Pottery today is in a paradoxical position. Alongside the wraparound videos, sculptural installations and performance works favoured by the contemporary art museums it seems decidedly unsexy. Yet stand in a gallery in front of a great pot and it is hard to think of anything more sensual, more engaging, more reflective of the human hand and spirit.
Peter Rushforth is well aware of pottery’s marginal status these days, but he also notes that more people than ever are flocking to pottery classes. Don’t these aspiring ceramicists realise they are embracing an anachronism? Yes, absolutely. As an increasingly amount of our work and leisure time is spent in the virtual world it seems we feel a growing desire to dip our hands in wet, squishy clay.
Pottery is not fashionable but hugely popular. As an art form it is so old as to be virtually timeless – an impression reinforced by an ongoing reliance on techniques and traditions that may stretch back a thousand years.
The other stigma pottery has to overcome is the label of “craft”, which has become a dirty word in art circles. Because pots have a functional dimension this is seen as an embarrassment alongside the heroic uselessness of most art. Because potters generally don’t preach politics, or present themselves as subversive to the established order, they are viewed as manufacturers of commercial products to be sold to an appreciative public. For some reason we believe it is less of a commercial enterprise if one employs assistants to make vast, unwieldy objects that are sold to museums for inflated prices.
The general trend of contemporary art suggests that soon anyone who produces paintings or sculptures with their own hand will be viewed as ‘craftsmen’. Only those with a factory and international museum representation will be able to call themselves ‘artists’.
If this sounds too depressing the cure is at hand, in the form of a retrospective devoted to the work of Australia’s greatest living potter. I’m usually hesitant to dispense such epithets – a bad habit cultivated by curators such as Daniel Thomas – but there would be few who would dispute Peter Rushforth’s claims to the title.
Peter Rushforth: All Fired Up, is the biggest exhibition of the potter’s work since a survey at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1985. At that time, Rushforth was a mere 65 years old; today he is 92, and still working assiduously in his Blue Mountains studio. While the S.H. Ervin Gallery deserves praise for organising this show, it should have been held at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Even though AGNSW curator, Natalie Wilson, wrote an essay for the e-catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, (also found in the current issue of Craft Arts), one wonders if there are many others at the gallery with an interest and expertise in ceramics?
Writing about pottery is rather like writing about wine. Regardless of the precision of one’s descriptions, or the quantity of adjectives expended, the only proof of quality lies in the sampling.
There are at least two specific ‘languages’ of pottery: a litany of technical terms describing clays, glazes and various arcane practices; and a kind of spiritual vocabulary drawn mainly from the Japanese. In the catalogue Rushforth refers briefly to terms such as jaku – “to be quiet” or “to be lonely”; and shibusa – expressive of “authority, nobility and unpretentiousness.”
These terms are meaningless when divorced from the connoisseurship that allows an expert to decide if a pot possesses such ineffable qualities. One of the most absorbing exhibitions I’ve ever seen, held at the Miho Museum outside Kyoto, featured pots classified as “one in a million” by the famous Japanese connoisseur, Jiro Aoyama (1901-79). Viewers were compelled to scrutinise each piece to try and isolate those elements that fired Aoyama’s enthusiasm.
One wonders what Aoyama would have made of Rushforth’s work, because there are many pieces in this show that repay sustained, meditative examination. Along with the seeing there is an urge to touch and hold a pot; to feel the quality of the glaze, and sample its weight. This is proving to be a nuisance for gallery staff who are obliged to dissuade visitors from giving way to tactile temptations.
Rushforth takes as his dictum the Zen idea that you should “develop an infallible technique then leave yourself open to inspiration.” This emphasis on technique is so crucial to the success of the potter’s art that it limits the range of critical responses. For instance it is not unusual to find a technically incompetent painter, sculptor or photographer being acclaimed for his or her expressive qualities. The technically inept potter is left with nothing more than a kiln full of broken shards.
In Australia the shallowness of cultural traditions means that potters have had to seek wisdom and inspiration from overseas sources, chiefly through studying the work of Chinese and Japanese potters. Rushforth followed this road to the East after having been set on his path – like so many western potters – by a reading of Bernard Leach’s famous text, A Potter’s Book (1940).
The unusual part of Rushforth’s creative biography is that he developed his artistic interests while being held as a prisoner-of-war in Changi. By 1951 he had improved his skills to such an extent that he was appointed the first pottery teacher at the National Art School – then known more modestly as East Sydney Technical College. During his years at the college Rushforth acted as a mentor to many students who would go on to become celebrated potters. It was not until 1963 that he was able to spend five months in Japan studying with master practitioners, acquiring skills and knowledge that he was quick to pass on to a new generation of ceramic artists.
Rushforth has written that in Australia, “studio potters have been compelled to be amateur geologists, chemists and kiln builders” before they have been able to make anything worthwhile. In contrast with Japan, China and Korea, where local knowledge of materials goes back to the distant past, Australian potters have had to dig up previously untested clays and experiment with new glazes. There is a lot of chemistry in this process, right down to determining the optimum firing times in the kiln. Trial and error provides the only sure test.
The most tantalising aspect of the potter’s art is that all the technique in the world will not eliminate the element of chance that determines the final form of a piece. For many ceramicists this is the single biggest thrill in the cycle from clay to finished vessel. The moment of opening the kiln is always one of revelation, and occasionally the results exceed expectations.
This retrospective brings together more than 150 pieces from public and private collections, as the distillation of a career that spans six decades. There is not a single uninteresting work, and many that might be called masterpieces. Rushforth is best known for his Jun (Chun) glazes which produce a range of blues, from the palest celadon to a rich, dark indigo. The technique dates back to the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126 AD), but Rushforth’s vessels have great individual character – an elemental force that evokes both stone and sky. The surface patterns have been formed in the kiln but are as satisfying as any abstract painting.
I’m not going to single out pieces for special attention, partly because the qualities found in a stoneware jar with a blue Jun glaze are completely different to those found in an earth-coloured blossom jar with an ash glaze, or a delicate tea bowl. Although the same shapes keep recurring there is infinite variety in these works.
For Rushforth it is important that his pots inculcate a spirit of place, revealing their roots in the Australian environment. It is an infinitely more complex and nuanced vision of Australia than that embodied in the classic green-and-brown pot found in every country antique shop. The colours and textures are drawn from locally sourced materials, but the subtle appeal of these works owes much to the potter’s hand, which has shaped the bulge of a jar or the undulating lip of a tea bowl. It’s also important that these deviations from the straight-and-narrow appear to be natural, not forced or affected.
One of the touching things about this exhibition is that many vessels have been removed from household environments, where they are used to hold flowers or other items. The humble vase on the mantelpiece or in a corner is now isolated on a plinth in a gallery. Whatever beauty was concealed by simple familiarity is now laid bare for the pleasure of the public. When the show is over, these pots will return to their owners and reassume domestic duties. They will be just as discreet as before, but perhaps more keenly appreciated for their brief moment in the spotlight.
Peter Rushforth: All Fired Up, S.H.Ervin Gallery, July 12 – August 25, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 3, 2013