Bobbing for Apples in Brisbane

“The lure of the big prizes does not mean we should abandon our craft.”

The apple occupies a curious place in our psyche. From an early appearance in the story of Adam and Eve to its poisonous allure in fairy tales, the promise of sweetness brings with it a darker side. Johnny Appleseed might have wandered the American backwoods, bringing civilisation and the gospel to an untamed wilderness, but the real life character of John Chapman gathered his pips from the Pennsylvania cider mills, and the apple doesn't grow true to type. You have to wait and see whether the fruit will be sweet or sour, and chances are that a fair number of New England homesteaders had some surprises along the way.

The Biggest Apple of them all is New York, and the occasion of Verge, the 11 th National Ceramics Conference held in Brisbane in July 2006, brought with it the opportunity to hear the New York based gallerists, writers and historians, Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio, deliver their assessment of contemporary ceramics. A recapitulation was heard in Auckland, where, according to the New Zealand based writers Moyra Elliott and Damian Skinner in their article Wishful Thinking [1], Clark delivered a cautionary tale to the ceramics community.

'Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it'. [2]

Our Prime Minister, John Howard, used the same expression recently, when commenting on the readiness of some governments to distance themselves from the protective blanket of American foreign policy. He cautioned that the alternative didn't bear thinking about, a sentiment seemingly shared by Karen Weiss in 'Answered Prayers' [3], her report on Clark and Del Vecchio's visit to Brisbane, published in The Journal of Australian Ceramics.

These two articles from either side of 'the ditch' [4] make for interesting reading, proof that audiences will hear what they want to hear.

As Elliott and Skinner observe, Garth Clark '... has arguably done more than anyone else to enhance the prestige of ceramics in both a critical and financial sense ... [leading to] ... the transformation of ceramics into a verifiably high art.' [5] Yet his grim warning to the conference was that ' ... artists make better art than ceramists, who make great ceramics.' [6]

Part of this transformation involves contemporary ceramics taking its own history a little more seriously. Garth Clark has contributed greatly to this process by producing a Herculean quantity of books and articles examining twentieth century ceramics, an effort which rightly deserves the applause of not only the ceramics community but of all of those interested in material culture, or indeed in art. Long overdue, his oeuvre traces the strands of ceramics from the late nineteenth century to the present day, albeit with a fundamentally conservative emphasis which privileges the new; a linear perspective that mimics mainstream art history.

Clark's style is persuasive, his research is good, and he is a polished performer, but there is no getting around the fact that he is also a dealer, especially when he tag teams with Del Vecchio. There is no subterfuge in their message; on the contrary, it is refreshing to see such an open pairing of scholarship and commerce. Nonetheless, a critical audience is needed for a critical thinker, and, to be fair to Clark, this is what he demands.

Karen Weiss finds evidence in Clark's presentation that 'ceramic art is being accepted in the fine arts world not because it is ceramic, but because it is art.' [7] She cites instances of ceramic artists being taken seriously by the art world, noting 'recent triumphs' [8] in Grayson Perry winning the 2004 Turner Prize and Kathy Butterly's four-inch-high-cups being applauded by the critics at the Carnegie International Exhibition.

Although it might be pointed out that the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize is a little bit like the Archibald with installations, there is no doubting that it guarantees the winner their fifteen minutes of fame. But if one is to celebrate the entry of ceramics into the world of contemporary art — which, incidentally, I don't — it must also be noted that the other 99.99% of work in the big, international contemporary art shows are (is) not ceramics, even when anything else seems to allowed. [9]

One of the largest and best resourced exhibitions of contemporary art held in this country is Queensland's Asia-Pacific Triennial , now in its fifth incarnation in the newly established Modern Art Gallery in Brisbane. Although including every possible permutation of material and technique available to the contemporary artist, the only ceramics are found in an installation by Zhou Xiaohu, a Chinese artist who draws on the techniques of claymation, hence his use of clay. For ceramics to claim this as one of their own would surely be a long stretch, or should I say march? And when more traditional ceramics are included in these events, as a typical Gwyn Hanssen Piggot grouping of pots in Nick Waterlow's 2000 Biennale of Sydney, it somehow strikes a curious note. The fact that Hanssen Pigott's work is now either displayed with classic and ancient ceramics or with contemporary art, but seldom with the work of her peers or alongside the still-life paintings to which she owes so much, says a great deal about how curatorial processes can affect the life of the object.

As Elliott and Skinner note, 'the desire for the white cube, and the anointing of art discourse, ignores that this site is itself a specific historical entity, and one that is incredibly loaded.' [10] Elliot would of course be familiar with Brian O'Doherty's (a.k.a. Patrick Ireland) seminal text Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space [11], first published in Artforum magazine in the mid 1970s and the subject of a recent revision, which traces the development of this twentieth century shrine to the new. As Elliott and Skinner write: 'Introduce ceramics into this space, and you might find that the discourse does not fit ... Introduce the ceramic object into the white cube, and you might find it becomes invisible ...' [12], a likely enough possibility given the current popularity of porcelain.

The real question is why one would want to enter into such an enterprise at all, but of course the answer is simple: it is a matter of status. According to Clark, the problem with ceramics' status 'was not to do with quality, or the practice itself, but the lack of resources that are necessary for an object to be canonised. ... This canon is the product of a system — makers, critics, historians and institutions working in concert. ... through the quality of its objects, and via the appropriate critical and historical discourses, ceramic objects will be taken seriously, and they will find a place in the canon.' [13] Why do I suddenly hear the sound of breaking crockery?

Some ceramic artists have already been canonised, with Clark contributing to this process in no small measure. For example, in another of his appearances at Verge he sought to question the apparent status of the American ceramist Peter Voulkos as the most important ceramic artist of the twentieth century, instead ranking him somewhere below Picasso and Fontana, at I believe around tenth position. (I didn't take notes.) Clark's talk was tongue in cheek, designed to spark debate as much as anything, but, while shifting Voulkos a little bit down the rankings, he was still reaffirming his status as a ceramic demi-god.

This process had been greatly aided by Rose Slivka in her 1961 essay for Craft Horizons 'The New Ceramic Presence' [14], so I found it curious that Clark sought to 'send up' Slivka's article — after all, without Slivka's hyperbole who knows where a whole generation of American abstract expressionist ceramists would be? I admire Clark's discrimination and connoisseurship regarding Voulkos' oeuvre, but a meatier question might be why Voulkos was considered good at all? He certainly couldn't make the transition from clay to sculpture, thus reinforcing Clark's point regarding ceramists making great ceramics but not great art - something upon which I agree – although paradoxically Clarks' top ten included many artists who seemingly could make great ceramics, and there again it was hard to argue with his choices.

Looking ahead, according to Karen Weiss, Mark Del Vecchio asserts that 'touchy-feely handcrafted and physical characteristics' [15] are not very twenty-first century. Rather, we must seek the intellectual weight of the vessel, how '... it is exploited to give another layer of meaning to the artists exploration of contemporary issues such as AIDS, globalism, consumerism, the factory and our preoccupation with technology.' [16] Quite a tall order for a vessel, I would have thought. Just what the artist would achieve by exploring globalism in a pot is beyond me, but I suspect it might have something to do with money - or was that the pot that dealt with consumerism?

Still, if according to Clark and del Vecchio the future direction of ceramics is unclear, at least there seems to be some agreement on the past, or as Weiss rather truculently put it, 'The craft movement is dead. Haven't you noticed?' [17] No wonder, when its most famous son, Bernard Leach, was 'narrow-minded, bigoted, uninformed and so fearful of the now ...' [that he] '... blunted us as artists.' [18]

Well, no he wasn't and no he didn't. Leach was open-minded enough to open himself up to the transformative potential of another culture, and he was not uninformed so much as perplexed by the radical shifts he saw occurring in ceramics. Why on earth, he would ask himself, would anyone want to make such things? He was very opinionated and passionately argued his case – a characteristic Clark shares – but to say Leach blunted a generation of ceramists as artists is simply silly. It might be the type of pronouncement that adds entertainment value to Clark's public appearances, but it is no more good scholarship than it is true, or even logical.

Elliott and Skinner finish their article by writing of the necessity to rediscover the value in ceramics' own long and complex traditions, and it would seem here that Clark would be in complete agreement. The need for 'an education that encompasses all these and can link them to contemporary art discourses so that clear boundaries are apparent' [19] thus allowing ceramists to 'take pride in there own practices without recurrent lusting [marvellous expression] for that white space and all it entails.' [20] By contrast, Weiss finishes her piece by promising to follow 'the Garth Clark/Mark Del Vecchio trail with an article on their pre-Verge seminar on marketing work, pricing, galleries, dealers and making it at home and abroad.' [21]

The Pennsylvanian artist, writer and orchardist Roger Yepsen, discussing the effect of marketing on the apple industry, wrote that:

' ... the symbol of the way we've come to grow and enjoy apples is Red Delicious. It was a marketer's dream. intensely red as the apple in Snow White, instantly recognizable, tall and wasp-waisted, and gorgeous even after the insides have gone to mush... Red Delicious has been called a victory of style over substance. ...' [22]

Contrary to popular opinion, I think that the first arrival in the late 1960s of West Coast American ceramics into this country had a destructive effect on Australian ceramics. My reasons for stating this are complex and are of necessity the subject for a much longer essay, but, despite the fact that this new message in 2006 originates from the East coast of America and not the West, I still would urge caution. Entrance to the ceramic world of Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio is restricted to a very, very few people, and that those who don't make the grade may find themselves with nowhere else to go. So, read the books, be amused by the anecdotes and admire the professionalism, but don't think it is the whole story, because it isn't.


[1] Moyra Elliott and Damian Skinner 'Wishful Thinking'

[2] ibid

[3] Karen Weiss 'Answered Prayers' The Journal of Australian Ceramics Vol. 45 # 3 2006

[4] Colloquial term for the Tasman Sea separating Australia and New Zealand

[5] Elliott and Skinner ibid

[6] ibid

[7] Weiss ibid

[8] ibid

[9] One of the many difficulties I have with the term 'ceramics' is that it is syntactically awkward. For example, a person may make ceramics, but you do not then compliment them by observing 'Oh, that is a nice ceramic.'

[10] Elliott and Skinner ibid

[11] Brian O'Doherty Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space (expanded edition) University of California Press 2000

[12] Elliott and Skinner ibid

[13] ibid

[14] Rose Slivka 'The New Ceramic Presence' Craft Horizons July — August 1961

[15] Weiss ibid

[16] ibid

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

[19] Elliott and Skinner ibid

[20] ibid

[21] Weiss ibid

[22] Roger Yepsen Apples W.W. Norton 1994