Expect the Unexpected
Andy Christian is surprised by a ‘coffee table’ book appearance that belies substance and honesty. Modern British Potters and Their Studios by David Whiting, with photographs by Jay Goldmark. A&C Black, 2009. ISBN: 9780713687323
David Whiting has made an unashamedly personal choice of 24 contemporary potters and ceramicists as the range for this book and then divided his chosen subjects into those who ‘fit’ what he categorises as The Art of Function, those who are more concerned with The Sculptural Vessel and those who explore The Figure and the Object.
That said, he is quick to admit that his categorisations are not as neat as they sound. And I agree. For instance, I actually use pots by Jane Hamlyn, Clive Bowen, Walter Keeler, Jim Malone and Sandy Brown – all potters this author slots into the Art of Function section – whilst many collectors will simply sit their work on display shelves. And actually it takes some daring to make their work part of everyday domestic use when you know the replacement costs. Some of the potters in this section do aspire to ‘art status’, a desire which is often then reflected in their prices, and not everyone can afford to replace a single ‘cup’ at £40.
However, Jay Goldmark’s photographs in this book must be lauded. I have seen him at work and can report that he is the least invasive of photographers: discreet, opportunist and eagle-eyed. He has partnered Whiting’s text in a way which elucidates the ‘making process’ and allows the potters’ characters to gently emerge without the need of his own direction or Whiting’s textual underlining. It is a good partnership and makes for a handsome book.
The potters and ceramicists in the Sculptural Vessel section predictably but rightly include Ken Eastman, Gordon Baldwin and Jennifer Lee, but there are some unexpected appearances, including Daniel Fisher, a successful young maker whose work has a relatively low profile in the UK. Carina Ciscato was also a discovery in the book for me. The author’s bravery is evident in his more surprising choices, not least because some establishment figures will think that their places in this book should have been assured, but have been left out. Those like Alison Britton and Elizabeth Fritsch, for instance, have had considerable coverage elsewhere, but as stated, this book is all about Whiting’s personal choice, and had he been more predictable I would have found it much less exciting.
The third section in the book, The Figure and the Object, really concerns those who might primarily be called sculptors in ceramics. As the author points out in his introduction to this section, this is scarcely a new practice: from the time of the seated fertility figure in baked clay dated at about 5,500 BCE in Turkey and illustrated in the book, people have been concerned with the figure in clay. Michael Flynn, Annie Turner, Claire Curneen, Phillip Eglin and Sarah Radstone sit happily in this section. Their concerns are primarily or wholly sculptural. But some of those featured also call up mythology and ritual in a way that echoes something of the ‘primitive’ force of the Turkish fertility figurine.
Whiting’s intelligent and informative text will be useful to students and collectors alike. It may look a bit like a coffee-table volume, but there is substance in this book which takes it well beyond the unquestioning flick-through of predictably staged imagery in books which are heavy on colour photography. Whiting and Goldmark have proved like-minded partners in this production. And it is the voices of the makers that can be heard as their habitats are revealed and as the reader is encouraged into their worlds.
It is true that the sections appear to be a bit too neatly delineated. I cannot really think of Sandy Brown, for example, as primarily a maker of functional works, when in fact she spans all three categories in the book – and well beyond them into performance art, too – but such objections are rather carping and Whiting is well aware of these crossings of ‘boundaries’.
In any case, history will decide upon which objects to confer art status, and then these too will be reappraised as fashions change. Nothing takes away from this being a good-looking book with substance, honesty and surprise as its strong attributes. There are few enough books that can claim these qualities, so this is a resounding endorsement. And if pots and potters intrigue you, then this is one for both your reference shelf and your coffee table.