This year around the opening of the Portage competition exhibition there is a superabundance of other ceramic-related events. So many in fact, it ended up being called the Festival of Ceramics and included a number of facets not previously attempted alongside the exhibitions and artist’s talks at galleries and the main event itself (Portage), which are the usual. This year’s exhibition opening was accompanied by the conclusion of John Parker’s grand retrospective show and accompanying book, also at Te Uru, and we have several fresh white cube galleries joining in with shows of ceramics, a walking tour of the historical clay sites out west, a kiln firing by Nga Kaihanga Uku, slip casting demo, numerous open studio visits and a ‘collectors clinic’ for those who cannot resist the collectable allures of Crown Lynn wares and the annual ASP show had its opening dates adjusted to co-incide also. There’s probably even more I’m missing. Many of these events were already happening anyway and they have been collected together, under one label, for the eager ceramophile (albeit exhausted ceramophile). Some have been added in to enlarge or vary the event and now it’s at the point where the scale is overwhelming and it’s daunting to even start to get around. So, concentrating on the main event… (more to follow later)
The Portage was judged this year by Janet de Boos, probably well-known to most of you as former head of ceramics at Canberra and author of books on Glazes for Australian Potters. She has, over time, experienced generous cross-Tasman contact with New Zealand and its ceramics community formerly, via two-way travelers, and she was jurist for the Waiclay national event a few years ago. Janet spoke well at the opening event mentioning, as many have in the past, that absent was a good assortment of functional pots, with which she linked New Zealand’s long association. Further, she remarked upon the absence of anything risky or experimental where video representation of performance or time-based works are not unusual off-shore. However we did have some camera work included last year – which I think was the first time. Maybe that will grow. She remarked upon the ample presence, in entries, of what has been labelled , ‘sloppy clay’, a recent, mainly north American, movement that rejects, among other things, much adherence to the ‘craft’ aspect of clay practice plus an enthusiastic (sometimes over-vigorous) use of evidence of hand working. DeBoos links this with the West Coast Funk work from the 1960s and the current interest by artists with background in fine arts rather than ceramics who co-opt clay for its expressive potential displaying, to my eye, little or no interest in ceramics’ histories or traditions –some aspects of which could well, very often, strengthen the expression. However, West Coast Funk was absolutely an outgrowth of ceramic cultures and traditions but with an eye on the socio-political events of the day (plus that rarity for USA clay at the time – irony!) when one thinks about the work of initiators like Robert Arneson and Howard Kottler. With DeBoos I enjoy the best of this new style (sometimes because it challenges those long-held customs) but, like her, hold no regard for a simple re-iteration of what is currently hot off-shore (and there is a bit of that around). Anyway, she invited very little into this show despite there being names that are new. She gave the Premier Award to a work entitled, “Clinch VI”, by Caroline Earley, American born and educated, former lecturer at Nelson Polytechnic and currently Assistant Professor at Boise State University in Indiana, USA. Caroline returns to NZ with her partner most summers and more, if possible, and has entered competitions or exhibited here and in Australia and undertaken residencies in ANU Canberra as well as in the USA. (One as prize from the Waiclay event of 2008). The work is an apparently simple slip-cast, two-pronged double form with an apparently simple, featureless, milky white glaze coating. However, if you look carefully and think about it – the making would, since the two sections cannot be separated whole, be complicated and intricate. Conceptually it’s the work’s title that engages as much as does the making as a clinch is far more than any friendly hug and on a piece that carries intimations of the inchoately corporeal as this does, the work becomes slyly erogenous. Not a commonly found demeanor in Kiwi ceramics. It intrigued the judge enough to receive the top award.
Merit Awards were three. Jim Cooper made one of his assemblages of severally sourced, multiply pieced, vividly colourful works that exposes his interests in popular music, religious practices and cultural traditions deriving from Eastern philosophies. Modelled loosely, his work could initially be taken for a branch of the ‘sloppy clay’ fold except closer examination reveals a highly practiced hand that, despite loving the over-the-top, knows when there is enough and knows how to take risks while narrowly avoiding absolute disaster. Recently returned from his residency in Denmark at Guldagergaard, new work from Cooper may have absorbed something of his European sojourn and become even more eclectic. Any way, it could not contrast greater with this year’s winning work!
The second Merit went to Susannah Bridges with a series of what might be called light sculptures. Using porcelain impressed with textured fabrics Bridges added lighting inside what were basically simple cylinders that held added dynamism via bending and squeezing. When illuminated (absolutely necessary as a part of the work) the patterns of the various lace, embroideries and knitting were clearly illustrated to produce what in some ways became a contemporary version of a Victorian technique called lithophane. These were originally used to illustrate religious scenes or bucolic rural tableaux but always illuminated by added light behind the textured clay from either an electric bulb or a window. The judge remarked that for her, the remnants of pieces of the handmade or embellished fabric, crochet or knitting still attached to each work were what moved the work to its elevated reception. It was entitled, Stick to the Knitting.
The third Merit went to Emily Siddell and Mark Goody for their joint entry, Deconstructed Fables and consists of a multiply pieced chain, or over-scaled necklace as wall-hanging. A fine piece, their statement reads that ‘the work was inspired by a collection of Copeland and Spode dinnerware that was in Emily’s family since the late nineteenth century’. The Aesop’s Fables that are depicted upon the Staffordshire bone china production ware have been ‘deconstructed and re-assembled on porcelain beads much like a childhood memory can be fragmented’. The necklace represents, in its own way, family heirlooms that are often imbued with stories, memories and history. For this observer, one of the most engaging works in the show.
Greg Barron won the scholarship to Peter’s Valley next northern summer for his fine, wood-fired, ash embellished pitcher. While I am sure Greg will be a more than useful addition to the aspects of wood-fire culture at Peters Valley it will be great, some year, to see a winning artist who can take advantage of the other teachers available for access and broadening of vision as Peter’s Valley has more courses to offer than only from the wood-firing arena.
This year, for the first time, the judge included other works for special mention and they were awarded, without monetary reward, an “Honorable Mention” as she felt they deserved some elevation above the general inclusions. They were…
Kirsty Gardiner with another re-visit to former success – her winning work of some years ago only this time with a somewhat gothic ambiance and a confusing statement on the work.
Phew! Quite a list. Nice for the exhibitors of course, and a generous thought by the judge, but in a show of 52 works were an extra ten awards over the winning four really necessary? The minor awards were always a part of The Fletcher but that show contained some 200+ exhibits so the Commendations, as then called, with monetary reward, were significant. Here, the question hovers.
Mention of Portage cannot be made without reference to the catalogue, as always, a useful and well produced publication with statements by the judge and a return to the commissioned essay, a valuable addition and useful record of issues not recorded often by other means. This essay is by Kim Paton, (fairly) new Director of Objectspace and right on the button as far as issues are concerned. Commenting on writing by Veiteberg, Greenhalgh and Clark, she cites potential loss of craft history and knowledge, via a lack of specifics of vocabulary and little critical discourse existing in our medium. This at a time when the field is currently expanding at its borders to embrace other disciplines (where critical discourses are the norm). She offers that Objectspace can support, in various ways, an expanded communication. Their new premises, to be at 13 Rose Road, Ponsonby will greatly enhance these opportunities. We must support their craft of facilitation with our craft of bringing work into existence and thus extend and enhance interpretation and communication around New Zealand ceramics. It’s important. We need attention to our histories and culture for it’s from these that much new work evolves, and therefore we need publications that address these issues via contemporary work practices. Objectspace can facilitate all this but it’s necessary to step through that open door. The alternative is being perhaps shuffled into some minor cul-de-sac where there is no communication except on a level of how to pull a handle or re-glaze a fired failed pot. Surely we are worth more than this so don’t sit and wait, support this major change for Objectspace for you are supporting yourselves by doing so.
Mention of the Portage cannot be complete without mention of their fine exhibition of John Parker’s work in the downstairs gallery. It’s an almost completely comprehensive display of his oeuvre over fifty years of practice. The only thing I noted absent were the very early, reduced stoneware domestic vessels that I have seen occasionally in private collections, but they do not fit this show anyway. This exhibition covers early, pre RCA work with the text-bearing ‘Nixon and Laird’ and ‘Love Potion’ bottles, the pastel hued glazed and agate bottles he made on return from London for a show at New Vision that stunned many of us ( there were no commercial colorants available here in the mid-late 70s!) along with samples from many other of his series – the evilly coloured and textured ‘hobby’ ceramics glazes, the marvelously pitted cratered glazes (I bought a large turquoise one for the Dowse collection), the departure to hand-building with the lattice bowls and the revelation of his self-deprecating humor with the ‘fake’ series (which I loved!) and the fun and importance of his Vortex Ware and much, much more. It’s all here and amazingly most exhibits are drawn from his own collection. It’s a pleasurable re-visit to an oeuvre that has maintained clear parameters yet shown infinite variation within those applied precincts of form and function. There is a beautifully produced book accompanying the exhibition that contains useful and informative essays by a variety of good writers, excellent design and images and modestly sized (in comparison with other recent publications), at 143 pages. This show is touring to other galleries – Te Papa is next. Don’t miss it!