Colin Batrouney examines the recent ceramics of David Pottinger
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Little Gidding, The Waste Land
T S Eliot
Any critical appraisal of the work of David Pottinger needs to take into account the fact that his artistic expression is firmly rooted in the craft of ceramics. This may seem obvious but the power of his work is its dedication to a tradition and a technique that is thousands of years old1 in the service of new ways of examining the volume and surface of hand-built forms.
If, as Ezra Pound suggested in another context, ‘Beauty is Difficult’2 then it is hardly surprising that the finest examples from ceramicists who have employed the technique of nerikomi3 are vessels that distil beauty in forms that are (to say the least) technically difficult and exacting.
Art is not only responsive but a provocation and Pottinger’s work is no exception. With the intricately complex rhythms and interweaving patterns of his work he invites the viewer to look deeper, to see it and its relationship to the space around it and inside it. His simple, authoritative shapes suggest an undisturbed serenity that contrasts with the virtuosity of their creation. With literally thousands of joins in any given piece, Pottinger’s work is a testament to the chance art of ceramics. In the making, every piece teeters on the brink of failure (it is not uncommon for entire firings to be split, cracked or broken) which makes every success at once unique and serendipitous.
Pottinger’s vessels are not merely fine examples of the technique of nerikomi, he intentionally uses nerikomi to suggest a multiplicity of readings emerging from the surfaces and volumes of his work. He does this through intricate layering and patterning that build tensions and complementary rhythms around and through the work. This patterning is in no way regular, but rather governed by the technique of nerikomi itself. This technique will often see the random tug, pull and drag of patterns around vessels as the clay shifts in response to the layering and joining process. This layering and patterning allows a deep contemplation of the finished vessels and suggests that the forms are constantly shifting through a process of plaiting, twining and weaving in, out and through the pots.
This approach to form and surface is not unlike the spectacular visual effects found in the paintings of Bridget Riley or, in ceramics, the work of Elizabeth Fritsch. But unlike either Fritsch or Riley, Pottinger does not rely on the manipulation of geometric shapes as a process of spatial shift and distortion, rather, his technique is deceptively simple and more organically rooted in the method of layering and juxtaposition. His patterns swirl, fracture and weave with the random freedom found in musical expressions like jazz improvisation, counterpoint and dissonance. And just like these musical forms, Pottinger’s work finds its resolution in the harmonising of these disparate elements into resolved pieces that seem at once timeless and effortlessly of the moment.
Contrasting this complexity are the vessel forms themselves. Here Pottinger employs shapes that are so elementary to the vessel form that they almost seem drawn from pre-antiquity. His forms appear with the simple clarity of Minoan or Cycladic pottery that are essentially stripped away of any decoration in an effort to privilege the visual play of surface tensions across, in and around the work. In another feat of technical mastery, it is possible to hold a Pottinger vessel by its base and tap the side to hear the tone of a beautifully pitched bell as it resonates through the work to the space that surrounds it.
The simplicity of these forms is mirrored in the muted palate of the work. Organic greens, browns, blues and ochres are thrown into crisp contrast by the use of beautifully articulated Southern Ice white that lends the work a vibrantly glowing translucent intensity.
It is in the palate of Pottinger’s work that we recognise his immediate debt and connection to the Australian landscape and, perhaps obliquely, to the work of Indigenous Australian artists themselves. His patterning can be seen as homage to the potent work of artists such as Emily Kngwarreye and Doreen Reid Nakamarra and the Tjanpi basket weavers of the Central Western Desert. Like them, Pottinger has achieved, through a combination of technique, form and intention, a crafting that is unmediated by fashion or decoration, a distillation of aesthetics that is suggestive of a kind of objective lyricism. While Pottinger’s work is not linked to the landscape in the way of symbol and myth common to Indigenous artists, his work is nonetheless a direct expression of a fundamentally organic Australian ethos, a shared sense of place, space and timelessness.
It has taken Pottinger many years to reach this point. His early work was concerned with surface decoration and embellishment and the iterative nature of his development has seen that earlier concern integrating those surface elements and pulling them into the clay body itself. What we are left with is not only an impressive new body of work, but rather a future direction that is endless in its ability to compose pieces that allow the artist and the viewer to participate in work that expands with limitless possibility.
Colin Batrouney is a Melbourne-based author and artist.
1 Hopper, R. Making Marks. Discovering the Ceramic Surface, Krause Publications, 2004 pp 125
2 Pound, E. The Cantos, LXXIV, LXXX
3 “A number of different names have been given to laminated coloured clay processes depending on where the process developed. In England they usually are referred to as agateware, after the decorative, patterned gemstone. In Italy the use of coloured clay is often referred to as ‘millefiori’ from a decorative glass-forming process meaning ‘a thousand flowers’. In Japan, the words ‘neriage’ and ‘zougan’ refer to different ways the coloured clays are used.” Hopper, op cit. pp 124