In search of an indigenous, animotive, anthropomorphic ceramic culture
David Craig, co-curator of the upcoming Barry Brickell retrospective at The Dowse Art Museum and co-author of an accompanying publication, looks at the life and work of this unique New Zealand artist. In 1992 Barry Brickell’s work was included in Treasures of the Underworld, the highly acclaimed New Zealand ceramic exhibition shown at the Seville Expo. In the catalogue for this exhibition curator James Mack wrote: “This is what excites me, making new forms to bring together images that have never been seen before. Perhaps they are a kind of anthropomorphic engineering that has grown out of the Pacific – open, generous and abundant.”
Engineering forms, new forms, hybrid forms, forms which speak of time, place, and especially the Pacific indeed lie at the core of Brickell’s life’s work: work that is brought together this May in a major Dowse Art Museum retrospective and an Auckland University Press publication also due out in May.
Together they form a tribute many people have said is long overdue. At a time when Brickell is perhaps best known for his ‘tourist railway’, and then his pottery, the celebration is a reminder that there was a time in recent memory when clay and its shaping sat close to the heart of a national and regional Pacific aesthetic, determined to engage with questions about this place. Engaged, that is to say, with its forms, textures, materials, and the ways people and their technologies have interacted with and impacted on the landscape. In this period Brickell’s unique experiments with form, as well as his commitments to a wide range of what he saw as indigenous aesthetic elements, saw him as close to the centre of contemporary New Zealand art as we are likely to see a ceramic practitioner.
The survey exhibition and book locate Brickell in the wider cultures of clay and New Zealand art in the 1950s, through a peak in the 1970s, and into clay’s current malaise. From the late 1940s potters like Len Castle engaged in artisan production and were seen as cultural figures. By 1959 they were included in shows at Auckland Art Gallery. Arch-modernist folk like Hamish Keith (who flatted with Brickell in Newton and Newmarket) made pots: some of them, donated by Keith to The Dowse, are in the show. Brickell showed at New Vision Gallery, and also several times at Peter McLeavey, in group shows of the mid 1970s, and at the progressive Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 1980.
The major social documentary photographers of the time – Ans Westra, Marti Friedlander, Robin Morrison, Gil Hanly, Steve Rumsey, John Daley – all made the pilgrimage to Brickell at Driving Creek, much as they did to James K. Baxter at Jerusalem, and the large series of virtually unseen and certainly unpublished images by these photographers is included in the upcoming book.
The great New Zealand art of the 1950s, 60s and 70s certainly took matters of local palette and form seriously: even as it pushed back, and often tactically appropriated a series of formal innovations from the metropolis. McCahon and Woollaston played endlessly with the possible relations between modernist formal traditions (Cubism, Cezanne’s interactions between line and plane) even as they gave us a new lexicon of loaded forms to understand the landscape with. For Brickell too, local forms and palette mattered: its colours, but also its textures and surfaces, which led him to the coarse and primitive: “rich and warty, cracks and all”, as he has put it. From early youth, he went on serial field trips, producing endless pencil drawings of gas works, power insulators, railways running through hills. There was a physical, embodied, almost erotic excitement about all of this, right from the outset. “I didn’t know that I was an artist,” Brickell wrote in Doggerel, (his limited-edition book of poems, philosophy and drawings published by Brett McDowell Gallery in 2012), “until my penis told me so. The concrete wall of the Vauxhall Primary School’s boys’ toilet became a canvas. Here, I painted rimus, weeping willows and tall totara. Then little ferns and shrubs before the ink went dry.”
The quest for an indigenous ceramic culture would stay with him his whole life. So too would his basic convictions about what that meant, in terms of forms, textures and materials. Writing in an early issue of NZ Potter in August 1959, when he was a teachers college student living in inner Auckland, he reflects on a trip to Oruaiti, Northland, where he saw kids coiling “thumping big pots” and masks from plain local clay: “Our native environment is so rich, full, deep in mood and vigorous in texture, that our pots should show at least some of those characteristics. Rough, crude but vigorous, solid pots, mean so much more than contrived, slick shapes. Then let’s have more of these made.”
In a similar vein, he speaks in Christine Leov-Lealand’s 1996 biography, Barry Brickell: A Head of Steam. “In vital life we use our environment. To do this needs broadness in concepts, tolerance, human awareness of others and oneself. Awareness of textures, colours, forms and, most important, the spirit or feeling of things. This is how we can extract the maximum from the very minimum of substrate. The country is big, powerful and exciting. In the raw it is rough, formidable, awe-inspiring – absolutely beautiful. Let us have those impressions soak steadily in, making us newer for what we do have. Let’s make pots like basalt blocks or do paintings with the subtlety of the land.” And more than 50 years after Oruaiti, when he was interviewed at Driving Creek Railway in Coromandel for Doggerel, he says, “I feel ambivalence about this: our improvised, rough, violent, puritanical, ingenious interaction with those landscape forms. The response was personalised, romantic, emotive, loose, earthy, gestural, handmade, primitive. There was power in this. It was improvised; it was not slick. It was going with natural properties… There’s still a lot of unfinished business in New Zealand art: in indigenisation; the establishment of an indigenous pottery culture.”
Paradoxically, it was partly the imported Anglo-Oriental tradition that enabled this ‘indigenous’ orientation, not least in its stress on local materials. These Brickell found plentiful and a more than adequate replacement for the expensive overseas clays which earthernware potters were using in the 1950s. He explains in Treasures of the Underworld, “The yellow clay I use is dug from pits beside the railway on my land at Coromandel. I add local river sand and some fine plastic ball clay from Central Otago. This gives it the qualities I desire. The raw clay is abundant – so we have been able to use it for a whole range of work… sculpture, pottery, tiles and bricks.”
There was also an endless fascination with form, to the point where other concerns faded from conscious thought. “I make these sculptures,” he said, referring to the major works prepared for Treasures of the Underworld, “because they’re abstract forms related somewhere to abstract shapes. Just nothing more than experiments in form. They are exercises in form. Purely form. Very little else.” The coiling method helped with the formal play: it was “not tied to the circular” in the way the wheel was, so allowing for voluptuous curves exaggerating bodily, natural and ‘anthropomorphically engineered’ creations. Some of the more fabulous ones involved dogs, morphing into steam vessels, dragons and gourd-like vessels all at once.
All this enabled the work to grow organically, and with new departures and evolutions after a break for reflection. “Several rolled out coils are added daily, then modelled into the evolving form. It’s a more relaxing method than throwing on the potter’s wheel,” he explained in the exhibition’s programme. But even wheel-thrown objects could be and were modified, given eyes and breastlike bumps, made grotesque and comic, fatsos and thinsos. The fatsos and thinsos were literally animated, in the cartoonic sense. They took the notion of pots having a personality to its logical and funny conclusion – each of them larger than life, and blusterous or particular beyond all realms of practicality.
All this Brickell called “animotion”, a vital and joyous part of his wider project of animating and vernacularising his world and its forms. Vernacularising was explicitly counter-colonial and directed to cobbling together a hybrid Aotearoan practice, complete with forms, materials, textures and surfaces. Appropriating technologies to help in the task was also important from the outset. As a young teenager, Brickell could be seen literally ‘chugging’ along the streets of Devonport, making steam-engine noises as he and his bicycle were fused and transmogrified into a steam truck ferrying odds-and-ends home to help build kilns and other containers of fire and pressure. Steam, and its propensities and powers, remained a central form of animation. “The machinery I use to prepare the clay is driven by steam engines that I have restored,” he states.
All this moved things well beyond the Anglo-Oriental. As Hamish Keith recalled in his memoir Native Wit (2008), “Like all the other potters (Barry) was involved in learned talk about celadon glazes and medieval stoneware… [yet] his own aesthetic hovered miraculously somewhere between New Guinea Sepik River and 13th-century European rubbish tip.” Uniquely, Brickell’s concept of the indigenous stretched to the Pacific: and to the Western Pacific, Melanesia, and the formally vital pottery made on the Sepik River and in Fijian villages.
Putting the show together with The Dowse Art Museum senior curator Emma Bugden has meant I’ve literally toured the country – from beyond Invercargill (Nigel Brown in Cosy Nook, Southland, has collaborated with Brickell) to Northland. Brickell’s pots are everywhere, dearly loved by serious collectors, from the Alliance Freezing Works’ corporate HQ in Invercargill, to Marshall Seifert’s and subsequently Brett McDowell’s gallery in Dunedin, to collector Simon Manchester and Peter McLeavey in Wellington, art patrons Lynda and John Matthews in New Plymouth, and many others to the north. At every turn, as Gregory O’Brien’s essay in the upcoming book demonstrates, was another artist – Brickell has had significant interactions with Theo Schoon, Keith Patterson, Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, Michael Illingworth, Tony Fomison, Ralph Hotere, Paul Maseyk and others. Discovering the many photographs of Brickell taken by Ans Westra, Marti Friedlander, John Daley, Steve Rumsey and Gil Hanly was another marvellous thing; squeezing all the ones everyone loved into the book was in the end much too hard.
In the book, photographer Haru Sameshima’s talents in imaging ceramics and the contemporary working environment of Driving Creek Railway and Pottery sit nicely alongside the mostly unseen historic record. The show at The Dowse Art Museum will occupy its major gallery spaces, bringing together for the first time the major sculptural pieces that toured to Europe in 1992, as well as simple, plainly decorated domesticware from private collections.
What won’t be in the show, but what the book tries to capture, is Brickell’s greatest work, the Driving Creek Railway itself. But the book does document the struggle between the railway and pots: the railway, embodying “all of my passion, all of it” while potters in residence struggled to get Barry off the railway, and into making great pottery. Nor will it fully capture Barry’s environmental projects, which are a reminder that if concerns of 1970s aesthetics have faded away, others have become more central.
Together the book and show will, we think, enact a kind of reinstatement, beyond the oddity Brickell himself has often felt he has become. His singular energies, however, have certainly enabled him to cover “more ground, and in my own way”. For someone who has always taken pleasure in producing ‘outsider’ work , both book and show place him strongly back in a canonical setting, not at ease, but not at all out of place.
The show His Own Steam, A Barry Brickell Survey, curated by Emma Bugden and David Craig, is at The Dowse Art Museum, from 4 May to 11 August 2013, then is touring nationally from 2013–2015. The book, His Own Steam: The Work Of Barry Brickell, by David Craig and Gregory O’Brien, will be published by Auckland University Press in May 2013.