The intersection between studio pottery and the fine arts has always been a contentious zone. Now that more and more artists are turning to work in clay, we should consider how the two traditions intertwine, says Denis O’Connor.
It is common knowledge that a schism exists between potters and artists working with clay. As stars in the contemporary art firmament increasingly line up for ceramics, it’s timely to consider how the craze among artists for clay is distinct from pottery and its inherited traditions. Unfortunately, there is little lucid commentary on the matter. Exceptions are rare – among them the authoritative writing by American ceramics historian Garth Clark, who has written definitive texts on practitioners from both traditions.
And it does need to be emphasised that there are two distinct traditional modes. I have recently been working in Australia and witnessed potters there being particularly vocal in their hostility to artists from the other tradition. As artists working with clay gain more kudos from fine art hierarchies, long-standing tensions appear to be flaring up. Fine artists may love the abandon they feel when their hands get muddy, but are they respecting or subverting the traditions of pottery?
When curating the 2016 exhibition HANDBUILT : Made in Clay for Two Rooms in Auckland, I had a long wishlist of artists whose clay work I wanted to include – such as Ron Nagle of California or Glenn Barkley from Australia. (In the event, I had to abandon many of my international choices and focus on work available in New Zealand, because the expense of freighting ceramics is considerable.) Why did I want work by Barkley? What are the characteristics that make his wonky vase forms more compelling than yards of gloop-saturated examples by the many other artists using clay?
Well, to put it bluntly, Glenn Barkley’s labour-intensive, schematised vessels have a physical, formal and conceptual presence that is about pottery, but without any utilitarian function. Sometimes – as with the work of Martin Poppelwell on this side of the Tasman – the text on Barkley’s works may appear to be mocking the earnestness of the ‘clay project’. It is clear Barkley admires the magnificent tradition of ceramics, but he’s no slave to it. This is crucial. Alongside Barkley’s and Poppelwell’s, the work of English artist Grayson Perry may be included in this category, although Perry displays a more illustrative bent in his narrative style.
One rarely sees confident wheel-thrown pieces from the new community of clay artists, though their antecedents such as George E. Ohr (1857–1918), the ‘mad potter of Biloxi’, or 20th-century game-changer Peter Voulkos (1924–2002) did make wheel-centric sculptural ceramics. Overt craftsmanship is not the defining principle for today’s artists, and showcasing technical accomplishment is a no-no.
What about traditional glazes? Forget it. But look at Ron Nagle’s miniature clay sculptures. The luxuriousness of his colour hues, and his obsessive attention to glaze clots and drips, mimic the sublime quality of oriental masterpieces, but with a sly wit, contrariness and provocative humour. They seem at the same time to break new ground for ceramics and honour traditional pottery. That is quite an achievement. Note also the hint of narrative suggested by his titles – Deadbeat Uncle (2016), for example, or Happiness Bastard (2016), or Pastafarian (2013). The use of deadpan humour and wicked asides is borrowed from contemporary art, where it is common – think of Ronnie van Hout’s I’m a Hopeless Failure – I’m Going Nowhere self-portraits.
Some artists effortlessly embrace ceramic techniques, such as casting. Julia Morison’s Headcase series (2015) and forthcoming installation Hexagon are examples of what cast-moulding can achieve when used as a sculptural process; they seamlessly join her dense back-catalogue of paintings and installations. From the same starting point, the identical mannequin heads undergo a continual reinvention that shifts meaning. Morison’s disciplined methodology offers an addition to the clay canon as important as the significant oeuvre of Bronwynne Cornish, who over the last four decades has defined many of the potentialities of figurative ceramics. Likewise, John Parker’s industrial minimalism has continued to set the bar: the way he edges pottery off the table and into theatrical wall installations may appear to be a result of casting, but is dependent on a masterful turning technique while the clay is drying.
More recent arrival Virginia Leonard has given us Baroque obelisks to chronic pain. She takes self-portraiture on an extreme toboggan ride. Is the dripping, accreted exterior of her structures an overfired glaze? Is it resin? Is it golden syrup, and will it all just suddenly collapse? I’m reminded of a character in Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt (1953) whose limping gait is described as “an abortive genuflection”. Leonard’s project has parallels perhaps to that of contemporary Japanese master Koie Ryoji, who explained his lifelong commitment to clay as a search for two severed fingers lost in a pug-mill when he was a teenager. I would also trace the genealogy of Leonard’s tottering effigies to the unique catalogue of ceramics made by Lucio Fontana (1899–1968) during the 1950s and 60s in collaboration with the Sèvres porcelain factory in Paris. His crucifixes suggest an exhilarating bouquet of flesh. Similarly, Leonard’s stacks of assembled forms have many references to the body as vessel – lugs, rims, necks – but smack more of gory pantomime and exorcism than of eulogy.
A fascination with ceramic debris that is closer to the kiln-fetish respect for fired clay was evident at Anna Miles Gallery in Auckland earlier this year. Scratch a cenotaph by Peter Hawkesby was a welcome reminder of what expressionist ceramics can achieve. It has been 30 years since Hawkesby’s work was last shown regularly, and each work in Scratch a cenotaph was a crowded collage of gestural ticks, loops, halos and linking joint devices. Some of the component items in each cluster dated back decades, but both new and old displayed characteristics that studio pottery devotees would thoroughly approve of and deem ‘blessed by the firing’. Despite this, Hawkesby’s works have an Allen Maddoxy fine arts fervour that few potters would allow themselves. The intense scrutiny the maker had subjected each fragment and shard to recalls a similar mode in the work of iconoclastic American artist Sterling Ruby – his recent debitage sculpture, for example, or kiln-disaster bathtubs.
This mark-making instinct and honouring of pottery traditions also exists in the plain, almost self-effacing pebbles, chimes and bricks of Walters Prize-winner Kate Newby – a long-time habitué of Greenwich House Pottery in New York. Her unobtrusive brownish wee things are sometimes installed dramatically in a white cube on a window ledge; other times hidden in trouser pockets or sunk into concrete. Like the buttons made by the great Lucie Rie during World War II, these tiny handmade objects conceal their everyday enigma by appearing ordinary – almost unnoticeable clay forms, they sometimes masquerade as stone or metal.
Newby’s arte povera approach to clay is miles away from what could be a new entry in the pocket guide to ceramics: Strattonware. Richard Stratton’s muse might be the traditional teapot or vase, but he takes these concepts somewhere they haven’t been before. He throws cubism, surrealism and Russian constructivism at the unsuspecting pot and it absorbs the impact with operatic zeal. Encyclopaedic knowledge of ceramic technique can sometimes stifle, and work become merely a display, but the complex architecture of Stratton’s constructions acts as a revitalisation of European clay legacies.
Then there is Isobel Thom. As someone whose first experience with clay was at Crum Brick, Tile & Pottery Company in New Lynn, making T-junctions, inspection pipes and gully-traps, I warmed to Thom’s kitchen and bathroom supplies on first sight. Her sinks, trough-like basins, charcoal braziers and shingled field-of-colour walls are earthy toned. Fixtures like this are usually either mass-produced castings, extruded or made with an industrial-scale slab roller. But all of Thom’s pieces look and feel handmade. Almost recalling the furniture of Diego Giacometti, with its brackety legs and handles, she makes improbably boxy tea sets, complete with tea trays, and sauceboats with grates. Sometimes they come in weird cadmium yellow or hospital-green glazes. These functional pieces might seem true to the best craft pottery tradition, but with their Agnes Martin-like graph-work as a decorative nod, Thom’s tea sets give the game away. In her pieces, as in the work of Stratton, Hawkesby and the others, we can see an alliance of studio pottery tableware with fine art tinkering at work. This is good news for the wider field of ceramics.