CoCA: Review and Analysis

Overall, the curation of CoCA was varied, as it was spread across a combination of smaller collections; this variety contrasted and complemented each other through their juxtaposition. It made for a fascinating and engaging trip. The individual collections, as I define them, included the Anthony Shaw collection, Claire Twomey’s “Manifest: 10,000 Hours”, and the cabinets within the larger collection itself.  This review/essay will focus greatly on the Anthony Shaw collection, and the context which informs it as a part of CoCA.

In the first room we entered, pieces of art from different mediums were arranged in such a way that they would bring out properties in one another through their combination. A good example of this was the way in which a rugged ceramic sculpture on a plinth in a glass display case, could be seen as if it were in the foreground of the painting beyond, which depicted a rainy seascape. The curator of this room wanted ceramics to be seen as more than functional wares, relegated to the kitchen or the realm of simple craft.  She considered clay to be the medium of communication, one to be considered on par with Renaissance works in bronze, marble, or on canvas. Situated prominently in the centre of the room, there was a ceramic piece entitled “The Twelve Apostles”, displayed above three brightly coloured Renaissance paintings.  Sadly, the equally fascinating paintings from that same period on either side of these three paintings were darker in colour, and thus received practically no attention due to this one comparison being made. One other piece I noticed was “Man Cradling Dead Son”, which had a poignancy beyond the pieta’ with which it was being compared. However, there was no image against which an unfamiliar viewer would have been able to compare the piece. To me, this seemed a significant oversight, but one with an easy solution.

CoCA part 1

Above: “Man Cradling Dead Son”, author’s own image

Within the collection at large, there were a number of glass cases each containing the works of a single, historically prominent artist. One thing that really stood out to me was the presence of the portraits of the artists next to their works: it added a level of empathy with the artists themselves, so the viewer could see them as people rather than as names alone; it was something I had not seen in other galleries. A small group of standout works by these singular artists were displayed atop a glass shelf; directly below were assembled the works of other artists, people lesser or equally important in their own right. This combination enabled many parallels to be drawn simultaneously between one artist and the many works just underneath. In this way, it was also possible to compare the many works amongst themselves: there were many different styles, names, and places. One of my favourite cabinets was the one dedicated to Lucie Rie. Below her work, I spied other favourites of mine, including Chris Keenan, Natasha Daintry, and Laura Taylor. Something which took me by surprise, however, was the collection of large ceramic buttons by Rie, which I learned had been made for an ailing fashion industry during the wartime. It was a side of her, and more specifically, of her work, which I had not previously known about.

CoCA part 1

Above: the Lucie Rie cabinet, author’s own photograph

At the same time, in the very centre of the cabinet-rich room, towered Claire Twomey’s “Manifest: 10,000 hours”. A monument to the act of making, made possible through the time and effort of many assistants, it was impossible to miss or ignore. It was its own collection, made in response to CoCA: a large group of white identical bowls, stacked ceiling-high, composed in groups so as to echo the cabinet structure in the room. The room itself was entirely white, and splendidly lit by the soft natural light from above, the ceiling made of translucent glass. Thematically, the entire space was in harmony.

CoCA part 2

Above: Claire Twomey’s “Manifest: 10,000 hours”, author’s own photograph

The Anthony Shaw collection was presented in a way that felt similar in composition to that of Ken Stradling, housed many miles away in Bristol, with its faux-domestic environment. This set-up was, however, at odds with the rest of CoCA: it pushed aside the painstaking professionalism evident in the curation of the gallery’s larger spaces in favour of a cumbersome layout, complete with familiar end-table, mantelpiece, and walls of shelves. Yet while it strived for a sense of homeliness and comfort, it had no places to sit (which begs the question: in which house are there no chairs? To which I believe the answer may well be ‘the house of Anthony Shaw’), thus immediately making it difficult to feel at ease, to imagine as if it were a place anyone could live. It was situated in a larger room still, the false confines of the domestic space suddenly ending: the glass-walled shelving (stocked to the brim with ceramic pots and decorative items from across eras) spanned almost the entirety of the longest wall of the rectangular room.  I think the pieces in the glass-fronted cupboard of sorts were largely ordered based on the colour of their glaze. This dense shelving layout included a marvellous Han dynasty horse – I am always in awe of them, with their long legs, brightly coloured saddle and tack, their proud stance. It was on a top shelf, with no label or sense of grandeur to its presence, despite its near-miraculous survival over literally thousands of years.[1] It was accosted on either side by modern works, roughly escorted into this, our teeming, bustling, tech-heavy twenty-first century collection of Things – things without names or labels, things uncatalogued, things of value, priceless relic things and worthless tat. I could have cried. Indeed, the lack of artists’ names alongside the work greatly bothered me. Although I understand that the presentation of the Anthony Shaw collection suggested a domestic setting, it was still within the gallery, and not having the names of the artists whose works were on display felt disrespectful. In the main room, in their tidy cabinets, all items were clearly numbered, corresponding with a sheet with the numbers as key to matching up the item with a name and a title. Whereas the Stradling collection was incidental in how it had come together, Shaw’s had begun as incidental, but continued with the influence of a new-found sense of responsibility for the up-and-coming artists he was supporting through his purchase of their work, much in the same way a renaissance patron would have been directly responsible for the lives of the artists they supported. Thus, while the Ken Stradling collection had been put together in an effort to define good taste, across not only different media, but also disciplines (as he had originally been a trader of furniture), Shaw’s sense of purpose lay elsewhere – he was utterly fascinated by clay as a medium.  He amassed a sizeable collection of works by a remarkable number of artists throughout their careers. When questioned as to the scarcity, even lack of, small-shop, everyday pieces in his collection, if he was indeed so keen to support young artists, Shaw declared he was not interested in ‘functional work’ that had been ‘made only to sell.’[2]  I also remember he expressed distaste regarding thrown work (interestingly, not so much the case for thrown-and-altered pieces) as not being sufficiently expressive, which upset me to my very core, as a ceramist and thrower. To the best of my understanding, he found it less engaging, preferring works which contained a kind of fragment of the artist’s soul.

226-15 ceramics technical

Above: a page I photographed from the 226-15 issue of Ceramics Technical which also disagrees with Mr. Shaw.

Yet so much is communicated about the times in which we live by the items from which we seek our everyday comfort: consider the bathtub, the favourite tea mug, the casserole dish, the hot water bottle, and so on (interestingly, a workshop towards an exhibition entitled “The things we take with us” for refugees in Cardiff, where people were encouraged to sculpt an effigy of one item they had brought with them, happened recently). In this context, I found the lack of hand-made production work saddening, as it takes many artists years, even an entire lifetime, to create a line of work which they feel accurately represents them.

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Above: a collection of images from “500 Cups” which prove otherwise.

Of course, there are likely collections which cover such topics splendidly (such as the British Museum, which has both permanent and temporary exhibitions containing works on the subject), and I am not for a moment suggesting that such collections are the only ones worth collecting or viewing. Simply put: when claiming to support young artists in their careers, it is inaccurate to say that you support all of them, when in fact you have a favourite sector and actively choose to stick to it above any other. It was this preoccupation with representing artists through a handful of works spanning a whole career that meant a through-line was being searched for, simply had to become visible: thus the groupings felt like a mere cursory glance at something far more unfathomable: where were the countless (failed) experiments, the items made which didn’t fit the bigger picture? Either a retrospective closely examines an artist’s successes and failures, different periods of their life, and motivation(s), or one collects what one likes.  Shaw’s collection was the latter, coloured by personal preference and bias, as any collection by one person will be, but cast in such a way as to make himself seem magnanimous and far-reaching, open-minded, and quasi-omniscient.  He is none of these things, for he is but a man. The sheer number of works in Shaw’s collection, presented as if in a never-ending sitting-room, made the space feel cluttered and claustrophobia-inducing, rather than as if the works were being given the space they deserved. Some pieces really do need to be seen on their own, rather than in crowded groups, as this allows for contemplation of the work as a whole. For example, the group of humorously enormous illustrated cups were incongruous with the multitude of sombre, elegant, smaller works in the collection: as they were positioned on a cabinet at hip height, you had to crouch or sit down to properly appreciate them. Their size was only part of what they were, rather than being its own punch-line: a big cup is only funny when it is not next to a small cup – the viewer knows that cups are usually small; this is a fact which does not require stating.  The in-joke shared between the artist and the viewer, through the work, is that the cup is too big to be used for the function which it represents.  It is actually a deep joke.  Its humour is derived from the same well of absurdity whence Meret Oppenheimer’s ‘Object’ (fur-lined cup and saucer) sprung. Perhaps in his increasingly fevered search for great work, or potentially great artists, Shaw lost sight of what pushed him to begin collecting? I can only theorise.

CoCA part 2

Above: a Big Teacup, author’s own photograph

[1] The Han Dynasty is dated as c.206 BC–220 AD

[2] Shaw, A., in conversation with Cooper, E., in an interview recorded 14th October 2016

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wheels1nmotion

Illustrator and Ceramist, proficient sewing machine addict who loves his cat.

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