium I am exploring, the focus and feel of this tranquillity so close to the city.

I reflected on the thin crust we occupy between the sky and sea, the contrast of the city and the backwater, the pohutukawa that completes the arch of the bridge and the good fortune that is ours to live in this peaceful country.

Over winter the transference of summer thoughts to the object this has become, occupied me, responding to many possibilities: the form and how it would receive the image, colour, and the three dimensional print. One form became two in my pursuit to describe this landscape, just as one’s eyes wrap what they see. There is no single viewpoint, the sea and horizon form the edges and could be manipulated.

I loved the part about no single viewpoint as that is what happens as we move, whether walking , riding or swimming, viewpoints adjust and shift and that is what happens as one moves around this work. It was a complete package. So, for me this was, ‘Best in Show’.

Not that there wasn’t ample competition. I also liked partner Matt’s work that paralleled the concept of two pieces comprising one work. Only on a bigger scale. These pieces were also screen printed and here the view was not low but lofty from above, and the view was of cyclists and their shadows snaking over undulating surfaces. It needed the addition of a statement that clarified the concept for an audience but it was absolutely worth a Merit Award. As was Brendan Adams’ wall platter entitled, I…I’ve got to get out of here! This primitive stuff’s beginning to get under my skin. And made in the style of a Roy Lichtenstein cartoon painting made in the style of a Marvel comic and possibly made references to the abundance of Leach-style standard ware still being made and offered for exhibition. More screen printing in evidence. There were other works I also liked a lot. Chuck Joseph’s richly embellished, gold-rimmed bowl of Kowhai flowers on both surfaces was a marvel, like patterned cloth covering the surfaces instead of the usual ceramic trope of confining pattern/decoration within defined borders. Julie Collis’s candelabra of stacked porcelain cups with more gold embellishment and entitled, What will you do when the lights go out? This piece of delight would compensate well in any power cut. Christine Thacker’s large scale and most elegantly formed pitcher with curious painting that must somehow explain the title of Tunnel of Love, that I failed to read. The eyes just right – slyly watchful – on Helen Perrett’s Large Vermin and Charlie Seakin’s intriguing Involution that also could have done with some comments to give this viewer a bit more of a lead-in (there were six different explanations for the word in my dictionary). I enjoyed Ann Hudson’s Ice Landscape with layered depths of blue staining the exteriors of a pair of graceful cast bowls but the stark white interiors felt unfinished and asked for some softer treatment to echo the exterior drama. I also liked Carol Stewart’s simple but subtly lifted Serving Bowl and it was perfectly presented next to Greg Barron’s, Cut-sided Jar – surfaces and colours resonated effectively. And so it went. There was much to enjoy and, in these days of hybrid work so much in evidence, I reflected on those additions that graduates from art schools have to bring to their explorations in clay. There was Louise Rive’s recent Portage win and many of those mentioned here trained in other media prior to turning attention to ceramics. We are richer for this amalgam of media and method and the open attitude to bold experimentation.

There were also two more awards to give. I found the parameters for these unclear. One, from the Rick Rudd Foundation was to be given to someone ‘exhibiting for the first time with the ASP’. I wondered if it was really meant to encourage a recent student but had to choose what was best from the small list of names given me so the prize was given to a maker long experienced (clearly from the work) and recently moved to Auckland so exhibiting with ASP for the first time. The other award was for a residency at the ASP for three months and again there was a very short list of names. In such a circumstance I think it could be far more helpful for applicants to state what they wish to achieve during the residency instead of simply ticking that box on the entry form. Then that short statement (a paragraph would do it) can be measured against the work submitted and perhaps a more informed decision made. As residencies assume ever increasing importance, reasons to participate should be made very clear. While I was very comfortable with the awards for work, I was less so with these. It was not that the work did not stand up but that I was uncertain about the intent.

At the inaugural runs-through on-screen there were a number that attracted for various reasons and of these several stood out. Sometimes the initial attraction remained when viewed in 3D and sometimes this faded a little. There was that old problem of scale – that despite having dimensions and a tape measure to hand, expectations for a particular scale over-rode this rationale and so it was occasionally surprising when seeing the 3D reality. My problem, not the artist’s. However the artists had two principal problems…

Initial choices were made by image. Here arose the first problem. Many images were simply insufficient to clearly see what the work was about. Whether teapots had functional lids, no matter how small, or if vessels presented as a group actually made a group that made some sense, or if function was an aim or the artist was relying on that old adage of… ‘it’s about a ….. ’.   Angles were often odd and close-up views were very few in number – could have done with more of both. Sometimes images were poorly focussed and sometimes the work was too small in the frame to see clearly what was going on. In a time when cameras capable of taking a good image are everywhere, and cheap, then too casual an approach to presentation when another view or a close-up would clarify much, with a show to put together I left it out. Taking an adequate image is surely preparation for the time artists will submit for Portage, or to a gallery for inclusion in the stable or to some off-shore event. So getting the image right in the first place is a given. Digital is cheap, there is no waste of film and no expensive processing. It’s just experience and a little extra effort or else having someone more expert do it.

We have gone through a transition… from an era when we could get away with, “My work speaks for itself” to one where critical discourse around your work is invited and expected; being asked to think more rigorously about what you are trying to do is a navigation to be enjoyed and one that can focus and improve practice. Making a statement, or sometimes just a good title, that can relate to the work is a necessary adjunct to producing the work. Image and statement making are crucial to acceptance anywhere in the world now and just another skill to be learned. It’s professionalism.

On reflection, I realise that in this instance I have selected three screen-printed works for the principal awards. Had someone put that to me, even six months ago, I’d have refuted such a possibility. Not that that was all those works had going for them by any means. But it’s interesting… every time you do something that presents a challenge you learn something new about yourself. Thanks for the opportunity.

Kate McClean, Auckland Postcard

Kate McClean, Auckland Postcard

Matt McClean, Crossed Paths

Matt McClean, Crossed Paths

Brendan Adams, I…I've got to get out of here

Brendan Adams, I…I’ve got to get out of here

Chuck Joseph, Kowhai Bowl

Chuck Joseph, Kowhai Bowl

Christine Thacker, Tunnel of Love

Christine Thacker, Tunnel of Love

Julie Collis, What will you do when the lights go out

Julie Collis, What will you do when the lights go out

Greg Barron, cutsided jar

Greg Barron, cutsided jar

Carol Stewart, serving bowl

Carol Stewart, serving bowl

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