THE 2015 PORTAGE AWARDS

Entertainment has sometimes been a part of opening events for The Portage Awards. When the barn of a community hall across the road from Lopdell House was used there would be dance music, and even dancing sometimes. When the event was moved downtown due to the building programme,  one very balmy night at The Cloud on the waterfront wharf there was music (really needed a string quartet) and later, on a stormy night at the Silos under a flapping, snapping, wind-whipped canopy we were charmed by the popera trio O Sol3 Mio. The Pati brothers and cousin were not one bit fazed by any rain splattering overhead or howling gale and overcame the weather with what is now their familiar smiling humour and some high notes and harmonies. No one danced. It was a captivated audience.

I always imagined, but never asked, that the entertainment was a requirement for the Portage organisation – that as they are in one sense, hosting the evening and many folk pay to be there, that entertainment is de rigueur, so accepted it as part of the event. I’m not sure it is, or was always present but it has been of recent times. But like many of ceramic derivation there I preferred to spend my time looking at the work and catching up with folk from out of town and not seen for a while, than dancing.

But dancing again was a feature for this last one. To the throbbing strains of Cheryl Moana Marie, New Zealand’s very own Engelbert Humperdinck, John Rowles, all silver quiff and gleaming dentistry, was working hard and with good humour to get folk up on their feet. It worked a bit despite the largely ceramic crowd edging backwards so they could chat. There was dancing in the mosh pit.

All this took place at basement level straight off the carpark and considerable effort had been made to convert what could be bleak space to something celebratory with hanging roses, a few tables and chairs and enormous pots of flowers on stands. One problem for the otherwise splendid Te Uru gallery complex is that there is no obvious place for things ceremonial. There is the basement tried this year, or last year’s venue – the roof of Lopdell House next door which is architecturally adjoined to the gallery by a glass bridge. However then an unfortunate turn of weather meant a retreat indoors was swiftly made as soon as formalities were over. En plein air can be tricky when it’s not March. There is a schoolroom, a basically utilitarian space, with low ceilings, possibly best suited to the classes often held there but perhaps something might be done with it for celebrations. The foyer is too small and other gallery space, which would possibly serve admirably, is filled with other exhibitions. It’s a challenge, and one with no obvious answer, yet.

But the main event is the announcement of prizes for the competition and I was rightly castigated for not listing everything in times past so this year, the prizes went to – Paul Maseyk, Merit, for ‘Essential Equipment for a Competent Arsonist’, Virginia Leonard, Merit, for ‘Too Many Surgeons’, John Parker won the Residency Award with ’13 Blue Vents’, while the Premier Award went to Raewyn Atkinson for ‘Wasters III (Accumulate) 2015’.

 

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Raewyn Atkinson for ‘Wasters III (Accumulate) 2015’

This latter work, an accumulation of pieces of celadon-glazed porcelain tableware deemed unfit for utility or display some other way bore poignancy on several counts. It’s a quiet work that murmurs and hums its stories and despite its lofty connections is never grandiloquent. Initially it’s the associations contained within all that labour and exactitude with a difficult clay, now fused, warped, split, cracked, chipped or mutated beyond functionality, or the glaze flaws, pin-holed, blistered, puckered, peeled, corrugated, crawled or kiln crud blemished by their journey through intense heat. But layered upon this elegiac record, other relationships enter.

Making celadon-glazed porcelain tableware by hand is a loaded undertaking. There is that link with the Far East as that was the source of such wares until Europe, in the early 1700s, finally managed to produce its own. The colour, hovering quietly between green and blue was given lyrical names by the Chinese such as iced water or sky after rain, although some Emperors preferred their porcelain white, pure and translucent but again there were poetic descriptors. Celadon was the name of a shepherd, in a 17thC French performance, that wore soft grey-green ribbons and this name, a European one, stayed with the hue. Cross-currents abound. There are sunken boatloads of porcelain, along old shipping routes, periodically discovered after having been in the sea for anything up to five hundred years. Their re-emergence makes recurrent headlines and record auction values. There is a museum in Holland where, because of their age they are kept, as found, in water and seen underfoot through layers of thick glass. Considering the nature of porcelain this may not be entirely necessary but it makes a romantic exhibit that draws ardent visitors. Work such as this jostles with stories and histories.

Then, as all exhibits are damaged, other narratives accumulate and Atkinson mentions a beach of shards in California, near the site of a former factory. This facet chronicles the loss of skills as manufacturing re-locates from the west and returns to its roots in the East and the discards signify another inevitable effect of global capitalism. In the east, regular jettisons of freshly minted shards flash white stripes down the murky banks of the torpid river that winds through Jingdezhen while dusty mounds of unwanted manufactured ware lie stacked outside disused factories.

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All of which adds layers to issues around why make hand-thrown tableware in porcelain at the start of the third millennium? One response is, there is pleasure in working directly with materials and engaging with those forces in an era of fabricator-led, often outsourced, artistic and design-led endeavour and 3D printers steadily come into masterful use. Making an object with hands and fingers affords it a voice that articulates on materiality and making processes. The skills necessary for porcelain are acquired gradually for as a medium it presents very different challenges than do other clays; its lack of ‘tooth’ for throwing is frustrating, making it something akin to raising toothpaste rather than a minutely grainy medium. As can be seen in this exhibit, it is unforgiving of a nano- second’s inattention and intolerant of any slight incompatible adjustment in environment. Porcelain is, despite its apparent fragility, provocative and steely stuff.

Then there is that attendant lingering aura of palace rather than cottage. All those Emperors, Princes, Electors and Kings with their droit de seigneur over courts, cities and principalities. Meissen and Sevres; tableware for palaces and a source of those good connections. For the collector – for ‘collecting’ such high-value work is surely the aim rather than simply ‘acquire’ – the unmistakeable marks of something individually hand-made in an increasingly digitised world is covetable. The faint traces that cannot be eradicated, nor should they be, carry further resonances of palace. Atkinson’s abstract amalgam adds to a rich and regal narrative, notes beauty in the discarded and offers some beautifully packaged pockets of space while raising issues around how we decide values of certain objects.

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Paul Maseyk, ‘Essential Equipment for a Competent Arsonist’ (Merit)

Paul Maseyk’s group of five jars with illustrations around the subject of tools for starting a mischievous fire fits well with work we have seen earlier from this artist. However in these works, his classical, ‘in the round’ approach with continuous bands of patterns of familiar motifs betwixt some unfamiliar ones, is missing. These linear devices divided his large vessels into sections so that reading his messages and personal revelations was a simple matter. The current works are aligned with the Sweetbread series in his DPAG show of last year – there were no divisions; just accurately painted anatomical illustrations decorating one side of the pot leaving the other side empty of imagery. These were arranged along a wall shelf.

The current work is similarly designed with imagery only on one side and no banding devices. The difference being that this time the group is displayed clustered on a low plinth so that walking around, not along, was the way to view. In the bunch of unadorned ‘back’ views, of precisely turned, plain-surfaced, assorted vessels with only scale as principal formal element in common, there was little to engage. The imagery on the ‘fronts’ however, was well elaborated and accurately rendered when it came to the matches, gasoline can and lighter etc surreally topping linear figures.  However the all-round works with imagery as in, ‘Commando Maseyk vs the Zig Zag Man’ on his smoking habits, or, ‘Going to Shit’ around issues on farming practices carry a more personal ring and seem more successful works.

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Virginia Leonard, ‘Too many Surgeons’ (Merit)

Virginia Leonard’s large, variously capped and colourful, layered vessels laced with resin, are strong and visceral objects that look as though they came together solely by instinct. They observe the ‘sloppy craft’ movement that was a large part of North America’s response to increased status of theory in formal education in the ‘90s. As a movement it particularly affected fibre and ceramics and was bolstered by the resurgence of a hand-made look across media. Reaction to this theoretical input manifested differently in the UK and Scandinavia but nevertheless led to some vigorous cross-disciplinarity in all three of these leading areas that has rarely happened before.  The American clay expression often intentionally looks poorly made. Led by artists such as Nicole Cherubini, Beverley Semmes and Arlene Sechet it is characterised by an irreverence for technique and messy, loose handling often typified by heavily fingered coiling and surfaces left ‘spontaneous’ with supporting casually made plinths of plywood or reinforcing steel rod that can resemble workshop detritus but are a part of the work. Forms are influenced by traditional ceramic objects but also defy them by parodying domesticity using pot forms only as shapes rather than objects that are useful. Sometimes lustred all over and sometimes draped with junk jewellery or bedecked by small handles that could not possibly lift the vessel; they are frolics of excess.

We have had our own ‘sloppy craft’ adherents for a number of years in artists like Martin Popplewell or Jim Cooper. Both can make a classical, well formed pot if they so chose but instead Popplewell utilises casually formed and sometimes broken vessels or even shards to carry his various brush-painted illustrations or texts that needle ceramic, or any other, traditions he chances upon – grubby jokes, pungent comments on life, single expletives or mordant observations are rendered in idiosyncratic style aimed at deflating the portentous and undermining the serious and scrawled across surfaces often underscored by his leitmotif grid. His nonchalant and iconoclastic approach can skewer with trenchant intent or be there simply to amuse himself. Cooper follows a figurative path and vigorously models characters and situations often taken from a sliver of the ‘60s when a new generation fused music, meditation and LSD in attempting to see and understand the world in a different way. Cooper crosses media using cut-outs from seed catalogues, fake flowers, ‘finds’ from the $2 shop and absurd, shiny and psychedelic, drippy, syrupy, viscid ceramic surfaces where the apparent loosely naive, almost child-like quality of surface rendering has been consciously and timely acquired. Both artists have trained in formal systems at tertiary level and held major exhibitions in public galleries as well as enjoying support from ‘white cube’ spaces. Both happily work in other media. Where the Americans had antecedents for this post, post-modern work in George E. Ohr or the Kirkpatrick brothers, for those of Popplewell’s and Cooper’s generation there was the far more recent, but still removed, work of Peter Hawkesby.

Leonard’s addition of resin looks fresh and offers tempting drips that beg to be touched by fingers, (to see if they’re as flexible as they appear) but solutions to the curiosity aroused by additions of some decal ‘Willow Pattern’ imagery is evaded, although some links to the domestic via what has been the most widely used and imitated design for domestic tableware is tentatively there. Her allusions to chronic pain and their negation by abstraction is again mysterious (or is it ‘the lack’ that Cherubini talks about?) but a clay vessel is a ‘body’ (with neck and foot and stance etc) and this resemblance is most marked in the red work (‘Ward Rounds’) that on the outside rather looks like what’s inside in all its bloody mucilaginous viscerality. Quite remarkable surfaces indeed.

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Virginia Leonard, ‘Ward Rounds”

In complete contrast is John Parker’s work as he continues his extended pursuit of the wheel-formed vessel characterised by clarity of form, line and surface tension with a minimalist, reductive aesthetic that evidences his total control of process. His preference, over many years, for bowl and bottle forms, with no lids, feet, handles or marks of process has been a singular project. Surface diversities are provided by horizontal grooves and steps of varied widths and in this he continues his relationship with the work of Keith Murray, Ernie Shufflebottom and some industrial forms such as electrical insulators.

Much of this work has been glazed white with variation provided by alterations in surface from high gloss through various mattes to crusty volcanic textures which somewhat obscured the crispness of profile and linearity. Occasionally there have been excursions in to black or grey and at intervals, red. However this year has seen another variation. His shows at Masterworks and Avid and his entry in this Portage exhibition presented blue, deep and rich, and placed the thrown forms onto their side with no base leaving a tube-like form open-ended at both sides and displayed on a wall. Now their title is ’13 Blue Vents’, maintaining the connection with the industrial but without specific function although Parker offers a somewhat unsettling concept with a suggestion about their purpose being less benign than appears through links to science fiction cinema. It will be interesting to see if this engaging theme continues to develop.

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John Parker. ‘13 Blue Vents.’ (Residency)

Clusters, pairs, bunches and assemblages were strongly represented this year. They made a mixed bag and include what could be regarded as ‘the traditional’ with vessels in groups and pairs that were wood-fired and soda/ salt surfaced, by Duncan Shearer, Suzy Dunser and Carol Stewart. Shearer’s shelf-full of non-functional forms are about surface and repetition of profile with observance of the spaces between (something his albarello form doesn’t do a lot for). Albarelli were originally spice and herb jars of earthenware, often elaborately and colourfully decorated on a base tin glaze. The shape allowed easy grasp when taking down from a shelf so as to extract some contents. Shearer uses the albarello’s concave profile to allow a rib line to curve upward or support a vestigial, decorative, shoulder knob. How nice it could be to see allusively usable ware actually returned to some potential function and some decorative work under that salt-patina’d or orange-peel surface. They are fine as they are (something to look at) but we have been looking at them for a long time, and not only from Shearer. It might add a bunch of interest to push things further along and see where those base parameters might take things. Dunser’s teapots /pourer adaptations of oil can particularities are, in contrast, supremely functional with their perfect centres of gravity making pouring a pleasure. Individually each is successful; as a group their disparate addenda and functions don’t allow them to work.

Largest group of all was Susannah Bridges’, ‘The Library’, her collection of five rows of ‘experimental references’ in cylindrical form. Collected over years, Bridges exhibits all the tests, trials and speculative versions she has made during that time.

Exhibitions are just that. A display of the best of all the many researches and tests every artist must necessarily make so as to produce that occasional ‘cracker’. And it’s the crackers that should be exhibited. A compendium and summary of every idea conceived and mistake made is for the privacy of the studio. To serve as reminder never to do that again.

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Then there was a joint entry from Kate Walker as illustrator and Caroline Early as ceramist. The aims are many for these wall works which in turn are asked to bear numerous concepts. Perhaps the wall pieces, unadorned with flocking or line drawings of ‘ambiguous contacts’ and all those attendant ‘non-specific objects and activities’, might be sufficient exhibit alone?

This exhibition was also notable for some cross media works. Presumably a growing trend. Aston Christie’s video extension of a tile made from a sled dog’s paw print ….

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And Michael Potter’s ceramic pinhole camera plus image…

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Intriguing was Ezmic Partington’s , “ Ebola Bowl” which was an unheimlich number carrying promptings of a Petri dish and attendant multiplying sinister microorganisms…

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And I enjoyed Chuck Joseph’s riff on his interests in movies and NZ history and conservation with a neatly executed and titled, “ The Assassination of Mr Tui by the coward White-backed Magpie”.

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The exhibition itself is well displayed utilising the two galleries to full advantage, particularly for Atkinson and Parker’s work and the lighting, with its combination of natural light and gallery lighting works superbly.

The exhibition was again complemented by the ‘Clayathon’ bus tour (don’t you hate punning titles?) around galleries with ceramic exhibitions. These ranged from the judges ‘walk and talk’ of the Te Uru exhibition, to the new Museum of Ceramics in New Lynn and site of the Crown Lynn factory legacy, to Anna Miles gallery and Richard Stratton’s past catalogue, Front Room with Ande and Campbell Hegan’s show, and Corbans Estate where a firing was being started in a scarily vertical, hand-built and plastered kiln (that reputedly later collapsed). At Objectspace was a show of writer-selected ceramic objects, ‘Empire of Dirt’, and writing on them with a publication containing a range of essays of varying lengths around ceramics in the widest sense. And all well worth reading. Writers include Jenny Bornholdt, David Craig, Denis O’Connor, Martin Poppelwell, Louise Rive, Gregory O’Brien, Tessa Laird and others…subjects range from The Beach Artware small production factory back in the ‘70s, A poem about a Tony Fomison clay sculpture of a cat’s head, a notional piece about clay discards and another about the beauty of bagwall bricks to a Lucie Rie bowl representing many in Ernst Plishke’s collection to dental prosthetics and Day of the Dead devils and more… The compendium of writing can be obtained from Objectspace once they re-open again, and finally to Gus Fisher Gallery to round out the day.

Apologies for the lateness of this review. I was unwell and could not get back to the gallery for another and closer look at the show until a week ago. Then holidays got in the way. But its finally done.

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