Right up in this instance, for on the top floor of Te Uru Gallery is 5×5: New Conversations with Clay. It’s a re-view of a show done back in 1980 at Denis Cohn’s gallery in Durham Street West that has since been espoused as the start of a new wave in the great sea of ceramics. And it probably was. But it was no swashing, crashing, clamorous breaker, more of a rolling upsurge that began half-way through the ‘70s.
All five of those who exhibited at Cohn’s gallery: Bronwynne Cornish, Warren Tippett, John Parker, Denis O’Connor and Peter Hawkesby, had been working away from the orthodoxy of the Anglo-oriental ethos for some time finding it restrictive of large areas of ceramic history and dismissive of what happened outside its domain. Cornish could be considered ‘first’ as she was never ‘in’. She visited the west coast of the USA in 1973 and exposure to what was happening there by Bay Area artists opened her frames of reference for work.
Another ‘first’, due to never having fully ventured down the Anglo-oriental highway, was Peter Hawkesby who during a rural apprenticeship realised that his route lay elsewhere and after return to Auckland found Denis O’Connor and Waiheke Island. O’Connor, in the spirit of the times found the economics of reduced functional ware supportive but read a variety of publications outside of what was commonly available. In 1978 the pair left for a three month stint in California, determined to see for themselves what of the ceramic ferment, that radicalised traditional approaches there in the late ‘50s, was still in evidence.
John Parker returned in 1977 from four years in London and study at Royal College, where the industrial was taught alongside the hand-made. There he formed the parameters for his own expression and returned with enhanced recognition for the possibilities available to ceramic practices.
Warren Tippett was the only one without first-hand off-shore experience and as heir apparent (or a leading contender) to the Anglo-oriental/Castle/Brickell mantle his inclusion induced most surprise. However he had already made giant leaps into new aesthetic territory. Along with urbanisation of his hitherto rural practice and lifestyle, he held exhibitions of exuberant surface where he pushed the Anglo-oriental as far as it could go and followed by turning everything on its head by dropping temperature, switching to earthenware and oxidation, and abandoning obvious function.
As part of this exhibition, there was one piece each from that initial five. Unfortunately only two of the pieces were from the original exhibition – Parker’s and O’Connor’s. The others were a recent revival or something produced in the years between. Hawkesby’s ‘Blunted Devil Cups’ were close to what I recall being in and to images from the time. Cornish’s undated exhibit seemed furthest away while Tippett’s was from a couple of years later than 5×5 and consists the cubes that he continued in one form or another for many years. It shows his new approach to clays, firings and colour in contrast to the muted tones of the Anglo-oriental. This made an engaging adjunct to the main event and a useful point of comparison.
The original exhibition has since acquired a level of canonisation as New Zealand’s first excursion by clay in to a white cube milieu. It was most probably the first group show by only ceramists in that context although some of the five had shown individually with Cohn previously, (which opened in 1978) and would afterward. Other galleries that regularly or occasionally showed ceramics were Helen Hitchins (opened ’49) and Peter McLeavy in Wellington (’68), and New Vision (’57), Peter Webb (’57) and Barry Lett (’65) in Auckland. There were other makers working in clay in the late 1970s, who disregarded any adherence to the doctrines of the Anglo-oriental such as Leo King with his reductive and modernist work, Barbara Hockenhull with her organic handbags, Ted Dutch who screen-printed on then impressed computer parts into the clay and Rick Rudd and Howard Williams both recently in from England and exhibiting low-fired work; but all showed in a ceramic context. A number of others were experimenting with the ‘new’, commercially sourced, ceramic stains imported from Germany and England and their fresh what-you-see is what-you-get, long way from Leach, colour range. The times, they were already a-changin’. But the five at Cohn’s gallery proclaimed a new manifesto by which clay might enunciate a more complex field and by showing together made a presence in the fine arts world as was manifested in a small flurry of positive reviews in respected publications. No one called it that, but ceramic post modernism had arrived! Sadly the attention soon lapsed and ceramic expression was once again left to develop unassisted by any further scrutiny from fine arts for some years. About thirty.
This new iteration, called Five by Five, New Conversations with Clay is the result of an invitation by Te Uru Contemporary Gallery to one of the five, John Parker, to curate a new version in current terms. There has been interest in clay by fine arts over the past ten years off-shore and for a lesser length of time in New Zealand. This could be due to a reaction against the processed, slick, Jeff Koons/Damien Hirst movement for jobbing art out to production teams, or envisaging that the concept-driven had little elsewhere to go, or simply a renewed engagement with process and materiality. Or all of these and more. Time will tell, but with major contemporary artists such as Sterling Ruby, Huma Bhaba, Shio Kusaka and Rachel Harrison including it, not to mention Rebecca Warren and Grayson Perry making it a major part of their oeuvres, it clearly has allure. Clay was unprotected territory, as photography was in the early 1980s — something no one cared about, and thus available. Reportedly it is now almost as ubiquitous in New York and London galleries as sculpture and painting. Ceramics is now so prevalent that it’s become a gateway material for other processes, like weaving and embroidery.
So John Parker was charged with finding a new five. Not an easy task for anyone but particularly when the politics of the situation are recognised, as John would have. Show artists who have worked with clay and kept a foot in both camps? Look for new artists? From what sort of background? What about established ceramic artists who now find ready acceptance in public or fine art galleries? What about fine arts trained who also show with ceramists? What about fine arts trained who still are too wary, or concerned of their gallery’s reaction, to show in anything but a fine arts milieu? Should it be a return to vessels, our legacy, or sculptural approaches as the first show had been? All very interesting and John chose a mixture – those he feels have something to say about clay ‘now’. His choices were, Kate Fitzharris, Tessa Laird, Kate Newby, Suji Park and Louise Rive. All girls.
Of the original five Bronwynne Cornish is the one with the least concern for technique, holding few expectations on outcomes and accepting what evolves from the kiln with interest and pleasure. It’s a true gift; one that not many possess. Kate Newby seems her most likely successor with her collection of 25 stones. Roughly formed, casually glazed, even broken, they present the same unconcern for neatness and ‘finish’ as does Bronwynne’s work. Not Bronwynne’s experienced fingers though. Puzzling to ceramics practitioners, they more resemble glaze tests done on those odd bits of clay that end up at bench edge and studio floor to dry out there, given a quick swipe into the glaze bucket and fired. Many in ceramics would then have chucked some of those buckets of glaze as they had little to offer other than sealing a part of the ‘stone’ with a thin tight gloss. The title was good, ‘I feel like a truck on a wet highway’, how skiddingly true. It was very possible to imagine some of them skipping across a sheet of water.
I found the door furniture more engaging. Designed with replacing the knobs and handles on the gallery doors in mind the engaging work and plan was foiled by the fact that Te Uru doesn’t do handles, or even doors for that matter.
Most successful was ‘Big Huge Sky’, a line of freely squeezed, rolled and pierced columns of clay that most resembled a strange musical instrument hanging in a harmoniously colour co-ordinated sweep and ending at the natural light gallery windows with which Te Uru is blessed. The sound was engaging as one tentatively ran fingers along but few could enjoy as the ‘Please do not touch’ notice was, necessarily, prominently inhibiting.
Kate Fitzharris continued with the unfired work she first showed here at Objectspace, her now familiar small figures quietly watching from their domesticated and found surrounds, sheltered by blue vases and jugs that held cut hydrangeas which ranged from fresh to dry to dead and formed a fragile and transient still(ed) life.
Like Fitzharris, Louise Rive has been around the clay world for a while. So long in fact that one can forget that she trained in painting at Elam. With her figurative pieces in clay and acrylic painted surfaces Rive combines both journeys, as she explains, ‘as expressionist and exaggerated’ in manner. Rive showed the work that won the recent Portage Awards and other works similar in mien and scale.
Suji Park has also been making in clay for a few years. I first came across her small figures in Dunedin. Like Rive’s they were acrylic painted, but rather than expressionist and exaggerated, were fine, gentle and somehow Asian without anything obvious telling one this was so and carried a soft quality that was perhaps underpinned by skilled painting and delicate, unexpected coloration. Her newer work – the broken shattered pieces – that were her entry for the Dowse’s ‘Slip Cast’ was a puzzle as it negated, for me, much that went before. Still, some artists move on from the tried and true very regularly. The current forms are hanging, elongated vessels. In ceramic terms they are close to amphorae but Park has demonstrated, perhaps deliberately, that she eschews ceramics’ mores and possibly intended another fate for the forms. So be it for, as amphorae, the surfaces are uneven, lumpen and grainy and the thin, shiny, polyurethane coating exaggerates these qualities. The suspended forms taper downward and end in a deftly modelled head, some with open mouth as if in a scream. They are works that seem to be on their way to something else by way of a resolve of intent.
Tessa Laird is perhaps the most experienced of the recent adherents to a clay expression as she has been making books, and piles of books, and rainbows of books for some years. These recorded her reading towards a higher degree and thus used clay’s mimetic properties in a different way, and with a very apparent increasing skill set. Now she moves those book piles again and the gently, humorously annexed and titled stacks appear to sprout something of their contents and become aligned with Mexican folk ceramics – the sort that appear as Day-of-the-Dead forms – clunky, colourful, exuberantly modelled, adorned with small animals, figures, symbols and candles. They sit in an interesting intervening space amidst an odd mix of traditions and between skill-based and idea-based, art. This is where much of the contemporary craft art sits today. Just like Grayson Perry. Welcome to the club, Tessa.
So, has John Parker produced a new canon? Possibly not, but time will tell. As Peter Ireland has said, ‘Canon construction is far from being an innocent exercise’, and goes on to cite taste and fashion, artistic and academic reputations, auction house promotion and collector investment as potential influencers in scrutiny of what’s at stake and whose interests are being served by such a construct? However, what Parker has done is find a bunch of artists who ‘ explore the lateral uses of clay in this wider, multidisciplinary context’. He has found a clay artist with a conventional ceramic background who works with the medium unfired, so not even making it ceramic. Others with fine arts backgrounds with slipped then low-fired, or low fired and glazed or acrylic painted or polyurethane finished, work. This wouldn’t have been remotely possible a few years ago. I don’t see his cited lines drawn between technical expertise and ideas but a merge and adaptations between these extremes of what I read as a continuum. It’s a pic’n mix world these days and artists use whatever seems appropriate at the time and reserve the right to switch next week.
However viewed from the bigger world out (or up) there what we produce is a small sampling of what is available in clay expression in the broader global context. No one here is yet working with ready-mades and that is widely seen elsewhere – re-fired, sliced and cut, broken and rearranged, to make social points or political statements, altered surfaces, annulment of surfaces to reveal – what was earlier unthinkable. With our discovery of Crown Lynn as collectable, this seems to hold loaded potential and is a road not yet travelled. The figurative features more these days but not on the scale or with the expression one might see elsewhere. Scale itself is seldom ventured towards here, except with artists freshly returned from the USA, and few approach installations, interventions, appropriation and recycling, neither are there concerted attempts at performance or adding video as can often be observed off-shore. We remain largely vessel-based. The narrowness of expression here can be firmly laid at the door of education. Or lack of it. Without higher education, where not only what a knowledgeable, broadly educated teacher can instil but the ferment experienced in discussion over morning coffee in the student common-room or some rub-off from a completely other discipline in chance encounter all feed into the personal and resident artists embedded in our midst could bring in further widening of our horizons rather than the travelling guru opportunistic demo/workshop that seems to be more the norm. Perhaps the fact that there are currently 18 students taking ceramics at Elam, as a sort of introductory course, will produce something of that in time for some will surely stay with the sticky, seductive stuff at least as part of their practice, if fine art attitudes remain as they are for a sufficient length of time, this time. Other institutions are also offering ceramics as an option. May the next manifestation of 5×5 be with us in less than 35 more years and even more engaging.