A Writer with a Ceramic Fetish

While ceramic art is the basis for this blog, I will digress at times and include other objects and sites of beauty and humour, that I find both interesting and/or inspiring.


                                               26/10/2014

I started a new project this weekend to document the ceramic display’s in shop windows where I live. The streetscape in most big cities in China is dominated by shouting neon signs. Between the glitz and glam are the occasional shadows of restrained darkness. They are mostly tea rooms and genuine foot massage parlours. They offer offer a different, but declining ambience. Shop windows of classical ceramics displayed on darkwood, sometimes ornate, display stands. Remnants of the past referring to a more genteel society that whisper the often spoken but rarely heeded advice — Manzou — (go slow or take it easy)

Ming style dragon vase with crackle
From a foot massage parlour, Ningbo, China

6/10/2014

How Picasso’s Ceramic Art Restored My Sanity

(An extended, topical and personal review)


This contextual review is alternatively be titled: How Picasso’s Ceramic Art Restored My Sanity, rather than the more formal Picasso Ceramics: Objects from the Nina Miller Collection University Museum and Art Gallery. The University of Hong Kong. I’d just spent three traumatic days, not knowing if I would be able to rejoin my partner in China. With each application a different answer, none of which matched. I was eating poorly and drinking to much coffee.


While the responses to my application were hard to correlate, images repeated and reflected everywhere. Waiting for elevators my likeness receded overhead down a tunnel of mirrors. Buckled lift doors bounced back my full length reflection, warped and twisted. I was in shop windows, passing cars and restaurant tables. Turning to the sky, buildings bounced of each other. At night their refractive skin popped digital neon blood, boastful slogans cast in reverse.


There is no rest in a place where space is a premium and the default design material is glass and mirrors. No refrain between wailing spruikers, no negative space to contemplate the image. Here is the salon of mercantile fever, the never fading nightclub beat.


On the fourth day, visa in hand, I boarded a bus. Through the morning glare of Wanchai, Central and Admiralty — that the next day would be closed down, teeming with pro democracy demonstrators. I sank into my seat, a running dot matrix banner at the front would tell me when I’d reached my destination. Headphones secluded me from the chatter. Even when it appears to be quiet, there remains a background hum like you get from a dodgy pa system. A random selection, pumped late 70‘s reggae into my head. 


Nostalgia radiated nostalgia. I recalled how, as an undergrad, in first year art history, the proposition had be put that Picasso was the greatest artist to ever live. It was, of course, a provocation to stimulate a tutorial debate. At roughly the same time I overheard the head of the painting faculty condemn, albeit jovially, the ceramic studio as the crockery department. 


As a youngish, budding art historian, with a remnant punk attitude, studying among ambitious studio artists, I was nonplussed about the debate over who was the greatest ever artists, but engaged in the discussion, schooled, as we all had recently been, in the great breakthrough that was cubism. I certainly cannot remember if my particular tutorial group supported the proposal or not. However, what I can be certain about is that Picasso’s crockery output was never mentioned. I should disclose that I have done nothing to address this lack in my own teaching practice over the last 10 years. The demands in Asia are far more focussed on the application of art to design, particularly graphics and architecture, than theory and aesthetic appreciation.


The exhibition was, as expected, very well curated, but with the usual annoyance of the glare from glass cabinets, that really dose effect the viewing. However, this is Picasso and it is in Asia. 


My first impression was of the calm, that one tends to expect in galleries and museums — a ghostliness that was campus wide. Such tranquility, even a small group of tiny tots, ushered along by their teachers failed to disrupt it, and really it was great to see toddlers enjoy the art. 


The work within this show contained most, if not all, of the artists well known motifs and styles. Earthenware platters adorned with shadowy scenes of the bullfight greeted the viewer. These monochrome works are quite stunning in their simplicity and the theme is continued in the decoration of later three dimensional objects such as Arena, a white earthenware vase with red and black detail, in which the artist captures the event and presence of the crowd in characteristic quickly applied daubs.


Faces, or portraits, are also included. One particular section was given over to large earthenware tiles, upon which faces are either painted of inscribed. These, presented at a more engaging height, were very much to liking of the tots, with their skewed expressions, while the humour was not lost on me especially those that gave the appearance of  carved woodblocks.


In the next room birds became dominant: owls, doves and ducks, took the form of ewers, vases and other sculptural objects. Some sinister, some playful and some quite elegant. 

The awkwardly titled Duck Flower-Holder, from 1951, is an amusing example of how sculptural inspiration is taken from animal form. Initially I did not notice the small holes in the top of the body and questioned the title, but upon spying them one can see how the utility of this object would playfully enhance the decorative visage on the bird’s breast .


The reuse of broken or discarded pots, in an assemblage of owl figures is equally amusing. Some are clearly assembled from more than one turned pot constituting three openings at head, foot and flared tail.


The sinister appeared in the shape of White Owl on red Ground. This round terra-cotta platter from 1957 features a full frontal image, feathers and sharp talons, detailed in black upon the white body. There is something quite emblematic about this work that brings to the mind of this viewer motifs of World War II. The same may also be said of another terra-cotta platter Perched Black Owl. From 1951, this is again a full frontal image in black on a red ground, that is perhaps lightened from its emblematic guise, through its plump torso, slit smile and placement upon a perch. 


The serious aspect is not limited to the two dimensional, as Wood-owl with Feathers, a plump bodied vase, decorated with the scolding expression of a headmaster demonstrates, it’s piercing eyes and acutely angled brows fixing the gaze of the viewer. A further sculptural piece, the simply titled Owl from 1953 is like the two platters rendered in a palette of black on red with some white, yet in its three dimensional state the decorative motif does not impose itself with a dictatorial gaze. 


The most exquisite work on display is the small Dove Subject. One of the later works within this eclectic collection, this petit turned vase is elegantly decorated with blue and black detail on white earthenware clay. Here detail rests in perfect harmony with sculptural form and seems to have been more painstakingly applied.


The largest work on display is also worthy of mention. A massive earthenware pot proud in it girth and simplicity of decoration. Divided into eight red and white sections, featuring characteristically simple fish and bird designs, this , of all pieces resonates most with artisanal quality of the place of production.


Made in collaboration with Suzanne Raime they represent a small portion of 633 editions produced through the artisanal collaborative process at the Madoura ceramics studio in the south of France (Nordland 2013). While Picasso’s role in this venture was not limited to the decoration of ceramic objects, much of the historical and photographic documentation refers moreover to artist’s role in the addition of decorative detail. As limited editions these artworks have found their way into various collections, of which the Nina Miller collection is one.


If, after viewing this exhibition, the proposition regarding Picasso’s status among other artists was to be refined to his engagement with the ceramic medium, I would suggest that he would be found wanting. For while his brilliance as a visual artist is without doubt, his exploration of the capacities of clay is surely limited. Confined to the traditions of heavy bodied earthenware, his output did not really explore the sculptural qualities of the medium, but rather its provision of a canvass for the development and expression of established and new motifs.   


I was, however, immensely appreciative of the opportunity to view this exhibition. As I left the show I realised why these simple heavy bodied works, in earthy tones, finished with soft glazes or left bare, appealed so much. They absorbed light and were a gentle and relaxing contrast to the flood of reflective surfaces that, over the past three days, had irritated my vision. The next day I would leave Hong Kong becalmed and the refractive skins of the high rise environment would fill with the simulacra and placards of thousands of angry students.


References

Nordland, G. (2013) PABLO PICASSO 25 YEARS OF EDITION CERAMICS From The Rosenbaum Collection. http://www.a-r-t.com/picassomr/ (Accessed 5/10/2014)



Slide List

Face with Goatee 1968, red earthenware with engobes decoration, engraving enhanced with enamel under partial brushed glaze, black patina &

colours 33 x 31 cm.

Duck Flower Holder 1951, white earthenware & oxides on white enamel, 42.5 x 21.5 x 45 cm.

Birds and Fishes 1955, earthenware with engobes decoration 49 x 48.5 x 13 cm.

White Owl on Red Ground 1957,  red earthenware with engobes decoration 45.5 cm.

Pase de muleta 1959, earthenware with engobes decoration, 42 cm.

Dove Subject 1959, white earthenware and engobes decoration, 17 x 11.5 x 28 cm.

Owl  1953, white earthenware with engobes decoration, 33 x 18.5 x 28 cm.

Wood-owl with Feathers 1951, white earthenware, oxides on white enamel, 30 x 22.5 cm.

Arena 1958, earthenware with engobes decoration 30 x 20.5 cm.

Perched Black Owl. 1957, earthenware with engobes decoration, 43 cm.

Slides: How Picasso's Ceramic Art Restored My Sanity


                                                              3/10/2014

During the Chinese National Day holiday, while the world focused on the student led demonstrations in Hong Kong, I visited Tianyi Library, in Ningbo a substantial complex of courtyards that comprises what was once the largest private library in China. It first came to my notice some years ago, when in conversation with an academic in Hangzhou, I learned that it is a surviving building from a period when students were mobilised in the service of the government, during the cultural revolution. It is quite well preserved, featuring  a couple of interesting wall reliefs, one with a peculiar anthropomorphic expression, and an insight into the preservation of books and scrolls from times past.  


25/9/2014


Picasso Ceramics
Hong Kong University Museum and Art Gallery3 September to 2 November 2014 http://www.hkumag.hku.hk/exhibition3.html

Today I found myself at a loose end in Hong Kong, and with a longterm visa for mainland China in hand, took the opportunity to visit the Hong Kong University Museum and Art Gallery where an exhibition of Picasso’s ceramic work, from the  Nina Miller Collection was making its debut in the region.


I’m not a seasoned HK expat by any means, so it was trip into the unknown. The number 23 bus dropped me at the east gate entrance, right next to the gallery, in the shadow of crammed together high rise apartment blocks.


The exhibition was, as expected very well curated, but with the usual annoyance of the glare from glass cabinets, that really dose effect the viewing. However this is Picasso and it is in Asia. 


My first impression was of the calm, that you tend to expect in galleries and museums. Such tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of the downtown streets. Even a small group of tiny tots, ushered along by their teachers failed to destroy it, and really it was great to see toddlers enjoy the work. 


The work on show contained most, if not all of the artists well known motifs. Earthenware platters adorned with shadowy scenes of the bullfight, realised in engobes, greeted us. These monochrome works are quite stunning in their simplicity and the theme is continued in the decoration of later sculptural objects.


Faces, or portraits, are also included. One particular section was given over to large earthenware tiles, upon which faces are either painted of inscribed. 

These, presented at a more engaging height, were more to liking of the tots, with their skewed expressions. Again for me it was the simple monochromes of black on terra-cotta that stood out, especially those that gave the appearance of woodblocks.


Moving along, birds became dominant: owls, doves and ducks, took the form of ewers, vases and other sculptural objects. Some sinister, some playful and some quite elegant. The reuse of broken or discarded pots, in an assemblage of owl figures is quite amusing. At times they resonate with a gourd, or perhaps Zeppelin, form and in some objects they are clearly assembled from more than one turned pot.


It was as I left the show that I realised why the simple works in earthy red appealed so much. They were a fabulous and relaxing contrast to the flood of reflective surfaces that assault the eye in downtown Wanchai. For anyone in Hong Kong seeking a respite from seeing themselves at every turn this exhibition is well worth the trip.


If there is a criticism to be said about this show, it is make it more available for tiny tots, try and find a middle ground between hallowed museum curation and a viewing height for small children as the naive quality of work genuinely appeals to them.

Photographs from Picasso Ceramics. Hong Kong University Museum and Art Gallery3 September to 2 November 2014 http://www.hkumag.hku.hk/exhibition3.html




Recently I took some time out the visit the US Westcoast, driving from Seatle to LA. Having a bit of a fetish for anything ceramic I was on the look out for work of any kind and also made a point of seeking out and bothering local potters and ceramic artists.

 
Ceramic Mosaic at a hotel in Seattle
Ceramic Mosaic at a hotel in Seattle

An effective work ideally suited to it place in a sumptuous looking but otherwise basic hotel


An all too brief stop in Portland and some fine street art


In The Hills of Willamette Valley

 

Tucked away in an isolated cleft around the small college town of Corvallis, in the Willamette valley live a number of dedicated potters. On my brief visit I was able to track down two, Lee Kitzman and Dale Donovan. Both enjoying the relaxed pace of life this part or Oregon affords. They have between them around a hundred years experience in the art of ceramics.

 

Kitzman has for the past 50 years drawn inspiration from the Japanese tradition, notably the art of raku, decorating his work with motifs gleaned from ancient texts. His work boasts simple japanese style landscapes and floral features, finished in finely crackled glazes. In his glaze finishing Kitzman is clearly democratic. When flicking through his recipe notebook he explained how, some ceramic artists jealously guard their alchemy, while he and others seek to build on the work of others.

 

Donovan’s work is much more glaze driven, as he specialises in crystal formation developed during the Song Dynasty. Yet is was not the East that initially prompted his engagement with the art of ceramics. That, he explained began during his days in military service stationed in Turkey, where he sighted the work of countless cultures that have passed through that region. Returning to the states he benefited from the GI Bill and studied ceramics with a number of well known ceramic artists of the period, including.

 

He has over time been able to take a relaxed approach to his art, supporting it through various other enterprises, such as bed and breakfast host, marriage celebrant and Christmas tree farmer, though this dedication to the development of crystal glazes has remained constant.

 

Today he sells his work, mainly through his own studio outlet, discarding the need for galleries and what he views as their disproportionate demands  

 

While Kitzman, like many other ceramicist, was drawn into to teaching, as way of supporting his practice, he, like many others, found it interfered with his art making and slowly withdrew from teaching. His work represents a life’s time dedication to the raku form.

 

Patterns and Textures

Still trawling through photos from my recent US West Coast road trip. These shots are simply patterns and textures of nature I came across and thought worth sharing.