Ever so nice but not so benign

Beneath the lusciously decorative exteriors of Richard Stratton’s ceramics lie graphic stories about some of the most disturbing issues of our times. Virginia Were talks to the artist.

Although ceramic artist Richard Stratton was initially trained as a potter and has been known to make jardinières, teapots and cups, his work is closer in spirit to the song Television, by The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, than it is to the 1925 song Tea for Two.

Though they’re made as functional objects, and are perhaps throwbacks to the time he spent working as a production thrower on the Isle of Skye, Stratton’s extravagantly decorative pieces will never be used. Instead they mimic precious objects stowed away in a china cabinet where they can be seen but not touched. Not only do they look precious with their sumptuous glazes and detailed graphic and relief ornamentation, they actually are precious because for every one that survives through to its final firing in the kiln—some of them may undergo as many as six firings at progressively lower temperatures—there are many failures; objects that simply don’t survive.

Like porcelain ornaments carefully arranged on an elderly relative’s mantelpiece, Stratton’s pieces are designed to be seen up close and scrutinised, yet when you look closely at the graphic stories painted on their surfaces their irreverent tone and subversive twist on collectible ornaments and traditional heirlooms quickly becomes evident. It’s clear they form a fascinating new species.

Like the ceramics of cross-dressing British potter, Grayson Perry, Stratton’s works have disturbing graphic stories painted, scratched or printed on them, which are jarringly incongruous with the works’ decorative forms.

On the side of the steeple cup Alice Ate Too Much, made for The Real Art Roadshow, for instance, is a rather ominous sgraffito image of a woman wielding a dangerously large knife; she is about to carve up a chicken on the plate in front of her. On the other side of the cup we see Alice chasing the White Rabbit down a shrinking tunnel surrounded by famine victims. The imagery, which references disparate sources including Tenniel’s illustrations for the original 1865 edition of Alice in Wonderland, is a stark contrast with the kitsch figurine of a little girl holding a basket of flowers atop the cup. Like many of the cast figurines crowning Stratton’s works she looks vaguely familiar. In fact, she comes from a mould taken from a two-dollar plastic doll bought at an opportunity shop.

Stratton’s image bank is not for the faint-hearted; in it he references the more troubling socio-political issues of our times—the invasion of Iraq, First World greed and gluttony, Third World poverty and starvation, nuclear weapons, anorexia nervosa, bulimia and so on. But many of these works also flaunt Stratton’s (black) humour as he mines stories from his own life—being a father, getting drunk on election night, reflecting on the idiocy of television and its late-night infomercials.

To generate the forms and techniques in his work he looks back over centuries of ceramic history as the catalogue for his 2007 show, Nurturing Dialectics, at Anna Miles Gallery, shows. A runaway success this show sold out after three days. Reflecting his experience as a stay-at-home dad to daughter Sabine, Nurturing Dialectics comprised 15 psychedelic teapots whose lavish colours and ornate ornamentation had a playful, childlike aesthetic, yet the graphic stories on the sides of these teapots unleashed more sinister elements.

The history of conflict and exploitation between the East and West is the back story of every teapot sitting on a suburban table and this story comes through in the imagery and ideas behind these works. How did the concept for this body of work evolve?

“When I went to England, we didn’t fly, we took a cruise ship and stopped in various countries like Senegal and Papua New Guinea in the 1980s, and that opened my eyes up to what the world is really like. It’s not what you see on the ‘goggle box’; it’s really harsh, really nasty; you see poverty and death. And East versus West has been a long argument since the Silk Route days. There’s always one side that loses.

“A third of the teapots were based on designs that came from English Creamware of 1710; another third were abstractions of a Burgess and Leigh novelty teapot from 1896, and the remaining third were hybrids of both those forms. The round, globular teapots in Nurturing Dialectics were all based on creamware—same glaze, same design. Behind them though, they had black and white sgraffito, which is an ancient technique of scratching the image into the dark slip to reveal the lighter coloured clay body below.”

The catalogue for Nurturing Dialectics was as inspired as the works themselves and folded out into a large wall chart like a child’s growth chart. It had an image of an old-fashioned wooden ruler on one side and a bizarre timeline featuring high points in the history of ceramics, including the birth date of Josiah Wedgwood, on the other. Interspersed with this history of industrialised ceramics are facts and figures relating to the worldwide development and deployment of nuclear weapons, snippets of social history, such as the establishment of the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society, and significant points in Stratton’s own life—the date he first handled clay, the date he made his first teapot and the date his daughter was born.

“Having kids has opened my eyes to what children today are faced with—mass advertising, peer pressure, political issues both social and international, and a growing dread of what the future may hold for them and us. It’s amazing how much shit goes on in the world and people think, ‘Oh yeah, it won’t affect me’, and are very blase about it. I’ve spent a lot of time overseas and I lived in London in the 1980s and 90s. That was a culture shock—coming from quiet little New Zealand and moving to that environment; I lived in East Putney while the Falklands War was going on. And this among other things probably seeded some of my early design ideas. I grew up in Dunedin in a massive Victorian house and my parents used to collect a few antiques, so I was always surrounded by ornamentation, and I think it has worked itself into my work.”

Stratton has a large collection of technical ceramic manuals from the last two centuries and many of his techniques are sourced from these. He’s also an avid frequenter of op shops, which he charmingly describes as “form libraries”, and he keeps his eyes peeled for cheap plastic knock-offs of expensive collectible items, which can be cast in plaster to make a press mould.

One finished ceramic piece, such as the Snakes and Ladders Steeple Cup which he created last year for Objectspace’s Limited Editions exhibition, may contain six to ten separate press-moulded elements as well as forms that have been thrown on a wheel and then reassembled—not quite seamlessly—to make a conglomerate whole. For this show he was asked to create a contemporary heirloom in an edition of ten and he settled on the form of the 16th-century steeple cup. The graphic decoration was inspired by Stratton’s discovery of his grandmother’s Snakes and Ladders board, a game that dates back to 16th-century India and was designed to teach children the effects of good and bad deeds. The success rate for this steeple cup work is 25 percent—meaning that for every work that is successfully fired there are likely to be three failures; perhaps that’s why every time he feels the tremor of an earthquake in Wellington, Stratton frets about the works in progress on shelves and tables in his studio.

Rather than being direct quotes of historical shapes, Stratton’s works morph into new and unruly forms.

“When you look at my work you can see a progression through the pieces. The first piece is usually the first tentative steps to building the form and understanding how it works and the techniques involved. As that process continues, the works change and morph slowly. Every piece I make usually has a month of research behind it, which involves finding out the history of the work, who made it and the techniques used. Over the years I’ve built up a library of very old technical books. The next technique I want to use is pâte-sur-pâte, which basically means paste on paste and dates back to Sèvres porcelain of the 1850s. Finding technical information about this is really difficult because it’s a trade secret.

“Recently I’ve been using forms and techniques dating back to the early 18th century—mainly industrial Britain—Wedgwood, Minton, Sèvres and Meissen porcelain. That’s where the basis of the forms and techniques comes from. I look at things and think, ‘That’s an amazing piece’ and then, ‘Okay, what have I got in my studio and how am I going to make something like that?'”

Stratton graduated in 1993 from the Otago School of Art with Honours in Ceramics and since then has won many awards. At the moment he’s looking forward to his exhibition scheduled for the NewDowse in late 2010, for which he plans to make a conglomeration of table wares. “All the paraphernalia that would have gone on a banquet table in the 1800s,” he explains.

With plans to use a version of Camera Obscura and the techniques associated with Flow Blue ware to create modern-day versions of ‘nice’ scenes on dinner plates, Stratton continues to extend the possibilities of the decorative—a quality that until recently has been much maligned in contemporary art. Considering his practice is constantly evolving as he creates new hybridised forms, it will be fascinating to see what he comes up with next.

Richard Stratton’s solo exhibition at Anna Miles opens on 2 December 2009; his Snakes and Ladders Steeple Cup is at Objectspace in the exhibition To Have & To Hold: Making Collections until 19 December 2009.

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