The risk of skill.
MARTIN LUNGLEY IS A DIFFERENT KIND OF POTTER. He makes pots that are raw, rugged and yet refined; his skill is evident but to him it is a burden. So often we look first at the material and the technique before we look at the pot. Lungley looks from the other side; from the perspective of someone assured of his or her skill. He wants us to look at his pots and ignore his skill.
From the beginning he has marked himself out as an unusual potter for the modern age. He completed a renowned Higher National Diploma course, from the Kent Institute of Art and Design, England, in 1989, with a profound understanding of working with clay. However, he didn't follow the logical potter's path alongside his contemporaries, into further education and a life as a dedicated studio potter. Instead he took the harder, less prestigious option of making a living throwing garden pots. He began his working life as a skilled piece-work potter throwing flowerpots. The physical performance of throwing kept him addicted to the wheel. In a true labour of love he cared less about the end product than the process itself. Hundreds of pots came to life in his hands. There followed nearly 10 years of working in this way.
Endless throwing and single-firing produced mountains of garden pots. Lungley has a fascination for the qualities of a bisque surface. Its dusty simplicity is the perfect vehicle for a potter exhilarated by throwing. A bisque surface hides nothing; every drop of slurry, fingerprint and touch of the maker is on show. A bisque pot is good honest pot.
The exercise and exorcise of throwing is in keeping with one of Lungley's heroes. He cites Shoji Hamada as having a hand in his work. Hamada believed that one of the signs of a great pot was repetition; could this form be repeated endlessly by a potter skilled enough to let the pot sing for itself on the wheel. Through his time as a production potter Lungley clearly held true to this belief; that it is only in the mind-numbing and back-breaking timetable of mass hand production that a potter could achieve the oneness that Hamada sought.
Yet, even for someone as spellbound by throwing as Lungley, there was a call to create pots beyond the cycle of production. After the security of steady work and running his ceramics business, Lungley decided to go back to college. Breaking away from the routine was a risky move but it was a risk that he needed to take. His 1999 book Gardenware marks a rite of passage between the sensible solid pots and the pots he makes now. He describes how he "took all the pieces of my ceramics world and threw them up in the air". (1) According to Lungley, the pieces are still on the way down and are forming the future, but the result then was that he was able to take risks within the cocooned environment of higher education.
After an undergraduate degree at the University of Wales, Cardiff, he spent two years in the enviable MA course at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London. With Alison Britton among his tutors, Lungley was immersed in the sculptural end of the ceramic spectrum. Here he had the scope to question and push his work; to take and grasp risks.
He banished terracotta and turned his attention to stoneware and porcelain. It was while at the RCA that he was seduced by the charms of porcelain. For him, it wasn't the genteel side of porcelain that grabbed his attention; it was porcelain's ability to hold its own against fiercely physical throwing. The drive to take risks with porcelain became part of his work; as a material and a concept. Pulling and pummelling a thick slurry-covered form on the wheel was Lungley's way of addressing the risk of working with porcelain--the risk of pushing the material too far and the risk of pushing the concept of porcelain too far--but so far there is no end to its potential to accept Lungley's way of working. At the RCA he was wrestling with the accepted view of what a honed thrower should make with porcelain. Celadon tableware followed, but it was the immense shallow dish with erupting walls he presented at his final show in 2001 that was the emblem of his time at the RCA and indicative of where his future lay.
He describes the style of that time as a "minimal chic movement" into which his bisque porcelain fitted perfectly. The largesse of the form and the grey-white colour were unwittingly a sign of the times. Yet it wasn't and isn't his intention to be part of a trend. There is a movement of extravagant porcelain, headed, willingly or not, by Takeshi Yasuda. There is something in the zeitgeist guiding the potters and the pots. Lungley agrees that Yasuds's work has undoubtedly had an influence on his own work, albeit not a "conscious direct influence". If there is a movement he doesn't consider that he's a "mover and shaker", although he's "glad to be associated with it". For him, there are other influences beyond porcelain.
Lungley recalls that when he first saw the work of Simon Carroll, a potter who has had an influence on him and his work, he felt an odd sense of deja vu. They were exploring similar concerns at the same time, without colluding. Of the utmost importance is that clay is a vehicle to demonstrate a skilled anti-skill approach. The pots and potting are bold. Risk-taking is an important part of their work. It implies failure as much as success and it requires a potter of extreme self-confidence to accept this way of working. To Lungley, "risk-taking is personal, what is a risk to one person, might not seem a risk to another ... that's certainly a part of taking porcelain away from what the preconceived notions are and exploring it in a different way". The skill of the maker is in getting the balance of risk and creative adventure right.
It's a far step from the safety of garden pots into the world of contemporary ceramics, but in Lungley there is a confident unpretentiousness about him and his attitude to his work. Allied to risk-taking is the willingness to not take himself too seriously; these are just pots. His roots have shaped this approach to life; his father also works with clay, but in a more practical manner as a bricklayer. With a heritage like that it's not surprising that Lungley has a solid pragmatism.
Since leaving the RCA, Lungley's work has become a medley of his different guises. Bisque is still there as a favourite surface--unashamedly naked and proud--but the pots are pushed far away from the reassuring form of a garden pot. Perhaps the most striking pieces he makes are the bowls where a large piece of clay is thrown to a cylinder, then compressed down again and allowed to spin off-kilter. He begins as the skilled production thrower and ends as the artist-potter. The rim is deftly sliced away at angles and the foot is decorated with delving thumb marks. There is a bold sensuality to these pots. Lungley has been enjoying the conundrum that a mother-of-pearl glaze gives when loosely applied to his pots. They are neither delicate nor boisterous but a delicious melange. In a recent exhibition The Pot, The Vessel, The Object for the 50th anniversary of the Craft Potters Association, he showed bowls with a honey-hued lustrous glaze on a low-fired porcelain body. The dusty glints of the naked body peeking through the thick glaze gave an extra dimension to his gestural pots.
Lungley's openness extends beyond his pots. Like many potters, he also teaches ceramics. For him there is no debasing of his own work through the strictures of teaching; instead the contact with debutant potters seems to inspire him further. In a return to his origins, Lungley is teaching potters at the start of their careers. Students come to him having never touched clay before and in the space of two years he turns them into potters, able to throw, fire and glaze their own work. He also designed the excellent Foundation course in Contemporary Ceramic Practice at Newcastle College to create fully fledged potters able to run their own businesses, pack their own kilns and hold their heads above water in this difficult game.
Lungley takes his students to key pottery festivals to demonstrate their newly acquired skills. This is another form of risk-taking; if the student flunks the demonstration then it's the teacher that suffers the rebukes. However, his ability to transmit the skill of throwing is impressive. It is a fine irony that in his own work he fights with the idea that a pot should be assessed on the skill of the maker, while he insists that students have solid skills. He's right on both counts. You have to be skilled to make an asymmetrical pot that looks right, but it isn't difficult to make a weak pot. The difference is subtle but clear.
A performing potter is on trial and risks (that word again) becoming the pantomime dame: all showy dressing with nothing but a cheap corset (or poor skills) holding her up. However in his demonstrations--once on Simon Carroll's head at a pottery festival and once as part of a cello-potter improvisation performance at the V&A, London--Lungley uses his skill to take pottery out of the privacy of the studio. The art of throwing has always had a fascination for the public; just think of the 1990 film Ghost and you have a famous image of throwing. It is Lungley's willingness to accept that public curiosity and work with it that marks him out, yet again, as a different kind of potter. He has the shamelessness of youth and energy, and of course, skill, that lets him get away with doing this kind of performance.
Now his pots are not for use. He has served enough time as production potter to see the restrictions that function imposes. The pots he wants to make are about finding a satisfying shape. Lungley enjoys the physicality of clay and his pots echo his pleasure. His recent tea bowls, in a rich chocolate manganese body, are too heavy to be used, the glaze too delicate to withstand hot liquids and the form cumbersome to hold. Despite this, they have a satisfying form. The weight of the pieces is important; work from his RCA period is almost anchored to the table and these new shapes strain the hand of all but the most determined user. He challenges us about use. If it looks like a teabowl but is awkward to use then we're forced to question its presence.
There is a dialogue with the roots of the craft. Here is a new generation potter who accepts that the days of the idyllic country potter, producing wares for the local market, is a fact of history. Pots today are as much about us as consumers as they are about the potters and their place within the artistic community. It is an elite consumer who can use--really use--studio ceramics on a daily basis. The concept of skill and the craftsman's tacit knowledge are just a small part of what makes a pot valid today.
If there is a word to embody a Lungley pot, perhaps the most apt is 'wrestle'. There is the wrestle between form and function, the tug between the glaze and the bisque body and then a tussle with the omnipresent issue of skill. As Lungley says, "skill is just something that I wrestle with generally". A potting philosophy enters the ring and confuses the wrestling match. Lungley believes that a good pot is one led by the concept and not by the process. It is only by having skill that a potter has the luxury of expression and the ability to take the material further than we expect. Skill without emotion is a sterile art. Martin Lungley takes his skill and throws it into the face of accepted practice. It is a risk, but one worth taking.
(1.) Martin Lungley, 'A Potter's Wheel', Ceramic Review, March--April 2007.
All other quotes taken from an interview with the author, September 2007.
Helen Bevis is a writer on the arts living in France.
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|Title Annotation:||the works of potter Martin Lungley|
|Publication:||Ceramics Art & Perception|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2008|
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