Oldest first and that is Martin Popplewell’s A Storage Problem at Objectspace. It’s a sort of ironic celebration of all those bits and bobs of both fired and unfired clay that lurk in studio corners, loiter partially unwrapped under benches or find their way to previously quiescent spaces like windowsills or back porch quarters. This medley comprises those odd pieces that have been returned from exhibition, unsold or de-installed and others whose fate didn’t turn out as expected, mis-fired, kiln-crud laced or cracked beyond any explainable intent but much of it with his leitmotif grid or his characteristic scrawl across a plate’s surface – sometimes several words swarming across one plate and sometimes one word across more than one plate, or not a plate but a crudely circumscribed disc, or up a chunky cylinder. He still needs words.
Underlining the exhibition’s title and premise, most of these assorted pieces are housed in an architectural structure, open, roofless, almost wall-less, certainly impermanent but shelved and doing its job while intimating domesticity. It does what it should, providing an insinuation of the many studios, houses and sheds around the country that serve similarly. Derek Henderson’s large scale, large format colour images of Poppelwell in studio working at a desk, maybe making those words, is evidence that despite all the humour, as he says, it is not only a joke.
Lovers of the finely honed polite pot possibly won’t much like these works, but it’s a successful exhibition with all elements working harmoniously together, yes even the broken bits. It’s a decade’s worth of discards that haven’t been discarded and all that drollery aside, there is a poignancy here to which all potters could relate.
Down the road a bit and round the corner at Two Rooms, Denis O’Connor is paving his way toward a return to ceramics after more than thirty years of eschewal. His 1984 epic travelling show, Songs of the Gulf was his swansong after about fifteen years of practice in clay, with domestic ware a necessity but also an increasing awareness of other channels for ceramic expression, particularly following visits to the USA’s West Coast ferment and to Japan and the redoubtable Ryoji Koie. Songs of the Gulf pulled every one of those strings together underlined by an evocative pathos derived from his Irish roots and his home on Waiheke – an island in the gulf. O’Connor moved his practice to carving stone and then other media and now he has a grant to re-explore what affinities he still finds with ceramics.
Again it’s a composite exhibition and called, Unearth: The Ceramics Room. The ceramics part, (sadly, in vitrines) is of old work derived from Stuart Newby’s collection. There are some very fine pieces here and those influences plus his own distillations of various histories are in evidence and hint at the riches in the original show (half of which is in The Dowse’s collection). His ovalled bottle forms and fat-rimmed bowls, many displaying his characteristic medallions or simple sprigged strip additions offer much to be admired and even if we have seen them before they are very worth further viewing, not only for the lushly generous forms but also the sumptuous surface treatments via flame, salt and fuming. The other point of the exhibition though is his wall works – carving and scribing into slate holds redolence of a childhood in Ireland at early-mid century as well as depicting something of O’Connor’s earlier experiences with ceramics, and packed with references – from a portrait of his former dealer, the late Denis Cohn, to composite illustrations of works on display or from Songs… and children holding one back, to images of iconic pots and makers he admires such as Momoyama ware, a Nagle cup or Meret Oppenheims’ fur-lined version in the Met or references to the Italian painter- Morandi, and Perry or De Waal. And more words. We shall doubtless be seeing more of O’Connor’s ceramics sometime soon so it’s good to view these referent images and his early works.
Finally a stroll along K Road reveals a new dealership in town (well, been around about a year or so…) Bowerbank Ninow and it’s on the corner of East Street opposite Artspace. They have imported work from a young, and evidently quite successful Melbourne artist, Brendan Huntley, who exhibits both paintings and ceramics around a single subject. Growing up with a father who was a landscape painter and mother, a potter it’s claimed his works are ‘a textured marriage of technique and concept’ . He learned both media via observation of his parents working at easel or wheel. Now it seems he has a painting studio and separately goes to his mother’s house to throw components for his objects./sculpture but keeps the subject the same for both media. Earlier work shows that subject to be heads and eyes and there are images of this former work which are quite arresting – both the paintings and the ceramics. His current interest is the torso, particularly the female torso and I find them less so. It would be fair to say that the images of the earlier work showed them to be mature and fully resolved as far as one can tell without the actual pieces. Torsos as subject are new still (for him) so maybe once he’s worked it through further they too will generate greater appeal.
For now, I find claims that he is ‘subverting traditional methodology by layering terracotta, raku and stoneware’ to be, at least, naive for it is entirely possible to layer any clay or slip and there can be no seditious boundary breaking at the quite low temperatures to which these pieces were fired. Most coats of slip and other colour are quite thin and offer no threat of sintering , splitting, crawling or crazing. Ceramists avoid layering different clays, as a general rule, only when dealing with much higher temperatures than what Huntley is using. Ceramists such as Rafa Perez or Gregorio Peno from Spain deliberately layer such clays in their works and allow the kiln to wreak its fiery power so that they twist and cleave, effervesce and fizz.. But Huntley is looking through a different lens, one unconcerned with effects of heat except to make permanent what the painter in him has applied. His lens also seeks a dissimilar version of craftsmanship and indifferent that some might find his works grotesque in their semi-abstraction where the various parts are delineated, even dissected with crude colour in bright bands that further exaggerate this separation of parts. But the bits are presented on structures that are far from corporeal and even the cuts and flaps are non-threatening. There is no awareness of antipathy for the female body even as one sighs at yet another version. They evoked very little by way of any emotional response in this viewer even as I quite liked them in the end, but go take a look for yourself and test how you feel about them. I doubt we have heard the last of Brendan Huntley.
Go see them all.