In 1911, English artist Bernard Leach was first introduced to Japanese raku ceramics, the hand-formed bowls used in the traditional tea ceremony. Leach would go on to study under master potter Urano Shigeichi, and would go on to synthesise traditional Japanese methods with English folk pottery, culminating in his seminal 1940 text A Potter’s Book. Leach’s anti-industrial approach to ceramics emphasised the importance of local production, functionality and lack of ostentation, a mindset that was imported to New Zealand by Len Castle, who went on to influence the young Barry Brickell, who in turn made an impact on the work of Laurie Steer, continuing a lineage that stretches back more than 100 years.
All of this is to say that ceramicists, perhaps more so than other kinds of artists, are usually craftspeople as well, and their craft is often directly inherited from their teachers. In this vein, Steer has titled his exhibition after the first chapter of Leach’s book, “Towards a Standard.” In this text, Leach lays out his vision for a communally based, aesthetically minimalist agreed-upon standard for ceramics that he frames in almost spiritual or moral terms: “a pot in order to be good should be a genuine expression of life. It implies sincerity on the part of the potter and truth in the conception and execution of the work.”1 Steer refers to the dictates laid down in A Potter’s Book as “the Bible,” noting that this utopian vision of ceramics as a communal activity with a shared, simplified aesthetic has become the dominant narrative in New Zealand pottery. However, Steer’s approach to this “Bible” is more that of the iconoclast than the exegete: he describes his relationship to Leach as that of the “prince who kills the king, even though he loves him.” Steer is asking the viewer to compare his pots to Leach’s “standard,” and to consider how they deviate from or even attack that ideal form. In this way, Steer is simultaneously exploring the limits of what is considered acceptable in New Zealand studio ceramics, and critiquing the possible flaws in Leach’s rigid methodology, which leaves little room for breaks with tradition.
As well as requiring certain standards of authenticity, Leach’s book lays out a list of “constructional ideas,” amongst which he states that “Enduring forms are full of quiet assurance. Overstatement is worse than understatement.”2 Steer’s work could hardly be accused of understatement; his forms evoke the fantastic and the imaginary rather than the archetypal folk simplicity of Leach’s pots. However, Steer notes that his works “all still have some functional potential; it’s just not obvious what it is. Maybe it is beyond the viewer’s experience or desired consideration.” The works presented here are suffused with a sense of confidence or mastery; Steer is a potter adept at his craft, using all of the tools at his disposal to explore the limits of the medium. He makes calculated pushes against Leach’s “standard,” creating pots according to the rules laid out in A Potter’s Book, and then puncturing, damaging or disfiguring them. These anarchic moves are transgressive as a means of opening new avenues of exploration, or, as Steer says, “travelling beyond the standard, around the corner, into the future.”
These vessels are ridged, striated, sometimes crushed or ripped before firing, deliberately foregrounding the malleability of wet clay, piercing the illusion of a serene, unbroken surface. These pots did not spring into being fully-formed, or arise from happy accidents like the seemingly effortless folk ceramics so highly prized by Leach and others; they bear the scars of their uneasy birth openly, advertising their trauma. Some works recall the aesthetic of seminal modernist potters like Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, but deformed, deranged even; multiple vessels are stacked atop one another to create hybrid forms, an additive process anathema to Leach’s “standard,” while others are punctured by spikes faintly recalling the nails driven into traditional Congolese Nkondi sculpture. Steer’s works can be read as props, objects that work backwards to manufacture their own imagined histories, but they also function as commentary on the real history of ceramics, their deformities and idiosyncrasies revolting against the intellectual, political and aesthetic agendas that have been attached to the medium.
1. Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book, (London: Faber and Faber, 1940), 20.
2. Ibid., 24.