Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Friday, February 20, 2009

For this site it’s unusual: a review of a ceramic exhibition. For this, we thank Rhondda Bosworth

Len Castle: Mountain to the sea
Lopdell House, Titirangi
13 February – 13 April 2009

Here we have a master at the top of his game. This body of work is a national taonga. It has a cohesion and substance rarely seen. For those of us looking down the barrel at old age, this thrilling work is a revelation. Len Castle is in his 85th year, and he has made most of these 61 works since 2003.

Castle’s practice is independent of throwing on the wheel or using plaster moulds. Peter Simpson, in his catalogue essay says: “His work has become increasingly sculptural as he has cut, beaten, kneaded, torn and twisted clay”.
He quotes Castle as saying “Those of us who work with clay and fire can be called alchemists, and visual poets.”

The artist Theo Schoon introduced Len Castle to the beauty of geothermal areas in the North Island in the early 1950’s. Castle has returned many times with his camera, and it is worth noting that his photographs, fascinating works in themselves, successfully elucidate his creative process.

His passion for marine and volcanic landscapes has inspired many of these forms – closely reminiscent of shells, rocks, fossils, stones, algae, lichens, cooling lumps of magma. They have an amazing verisimilitude to the real thing, but because this is art, and these are not found objects in nature, they become objects of meditation and contemplation. These artifacts, created from elements of the Earth itself, hold powerfully encoded meanings. They pulsate with colour and texture. They are tactile. One wants to touch, but the cracked surfaces are suggestive of heat.

Castle has written in ‘Touched by Fire’ (NZ Geographic #43, July-Sept 1999):

Clay and Fire are my partners. When I encounter them in nature, my response is fascination and awe. The phenomenon of cracking intrigues me, and is one of the textural expressions that I use in a number of my ceramic forms.

During my research for this review, I learned that clays are powdered rock mixed with water. They have various qualities depending on what minerals they contain, and the fineness of the particles. The glazes can be pure minerals which melt at high temperatures, leaving a glass-like coating over the clay, or mixtures of clay, flax, pigments and silica.

Len Castle began working with this medium in 1947 during his training as a science teacher, and became a full-time potter in 1962. He studied both in St Ives Cornwall with Bernard Leach, and some years later with Japanese ceramic artists. The work shows the Japanese influence still, not so much in the forms themselves which are timeless and all his own, but in their Zen-like meditative quality.

My favorite bowl (they are all magnificent and often suggestive of volcanic lakes) has a ragged fringe of clay inside its immaculate circumference. Within the bowl is the deep, rich, red glaze that Castle has used liberally in these works. “Volcanic flower” too, a singed, seamed flower, has this molten red glaze at its centre.

There is so much evocation here, and a virtuosity that is about much more than technical expertise. Many personal qualities are required to achieve at this level, including vision, talent, imagination, determination, patience, and energy. Accordingly his exiting “Inverted Volcano(es)” (2007) are a wonderful fait accompli of the artist’s imagination. For this viewer they epitomize (literally) a turning upside-down of conventional expectations.

This touring exhibition was organized by the Hawkes Bay Museum and Art Gallery, who are to be commended - except for the inclusion of the work of 10 poets, who were invited to “respond” to the work. This is a curatorial concept that needs to be discouraged. If curators invite and include multi-disciplinary “responses”, where will it end?

Installation images courtesy of Lopdell House, Castle portrait courtesy of Chris Hoult.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Thank you for posting a review of Len Castle's Mountain to the sea. Sadly, I probably won't be able to see the exhibition so it was a treat to be able to catch a glimpse of it on line and to read Rhondda's observations. Len Castle is a wonderful artist and it is inspiring to see him able to find a 'voice' in his work for the powerful marine and volcanic landscapes of New Zealand. It is to be hoped that young potters that form the next generation will also be inspired by the land that surrounds them, and catch the magic of the fire and the clay.
Peter Gregory