CoCAPosted: November 1, 2016
The theme of curation was obviously the main focal point of our visit to CoCA. It was immediately evident that the curators at CoCA had purposely attempted to differ from the more conventional formal displays of fine art, the potential reasons for this I will discuss later. I identified 5 different ways in which the pieces within the gallery were grouped and arranged together.
The first, was introduced to us by Fiona Green, the main curator of the gallery spaces. This was a fairly large, permanent gallery space which technically was not a part of CoCA but instead part of York Art Gallery. The main idea behind this space was to bring fine art and ceramic art on an equal playing field; For 2 separate pieces that don’t necessarily relate, that are potentially also from completely different time periods, to begin to have new conversations with each other and draw out certain similar characteristics captured in the works.
An example of this is the juxtaposition of Loretta Braganza’s “Twelve Apostles” and the 16th Century Renaissance paintings. The name, “Twelve Apostles” obviously has religious connotations which are further emphasised by the religious narrative of the paintings that reside in the spaces around the vessels; however, the name originally derives from the 12 big rock formations that were located on the Australian coastline, which in turn were named after the biblical reference, bringing the reference full circle.
Personally I feel Braganza’s work already has this anthropomorphic quality to it when displayed alone (as seen above) but this becomes even more evident when compared to the figures captured within the paintings. These ‘conversations’ between works were situated throughout the room and whether it was due to similarities of colour, imagery or textures, I found myself cross examining the connections between works.
With that said, I was slightly confused as to how this way of curating was at all innovative… or perhaps a better way to phrase it is, “why should it be considered innovative?”. My introduction to the art gallery space was a slightly more contemporary one, where pieces of art weren’t necessarily always grouped by date or time period.
For example in the Cardiff Museum you have The Welsh Landscape Gallery where traditional oil paintings of the rolling Welsh hills are displayed next to the much more contemporary and applied art work of Pamela Rawnsley. Both draw inspiration from the same source so I don’t see why the time they were created or use of medium should solely dictate where the work is situated within a museum or gallery. I’m aware, however that Fiona Green stated that the connections between the pieces aren’t as obvious to people that aren’t interested in ceramics and find the space “a bit of an eclectic mix”. But I think it all comes from the act of looking and how you train your eyes to view and further explore the narratives held within a work of art and perhaps that’s something that I’m already engaging in.
The next curation I explored was “The Wall of Pots” which comprised of a 17M long display case containing ceramics from the Roman period, right through to the modern day. The first display in this large case celebrates the variety of colour in ceramics and is designed to offer us a ‘rainbow’ of pots.
When I first heard about a display that featured a rainbow of pots I was immediately excited. Colour is something that I enjoy actively engaging in, trying to understand how and why certain colours go well together, but I have to say I was quite disappointed when I realised what I was looking at was the display. I think the curators were setting themselves up for failure when they used the term ‘rainbow’ which generally bring connotations of bright, vivid colours that are fighting for dominance; I’m not sure if it was the work itself, or a combination of the glass barrier and the poor lighting inside but as you can see from the image above, the majority of the cabinet was quite dull. Perhaps a better word to use would have been gradient? I also felt that this dullness was brought on by the over dominating earthy colours (yellows, browns, greens and oranges) which are already very prevalent in the ceramics world, so it would have been nice if the lesser seen colours could have stood out more.
I still like the idea of arranging ceramic work by colour but I think it needs to be done in a more engaging and innovative way, simply grouping ‘like’ colours together isn’t enough (though it’s an easy idea to jump on board with). A more interesting intervention could be creating various colour palettes from the pots, comprising of not only’like’ colours but also discordant colours, analogous colours, balancing colours, etc. creating new dialogues of colour and form. This was something that I distinctly remember exploring when helping to set up the ‘Överföra’ exhibition at Ikea. Sara Moorhouse’s work, located right next to the large cabinet, shows another way of exploring colour within a curation.
In “Arable Landscape” Moorhouse leads the eye around the space with coloured bands, determining their composition. Whilst the palette itself is fairly simple (mostly just primary colours) the use of these colours has obviously been very considered. The colours sleight the viewer into perceiving false bottoms, wider or narrower rims and other subtle variations between the bowls.
The next exhibition space was introduced to us by Hellen Walsh. She told us the story of W.A. Ismay (Bill Ismay) who was a prolific 20th century pot collector and librarian. He had a librarian’s wage but still found the money to support and fund contemporary potters. Once he died in 2001 he donated over 3,500 ceramic pieces to COCA because he wanted his collection to stay together. Everything in that collection was important to him, whether it was a nameless artist or someone like William Staite Murray. It seems as though Ismay truly wanted to support the ceramics movement and surround himself with the objects he enjoyed viewing.
After obtaining and sorting these 3,500 pots, COCA began producing much more experimental displays such as a natural history diorama with pots and other spontaneous curation to help get their collection known. They finally settled on representing 10 artists at a time to show the versatility of ceramics and in order to associate a name to their subsequent work. The cabinets were displayed as such; the top of the case features the work of the artist and the bottom holds the work of their inspirations, students and similar works. The 10 Artists on show were; Bernard Leech (1887-1976), Michael Cardew (1901-1983), Shoji Hamada (1892-1978), Hans Cooper ( 1920-1981), William Staite Murray (1881-1962), Gillian Lowndes ( 1936-2010), Ian Godfrey (1942-1992), David Lloyd Jones (1928-1994), Lucie Rie (1902-1995) and Alisson Britton (b.1948).
This again, seems like another obvious way or curating work to me but undeniably brings about important context and gives some insight into the impact the artist had on the ceramics community, along with societal or economical circumstances. However, this can be misleading as some works are placed on the bottom shelf for aesthetic reasons rather than academic reasons so I think there is also a lack of cohesion.
The final style of curation was the domestic. Anthony Shaw has been collecting art for over 40 years and his collection is now on long term loan to York Museums Trust. Shaw has always felt that his collection is most at home in a domestic setting and has worked with the ceramist Martin Smith to develop a domestic-style space in which to show his collection.
Shaw stated that his collection featured more art than craft, that he was more interested in ceramics as a medium and not as pottery and described his favourite works as ‘paintings in another form’. His collection is obviously very personal to him and communicates his personal tastes and ideas of ‘good’ art. I think it is always quite difficult being so immersed in another person’s idea of what is good _____, especially if it’s quite different to your own. It’s such a close minded viewpoint you constantly feel as though your own ideas and tastes are being challenged, which can be a very healthy thing.
However, I think it was quite a shock to the system as I felt like this idea of ‘good art’ wasn’t so prevalent in the Ken Stradling collection as his doesn’t seem to take itself so seriously and is more about challenging this idea of close-mindedness.
We were asked whether the domestic context of an item would diminish our understanding of them and their status as artefacts. I think a domestic setting would only serve to add further understand to an object perhaps indicating function or new narrative to the work but I do feel that bringing anything into a domestic setting does exactly that, domesticates the item, which absolves their status as an artefact.
The curious thing about this space was that although it was domestic, at the same time it lacked any kind domesticity. Stepping into the space you feel very aware that you are still in a museum; you can’t handle any of the works, you are unsure if you can sit down, there is such an overwhelming amount of ‘domestic art’ that it becomes totally unbelievable you are actually in someone’s home and you can still see the glass cabinets located outside the space reaffirming the idea that touching is definitely not allowed.
The etiquette of ‘no touching’ is something that is deeply embedded into our subconscious especially when in a gallery or museum. Even when we are invited to freely touch artwork, there is always the fear of breaking or being told off etc. and that is something, that to me, will always feel very un-domestic.
I think the whole idea of formal curation needs to be challenged so I’m very happy that CoCA is taking the steps to do this in not only one of their exhibition spaces but in all of them. However innovative or effective these spaces are, directly reflects on the general public understanding of what a gallery space should look like and what rules it should follow.