Most of my work is a response to the things around me, to popular song, the garden, conversations I have with people about art and the internet. When I am in the studio making things and really doing it I am thinking about things constantly.
Some parts of making my work are incredibly boring and monotonous but I still love it. Putting all those holes or sticking slip into the spaces left by the tools when I made them has its own kind of repetitious Zen state. I used to say ‘be the slump’ but as I’ve kept making things now my ambition and abilities are starting to coalesce. Which is a bit of a shame really. I might start to take up throwing seriously. — Glenn Barkley, excerpt from Exhibition Essay for itsallright at Utopia Art Sydney (26 October – 19 November, 2016)
Above image: An anonymous internet image showing a viewer mugging in front of the work of Glenn Barkley at the Magic Object- 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art.
Before we look at the claim in the headline, let’s first profile the man. Glenn Barkley is a complex of shadows, multiple hats, sleights of hand, ambiguities and borrowed aesthetics. He is charming with a sly intelligence and sharpness but at first he can be guarded. I am not sure whether this is due to his nature, the necessary sense of diplomacy a curator must possess, or defensiveness from all the muggings he has received from a skeptical ceramics community.
The concern of the ceramics community at Fortress Ceramica is that Barkley is taking over ceramics in Australia and is directing its future appearance. Bluntly, they refer to his ceramics career as a fraud and claim it is only happening because the arts are so ignorant of what “true” ceramics are.
Indeed, he has only been a maker for a short time. His art’s appearance is borderline amateur. But appearances can be deceiving. And, to make matters worse, his ceramics have become the toast of the Sydney art scene.
They also fear him because he has celebrity and power within the nation’s culture structure. Just over two years ago he left his position as the respected, inventive, high-profile Senior Curator at the at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia to open a consultancy, The Curator’s Department, with Ivan Muñiz Reed and Holly Williams, as well as kil.n.it, ( an experimental ceramics studio with Bev Shroot and Rachel McCallum, and a studio to make his own ceramics.
In addition, he is one half of a power couple. His wife is Lisa Havilah, director of Carriageworks,
the largest and most significant contemporary multi-arts center of its kind in Australia. In the list of the country’s top 100 figures in art, they made it to #30. So, yes, they have clout. That is good, they can cause things to happen.
The ceramics community plays it both ways. One the one hand there is a lot of dark muttering and sniping (pointing out for instance that his experimental workshop is not original but based on a similar project in London.) But because ceramics have little access to power they have pulled him in as curator, juror and more recently he was guest editor of The Journal of Australian Ceramics (Vol. 55 1 April 2016).
The biggest complaint is about his art. That is considered one conflict of interest too many. I understand that having several Doctoral Degrees in Conflicts but at least I managed to dodge the maker bullet. Just imagine!
Is Barkley actually the worst studio potter in Australia? The answer is yes, and no. His work as a studio potter is. But he does not belong to that school at all. So the answer is no. He makes art about pottery which is a very different gig with far greater freedom than the potter, less pressure to satisfy beauty and craft conventions or make a great pots. They are messages in bottles and the former is more significant than the latter.
This may sound like semantics but it is not. It is a fundamental difference. Ceramics are finally part of fine art. Once that happened the aesthetic values of the Fortress became moot to anyone working with clay in that arena. Art does not make according to the Fortress’s rules. And those non-art rules are often what keeps the Fortress out.
On a functional pottery exhibition Barkley’s strange granny pots would be a little gross. But transposed to an art fair, surrounded by paintings and sculpture that also have informal craft values, they make sense and are not aesthetically odd. This not an anti-craft aesthetic but it is a device artists use to avoid the appearance of slickness with challenging informality. This is a matter of deliberate choice, channeling a raw, untutored edge to bypass academic conceptualism and exaggerate feeling and emotion. It’s not the result of ineptness. In some cases that unwashed look requires very intense craft to achieve. One can dismiss it as a school one does not like personally but it is a legitimate aesthetic.
I know many ceramists who love work of this kind in other media. But once in ceramic their hackles go up. They do not comment on the wooden sculpture and demand that the artists complete a four year course in cabinetry. Nor do they object to wild splashes of paint. But they expect ceramic to conform to their rules.
If we treat Barkley’s work as art how does it fare? When I first saw it I wanted to hate it so badly. Much of the ceramics in art from newcomers to the medium are awful. And it raised that specter. His style or art is such that I usually have great affection for but happily my taste barriers are weakening, allowing me to enjoy more of what art delivers. I suppose what finally got me was the wit. His ceramics are cartoons that lampoon both sides of the art fence.
A ceramics teacher I spoke to in Sydney dismissed his art because it was “naïve.” He was correct but not as a weakness. It’s Barkley’s strength, but it is also his Achilles heel. And hitting that innocent note without being pretentiously faux is a very delicate transaction. Get it right and his art is seditious, get it wrong and one has a piece of junk, which the artist understands:
I am still completely embedded in the art world and I think these pots are like messages that can be read in the future – Ars onga vita brevis. I worry about all the people doing kooky dancing, amateur-hour music and post-Internet art. Where will their work end up? To paraphrase Robert MacPherson it’s a fine line between the gallery and the rubbish dump.
You will find both in Barley’s oeuvre, which calls for a more careful editing, something he does not and maybe cannot do. It’s fine to make it but not always to exhibit it. And his preferred form of display, a table full of pots, its unflattering. It reduces the group to the lowest common denominator. Select the gems, view them alone and they can charm one in the most perverse and annoying way.
He is having his first solo show itsallright with Utopia Gallery in Sydney (October 26-November 19, 2016) and the works shown here are from that show. Most of the language on his pots (presented in 3-D tubes that strangely enough have the feeling of being knitted) come from the vitriol he is subjected to or witnesses on the Internet:
My pots are my way of talking about [that] whilst making a bit of pocket money – you have to find subject matter somewhere. It’s difficult to make something interesting out of random Facebook posts and Instagram comments but I’ve tried. The oncoming never ending digital death spiral will probably mean my pots will be one of the few ways of tracking what was happening in the digital realm during 2016. The irony of that I find quite compelling and amusing.
He admits to being part of the stupidity of the Internet, adding that his only saving grace “is once fired pots are pretty fixed and it’s hard to get rid of them. You can destroy the form but it would take a real effort to grind the bits back to powder. Even if the pots were shards they would be interesting.”
As one speaks to Barkley one is struck by the sincerity of his journey. All his ceramics underpinned by his affection for a female relative who was important in his life, a hobbyist potter and when he gets into this discussion, including the works that are done with his brother, there is a timber to the voice that tells one that this emotion is coming from a deep well. That by itself does not make art good but it does remind us that his journey is not frivolous.
A pleasure from the Utopian exhibition is the works on paper which strike me as being much more evolved that the previous generation. Some of the titles are bewilderingly esoteric for an art crowd (as opposed to a mud mob) but they are amusing, designed to poke at clay fundamentalists with the title above Greetings from Bernard Leach’s Hate Cave, taking the prize.
Bottom line is that Barkley has given Australian ceramics a huge spoon of tonic. While not single-handed, he has been the primary advocate for the fine arts taking a more liberal and adventurous view of the medium. That is an invaluable and transformative gift to the medium.
Lastly, if you must define everything by craft, the outlook on Barkley is not that grim. Just wait a while. His technical prowess will grow with his need for expression. A few years ago I called Grayson Perry. I had seen a vase of his with a stunning suite of unctuous green glazes. (Mark del Vecchio calls such work, “lickables” and you know what he means.) Grayson’s reply to my praise was, “thank you but that is why I hate ceramics. It will not allow you to remain an amateur.” Barkley is already locked in that paradox and how well he handles it will decide the longevity of his career.
Interestingly, when I asked if he had seen the impressive Grayson Perry show that was then in its last week he admitted that he had not and would not. The reason was that he disliked Grayson’s work. But further prodding revealed that he feared the work, “we have too much in common and I did not want to be influenced” he confessed. Smart. If one is an aesthetic sponge one must choose one’s ponds carefully.
Garth Clark is Chief Editor of cfile.daily.
Do you love or loathe these works of contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.