"John Parker-Life and Work" essay in JOHN PARKER CERAMICS

Janet Mansfield

Reading the curriculum vitae or biography of an artist, which is usually listed in chronological order, one can grasp an outline of his life and work. The events, the exhibitions, summaries of the whole of his professional practice are laid out in rational order from the date and place of birth, to the most current of activities; and these demonstrate his interests and priorities, both in his home country and by his interaction abroad. We learn of the artist’s training for his particular field of expertise, and the awards he has gained in this field. We can see where his work has been written about in the media and where this work has been acquired in public collections. Reading an artist’s statement, one gains further insight into his motivations and methods, even his passions are revealed as he strives to express in words that which is usually only evident through the work itself.

Reading reviews published in newspapers and magazines, usually written as a result of an exhibition, informs us of the opinions on the work by the writers and, while often demonstrating the bias of the reviewer, can give us more information on where an artist fits in the wider field of his particular art form, both nationally and internationally. Inclusion of the artist’s work and philosophy in books is another resource for learning about who he is and what makes him important in his genre. Illustrative photographs reflect the writer’s choice and give credence to such inclusion. Armed with all this resource material, anyone looking at the work of an artist should find sufficient background for viewing the work itself. Such research is the basis for this essay on the life and work of John Parker, who, since the 1970s, has been one of New Zealand’s most prominent and well-known potters. However, there is no substitute for looking at the actual work; nothing is as satisfying as examining the work at first-hand. I have met John Parker on a number of occasions, seeing his work in his home and in exhibitions. I remember well visiting his exhibition, White Ware, at Avid Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1997, and acquiring a piece for my own collection.

John Parker was born in Auckland in 1947 and when he was19 he began evening classes in pottery with Margaret Milne. It seems that he was immediately attracted to the possibilities of ceramic art, helping build a kiln and joining potters’ cooperatives. He also took a wider view of crafts as art and joined the World Crafts Council in 1969. The Royal College of Art in London offered training in pottery that was different to other courses available at that time, whether in NZ, Australia or the UK in that it was based more on the European or Bauhaus philosophy of “form follows function”. The students were encouraged to see ceramics as objects in space, to understand sculptural concepts in their work and look for strength in pure form. Parker attended The Royal College from 1973 until ’75, graduating with an MA degree. After working and teaching in the UK for a year or so he returned to New Zealand to take up the post as Director of the Auckland Studio Potters Centre where he was able to work and teach. From this early time he has been involved in selecting work or acting as a juror on major ceramic exhibitions throughout New Zealand and it would be fair to say that his influence through these selections has been a force in the direction ceramics has taken in his country. John Parker has maintained his international connections and has brought to New Zealand the broader knowledge gained through these contacts. Concurrently, John Parker became interested in theatre design, undertaking design briefs for performing art in New Zealand. He has been involved continuously with theatre ever since, even travelling to China in a research project for opera, a project, among others, that is still current and a source of continuing research and presentation today.

The ceramics of John Parker could be described as ‘modern’. This description implies, to me, that it is continuously contemporary, of today, and formulated in a classical way. As I see it, it also means an elegant refinement of past styles, an embrace of technical virtuosity in an austere and geometrical expression of form that is completely without fuss. During the 1990s, the modernist style proliferated and this idiomatic mode now has become one of the mainstream forms of ceramics. John Parker, who has been working with clay continuously since 1966, was ahead of this movement and could be considered a leader in the field of modernist expression. His forms are strict, based on geometrical shapes such as the cylinder, the sphere, the cube and the cone. It is the balance of the parts and their juxtaposition that focuses our attention on them. When I wrote the book, Contemporary Ceramic Art of Australia and New Zealand, published in 1995, I began the chapter ‘The Possibility of Pure Form’ using the work of John Parker as an example of a search for perfection of form and surface. Using quotes from various reviews, a reader could trace Parker’s stylistic career from his friendship with Lucie Rie in London, in the mid-’70s to the present day. It was his mentorship with Rie, and also with Hans Coper, his tutor at the Royal College of Art, that seems to have influenced him significantly and set him on a modernist course. Lucie Rie, who came to England in 1939, had studied ceramics in Vienna, and had a reputation on her arrival for making a range of simple and well-designed pots and bowls. Shape was always an important part of her aesthetic, the minimal decoration only used as an emphasis to the form.

Rie’s collaboration with Hans Coper, another European artist who came to live in England, saw, from 1947, the beginnings of a movement in ceramic art that is still a force for potters working today. In Coper’s ceramics we can see simplicity of form with a harmonic relationship between the parts. Both Rie and Coper made pottery that moved away from ornamentation, seeking instead refinement of shape and an intellectual discipline and precise technique. Their work led to a new austerity in ceramics in which John Parker plays a vital part.

John Parker became interested in the form as a means to engage with function, to experiment with commercial forms and industrial or semi-industrial techniques as a way to simplify and purify designs for pottery. In this way he was able to pay attention to the details of the articulation of the shapes and how the forms were finished. Some of these early works were political statements and Parker used text from newspapers to promote a message through his work. A series of plates and other forms were exhibited and although based on domestic forms they were heavily coated with manganese pigments and function was not their purpose. These works were followed by pots in primary colours of blues, yellows and reds, they were bright and dramatic. The results were sculptural interpretations of the potter’s art and yet the scale of the pieces remained in the domestic range and few pieces were more than 30 to 40 cm in height. In an art world where changes in fashion have resulted in continual novelty, Parker’s steadfast reliance on simplicity of form stood out in sharp contrast to the contemporary work in New Zealand at that time with its emphasis on the Anglo-Oriental style, that is, Bernard Leach/Shoji Hamada-inspired domestic work. Bernard Leach, an English potter who travelled freely between the East (Japan and China) and the West (UK in particular), has become, through his writings and his pots, one of the major sources of inspiration for potters working today. He offered, through his A Potter’s Book (published by Faber and Faber, 1940) a vocation that was independent and one that could lead to a dignified and worthwhile lifestyle that was both viable and sustaining of the spirit. He believed that pottery could be both useful and beautiful and he took as his role models the work of the medieval English potter and the unknown craftsmen of Japan. Working closely with Shoji Hamada of Mashiko, Japan, they sought beauty through abstract ideas such as sincerity, integrity and charity. Leach was strongly anti-art school and also opposed the practices of industry such as the division of labour. He thought the potter should perform all the tasks of his practice from the winning of the materials and their refinement for use to the firing of the kilns and dealing with the public. Such a strong voice brought about a reaction, particularly in the art schools. Moving away from Leach’s idealised view of the role of ceramics and its unselfconscious seeking of beauty, a more modern faction arose that was based on contemporary reality and life’s present needs and conventions. John Parker’s pots have remained forever in this avant-garde and he is member of a growing and influential coterie of ceramic artists who have led a wave of refined style that has helped shape the current ceramics movement.

In another way, John Parker’s work could be described as ‘minimalist’. We can imagine that he has pared these forms down to a minimum in a reduction of expression to the essentials of the pot; the pieces contain all the elements of pottery form yet offer no distraction by way of decoration, unnecessary handles or exaggeration of lip or foot. The profiles are unfettered, they are clear, and even severe, and they present a unity of the parts that have been joined in a composition that is both satisfying and dynamic. A further aspect of this minimalism is the effect of the monochromatic surface glaze. Some surfaces are smooth to the touch, some are textured to give a light and shade or shadowy appearance, and the use of a single dense coloured glaze has the effect of focusing our eyes on the sharpness of the profile as well as the dimensional volume of the work. It comes as no surprise to find that John Parker has been commissioned by architects to install works in offices and the foyers of corporations because his ceramics have that sleek surface and machined finish that is cool and emotionless and completely contemporary.

In yet another way, John Parker’s work could be described as ‘abstract’. Herbert Read has described pottery in his book The Meaning of Art as one of the most abstract forms of art that is possible to be found and one has to agree that in pursuing abstract forms, Parker makes pieces that are complete in themselves. One has no need to fill the vases with flowers or the bowls with fruit although it is certainly possible to do so. The crisp profiles, the rational geometry of the segments of the pieces do not call for any functional use and Parker has mentioned in statements about his work that he likes to play with non-function, presenting an aspect of his work which he calls ‘anti-function’ in which he makes difficulties in using his work ? “bowls which are difficult to use because of obstacles in the way and bottles which would be difficult to fill with any liquid but which still are bottles.” This, he declares, is a situation where “form foils function”. In evaluating John Parker’s ceramics one also has to recognise his ‘constructivist’ style. If by constructivist art we agree that Parker’s forms are architectural, that they are logical, rational and cannot be added to or subtracted from without altering completely their intention, then they fit such a category. That the forms are straightforward, hard-edged and sufficient unto themselves, they satisfy stringent sculptural properties in the use of space. When one considers John Parker’s multi-faceted career of set and costume designer for the theatre and of exhibition design and layout, all of which, in addition to his active making of pottery forms, he has been equally engaged over the past 25 years, it is possible to see his ceramics also as part of ‘performance’ art. The use of lighting, the presentation of the individual forms themselves, their mode of display, all these factors could be regarded as a form of theatre. They are made and placed with the viewer in mind; the relationship of one pot to the next, the level of its setting, the positive and negative spaces between the works, all add up to a deliberate composition to give a dynamism for the display. Forms mirror forms, angles meet angles, planes align with planes that lead the eye onwards ? it is a formidable skill exercised by a master designer.

If pottery can be seen as an art form, and I believe it can and should, then John Parker’s ceramics are part of that movement which has seen works in clay being recognised as sculpture. Yet John Parker considers himself a potter and his training in the making and firing of pots relates back to the traditions of history. He throws his pots on a potter’s wheel, fires in an electric kiln, experiments with clay and glaze materials. These are the true aspects of the potter’s art, but Parker does not leave too much to chance. He has honed down his materials to their essence, he turns his forms on the wheel with sharp tools when they are leather-hard until they have an almost lathe-like finish, refining the form and eliminating any memory of the touch of the hand. He uses all the advantages of modern technology when it comes to the risky procedures of firing, and he knows his processes and techniques thoroughly even though he tries to push them onwards. It is in this dialogue between the art of the potter with its traditional values in conjunction with the presentation of new and pure forms and dramatic modes of presentation that John Parker has realised the expression of modernity. It is in the simplicity and the austerity of his pieces, where the strength of his art resides. It is in the drama of their presentation that Parker’s works continue to intrigue and excite us.

Janet Mansfield, potter, author
Editor : Ceramics: Art and Perception and CeramicsTECHNICAL
10 December 2001