Humour of the sculptural kind
Sculptor Peter Lange takes that humble material – the clay brick – and deftly transforms it into sculptural objects that breathe lightness and humour.
Looking for Peter Lange’s studio starts off as a needle-in-haystack search – there are dozens of doors in the former winery complex, Corban Estate Arts Centre in Henderson, where he’s based – and then I see a lump of brick hanging from a piece of rope serving as a doorknocker, and I’m there. Inside there are more bricks, terracotta fragments and odd-shaped pieces sorted into piles on the dusty floor, and a trio of giant kumara in the middle. Brick kumara of course, which have been created for this year’s Sculpture OnShore event at Fort Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore in early November.
For the past 10 years Lange has made bricks his niche, making a metaphorical (and real) splash when he launched his now legendary Brick Boat at Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour in 2002. Talking about where his inspiration came from, he recalls, “It was back in the 1990s. I was sitting inside this anagama kiln in North Devon – a beautifully sculpted structure made of bricks – and I felt like I was sitting under the hull of a boat. I jokingly said to my friend: ‘We should flip this over and see if it floats,’ and the idea stuck in my head”.
When he returned to Auckland, the idea wouldn’t go away, so he made a scale model and tested it in his bathtub, and reassured the full-sized version would float, he set about building it. He bought a stack of bricks, borrowed a bench-saw with a diamond blade, experimented with adhesives until he found a mix of epoxy resin and silica sand that had the desired strength, and set about building an 18-foot craft “that I wanted to look like a kid’s drawing of a boat”. As it took shape in the yard at Studio Potters in Onehunga, the rugged beauty of the bricks intrigued Lange. “Having to accurately cut the bricks to closely fit in each modular section, these really neat patterns arise. You actually lose control of it; the bricks take over and do what they want to do. It was a beautiful experience.” A local factory supplied a crane to flip the boat over, and to Lange’s relief, the structure remained intact.
He approached sculptor Jeff Thomson (who else?) to provide the sail rig, which was created out of old pipes and corrugated steel, and appropriately on April Fool’s Day, during the annual Potters’ Conference, the boat was gingerly lowered into the Viaduct Basin.
Lange recalls, “I had plenty of margin for safety. It weighed two tonnes, and its volume meant I had freeboard of about 12 inches. But initially it rocked a lot, so by the time I’d put 300kg of ballast in to steady it, it was sitting lower in the water. We were towed around the inner harbour for three hours by the steam tug, and it was only when we noticed that the unsealed bricks were starting to absorb a bit of water that we decided to lift it out. But we had great fun, and the potters had arranged an impromptu choir, serenading us with the song For Those in Peril on the Sea as we sailed around.”
And since making the boat Lange has transformed the humble brick into a myriad of intriguing sculptural forms. He won the Premier Award in the 2006 Portage Ceramic Awards with his Brick Lilo; a large brick kete sits at Connells Bay Sculpture Park, and other incongruous brick forms he has created include deckchairs, a tent, paper dart, caravan, camera and a corkscrew. The latter, somewhat appropriately is sited at Brick Bay Winery and Sculpture Park near Warkworth, where another early work, Last man down, was one of the park’s first commissioned works – its material referencing the early brickworks that once stood nearby. Lange remains proud of this sculpture, and though he generally eschews deep artistic themes in his work, he feels this piece achieves a feeling of substance. “The basic premise I started with was that the last thing remaining after a house fire is usually the chimney. Then I thought I’d make it slightly anthropomorphic, and styled it on the stance of a rugby player doing the haka – the ‘last man down’ was what we used to call the No 8 position in the scrum. Though the work was experimental at the time, I feel it comes together quite well.”
Lange’s works are now well represented in private collections, sculpture parks and public installations, and his creative path has taken many interesting detours.
He recounts early years as a classic child of the 1940s, living through the optimistic years of the 1960s, when there was no shortage of jobs, and travelling around the world. He returned to settle down and raise a family in the early 1970s and rented a house in Bombay, South Auckland, where, serendipitously, a potter friend lived nearby. Lange’s curiosity kicked in and a few months later, with a borrowed kick-wheel and a home-built diesel-fired kiln using the vacuum cleaner as a blower, he was in business.
He recalls: “It was an extraordinary time – we were making things people would pay money for. Craft shop owners would come in and buy everything, and take it back to their stores in Matamata, Te Awamutu or wherever. There was quite a ‘craft storm’ and we all thought it would never end. I had a doctor friend who gave up the profession and took up pottery because there was more money in it!”
Lange then moved to the Kaipara hills near Warkworth and became a proficient production potter. In the Auckland Studio Potters book Playing With Fire he recalled: “I made mugs by the carload – I could throw 150 a day and finish them off the next day with a deft trim and an extruded handle pushed on… They were actually very comfortable and useful mugs with sufficient signs of being hand-made to satisfy those customers who were keen to be part of the 1970s ‘Whole Earth’ deal without leaving their suburban home comforts.”
By the late 1970s the suburbs had called, and Lange, his wife Ro and young family moved back to Auckland, setting up the retail/workshop cooperative The Potter’s Arms in Mt Eden. It became a cultural, social and political meeting place, in particular during the 1981 Springbok Tour, as the premises were directly opposite Eden Park. But by the mid-1980s, the studio pottery boom was over. Ironically, the removal of import tariffs by the 1984 Labour Government, headed by his brother David, led to the deluge of cheap imported ceramics that flooded the market and caused the demise of all but a small group of ceramicists.
Lange was inspired by visionary Californian ceramicist Richard Shaw, who visited New Zealand in 1981, and this prompted him to change his creative style, adopting slip-casting and creating less functional, and more humorous sculptural works – including ‘rock’ teapots and polystyrene and brick mugs.
Though he can’t put a finger on the point when he ‘became’ a sculptor, he recalls: “I’d always envied my mates who could throw clay as a plastic material. I’d resisted it, and had kept my eye on the market during those golden years. But suddenly it was fun to get relaxed about my making – even if I was 20 years behind everyone else.
I recall one of my friends describing my early slip-casting attempts as ‘contrived looseness.’”
As well as taking an irreverent approach to his art, Lange also cast caution to the wind when it came to firing his pieces, creating a zany repertoire of kilns over the years. His first deviation from the norm was a replica of Rangitoto, made from ceramic fibre, which, while holding in the heat, also let light through. He’s tried to come up with a new idea every year, and though he’s the first to admit they’re theatrical rather than practical, he always manages to fire something in the kiln – even the ice kiln that he has been requested to replicate and fire up during several overseas trips. There have been guitar kilns, birthday-cake kilns, Yellow-Pages kilns and even a kiln made from an old Mazda car that had reached the end of the proverbial road.
He has also been heavily involved in the Auckland Studio Potters Society for over a decade, running classes and serving as president, as well as organising the society’s 50th anniversary publication, Playing With Fire, in 2011. And to prove there’s life outside ceramics, he worked for a couple of years in the 1990s designing headstones for a monumental mason.
For the past 20 years his works have displayed a wry, humorous, often cock-eyed look at society, mutating clay into unexpected objects and imbuing them with new life. In the case of his brick sculptures, there’s a surprising sense of lightness and ‘user-friendliness’ that belies the material he’s used. His quirky kumaras will sit comfortably on the cliff-top venue at Sculpture OnShore, looking from a distance like the real thing – a subconscious reference to the historic pa sites and traces of early Maori kumara pits on nearby North Head.
Talking about his work in the upcoming exhibition headland Sculpture on the Gulf, on Waiheke Island in January, he’s more circumspect, still cementing the concept in his mind, though he’s keen to explore the idea that the beach and foreshore belongs to us all.
After visiting his latest installation, Tokens from the game in New Lynn, he observed that judging by the number of children climbing over the oversized bell, camera and dodgem car, he’s become a de facto children’s playground builder. And lurking in the back of his mind is the idea for his ultimate artwork – a brick bouncy castle.
Watch this space. /Dan Chappell