The Journey towards White

Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins essay in John Parker CERAMICS

In 1978 John Parker published ‘Eat Your Heart Out Betty Crocker’, a short piece in New Zealand Potter which can only have enraged readers of the essentially polite journal.1 ‘Betty Crocker’ was a no-holds-barred critique of the state of New Zealand ceramics, in which Parker criticised established potters for ‘proliferating their previous successes and retaining [a] high standard of mediocrity’. Not only did Parker caustically critique the quality of works, calling them ‘tired glaze clichés’ and ‘timid safe successes’, but he attacked the dominant philosophy behind much contemporary pottery as irrelevant. He wrote, ‘the mystique of the Orient has fallen into disrepute in the…humourless handmade years of parodying naturalism and primitivism’. To Parker the ‘truth to materials’ philosophy had been ‘misinterpreted and misunderstood by all but the very few’.

‘Betty Crocker’ was redolent with all the frustrations of a young artist who had recently returned from the excitement of London and found that little had changed in his absence. It was a commonly experienced sensation among those young artists returning to New Zealand in the later 1970s only to encounter the stasis of the Muldoon years. In frustration, Parker called for a revolution. However, in searching for an army of insurrectionists he found instead what he described as ‘a new wave of unconnected individuals’. It lacked the mass of a revolutionary army but Bronwynne Cornish, Ted Dutch, Leo King, Rick Rudd, et al were, he assured readers, potters armed with ‘the twentieth century’, and with ‘training and interests encompassing theatre, movies, nuclear physics, printmaking, art deco, television, pop music, photography and car racing’.2

Parker’s warnings went largely unheeded. The ceramics community was then enjoying unparalleled popular success, and for a while in the late 1970s New Zealand studio ceramics remained unchanged. However, Parker’s rallying cry had been prescient. External forces beyond the control of the potters themselves were about to come to bear on studio pottery. As the 1970s became the 1980s, the public’s requirements of the pottery community changed. Significant shifts in taste and the nature of the interior meant that the decade would require only a small number of highly skilled potters and they would need to be able to successfully navigate the conceptual challenges of the period.

Parker was one of the few who would make the transition.

John Parker first exhibited work at the Auckland Studio Potters exhibition in 1967, a year after he had begun attending night classes run by Margaret Milne. He was then, and for a period after this, ‘turning out competently made pots in eight glazes and a hundred shapes’ but ‘getting nowhere’.3 By the early 1970s this lack of tangible progress drove Parker to change the way he worked and to concentrate on a single colour and form—the black cylinder. During this period, working with narrow but self-imposed limitations, he became confident enough to undertake a solo show at the New Vision Gallery in 1973.

In a climate dominated by the rustic Anglo-Japanese aesthetic, Parker’s debut exhibition was dramatic. Margaret Harris, in New Zealand Potter, reported that ‘Parker’s pottery bears no resemblance to the characteristic grey-brown pottery that blends into the landscape’.4 She continued, ‘…the formality of his pieces in black, white, mauve or red belongs to a more ordered setting’. This new formality was the result of Parker’s discovery of the power of restrained form and limited application of glaze. However Parker went further, re-enforcing the formality of the aesthetic through a distinctive display. By arranging his ceramics on and in front of black ‘wallpaper’, tin foil and circles of black glass, Parker achieved an effect that was startlingly new. He presented both the works and a suggestion of the environment in which they belonged—this environment was not the suburban home of the 1970s. Instead, in the form of a contemporary urbanism, Parker offered a highly resolved alternative to the naturalism of the Leech-Hamada tradition.

The 1960s interior, at least in New Zealand, had been dominated by a rustic suburbanism in the form of handmade pottery, woven rugs and hand-spun wall hangings. In the 1950s these had been avant-garde craft practises but during the 1960s they were assimilated into the mainstream suburban interior. To many young artists emerging in the early 1970s, this new suburbanism dominated by earth and timber tones, was suffocating. In the 1960s attempts to change the interior had been made by designers such as William Mason, with his fearless use of psychedelic colours and bold motifs in hand-printed wallpapers and fabrics. By the early 1970s this had done much to transform the New Zealand interior, at least among his sophisticated clientele. The interior suddenly became an expression of personal style and self-image.

In the early 1970s the domestic interior, to which ceramics must of necessity respond, was continuing to undergo rapid change as baby boomers began to establish their own environments. Their decision to reject the suburbs in favour of the neglected houses of the inner cities would lead to a return to popularity of Victorian and Art Nouveau styles in architecture, design and fashion. These were then blended with new pop cultural influences such as glam rock. With its emphasis on flamboyance and display, aided at times by the use of synthetic drugs, glam culture, in the form of Bryan Ferry, David Bowie and Marc Bolan, provided a creative focus for many young artists. Not coincidentally it also proclaimed a polymorphous sexuality.

In a New Zealand Potter article of 1973 John Parker listed his interests—‘William Morris, Pre-Raphaelites, Art Nouveau and Ken Russell films’.5 Although such a list would have confused many of the readers of the magazine, Parker was not alone in the diversity of his sources. While Parker showed works at New Vision that carried text about Richard Nixon, lyrics of Bryan Ferry songs and the libretto of Wagner operas, a few streets away in Swanson Street the Tigermoth collective, created by Pierrette Viscoe and supplied by artists such as Paul Hartigan, Gavin Chilcott and Ann Robinson, was providing alternative clothing that drew on many of the same types of pop cultural sources as Parker. In 1973 both Parker’s ceramics and Tigermoth’s clothes appealed to a small but taste-forming audience. Parker clearly understood the importance that issues of personal style were beginning to play in the construction of the image of individual New Zealanders. In time Parker’s works, like those of William Mason before him, would come not only to express the individualism of their maker but that of their owners.

The New Vision exhibition of 1973 catapulted Parker into the front rank of New Zealand potters. In New Zealand Potter, Parker announced drolly that the flash effects of reduction firing, much pursued and highly prized by potters, were ‘annoying’. Innocuous as these words sound today, they were blasphemy to the ears of the potting world of the early 1970s. It was an irreverence visually enforced by a photograph of Parker disappearing into the future. With his arms in the air and left leg kicking backwards it was an image reminiscent of the ‘up yours’ attitude of a Joe Orton character. By the time the article appeared Parker was safely in London. Many in the New Zealand pottery community probably took solace in the knowledge that, like William Newland and Kenneth Clarke, New Zealand potters of an earlier generation with similarly urban inclinations, Parker would probably never return.

Parker went to London to meet Lucie Rie, with whom he had been corresponding for some time. Eventually he enrolled in a Master’s degree at the Royal College of Art. However, the importance of the artist’s time at the RCA lay not so much with whom he studied, but to what he was exposed. At the RCA Parker realised that almost any source could be legitimately used in the pursuit of contemporary ceramics. In short, most of the suspicions Parker had developed as a young man in Auckland were confirmed in London. Now he had to find ways of getting William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelites, et al, into his ceramics without compromising the restrained formality of his work.

The RCA, which also trained designers for the ceramic industry, did have one lasting impact on Parker’s work. He realised that while in New Zealand the traditions of studio and commercial pottery were kept very much apart, here it was possible to examine the intersection between the two. Parker began to explore this new territory in a series of small plates carrying stills from the film The Devils (1971), which was directed by Ken Russell with art-direction by Derek Jarman. These small white plates, which would hardly seem amiss in a 1930s afternoon tea set, were shiny-white glazed and banded in silver lines reminiscent of the works of the designer Keith Murray. At the centre, a commercially made transfer carried black and white images from the film. These works combined themes that Parker would return to when he arrived back in New Zealand—the role of commercial pottery, the history of twentieth-century style and the origin of contemporary iconography.

Parker returned to New Zealand in 1977 and at first settled into a pattern of annual shows at New Vision. Ceramics in New Zealand had changed only slightly in his absence. The establishment of the Fletcher Ceramics Award brought New Zealanders into contact with a wider range of work and certainly in its early years had a positive effect on the local scene. However, studio ceramics were enjoying such an unqualified success in the public imagination that innovation, where it occurred at all, was technical rather than conceptual. Almost without exception pots were stoneware—the result of oil kiln firings—and were glazed in naturalistic earth colours and indebted to the rustic Anglo-Japanese aesthetic of the Leach-Hamada tradition. Economic success within the community brought immense pressure to conform, and dissenters could easily find themselves expelled. Accordingly, studio ceramists became an increasingly inward-looking clique, suspicious of the intellectual, unconvinced of the necessity for change. It was into this inert mass that Parker launched his Betty Crocker salvo.

Soon after his return to New Zealand, Parker began exhibiting porcelain at the Alicat Gallery run by gallery owner Peter Sinclair. Over a long lunch, Parker suggested that his scheduled 1980 show should take the form of a hoax. Parker had already executed some small-scale hoaxes through his role at Auckland Studio Potters, but wanted a bigger canvas on which to tweak the imagination of the ceramics community. Sinclair, who was charmed by the young potter, went along for the ride. Knowing that the weak point in the Auckland pottery community’s knowledge was their own commercial ceramics history, Parker arranged an exhibition of the works of a fictitious manufacturer—the Vortex works.

Parker staged Domestic Wares (better known as the Vortex show), supposedly the works of a little known Auckland pottery factory that had allegedly produced hand-thrown wares in the mid nineteen fifties. The interior of Alicat was transformed into a thirties period interior with chrome and glass tea trolleys, smoking stands and potted palms placed on top of abstract carpets. The ceramics were arranged on table-tops and on period shop display stands. Mirrors in ceramic frames were hung on the wall.

The Vortex show didn’t sell. Parker recalls one devoted collector simply standing at the front door and screaming: ‘No!’. Peter Sinclair was not amused: a hoax was all very well, but hoax or no hoax, a show had to sell. Ironically the Vortex show was perhaps the first that today’s audience would recognise as Parker’s. The single black shiny glaze on simple forms with the heavily tooled surfaces looked like a mechanised version of coiled pottery. The Vortex works probably fell between two potential audiences: the traditional pottery collectors, to whom they were too advanced, even ugly, and a new more sophisticated collector who had yet to discover Parker and to whom Alicat or New Vision were unknown territory.

With the Vortex works, Parker was beginning to explore the connections between studio and commercial pottery first investigated at the RCA. His timing was perceptive. In the article he wrote for New Zealand Potter to accompany the Vortex works, he noted: ‘The Vortex Works had a limited output. Pieces are now eagerly collected for their rarity and may have found their way into at least one important public collection somewhere in the world.’6 Throughout the 1980s and 1990s collectors of locally produced industrial ceramics, in part spurred on by Gail Lambert’s New Zealand Ceramics: Industrial and Collectable (1985), would begin to outnumber collectors of local studio ceramics, particularly after the closure of the Crown Lynn works in 1989. To this young urban audience, Parker would become one of the few studio potters of interest.

By the early 1980s the studio pottery movement was in crisis. The galleries and craft shops that sold potters’ work were closing at a rapid rate and seemingly secure markets disappeared. After 1984 the blame was placed, somewhat modishly, on a reforming Labour government who removed import controls and exposed the world of the rustic lifestyle potter to competition. However the real cause of the crisis lay much closer to home. Potters had failed to respond to calls for change in any significant way, despite continued evidence of an emerging change in the aesthetic tempo. With the arrival of the mid-1980s, the handmade was quite simply no longer fashionable amongst the suburban middle classes, who now sought a more sophisticated palette of muted pastels. This rejection affected not only rustic potters, but also the handmade aesthetic generally. Even innovative potters like John Parker had to re-establish themselves in this period and attract new audiences to their work. Part of this process of re-branding was the abandoning of the word pottery in favour of the term ceramics.

In 1980 Auckland gallery owner Denis Cohn assembled a group of five ceramic artists together for an exhibition at his inner city gallery. It was a carefully selected group, and the dealer gallery environment meant that Cohn need pay little attention to the suffocating even-handedness that still dominated ceramics exhibitions. Cohn assembled ceramic artists who appealed to him and were likely to be sympathetically received by the audience for his gallery, an audience more used to seeing works by Philip Clairmont, Allen Maddox and Tony Fomison than contemporary ceramics.

Cohn’s artists were for different reasons, and to varying degrees, outcasts from the ceramics community. The five included Warren Tippett, who felt he had been driven away by his pursuit of colour and narrative; Bronwynne Cornish, who doggedly refused to make domestic ware; Denis O’Connor, who was, to a point, passing through ceramics on his way to sculpture; and Peter Hawkesby, whose self-professed lack of technical proficiency appalled the technically obsessed ceramics community. Cohn’s masterstroke was to invite the London trained potter with a master’s degree: John Parker.

The success of Five x Five gave Parker a foothold in the world of contemporary art and exposed his work to an audience that had long stopped visiting exhibitions of contemporary studio pottery. His ‘Penetration’ series, exhibited in Five x Five, were relentlessly non-functional and in many respects his most difficult works yet. But the positive reception they received encouraged Parker to experiment with highly conceptual pieces and to undertake co-operative projects with sculptors such as Terry Stringer and architects such as Simon Carnahan.

Although Parker continued to show at the Denis Cohn Gallery, he began to include other galleries that, like Cohn’s, were not identified with traditional pottery venues. Real Time, the small gallery shop established by Peter Rogers in Ponsonby and which sold works by Parker and Tippett, was particularly important. Real Time existed prominently on another of the city’s cultural maps—that of collectors of twentieth century decorative art. Since the early 1970s they had been trolling junk shops, flea markets and stalls in search of a bargain treasure. Parker’s works—with their frequent reference to twentieth century design sources and their restrained modernist aesthetic—appealed to this group, and they began collecting his work seriously. His works became one of the most eagerly sought after ceramic objects of the eighties and nineties.

In the 1990s, as an interest in New Zealand’s own design past began to grow among collectors, Parker began to investigate a relationship that had fascinated him since he first began potting. As a young man Parker, a collector himself, purchased an old piece of Crown Lynn that had the word ‘handpotted’ stamped on the underside. It appeared to him a perverse juxtaposition. How could something produced industrially be handpotted? Parker had discovered the works of Ernest Shufflebottom. Almost thirty years later, looking more closely at Shufflebottom’s legacy gave Parker the opportunity to bring together a number of important themes that had run through his potting career into a new body of work.

Shufflebottom had worked with the New Zealand designer Keith Murray at Wedgwood during the 1930s. There he had been a master thrower and key interpreter of Murray’s innovative, restrained and glacial domestic wares. When, in the 1940s, Shufflebottom found himself at Crown Lynn in Auckland, he produced a series of hand potted, turned and white-glazed works that were essentially a theme and variation on those he had thrown at Wedgwood. In the works of these two men, Parker discovered like-minded ceramic artists who thought across traditional boundaries and in doing so instituted the exchange of a distinctive modernist iconography particular to Britain and New Zealand. Parker began to add to that tradition, bringing to it his own set of references and experiences. In 1996 Parker announced his intention to no longer work in any colour except white. Having done much to disestablish the influence of imported traditions of ceramics in New Zealand, with his ‘White Wares’ Parker comes closer than perhaps any potter to creating a new and distinctive tradition of urban ceramics.

1 Parker, J. ‘Eat Your Heart Out Betty Crocker,’ in New Zealand Potter, vol. 20, no. 2, Spring 1978, p.20. The term ‘The Betty Crocker School’ had first been used by Auckland potter Ian Firth to describe those ‘potters that had no feeling for the basic raw materials’ and who regarded ‘clay as a commodity that comes in a plastic bag’.

2 This and all previous quotes are from ‘Eat Your Heart Out Betty Crocker’, p.20.

3 Harris, M. ‘John Parker’, in New Zealand Potter, vol. 15, no. 1, Autumn 1973, p.44.

4 Harris, M. ‘John Parker at New Vision’, in New Zealand Potter vol. 15, no. 1, Autumn 1973, p.47.

5 Harris, M. ‘John Parker’, p.44.

6 Parker, J. ‘Domestic Wares’, in New Zealand Potter, vol. 23, no. 2, Spring 1981, p.24.