Jim Cooper. Observations on the NZSP national exhibition, April, 2011

The list of those ceramic artists that consistently make fine work year after year, fine tuning and revisiting familiar forms and surfaces which offer enduring qualities, numbers many. Enviable skills and an insightful self-critical facility contributes to the fact that these disciplined artists and their works have endured the test of time through lesser and more fashionable ceramic trends and ensured these artists a respected standing in New Zealand ceramic history. Perhaps it is the artists immeasurable commitment that has focused them or, is it a case of a courageous spirit?  Nonetheless, they all possess the same strong key ingredient and that is the honest gift of an individual voice.  This sustaining attribute isn’t a simple matter of recognition born of repetition. It runs deeper than that. It is a process of exploration and articulation and becoming familiar with the concentric circles that draw artists closer to their source – however you see it – given or chosen.

This is not a criticism. It is an understood observation (he said, aware that tentative feet stand on tender toes). There is, I believe, an insecurity among some of the younger artists in the show.  This may be born of a lack of confidence in, or exposure to, parallel art forms or it may be a reluctance to engage in dialogue with fine art considerations. It may even be a reluctance to receive information from the greater ceramic history. This is a surprise, given the licence that was offered by the philosophy that was the Anglo-oriental deluge and its subsequent reactionary backwash.

It seems there was a time in New Zealand ceramic history when fingers stretched beyond our shores and toes dipped into that reactionary backwash. Those voyaging artists and their subsequent explorations into brave new lands brought abundant parallels to our conceptions of what was ceramic expression. This was not a fashion; not another ceramic fad but a valid and fresh new ceramic model whose resonances could have offered great contributions, over years, to our current ceramic inspirations.  But it did not. Instead it encountered a guarded stoneware wall and an accompanying monochromatic ideology.

This legacy weighs as heavily and as inevitably as any karmic collar on our ceramics.
Stripped of any energy the disciplines of the guards and the guarded offer little celebration. They are a polaroid of when we were young.

The ‘village’ separateness that isolates ceramics could well be a two-edged sword and not necessarily one that holds itself in conservatism.  We are obliged to offer more than cursory tips of the hat to our rich past. All artists are offered permission through being conversant with their traditions but with ceramics we seem to hold fast to the apron springs and evidence a reluctance toward stepping into the future.  Of course, there is the art market for those who fit the bill, but I think that should come with a warning.  A bowl is a bowl and a lot of bowls are a lot of bowls and they might all possess the alarming beauty of Brancusi’s Bird in Space and be valuable because they are beautiful objects to cherish – but that is their worth. But extravagant claims do not help. A contrived concept can lessen the viewer’s response. It is not intent that makes art art and there are many finely crafted paintings and sculptures that don’t possess this value.

As we teach we should also learn and remain aware that there is a danger of passing on an aesthetic with a skill.  “If you do it this way you will get a result, if you do it the way I do it you will get what I’ve got”. And now I hear Dylan’s Back Pages. Teaching ceramics should be damage control for there is little that can’t be fixed with an angle grinder. There is no right or wrong, or good, or bad; it is a process and there is more to be learned from observing a student than their watching and exemplifying the teacher, or indeed, a book.


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