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NEW HAVEN, Connecticut—Survey exhibitions are by definition imperfect. The broader their landscape the more imperfect. This is because they cannot be encyclopedic and they will always run afoul of budget, space, taste and curatorial prejudices (the last two being the same thing). There will omissions that are difficult to understand. That also makes even the best survey’s easy targets for minor critics who imagine that if they find an omission they have destroyed the show’s credibility.
Feature image: Clare Twomey, Made in China, 2010, seventy-nine porcelain vases with gilt decals and one porcelain vase with gold decal, Collection of the artist, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art
The difference in the curatorial role between organizing a retrospective by a single artist or a group survey is that in the former case one is a messenger and in the latter, the author. One is taking one’s perception of a moment, a style, a movement, and offering narrative that is a balance between pure scholarship and the curator’s intuitive eye.
The objects are subservient to the broader narrative while remaining key elements. If may use a Lego metaphor, they are building blocks but the shape of the final structure is that of the curator not the artists.
Secular audiences have little problem with giving over to a curator’s vision. But critics and fellow curators, the high priests of the field, are a tougher crowd. To make it worse I saw Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery at the Yale center for British Art (New Haven, September 14, 2017 -December 3, 2017) together with three fellow ceramophiles, all with curating experience. For us it can be difficult to disarm the trigger; “if I was doing this I would have…”. The point is, you are not.
Happily, with few exceptions we were captivated from the outset, Glenn Adamson and his curatorial team did an excellent job. Firstly, the exhibition comes across as primarily visual with history being served simply by chronological progression and not academic force-feeding. That role is left to the large, handsome book that accompanies the exhibition, something of a scholarly triumph and certainly the best volume on British studio pottery to date.
The overweening presence of the 80 vessel installation, Made in China (2010), by Clare Twomey, if viewed as window dressing was certainly visually powerful as scarlet red pots scattered about the museum. The actual raison d’etre of this peripatetic work has always escaped me but I would like to own its travel award miles. Seeing it as a sea of blood in the entrance from which arose Samson Slaying as Philistine, an 18th century sculpture by John Cheere, did give it situational spunk and lushness.
The visual or aesthetic approach works here because what the exhibition makes clear is that British studio pottery is not deep conceptually and there is no attempt to add a spin. Most of the work functions on a level of style and beauty and magnificently so. The choice in the title of pottery versus ceramic speaks of confidence and a precise view of the field.
Some will read this as an insult but it is not, quite the contrary. It is the honesty and directness of intent we experience in most of the pots that makes viewing them so direct. It is absent of shallow posturing and blather that often comes from pottery desperation to be taken seriously. And smartly it is about pots. There is one one-vessel figurative sculpture, a giant and looming black piece by Ruth Duckworth and its presence is intrusive and a touch bizarre.
This does not mean for one moment that there is an absence of intelligence. Sly historical footnotes abound as well as superb transformations. Magdalene Odundo’s Brancusi-touched (talk about reverse ironies) celebration of traditional African pottery form is a case in point. Her pots deal with African art in many ways including body ornament yet are universal, no knowledge of back culture is necessary to become thoroughly seduced. Know more, and it grows. And every artist brings their baggage, their fears, joys and dysfunction to the process of creating. It is not simplistic at all.
The excellent space, an open mezzanine, allows each art their personal island in view of others, but not in competition. One glides from one superb tableaux to the next, sometimes a couple of works, sometimes many as with Halima Cassell’s 36-piece Virtues of Unity, 2009-2017 which are quietly enlightening.
Others are like are like explosions, sharp bursts of dynamism. Nicholas Rena’s bowl and pitcher, A Romantic Impulse (2012-2015) has this force, defining Pop’s ability to yell in shorthand. Martin Smith’s Sound and Silence No.6 (2005) is disarming, one is not ready to deep pool that greatest one inside.
Lucie Rie fares well with two cabinets, one housing a whirling-dervish-trio of wide-lipped, bottle vases and another an array of works with her bronze glaze and the distinctive linear scrafitto decoration that she applied with a sharp chicken bone.
Hans Coper, of all artists comes off, less well than he could. There is an adoration of his monumental works that I find aberrant. Maybe it’s the market selling his work by the pound, bigger is thereby more valuable. But those works almost never soar. Line is too thick, rims are ponderous, and their volumes lack both elegance and articulation. I find them to be lumpen and sluggish. I admit that there are many who disagree with me on this call.
Imagine if instead of the three overweight pots by Coper were replaced with a row of seven black arrowhead vases? Particular when placed opposite Rie’s bronze vessels? Few scholars disagree that these are the apex of his art so their absence is felt.
I was underwhelmed by Richard Slee’s presence with two early works. This is not the fault of this genius in the field but these did not show him at his biting best. I know that it is was planned to have his toby jugs in view, which would have been perfect.
The other oddity was Ladi Kwali. I adore her work. Her three pots buttressing those of Odundo’s were sensational. But a British studio potter? Not at all. Ken Price was a bigger influence on the field so why not his work as well? And if she was to be the only visitor from another land, why not have Michael Cardew’s African work with hers. He was the one who taught her to work in glazed high fire. Also his African pots are vastly superior to his earthenware work. One fears there might have been some tokenism at work.
We chose to travel the galleries from newest to oldest work and arrived last at the pre-WW2 gallery. I don’t recommend this route. Go to the oldest first. It is not that the curator’s did a poor job (the focus on small work in the cabinets after the obvious attempt in the other galleries to serve a larger-than-usual scale was oddly deflating) but it is the period itself.
The dominant Leach school vessels were boring and remain strangely disconnected from the time in which they were made, more historicist than contemporary. Scattering actual ancient Asian ceramics in among then only heightened the suspicion of inauthenticity.
Not all was lost. In that room are two of the shows highlights. One is the assembly of large slip trailed chargers by Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, Shoji Hamada and others that line three walls and gave a certain pomp, regal and powerful, like shields in a great hall. They remind us that though Leach may have been an indifferent potter (his fish vase on the show is an anguished cry for a dose of Miralax) he was a gifted draftsman and these works may be the very best of his oeuvre. He was also better with porcelain than with stoneware but this does not appear on the exhibition.
Despite my early remark, one cannot put omissions totally aside. Yes, given the large number of British studio practitioners one could make a long list of those absent and worthy of being included. But that is not be relevant. This show was well cast. Lawson Oyekan and Angus Suttie, who could have been overlooked, were rightly present. A smaller group allowed for a more expansive setting. And one could sense the connective tissue from one pot to another in the curator’s minds. They chatted amiably and informed each other.
After leaving only two omissions stayed with me. The one you can put down to personal taste and that is James Tower whose pod vessels with riveting graphic surfaces would have given the early 50’s the jolt of style it needed. The second one is mystifying, the Martin Brothers.
Their contemporary William De Morgan is present yet he never made a pot in his life. He was an artist potter, designed pots on paper and had his team of crafters make the actual objects. The Martin Brothers did everything, throwing, decorating, mixing their clay and firing their kilns. Their work was exceptional and prescient from Wallace Martin’s iconic Tobacco jars to the vessels by his brothers that anticipated Art Nouveau. They were Britain’s first great studio potters and their absence will haunt this show.
Happily, that is not what stays with me. In the exhibiting I experienced many moments of visual exhilaration and I must confess to several great globs of sugary nostalgia. London is where I earned my spurs as a critic and writer just the Postmodern movement, or Pomo as they called it, was getting off the ground, the movement that dominates most of this exhibition.
I won’t say that I swooned (and I won’t say that I did not) after first seeing two pots by William Staite Murray (The Bather, 1930 and Very Tall Pot, Kwan Yin, 1937-39). That moment will live in my memory the rest of my life. They encapsulated the beauty of the modern pot and more broadly why pots can at times move us ecstatically; their sensuality, rising and falling volumes, gentle swelling and contraction, mystery of containment, throbbing walls, statuesque presence, richness of material.
I have seen both the Murray pots individually several times. They are among my favorite of his works. But the magic here was the installation; the bigger pot, all white nestled closely into contours of the smaller one, almost touching each other. Their rhythms merge, contours sway together and their shared rapture is a little dizzying. The smaller one was more protective and stolid defying scale, the larger more vulnerable. It was a moment of Buddhist quietism that Murray would have loved.
I have been in love with and following pottery as an art form in its own right all of my adult life. This pairing validated every hour, minute and second of that journey and more than that it even raised the bar. These are rare moments.
Overall, the exhibition is a gem; bright, facetted, sparkling with color with perfectly selected works in the main. There are issues and we will examine those, but they do not detract from a handsome ensemble that will do an excellent job of educating visitors about the British studio pottery movement, and, because of its accessibility, gaining converts in the market.
Garth Clark is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Cfile.Daily.