Sunday, 23 January 2011

Last Post

Ken Gelder's opening talk for my show in Melbourne was so nice I had to share it.

I should begin by saying that I’ve known Gerry Wedd for a long time; we were at high school in South Australia together and we would surf together from time to time – Gerry was, and no doubt still is, a very good surfer indeed - and I hope he’ll also allow me to say that he’s a much admired old friend. For various reasons his work makes me recall those early days, and I’d like to explain why. My family came to South Australia as English immigrants in the 1960s, and like many English immigrants they were settled a long way south of Adelaide in what was then a new estate, a kind of outer outer suburb, called Christies Beach. This estate was built right alongside a ramshackle, winding old coastal village called Port Noarlunga, which is where Gerry used to live. I remember going to Gerry’s house, which (if I may say so) was also ramshackle, a lovely old shady house kept by his mother, a woman who seemed to me (as a teenager) to be refreshingly friendly and unnervingly intelligent, and who had the loveliest, longest silver-grey hair which ran all the way down her back as I recall – and which, I think, she often platted. I know she was a huge influence on Gerry’s work, too: getting him into pottery and then figuring (it seems to me) in the various female images that came to adorn his work, his early work especially. Her large back garden had some gnarled old trees scattered haphazardly through it and outcrops of grass here and there, with a few surfboards and odds and ends: it was the kind of garden that seemed left to its own devices, growing and sprouting at its own pace, and I always enjoyed going there. Where my own immigrant family first lived wasn’t far away but it was completely different: a beige brick estate house set in a straight street alongside a series of other houses that looked just the same, with a square lawn that we mowed almost every week, a few trimmed shrubs, the trees all neatly pruned, all the rotting fruit picked up and carefully disposed of. My own mother’s hair was cut short and she got it permed once a month at the local hairdresser’s, another English immigrant who in her own way also helped the English part of that coastal neighbourhood to keep itself neat and tidy.

My parents were fond of kitsch decorations in their house, on their curtains, mass reproduced kitsch prints on the wall, kitsch plastic ornaments. It seemed at the time as if the English had brought kitsch to Adelaide’s southern coast: and I remember another friend of mine in those days, a very good English surfer, whose father Leslie Webb used to produce large numbers of framed pictures carved out of wood of kitsch representations of Australian forests (or woods), with Aboriginal men holding up spears, kangaroos hopping away, deer (perhaps surprisingly: another immigrant species), and so on: and these were very popular across my estate (my parents hung one of Les Webb’s pictures in their lounge as a centrepiece and it was the first thing that caught your eye when you came into the room). For some time, kitsch has connoted mass production and inauthenticity: the inauthentic representations of Aboriginal life, for example, produced in this case by the English for the English in Australia (although I should add that the English were not the only immigrants who heavily invested in kitsch; and Australians soon came to love it, too). Mr Webb’s kitsch wooden tableaux stood above some toby jugs on my parents’ mantelpiece, which signified a tradition of English kitsch in ceramics, mass produced in the eighteenth century and widely imitated in England and elsewhere. But we should also remember that the word kitsch comes from the German (or possibly Swedish) word kitschen, which means ‘to throw together’, ‘to scrape together’ without any sense of polish or finish: used in the context, for example, of collecting bits and pieces from the street: like a kind of rag-tag bricolage. This particular etymology makes me think again of Gerry’s old house in Port Noarlunga much more than my parents’ new, neatly manicured kitsch-filled beige brick house in the adjoining estate. And it makes me think of his work, too: which, if we think especially of his ceramics, is literally thrown or scraped together, not mass produced but worked carefully by hand: so much so that there will be fingerprints on the surface which remain there even when the work is finished, because finishing the work for Gerry often also seems to mean leaving it unfinished, unpolished, a little rough around the edges. I therefore think of his work (in a good way, I hope) as a sort of anti-kitsch kitsch: it seems to me to play out what is really quite a strange association of Englishness and Australianness, where something gets transmitted or transported across the ocean (and that image of oceanic transmission is really important to Gerry’s work), and maybe back again: with one thing typically grafted onto something quite different, almost in contradiction: like a neat English estate grafted onto a ramshackle old Australian coastal village.

Our word kitchen of course also comes from kitsch, and the kitchen has always been the key destination for ceramics, for pottery: for crockery, a word that also came into use during the eighteenth century although its etymology takes us back to the Old English word crocc, an Anglo-Saxon word for pot or jar. The eighteenth century is really important for Gerry’s work and so, in fact, is England as it turns out: this is where mass produced ceramics meets design in the kitchen, in the framework of domestic use and decoration. For an Australian ceramicist, Gerry seems to me to be enmeshed in the ceramic influences of eighteenth-century England, and maybe we can see this best of all through his use (and abuse?) of the willow pattern on his plates and platters and saucers and jugs and so on and of course, on his remarkable willow pattern thongs, for people who know that series: where something English is literally imprinted onto something Australian. The blue and white willow pattern is pure kitsch: it looks like it has some kind of authentic Chinese history, but in fact it was designed and manufactured in England for the English, once again around the end of the eighteenth century: giving the English a sort of kitsch orientalism that soon became incredibly popular worldwide. Gerry’s work has taken up the Anglo-Chinese willow pattern and played with it in all sorts of ways: making it local (like his ‘Waits Willow’ which pays tribute to a local surf spot) or his platter with the kangaroo and the iconic tree with the spherical tips to the branches (and a faux-Chinese house beside them), or that iconic willow-patterned thong series. Gerry’s latest exhibition takes us out of the kitchen and away from the beach, however: inland into the woods. But they draw some of their inspiration again from eighteenth-century England: from the little figurines produced by Staffordshire potters that became so popular for the Victorians, for the mid- to late-nineteenth century English middle classes.

I think we can think of Gerry among other things as a ceramicist-scholar: whose work reflects the kinds of deep histories that ceramics and porcelain work carry with them. All good art work is citational: you can’t make a work of art without citing other works of art, but you do that also in order to orient yourself, to locate yourself in the traditions you admire and participate in, and to make sense of what you do and why you do it, all in order then to do something different (I wouldn’t say something ‘new’ because the weight of citation stops all artists from being new). Gerry’s exhibition today gives us two more citations from the eighteenth century: first, the Swiss-German ceramics modeller Bustelli, who had worked for the Bavarian Nymphenburg (‘Nymphs Castle’) Porcelain Factory in the 1750s, and Johann Joachim Kaendler, the German ceramicist who became the ‘modelmeister’ at the Meissen factory near Dresden, which pioneered the use of hard paste white porcelain. Both ceramicists made figurines and tableware, influenced by the early eighteenth century rococo style: ornate, elegant, decorative, produced usually for the wealthy classes, royal families, and so on. The Wedgewood factory in England, founded in 1759, did something similar: creating fine bone china with classical designs for the wealthy, for kings and queens. Gerry’s work gives us a counter narrative to all this: the title of his blog Weddwould is typically citational but also ironic and distanced: more in tune with the everyday world of the Staffordshire potters, for whom all aspects of ordinary life were given animation through their cheap, accessible figurines: ordinary figures going into ordinary homes. Wedgewood could never be grim; but the Staffordshire figurines could even represent local criminals: there was something lurid about some of them, as they celebrated both beauty and the darker side of daily life. Gerry’s ‘In the Woods’ exhibition takes us out of the house and into the Gothic, another eighteenth-century English/European invention – but transplanted, or transported, here to the Australian bush: except that it is never just the Australian bush in these figurines. The landscapes, the kangaroos and the menacing dogs and so on, are sometimes pure white: like snowscapes, but also like the white figurines of Bustelli and Kaendler: finished and unfinished at the same time. They’re literally chilling: frozen images from the Australian forests: frozen in time, too, not so much inauthentic like that kitsch wood carving in my parent’s lounge, but rather as if their moment has passed (which is why they are also about death): or maybe it’s as if their moment is yet to come. I think these delicate, brittle figurines are terrific, and I hope you’ll enjoy them and be fascinated by them and reflect on them, and I’d like very much to congratulate Gerry Wedd on his fine, challenging work and declare his exhibition open.

Ken Gelder

University of Melbourne

1 comment:

Pru Morrison said...

Thanks for posting, I enjoyed.