Autumn 2008 Studio

Subverting the pot

Andy Kingston takes a magpie approach to pop culture and consumerism in his wickedly funny ceramics.

As one of the inaugural recipients of the 2005 Starving Artist Fund award, ceramicist Andy Kingston’s intention was to make 1000 of his signature earthenware plates for display at the exhibition of the winners’ works.

“However, it didn’t quite work that way,” he explains, “as only about 500 ended up in the exhibition, the other 500 I had to sell over the past year or so to survive.” The ones he did manage to keep were displayed in Homeliness, held at Auckland’s Objectspace last October, and were the highlight of the exhibition.

Kingston’s trademark works comprise small earthenware bowls and dishes, embellished with a range of humorous, whimsical images and dialogues, borrowing disparate motifs and messages from comic and cartoon characters, product logos, music and art. The works in Homeliness included The secret collection of Rudolf Rudolph, a ceramic homage to 20 of the country’s top potters, Lo Fi / Low Fire, a top 40 playlist cleverly arranged in the shape of a tape cassette, and a shrine­like work depicting artists in cartoon guise – including Hotere as The Hulk, Frizzell as (what else) The Phantom, and Ronnie Van Hout as Frankenstein’s Monster – all painstakingly painted in mirror image!

Kingston is based in Kaeo, Northland, and gained his Bachelor in Applied Arts at Northland Polytechnic’s Kerikeri campus, training under leading ceramicist Richard Parker.

“I originally completed a general certificate course, studying under painter Scott McFarlane, but when I returned to complete my degree I became interested in ceramics, mainly because of Richard’s enthusiastic teaching style,” says Kingston.

He also accompanied Parker to the second 2003 World Ceramics Biennale, held in Inchon, South Korea. “I went as one of his assistants for 11 days during the biennale. It was amazing to see the sheer scale of the event, which was spread over three large locations, and the popularity of ceramics in Korea – from traditional to contemporary. At one stage Richard was one of 12 wheel-based ceramicists doing demonstrations for the public. It was great fun, and it was then I realised ceramics was where I wanted to be.”

Since then Kingston has honed his craft – and techniques – with Parker, whose studio and kiln were, until recently, just down the road from Kingston’s rural home. Responding to a question about his ‘dish’ motif he says, “I like the discipline of making large numbers of similar objects. Richard taught me to throw off a lump of clay. I’ve spent hours working in his studio, watching him throw, and helping him with his dishes and vases. He showed me how to ‘make and stretch the canvas.’”

But Kingston’s ‘canvas’ has not been all bowls and dishes. For an exhibition at the polytechnic, he made a large number of life-like ice creams on the wheel and then arranged to ‘fire’ them in a mock hangi. The event was signposted as a ‘Free Ice Cream Hangi’ and campus attendees got a free drink with their souvenir ceramic ice cream. The only sour point was a passer-by who turned up with his family, expecting a free lunch, and turned nasty, destroying the sign and complaining about misleading advertising to the campus office!

Where does Kingston’s puckish irreverence come from? “Hard to pin down,” he acknowledges. “I’ve loved comics since I was a kid, so a lot of the influence arises from that art form. Much of the humour comes from my time at Okaihau College, a small-town school with a strong Maori presence. Their sense of humour is amazing – it’s all about tone, intonation and delivery as much as content, and I now try to convey those nuances in my work.

“I also read a Saskia Leek interview, where she talked about how she picks up ideas from amateur art she finds in op-shops, and connects because of the honesty and naivety of the works. That hit a vein with me, as it really is the reason I continue to work with the dishes. I think pottery lends itself to amateurism; everyone’s familiar with pottery; there are no barriers; it’s part of the everyday.”

Kingston takes the everyday and gives it a mental twist or two, giving familiar slogans, logos and trademarks a subtle and often not-so-subtle tweak. ‘My Little Pony’ morphs into ‘My Little Phoney’; ‘Appletise’ becomes ‘Dramatise… Sparkling Drama… no evil added’. The Dole banana sticker becomes ‘artist’s Dole NZ’ and Mainland’s Edam Cheese label transmogrifies into ‘Auckland’s Premium Quality Elam’!

The appeal of Kingston’s work also lies in the way he deftly layers and groups his bowls, challenging the viewer to connect the elusive strands that connect his pieces.

“I like big groupings of pieces and networks of visual and written puns. The works can appear dense, with a load of ambiguous information that the viewer has to engage with. I like to provide a lot of possible roads in and out of the work; there should be one or two things there for everyone – then once they start to engage and develop a dialogue with the work, they get drawn in.”

Does he see his group works as some kind of ceramic comic strip, with the viewer following an arcane storyline hidden in the warped commentary of many of the pieces? With his references to drugs and welfare dependency, is he exposing the soft and increasingly sinister underbelly of New Zealand culture? He has taken the ‘L’ out of the L&P logo; PK chewing gum becomes ‘PC’; and Vegemite becomes ‘Veretite… contrived yet appeals’.

He acknowledges the influence of the work of ceramicists Martin Poppelwell and recent Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry, where the ceramic form becomes the medium for the message, rather than the art itself. “Grayson Perry subverts the pot,” he comments. “When you first look at his work from a distance, it looks beautiful, both in form and design. It’s only when you get up close that you see the nasty, vicious, often sadistic imagery, which is at odds with the innocent beauty of the form. While I don’t buy into Perry’s extreme images and messages, his style has been a starting point influencing the direction of my work.”

Not sinister, but definitely subversive, Kingston has, in a brief (just over two years) sojourn in the ceramic sector, provided a refreshing take on a medium that is often criticised as being predictable, safe and accessible.

Critics may point to a ‘one-trick-pony’ concern with his work to date, and argue that humour and cryptic word games have no place in serious art, but Kingston is engaging a public that is becoming weary of abstruse high-art chicanery. In a gentle, yet barbed way, he is lifting the veil off the signs, symbols and logos of our lives, and revealing the subliminal messages concealed within them.

Dan Chappell

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