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the collection


selected by MEL GOODING

to 30 November 2010

The ceramic art works of Anthony Shaw‘s extraordinary and unique collection are for the most part characterised by the essentially organic, irregular and informal qualities of the shapes, textures and imageries that he values most. Shaw has been drawn to imperfect and natural-seeming forms that appear to have evolved out of, and found themselves, in the processes of making, of turning, throwing, construction and accretion, forms that declare the idiosyncratic spirit and hand of the maker and the unpredictable textures of unconventional glazing, firing and decoration. They are objects and vessels it would be impossible to predict. Perfectionists of the potter‘s art (Lucie Rie, for instance, or Hans Coper or Elisabeth Fritsch) do find a place in the collection, but with works that have the imperfect textures of stoneware, or unpredictable patinas, or asymmetric decoration, and which also tend to have earthy or stone-like colour or tones.

For Shaw, clay is an artist‘s medium, as expressive as any other; he loves that generation of artists who from the 1960s onwards felt that way about it, turned their back on the utility or propositional quasi-utility of Leach-inspired studio pottery, and made a breakthrough into what might be regarded as a largely unprecedented abstract art of clay-as-clay. What great good critical fortune that such a spirit and such an eye as Shaw‘s should be devoted to collecting such work as it developed in its unique historical moment, emerging out of a small community of teachers and pupils, original and single-minded artists for the most part little understood or appreciated!

Shaw was singularly perceptive and single-minded. As a gifted and adventurous younger generation of ceramic artists, freed by the breakthrough from utility I have mentioned, quickly turned to fantasies of sculptural figuration, and to extravagant, colourful and inventive constructed forms, Shaw maintained his own collecting passion for works whose elemental origins in earth, fire, imagination and creative chance was all-too visible in their abstract forms. The collection is evidence of a remarkable conjunction: of a body of work coming into being and seeking definition, and of an intelligently receptive perception, a perfectly coherent taste, and an obsessive generosity. The collection is thus definitive; a near-exhaustive exposition of an artistic manifestation that was never a movement, but is now a part of art history.

Gordon Baldwin and Ewen Henderson are without question the central figures in this artistic manifestation, the great originals, creating objects whose evident ancestry in classical forms is countered by a vital responsiveness to the unpredictable dynamics and forms of nature. In the work of the former there are visible the processes of burgeoning growth, of the shape, curve and swell of the human body, the brilliant smooth skin and brittleness of the egg, of darkness and light, of interior and exterior, and of the drawing on the vital surfaces of skin, water and rock of vein, sea-ripple or rivulet, like the linear markings of the purest and simplest human art; and always the ghost of perfect form. In the work of the latter, there dominates the female vessel-form of amphora, vase and bowl, registering the abrasion of sea and air on earth, rock and shell, the fragmentation of the perishable, the gritty encrustation on the oyster shell and its miraculous nacreous interior, and of mineral-iridescent greens and blues; and always the ghost of perfect form. Baldwin and Henderson: platonists of the material real; aristotleans of the unique and contingent.

As I ponder these things I come to realise that my seemingly perverse initial impulse to seek a kind of geometry in the works at my disposal, and to make that a principle - in part - of my selection, had behind it an intuition the truth of which has only been revealed to me as I look at the presentation I have created with Anthony‘s shrewd and subtle assistance. I felt predisposed to select works which in some way - implicit for the most part - demonstrated certain qualities I love in all art: formal determination, however disguised or compromised by perversity or contingency; a geometry challenged by temperament, intuition and feeling (as in Malevich or Klee; as, also, of course, in Bryan Illsley, in whose work it is manifested as a primary aesthetic compulsion); a discernible vertical/ horizontal impulse, however concealed in irregularity of forms, surface accretion or disorder.

All this is certainly very subjective, but it is not uncritical. Behind it lies, no doubt, some longing for order, however veiled by the mass, the mess, the confused richness of the perceptual, the amazing surprise of the everyday. And there is in all this a strong sense that this order, so craved, is itself a made thing, a thing of intelligence and art. It is immanent in the material world, not as the numinous, but as the product - always provisional - of intelligent enquiry, of a stubborn and uniquely human questioning and discontent. It is made visible in the material: in language, whose source is in the brain and throat; in the great artefact of human science; and, above all and before all, in the making of art, which begins in the materiality of earth, water and fire, in stone, clay, charcoal and ash.

3 Bryan Illsley: a note In Illsley‘s work it is as if the redemptive order of modernism has been assimilated, and remains instinct within the work, and has then been abandoned (as hope may be abandoned in the dark). It is enough to make you weep; but then you can‘t help but laugh. Illsley came to his art - a world art - through the universal and ancient handcrafts of metalworking, blacksmithing, whittling, carving and carpentry, and he found his distinctive way to painting through the making of the most simple and primitive marks on whatever surface was given. Those marks are simple and universal: the single stroke or dash, dot, dab, daub, smudge and scribble. His recurrent motifs are universal: circle, rectangle and triangle, stripe, zigzag, wave and spiral. His subjects are elemental: the face and figure reduced to signs, bird, tree, light, shadow, cloud, rain. When an order is abandoned its fragments may still illuminate the dark, and lift the heart.

Mel Gooding

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