Pot ket­tle black

Ce­ram­i­cist Richard Strat­ton

HOME Magazine NZ - - Contents - Text An­thony Byrt Pho­tog­ra­phy Sam Hart­nett

The fact that New Zealand’s premier pot­tery prize, the Portage Ce­ramic Awards, was won in 2017 by a teapot, seems ini­tially like a pretty dread­ful con­dem­na­tion of the state of con­tem­po­rary New Zealand ce­ram­ics. But there are teapots, and then there are Richard Strat­ton teapots. “Anna Miles [Strat­ton’s art dealer] says I’m teapot-hard­wired,” Strat­ton tells me, sit­ting in his Wellington stu­dio. “It’s one of my go-to forms. I get on the wheel and think, what am I go­ing to make, and it turns into a bloody teapot!” His teapots, and his ves­sels in gen­eral, are things of do­mes­tic won­der. His prizewin­ning ‘Forced turn Teapot’ is a proto-Bru­tal­ist ob­ject made from in­ter­lock­ing pieces – like cogs fallen out of a gi­ant Soviet-era clock. The colour, some­where be­tween black clay and Corten steel, is a di­rect re­sult of his re­search into 18th-cen­tury pot­tery pro­cesses – in this case, Bri­tish basalt­ware. And it’s fin­ished with an ab­surdly del­i­cate han­dle-and-spout combo, with plenty of Alice in Won­der­land (Dis­ney ver­sion) in its up­turned lit­tle tip. Strat­ton’s at­ten­tive­ness to his­tory has made him one of the most in­trigu­ing pot­ters in New Zealand: an artist who de­serves se­ri­ous at­ten­tion for his ab­sur­dist vir­tu­os­ity. This is due largely to the way he mar­ries metic­u­lous re­search with a ma­te­rial mas­tery years in the mak­ing. Hav­ing started work­ing with ce­ram­ics at Otago Poly­tech­nic in the late 1980s, he’s ded­i­cated the past 30 years to per­fect­ing his con­trol of the medium. It’s only now, he says, that he feels he’s get­ting close. He’s also start­ing to find a wider au­di­ence, and wider ac­claim, par­tic­u­larly within the con­tem­po­rary art world. In 2015, he had a trans­for­ma­tive res­i­dency at the In­ter­na­tional Ce­ramic Cen­ter in Guldager­gaard, Den­mark. But rather than park­ing up in his stu­dio, Strat­ton hit the road. He went “mud­lark­ing” in the Thames: stomp­ing about in the river’s low-tide sludge search­ing out sherds of old slip­ware. He got mu­seum fa­tigue in city af­ter city, stud­ied the chem­i­cal makeup of old clays and glazes, and dis­cov­ered the work of Alexan­der Archipenko, whose sculp­tures bridged the avant­garde space be­tween Pi­casso’s Cu­bist Paris and Lenin’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary Rus­sia. The in­dus­trial pot­tery of 18th and 19th-cen­tury Den­mark also had a pro­found im­pact on him. “For me, in­dus­trial mak­ers have al­ways been more ap­peal­ing for some rea­son,” says Strat­ton. “If you look at some of the early Dan­ish pot­ters, the glazes are amaz­ing, and the forms are sim­plis­ti­cally bal­anced.” The Danes had an im­me­di­ate im­pact on Strat­ton’s work: “I like the bold­ness of the de­signs and forms, and the fir­ing tech­niques. And they weren’t us­ing space-age ma­te­ri­als like we are. So I’ve ef­fec­tively ‘dumbed down’ my ce­ram­ics, rather than go­ing the op­po­site way.”

This, of course, doesn’t do the work jus­tice at all. The full scope of his post-res­i­dency work is on dis­play in his solo show Liv­ing His­tory: an ex­hi­bi­tion that started at the Dowse Mu­seum. This says a lot about his worka­day ap­proach, in which he builds ev­ery­thing from the bot­tom up in his stu­dio – pro­cess­ing clay and mix­ing glazes, all the way through to fir­ing his fin­ished works. He only pro­duces about 20 ob­jects a year. Some, he says, can take more than a month to build. Right now, he’s hav­ing a stu­dio reshuf­fle, and jokes that one of the most im­por­tant de­ci­sions is get­ting the stereo in the right spot. It’s a wel­come break af­ter the pres­sures of mak­ing the work for Liv­ing His­tory, which of­ten in­volved 10-hour days. “I was get­ting so sick of pots,” he says. And yet, in the stu­dio, another teapot is un­der­way. Strat­ton’s slow, idio­syn­cratic process is a far cry from the in­dus­trial throw­ers of the past that he so reveres – the work­ers who, in Den­mark, China and Bri­tain, mas­tered their forms anony­mously, shap­ing our do­mes­tic lives in the process. Con­cen­trated in the wrong hands, it’s the kind of rev­er­ence for past tech­niques that could tip eas­ily into nos­tal­gic hip­ster­ism. In Strat­ton’s though, it is some­thing else: a gen­uine and crit­i­cal re­trieval, from which he dredges up some very new, very re­mark­able forms.

1. In be­tween ex­hi­bi­tions, Richard Strat­ton spends time in his garage where he re­stores old-school BMX bikes, a process he sees as akin to build­ing works. 2. Ret­ro­spec­tive works on show at Anna Miles Gallery in 2016. 3 and 4. A prepa­ra­tion for the trea­cle-glazed lov­ing cup, which sits be­side brushes dry­ing on the stu­dio ta­ble.

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