On Selection of works in clay

My basic approach is of course to select a show of excellent standards which celebrates working with clay, but at the same time it should be an exciting and forward looking vital exhibition which will nudge the boundaries of the traditional and the accepted into controversial new ways of looking and thinking and talking about ceramics, in both the artist and the viewer.

For this article, I assume that the brief set by the exhibition organisers such as needing only 100 pieces or awarding the prize money and merits, does not impinge upon my process. Also I assume I am the only selector. The selection panel approach evens out to be the average and the boring and never the cutting edge, unless you get a group of people who all think alike, but if they all think alike, why not just have one?

As to the pieces, in the case of multiple entries, I am interested in viewing the group as a Body Of Work from that artist. I like to be convinced that this person knows what they are doing and has a consistent vision. The "one of everything I can do" group does nothing for the artist, other than betray a total lack of confidence in taking a stand with one great single idea.

I then have to do the seemingly unthinkable, to decide what the artist had in mind when the bag of clay was opened.

What is the purpose of the piece?

What is the idea behind it?

What is the concept?

What is the intellectual content?

Then I have to balance the equation of what I think was intended with the final result. Once the selection process is reduced to this equation, it is possible to come to terms with judging a pure little porcelain bowl alongside a political anti-clay statement, which is the situation in a show where an artist has only a single entry.

As arrogant as this may sound, you are usually very accurate. You just need to keep a wide open catholic attitude, read widely and talk about your own and other's work, teach and have a good system of honest dialogue with your students, keep your eyes and ears open and actively respond to work in clay.

Once the intention is decided, a sub-set of uniquely relevant questions automatically arise: For example, with a decorated kitchenware bowl - how serviceable is the glaze surface and how well does the decoration relate to the form and how do you pick it up when it is full of hot pasta sauce? Or for an intellectual clay in-joke - how durable is the wit or how clever is the ceramic humour? Etc.

In posing the Intention question, Craftsmanship rears its often-misunderstood head. The idea is the most important element in any piece. If the idea is fantastic I can overlook a weakness in craftsmanship. Different ideas, concepts and intentions demand different standards of craftsmanship anyway. A conceptual teapot needs to behave differently to a functional one. Similarly, a little porcelain bowl, may fall down because the inside form may not resemble the outside form, or the foot may be weakly turned etc. because I can see the intention does not match the ability of the artist. It is simply an example of poor throwing. But a vigorously thrown bowl, warped and torn, with great cracks, which breaks all the rules, may work because the intention is satisfied. I like to see that highly intangible quality, the joy in the making.

There are really no rules. Aesthetics and any notions of conventional beauty are irrelevant as old stand-bys for the potential selector, because they frequently are not the intention of the modern artist, who may be manipulating ugly or anti-clay or unfired as a legitimate concept.

Within the overall show context I like to look at all the exhibition as an organic whole, assessing like against like, so there is some obvious consistency to my selection, but my main concern is always with the personal statement and development of each artist within their individual group of work. This concentration on personal best means that the promising student and the established master can compete equally. I want to show each of them off to the best advantage. I will reject work which lets their consistency of vision down. I always write explanation notes and prefer to front up wherever possible, when the rejects are picked up, for further dialogue and explanation. People get more emotionally hurt by anonymous rejection. I want the selection to be a positive criticism which will help the artist re-think their work and go forward.

Personal taste really has nothing to do with selection. My own personal wheel-thrown hard-edge highly-finished style has nothing to do with the work I love to collect around me, which is nearly all of the hand-built, soft, loose, clay sketch or very casually thrown variety. I am harder on people whose work I know well.

Sometimes, intellectualising aside, you and many other people have that same instant shared gut feeling on first seeing a piece. You just know on a purely intuitive level, that a work is amazing and has a timeless presence.