I relish staying in the city in summer and enjoy the unusual hush, the half empty roads, the easy parking and the lack of pressure on popular venues like swimming holes, water-side walks and parks – at least until ‘the return’ in late January. Places like I like are clearly not what visitors are here in the city for.
I also get to read books for pleasure instead of information. This year I’ve seen several that did both as well as some novels and stored-up articles from Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Spectator and the Sunday Guardian sent, from here and there, by friends. First were the following two anthologies around Craft. I ordered both via internet once I had a chance to glance through copies while off-shore last year. If they were here, I missed them. Too often I have ordered something looking promising and based upon an attenuated publisher’s blurb only to find it repetitive of something already possessed or off the issues I thought I was getting. These are both worth reading.
Tanya Harrod has to be Britain’s pre-eminent Craft/design historian and this is a selection of Harrod’s writing from mid-1980s to 2013 – mainly short essays with some longer pieces that were published in magazines and newspapers. The time span indicates a focus upon the post-modern (although, as a historian she introduces a variety of supplementary narratives that add riches, while subjects range from the theories of Richard Sennett to the fine art of cake icing and the ceramics of Pablo Picasso to Gwyn Hanssen Pigott. Titles of essays range from ‘How to get Money’ through, ‘Where to see Mingei in Japan’ to, ‘Why shouldn’t a pot be as beautiful as a painting?’.
Essays are grouped into three parts: reviews of exhibitions and events, reflections on themes and phenomena, or portraits of makers.
This book records the effects on communities, of change in art and craft over the time span and her scope is global, not simply the UK although most is centred there. It includes, as the cover demonstrates, the technological in the form of rapid prototyping (or 3D Printing if you like) and its consequences. The book’s mien can be serious, even distrusting in places as well as celebratory, but its deportment is, in the main, objective documentation with occasional, thoroughly enjoyable and witty personal commentary. Great for diving into at intervals.
Alison Britton is that brave thing – a practicing maker prepared to write critically on others’ work. She is also, besides her exhibitions of ceramics of note, a selector of work and artists, a curator and, for 30+ years, a Senior Tutor and Research Co-ordinator at the Royal College of Art. In the early 1970s, she was one of the group of RCA graduates, (Glynis Barton, Jackie Poncelet, Carol McNicoll, Elizabeth Fritsch et al ) chosen by Victor Margrie (founder, Harrow ceramics course/Director UK Crafts Council) as harbingers for the bright future of ceramics at a time of great upheaval in practices when the hegemony and restorative intent of the Anglo-oriental was overturned.
In her texts she concentrates upon contemporary practice (although history can be incisively entwined when relevant) and across a range of arts, although ceramics is at core. She treats ceramics as a field for exploration that is both self-reflexive yet in dialogue with other areas of inquiry such as gender or cultural studies. So, post-modernism is her arena of discourse.
This is the first collection of her writing. She has chosen a range of her texts from essays to book reviews and interviews. Like Harrod’s book the time span is over the past 30 years and her more literary and lyrical approach makes interesting contrasts here and there with Harrod’s writing. Sometimes covering similar ground. Engaging stuff.
In book reviews she is pungent on Paul Greenhalgh’s,The Persistence of Craft, ending her text with, “ ‘The idea of orchestration is key’, Greenhalgh tells us in his conclusion; but orchestration is exactly what this book lacks. It is as if the conductor went home after an impressive overture, and the orchestra – which features some terrific soloists – played on as best they could.” She is constructive on, Breaking the Mould: New Approaches to Ceramics writing that to catalogue innovation is important, but, “ in assembling a cluster of self-written submissions from artists and designers with new approaches, background knowledge and editorial, clarity is needed”. She repeats this, with more bite, and regret, at her conclusion with , “… valid ambitions – there are new things to be revealed and written about. Stronger editing with a real understanding of the contemporary clay scene and its recent past, and a better budget for commissioning essays, could have made this an important book.” Well said. A decent budget for commissioning texts (and one could add, research), is of far greater value than any self-penned script by the artist.
She writes with clarity on many artist’s work including, Lawson Oyekan, Philip Eglin, Richard Slee, Sara Radstone and others of contemporary note in ‘Use, Beauty, Ugliness and Irony’, an essay for the catalogue of The Raw and the Cooked, a show that roamed across contemporary expression in clay. The essay encompassed many historical allusions as well as mention of folk from William Morris to Claude Levi-Strauss.
In interviews she includes what she considers a strong example sent to her, among many, by a student from another college. Worth reading – good questions.
Another to dip into at intervals.
Then there is….
Sorry if you have already read this but I only came across it last year and had to wait for the holidays to start it. I don’t need to tell you that this is congenial reading. With great good humour he debunks distinctions between brows both high and low. His acute observations and effective anecdotes can chew into some closely held art issues yet still make the reader laugh out loud, smile, or at least nod ruefully in agreement.
He posits on art being an asset class and just big lumpen loads of cash sitting on walls, as opposed to art for art’s sake idealism and more in that vein without plumping for either polarity but then goes on to tell the truth in that when a commercial gallery is setting up a show and pricing the art, it doesn’t price by quality but by size. A big painting will cost more than a small painting and on that he continues that a red painting will always sell best, followed by white, blue, yellow, green and black. And then more on themes like dealers, boho-leftyism, the so-called avant-garde, Duchamp and Banksy, critics, collectors, and galleries, art schools and skips full of ugly objects trying to be art – “ a potpourri of broken dreams”. Yes, it’s a lot about him but there is little that’s held sacred and you read it and just know there is a river of mordant truth running beneath all the fun bits. If you haven’t read it – get it. Cheapo paperback version. Even cheaper (i.e. free) are the BBC podcasts of The Reith Lectures – a series of four, written and spoken by Perry and the BBC’s most popular in the series.
And finally, another anthology. This one is ours, in fact, it’s the last book from our own national, under-acknowledged, counter-culture genius, Barry Brickell of Driving Creek Railway and Pottery.
This is an anthology of Barry’s writing. Much of it might well be labelled ‘poetry’, or possibly doggerel, even prose – of a sort, but he’d prefer ‘wrertings’, one of many words coined by that fertile brain to express his disdain, among other things, of art-speak, corporates and institutions, politicians, bankers and celebrities, bureaucracy, certain individuals, health supplements, ‘Zuit’, advertising, speculation, ‘consumeritis’, fashion, religion and Roads of National Importance.
This collection also records his veneration for engineering, the uses his hands might be put to, Colin McCahon, clay, anxiety-free old age, his Dad, classical music, virgin native forest, steaming clinker, useful pots, roast spuds with lashings of gravy, Maoridom, trains and railways and coal- fired kilns, National Radio, Helen Mason and good wine.
There is a sensitive introduction, by Greg O’Brien, on how this book came to be put together, a task begun in Barry’s last days, and a responsive conclusion from David Craig who also co-curated the extensive retrospective exhibition with Emma Bugden of The Dowse Art Museum from where it began its tour around the nation. Images are never-before-seen, fresh to this book – with a couple of ‘must be used’ exceptions. It’s a neat, beautifully designed and formatted publication, on uncoated paper stock, that captures the man, his wrertings and his irreverent, zestful love of life. It’s a rich vein that will not occur again. Some of it is very funny, some is poignant and some of it stings. This is the essence of the man and his self-replenishing symbiotic interdependence of railway, pottery, bird sanctuary and art gallery that is Driving Creek – his legacy to the nation. There should be a copy in every library.
Copies can be purchased from Rim Books, PO Box 68896, Auckland.
E: email@example.com $30.