One Pot Wonder.
I had a (literally) flying visit to Dunedin so as to replace David Craig, who had to go to New Guinea, on a panel at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery where were three exhibitions with ceramic content. That in itself is worthy of a mention – the principal gallery in one of our principal cities shows contemporary ceramics in three concurrent exhibitions. Unheard of…
There is the Barry Brickell retrospective and a group exhibition entitled ‘Sleight of Hand’ about diverse artistic practices such as illusion, theatricality and transformation that includes Madeleine Child’s gorse, in partially sprayed state, contrasting vibrant growth and dead wood as one of the exhibits. Then there is a survey show called One Pot Wonder by Paul Maseyk.
This is Maseyk’s first survey show and was at the invitation of DPAG Director Cam McCracken and first mooted when he was at the Dowse but the idea continued after McCracken moved to Dunedin. It’s appropriate that Maseyk should be showing alongside the Brickell show as he has spent a lot of time at Driving Creek, altogether about four years out of the past fifteen. While he says that ‘Barry is not a teacher, in the teacher sense’, he also says, ‘just living there is all the learning needed as everything is there for a potter to use and it is up to you to get into it. Clay, machinery and, above all, the wonderful wood kilns to use; it is a potter’s paradise.’ Despite being in paradise, he has stayed his own man. There is not, on first glance, very much similarity between Brickell’s robustly-coiled, gritty shingle-inclusioned, wood-ash flushed and salted, iron bearing clays and Maseyk’s thrown and precision-turned, pale, tight-surfaced, linear decorated oxidized bodies. But perhaps one aspect that has rubbed off is a fearlessness concerning scale as both tackle large works successfully.
It is scale that immediately strikes when viewing Maseyk’s exhibition. It’s beautifully set out – ample space, good heights for each work using tables, shelves and plinths and effective lighting which highlights exhibits in a slightly darkened room.
Scale is emphasised by placing the largest work outside the exhibition room, on a landing opposite and above. It’s the title work and stands at over two metres tall looming down across the gallery lobby space toward the entry to the main show. It’s worth the trip up the stairs and would have been diminished by the low-ceilinged gallery space (it is former retail space not purpose-built). Initial viewing confirms that here is an up-scaled version of where he has been engaged for some time – the quotation of a classical Greek vessel atop an elongated, elaborated, occasionally oddly proportioned base delineated with fine lines, repeat motifs from multiple sources and minutely detailed illustrations of personal and appropriated imagery. They become, at this scale and with alternating straight and carefully curved silhouettes, more totems than pots. There are protrusions in the form of animal handles, cylinders and breasts but the more overt, sexual angst of youth, imagery of earlier years has tempered into that of the expectant father at 40. However, at the gallery entrance the sign reads “Please Note: This exhibition contains images of nudity and adult themes” beneath the admonition not to touch the artworks. So the Playboy bunny depicted at top has not fully left the room.
The exhibition is of vessels. Not all are functional although most look as though they might but on the trio Big Blue, Big Orange and Big Yellow with their spouts and handles and practical-looking, brilliantly hued glazes – something of a departure for him – no orifices can be seen and he confesses these were attempts to make something bright, solid coloured and with what seems an obvious use but no way of doing it.
His Rainbow is also brilliantly coloured, seven works with similarly formed bases and variations in the upper parts clothed in iridescent, highly reflective automotive paint in – as you’d expect – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. It was something he learned when on a residency in the USA and another artist arranged this for his own work. Maseyk noted the idea but only tried it after return, employing ‘a marvellous craftsman’, whom he reimburses with beer. One codicil is that a marvellous panel beater would apply such highly reflective surface finish and stunning colour only onto perfection of base but these pots display turning marks in places and that emphasise process instead of glorifying form. But it’s a successful strategy that he also uses effectively on another work, ‘Movement of Squares’ where the central, globular, gold finished area separates top and bottom; his typically eye-confusing grids and their repetition in house facades. It also suggested comment on the Kiwi average of a house shift every seven years.
Other works carry anatomical imagery rendered in what seems a new method for him in that, instead of his usual linear rendering, these are shaded with highlights and lowlights as he saw in a book on human anatomy and wanted to see if they could be replicated on a pot, not simple when painting with slip that dries instantly on contact with raw surface. These are a small series that experiment with the application of this imagery and it perhaps was the challenge that drove this as some are more effective than others. Details of anatomy are oddly applied to curiously mechanistic looking small forms and it’s a challenge to see correspondences. Others are more successful when the anatomy is confined to the neck of the vessel and interiors rendered in gold paint. Most cogent was a larger, single work entitled ‘Going to Shit’ where the realistically painted anatomy is that of an export carcass and the work delivers a familiarity of form and multiple illustrations. The crisply turned profile is perfectly balanced by patterns of simply rendered cows heads and doing what cows do while the body carries Chinese and New Zealand flags, commercial logos and a 2L plastic milk bottle with the word Pooh as content. The message is underscored by an image of an iconic tourist landscape with a lake draining down a plughole and it all seems more pristine by application of a clear shiny overglaze (something he has avoided in the past). While the politics is rather ingenuously delivered it possibly marks a broadening out from the regular inclusion of his personal adventures that marked earlier work.
This is where he shines most brightly – the work he has developed pretty much since leaving Polytech and he “stumbled across red clay, slip, and clear glaze together with a fortuitous gift of an ‘ultimate slip trailer’…. that freed me up from making pots, dipping them in boring glazes and firing them to stoneware temperatures. I could make a pot as a canvas and then draw whatever I wanted on it (or whatever I was able given my drawing limitations) and then fire it into permanence and usability”. When searching through historical ceramic books he came across Greek pots with their formal proportions and depictions of life and decided, since he ‘had gradually been increasing detail anyway’, to make his own version including the friezes and meanders (ornamental patterns). It’s been a steady development of vessel forms and surfaces with incremental additions of new techniques and media.
He is not the first of course. Californians Michael and Magdalena Frimkess have been collaborating since the 1960s on work celebrating Greek vases, among other iconic forms where he throws and she decorates with contemporary imagery such as people riding tandem bicycles or pushing supermarket trolleys. Garth Clark called them ‘prescient pioneers in Postmodern ceramics’. They recently enjoyed a retrospective at the Hammer Museum in LA at the instigation of no less than Ricky Swallow, a fan of their work. Englishman Grayson Perry springs to mind with his detailed drawing and other means of reproduction on to classically formed pots as critique of life, but his subject matter is darker, more threatening, but also often more conglomerate and enigmatic. Maseyk’s earlier linear illustrations could be provocative but their overt nature carried elements of the brashness of youth; the ‘look what I’m into’, often seen in youthful work of many genres, yet somehow they stayed light and peculiarly earnest because his self-deprecating humour ran blithely through. But as he says, “definitely a lot of the content is personal, but then no one will ever know what is or isn’t when I am not around to explain it”.
Clearly personal are two older works included in the show. ‘Commando Maseyk versus the Zig-Zag man’ of 2006 and ‘Portrait of the Artist on a Young Horse’ of 2007 are consummate examples. Classically formed vessels top well formed pedestals of good proportion without any over-reaching and all crisply turned as ground for his slip-painted surface ornamentation. This features repeat motifs, Bridget Riley-ish trompe l’oeil devices, mind-numbingly, closely packed, parallel, fine lines and quotations from a variety of sources from commercial logos to Lichtenstein’s lifts from Marvel comics enclosing personal narratives around a battle with tobacco or girlfriend issues. Restricted to black and white with small emphases of colour, the welcome high contrast is snappy: something not always achieved as slip can simply look dusty with no glaze to clarify distinctions. These are fine examples of his work: obsessional, personal and well resolved with his knack for applying embellishments fitting well, even enhancing, the pots’ profiles. They are decorated pots, a long-standing ceramic tradition and these devices wouldn’t work applied to a flat surface with four corners. They are risky in that they go against many enduring tenets about ceramics in this country and occupy a unique corner for their maker.
His time in the USA at Montana’s Archie Bray on a residency, that eventually stretched to almost two years, gave him a freedom (the great American buzz-word) to increase media, content and scale – often unavoidable assets of longer State-side visits where possibly the sheer numbers of populace or maybe the isolation in Montana engenders an anonymity and carelessness of consequence. His work on return, in an exhibition at Auckland’s Masterworks, carried all of that confidence but perhaps needed the grounding of ‘home’ to rub off the more confrontational and prurient bits, or possibly it’s been the tempering scrutiny of a tighter and closer community, or maybe it’s just time. But he has continued to experiment and work with others when opportunity arises, added new methods and media, deepened his oeuvre and exhibiting regularly. And now he’s just had his first survey. We should look forward to the next one with interest and see where he has gone.