Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Corobrik National Ceramics (Awards) Exhibition 2012

Hosted by Ceramics Southern Africa Gauteng at the Pretoria Art Museum.
A review by Eugene Hön, as published in issue102 of National Ceramics in the summer of 2012.

The ceramic statement entered by ceramicist Delphine Niez is a worthy winner of the Corobrik National Ceramics Exhibition for 2012.  At first glance, the piece entitled Fossil II appears to be made up of a number of translucent pinch pots, clustered together to form an expressive vessel. However, they are shaped and attached together to form a group of connected vessels, reminiscent of sea anemones.  Their whiteness and imperfections, a result of an uncomplicated method of construction (pinching), produce an expressive ceramic piece that contrasts sharply with everything else on the exhibition.  The translucency and fragility, as well as organic composition, reiterate the biomimic qualities underlying the conceptualization and realization of this ephemeral ceramic statement. The end result is fresh and simple, achieved by means of the loosely pinched and icing-like qualities of the individually conceived and constructed forms and shapes, further enhanced by an appropriate surface technique. 
Premier Award
Delphine Niez (Eastern Cape)
Fossil II - porcelain.
This is an expressive piece that oozes life and movement generated by the composite vessel of individually crafted pots with their – dare I say it – squirmy rims.  This ceramic statement comes alive as each of the pinched organic vessels extends in all directions, so as to breathe in the fresh air surrounding its occupied space – so typical of instant fossilization (a moment in time fossilized forever).  The attention to detail, applied to all aspects of the work (form, shape, texture, structure and title) is what makes the piece cutting edge and in many ways a controversial winner, especially in the eyes of the conservative potter.

This controversy is further complicated by the fact that the winner is not home-grown talent. The piece was judged the winner by internationally acclaimed ceramicist and Award Judge Daphne Corregan, a close friend of the ceramicist, who was born in and recently emigrated from France.  Let it be said that her work stands out, when seen in reality, amongst the rest of the works on display – the majority of which are very obvious and almost predictable in their concept and ceramic ideas (often an extension of concepts and ideas derived from internationally acclaimed ceramicists). If the winning piece had to be original, innovative and fresh and have that wow factor, then no other work in this exhibition is a more deserving winner. As Michael Jackson said of his anticipated final tour – “this is it”:  this ceramic statement was certainly it.

This was to be a groundbreaking national awards exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Ceramics Southern Africa.  Hopes were high to mount an awards exhibition that would complement the anticipated birthday celebrations. A recently published bumper birthday issue of the magazine National Ceramics (the 100th issue), the official mouthpiece of the organization, put in perspective the numerous challenges the organization and judges have faced in terms of selection and representation since its inception in the 1970s.  

Directives aimed at the ceramic umbrella organization called on selectors and judges to be more inclusive and representative of the ceramics community in their membership and selection processes for regional and national exhibitions and competitions. The work of all leading ceramicists was to be showcased, representing the broad and diverse range of ceramic expression this country has to offer.  It must now sadly be said that this was not to be. Hearsay indicates that the selection process was very exclusive and that only the very best of crafted works made their way onto the plinths, and that many unconventional works were not selected. To borrow Wilma Cruise’s phrase in describing the national ceramics awards exhibition held at the UJ Gallery in 2008, a ‘Pottery Eisteddfod’, “nothing has changed”. 

We need to urgently respond to Garth Clark’s call, in a provocative article cited in the previous issue of National Ceramics, “What about to-morrow”. Anne Marais responded to Clark’s ‘stirring of the Ceramic Pot’, warning APSA to accept the work by this new wave of clay workers – and to adopt an openness to art and design rather than just “craft consciousness”. There is therefore a need to implement some of the suggestions made at a panel discussion on the status of South African ceramics entitled ‘Where ceramics is (in South Africa) in 2008’, held at UJ Art Gallery and coinciding with the awards exhibition displayed there. Now is the time to revisit the well-documented overview of this discussion by Nikki Swanepoel. It is vital to take heed of the statements made by Wilma Cruise and myself, including the issues raised by Nikki Swanepoel, and to define a way forward.  Perhaps there is a need to review the awards exhibition categories, as she suggested.

‘If CSA (and their exhibitions) caters for the majority of members / hobby potters and display more popular work, it may choose to continue to do so. However this may well discourage the more professional member to participate, or continue to have potentially exemplary non-members choose not to join. I am in no way trying to imply that one member should be privileged above another – it is simply a matter of choice, whether CSA should try and make one shoe fit all, whether there should be differentiation within one governing body, or whether there should be different governing bodies / criteria for different requirements.’ (Swanepoel, Where ceramics is in SA; issue 86, 2008)

Aims and objectives need to be clearly defined for mounting such awards exhibitions and issued to the selectors and judges to ensure that these directives are implemented and adhered to. The horizon of the age-old ceramic discipline-specific craft form needs to be expanded, rather than being conservative and narrow in the selection process. Attracting even more diversity in expression across disciplines (the craft, the art and design of ceramic products) is what is needed, thus creating an exhibition platform or forum for innovative and creative works that challenge the boundaries of this discipline-specific craft before it is too late.

Membership is dwindling and the average age of participants must almost be retiring age, the prospects for growth are now much lower than ever before – especially in the light of fewer official tertiary institutions offering qualifications in the field. It is just a matter of time before a crisis has devastating consequences. We need to ask ourselves whether we can afford to be so narrow in our approach in the selection processes, at a time when we should be taking a more progressive, inclusive and, where necessary, even avant-garde approach in terms of representation. Confrontation sparks healthy debate and will assist the organization in its rebirth to meet the unique challenges of the 21st century.

Merit Award Winner
Katherine Glenday (Western Cape)
Let’s turn our attention to the rest of the award winning pieces. The award for expressive ceramics went to Katherine Glenday and the prize for utilitarian ceramics to David Walters, both from the Western Cape. Glenday’s work entitled Another Way of Saying It I, is decorative rather than expressive. Masterfully crafted and with a cleaver use of the clay body’s translucency, Glenday was able to apply a thick transparent glaze (painted or trailed) on the randomly placed decorative motifs of fishes, simulating water dripping from the otherwise matt porcelain vessel. This very subtle decorative approach to an innovative technique is lost to the eye of most viewers at the exhibition. This exciting approach to surface decoration deserves an award; however, for this critic, it could have been exploited further - a slight increase in scale of the motifs could have enhanced the decorative and expressive function of the vessel. 
The incredible ceramics of multi-award winner Anima Roos (image on the left) from Belgium come to mind. Hopefully Glenday will capitalise on this fresh and innovative surface development opportunity. Walters’s subtle range of utilitarian ware is understated, almost minimalist in approach. It supports the view that present-day ceramic judges applied the opinion that conscious consumers desire the whiteness, an almost hygienic appearance in contemporary tableware, to best showcase the colours of fresh salads and foodstuffs cooked ‘al dente’ - promoting a healthy lifestyle, rather than the brown stoneware pottery inspired by the Hamada tradition.

Ceramics by Lesley-Ann Hoets
Highly commended certificates went to Digby Hoets and Colleen Lehmkuhl from Gauteng and Ann Marais and Gavin Grieve from the Western Cape. 
Highly Commended
Digby Hoets
Pair of Green Ash Urns.
The work of Digby Hoets needs no introduction. Masterly conceived, thrown and constructed, glazed and fired, these monumental vessels were produced by one of three siblings (the others being Leslie-Ann and Garth), whose work was selected for this awards exhibition. 
His work is in a class of its own and continues to surprise and inspire me. Perhaps it is because I have a memory of the potter’s sanctuary where these very large vessels are produced - a visit to his studio is an experience in itself. 

There you are greeted by large numbers of these vessels in a variety of colours and glazes nestled together in the shade of indigenous trees surrounding the master craftsperson’s workshop. They take centre stage, they are carefully placed and styled and they are the envy of the potter’s studio installation. This promotes the potter lifestyle and successful career of a bygone era, adding to the consumers’ nostalgia (open-day studio experiences), imbuing the architectonic vessels with those handcrafted qualities steeped in tradition. Follow link provided to view the artists studio in the above-mentioned studio environment. 

Highly Commended
Ann Marais (Western Cape)
Facades of Power - porcelain.

Ann Marais' ceramic sculpture series entitled Facades of Power, Business and Military follow a figurative tradition that draws upon the pioneering work of Robert Arneson, a cartoonist turned ceramic sculptor. Arneson is considered the father of funk art and the funk movement started in the 1960s. He and his California-based compatriots abandoned the traditional manufacture of utilitarian ceramics, referencing everyday objects to make confrontational statements. Judith Schwartz's recently published book Confrontational Ceramics provides a historic overview and context for work produced in this particular genre. For a review of this book - published in an issue of Ceramics Art and Perception follow the provided link. The publication is divided into various chapters, showcasing work with concepts in a variety of themes:
·       War and politics; societies run amok
·       The social and human condition; internal and external realities
·       Gender issues; sexual and psychosexuality – guilty pleasures and the return to the body
·       The environment; confrontation decay and indifference
·       Popular and material culture; consumerism, the marketplace and Disneyland aesthetics

Gavin Grieve received a much-deserved merit award for his ceramic work Muse Jar and a set of lidded jars. For this critic his classical minimalist soda-glazed oriental-inspired ceramic statements are very special indeed. You can just imagine one or two of his works displayed on a finely honed slate tabletop or counter. Their forms and shapes are enhanced by the tightfitting glaze; during firing, it withdraws from the refined and sharp edges to reveal the underlying white canvas of the finely crafted and meticulously shaped clay body. Even though the utilitarian containers are relatively small, they have a very strong, almost masculine and monumental presence with roots in the classical minimalist oriental studio pottery tradition. It is in fact the colours of the surface that gives the work that contemporary, cutting-edge and hybrid aesthetic.
Seed Pot series
Gerhard van der Heever (Gauteng)
I wish to draw attention to a few more ceramicists whose work deserves to be mentioned in this national awards exhibition review. They are most definitely in good company – singled out with the winner and prize-winners of the 2012 biannual national ceramics competition. The work of Gerhard van den Heever, his seed pod series, is some of the most interesting ceramics in the exhibition. Their symmetrical forms and shapes are suggestive of pomegranates. Thrown and altered, burnished and smoke fired, these sculptural vessels are finely crafted, and excellent examples that prove that you don’t have to be too clever to come up with innovative ways of capitalizing on your creative talents and skills to make a unique contribution to an age-old ceramic surface decoration and firing technique. These are contemporary ceramic statements, an extension of one of the oldest ceramic traditions, referred to in the past as primitive ceramics (hardly so!). These are ceramic firing and surface techniques mastered by most of our indigenous potters based in KwaZulu-Natal, Venda and rural areas of Southern Africa. The work of the Nala family, Rebecca Matibe and the Mgwassa potters, including contemporary equivalents such as Ian Garrett and Michelle Legg, have perfected this age-old ceramic tradition. A number of their works are deservingly favoured amongst our most acclaimed National Living Treasures.

Then there is the work of Thea Kleynhans entitled Drops from Jupiter. You marvel at the surface decoration achieved through the adopted and mastered firing technique. According to the artist, ‘these thrown porcelain vessels are bisque-fired in an electric kiln to 1000 Celsius, followed by a pit-firing using chloride, dry leaves, saw-dust, banana peels and plenty of wood. After the firing the pieces are polished to a satin sheen finish’. The end result is truly remarkable and demonstrates one of the diverse ranges of ceramic techniques and methods, traditions and discipline-specific fields available to aspiring ceramicists. This is what makes these national awards exhibitions so very special. No other discipline has quite such a wide range of technology to choose from, skills to master and tradition to follow, as we seek to carve a niche for ourselves in the world of clay.

Daphne Corregan's sculpture.
The Award Judge.
Last, but not least, I do wish to mention the work of the award judge, Daphne Corregan. This contemporary ceramic statement entitled Tête-à-tête is both sculptural and decorative. Her creative use of surface treatment makes for a unique contemporary expressive ceramic statement. One half of the work consists of a graphic approach to incising through white-painted slip to create historically significant, textile-inspired decorative flower motifs that are in sharp contrast to the smooth grey metallic slip painted surface of its emulated sculptural counterpart.

There are numerous disappointments amongst the exhibited entries of this year’s national exhibition. However, I made a decision to deliver only positive criticism, singling out only some of the winners, including ceramic statements that make a positive contribution to the future development of this ancient art and craft tradition.

Finally, if you are passionate about ceramics, then quite frankly there is no excuse for anyone to continue to produce mediocre work. We live in a knowledge economy; the information age has dawned upon us. There are numerous new media products (Internet), reference material and literary sources to gain insight and expand our knowledge in the broad field of ceramics. We are privileged in the field to have numerous books and, more importantly, journals (American, British and European publications), a number of which are academically accredited, to subscribe to and grow our knowledge and insight, both technically and in terms of our chosen craft, art and design ceramic discourse. Let us therefore draw our inspiration from these literary sources and relevant articles (rather than visual references), apply our skills and knowledge, especially creative insight, to produce creative ideas and concepts.  Only then will we be able to produce ceramic products that are innovative and creative in the context of our very own rich cultural heritage and traditions.

The above review as published in the 102 issue of National Ceramics in the summer of 2012.

I wish to express regret that I did not approach Dephine Niez, the premier award winner, to gain insight into her construction techniques. I assumed the winning ceramic statements were individually pinched and then assembled. However an article was published in the above mentioned issue revealed her complex construction technique - Soaked in slurry comprising native clay mixed with paper and sand, the seed pods are assembled into structures, reflecting meticulously crafted symmetry, before disappearing in smoke. After firing, only their imprint remains in the empty cells around which clay has set.

No comments: