Full head of steam
Mark Amery finds fresh appreciation for pottery through the work of Barry Brickell.
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I grew up with my parents’ and their friends’ wonky pots. The results of trips out to far flung potteries on Sunday outings or, worse, evening pottery classes. The look and feel of my ‘70s is earthenware the colour of mud, drab woollen tapestry and coarse hessian panels.
If I’d grown up in a more artistic community I might have been introduced to the finer side of New Zealand’s blossoming cottage industry. Instead, as a child of the expanding suburbs, it felt like being subjected to a clayey landslide of pottery.
Crockery is the last thing on your mind when you’re young. It’s taken until middle age to appreciate the warmth, vitality and honesty of the simple pot, it's quiet political implications and the fine aesthetic nuances of the work of our finest exponents.
Recently we lost one of those artists, Mirek Smisek just as a strong Mahara Gallery survey of his work 60 Years 60 Pots had its last showing, fittingly, at the Academy of Fine Arts. It had been on a four-year long national tour. Part of the joy of that exhibition was the shrewd selection of a small number of items, given space on plinths to breathe, away from the clutter of the kitchen.
At the Dowse Smisek’s passing is sensitively acknowledged by a few elegant, earthy pieces on a plinth as you enter. Further inside is His Own Steam, a survey of more than 50 years’ work by Barry Brickell.
This exhibition has also resisted the temptation to crowd and mingle. Space gives us the opportunity to admire the sinuous shapes, and almost human bodily energy of Brickell’s larger objects, reminiscent in their dreamy idiosyncrasy of the work of Spanish architect Gaudi. Treated as figures, the social intent of the work comes through. The presence of the viewer somehow completes them.
One of the earliest and smallest works is amongst my favourites, Amorous Gourds. Two bulbous shapes with two necks have Siamese twin-like brought their arm-like handles around each other in a close cuddle. That sense of humour, heat and humanity marks out my favourite works.
A room of cartoon-like imaginary hybrid animal characters includes a Pigwi and a flying dragon dog. They are guardians of staying true to the quirks of individual creative spirit.
Be it humour, an obsession with steam trains, or simply the example Brickell sets in bloody-mindedly sticking to something independently so long, His Own Steam is an inspiring treatise on the value of keeping your head in the clouds. In one memorable work for this installation, amongst a whole series of train boiler follies, Brickell has created an actual steam engine within a terracotta engine pot, letting off a violent shot of steam at regular intervals. The pot becomes a metaphor for your own head. A place to let ideas stew, with a chimney placed on top to let the pressure out.
A room of domestic-ware is nice enough but I remain unconvinced that this work is made for exhibition rather than eating off. Where I am surprised by my appreciation of a 70s aesthetic anew is the strength of Brickell’s work in terracotta tile sculptural reliefs - now utterly out of fashion. As clunky as their application to the wall or other material can be, Brickell shows a great talent for visual storytelling (with a strong nod to McCahon). He pays heartfelt tribute to industry and the working man and, through clay, brings it into muscular tension with the land.
- His Own Steam, Dowse Art Museum, until 11 August.
The Dowse hosts a super stylish survey of this veteran jeweller’s work, but just as good look his most recent works at Avid: geometric shapes take flight and beach pebbles sing encased in silver clouds.
- Jewellery Focus, Kobi Bosshard, Avid Gallery