Friday, 20 September 2013

From Bizen to Calgary via Gloucestershire

John Chalke plate reflecting the Bizen tradition, circa 1978
The paintings had to go. Two of them were owned by my wife before we met, the rest had been joint purchases made almost until her death in 2003. After ten years, they had started to look like part of a previous life. We had known all of the artists. It was after the death of the last painter that the contemporary art collection became unbearable. My living room felt like a mausoleum.

Besides, I was having trouble with the word "contemporary". Even Giotto was contemporary once. Would the "contemporary art" label stick to these works? Would future collectors be buying 500 year old contemporary art? I wondered if the art should now be called modern, instead -- at least, for the time being. I was feeling bad enough, but now I was subjecting myself to semantic torture. I phoned the auction house.

When the director came by with his assistant, he did a tentative valuation. Some pieces were valued less than we paid, some more. But you just never know with auctions, like all of us, they can have bad days too. The subject of reserve prices came up, but I explained that the sale was not a business decision -- I did not need the money for anything. If something did not sell, I would not only get the albatross back, but I would have to pay for it too.

I was of two minds about the plate pictured above. For a start, the artist was alive. It was one of the pieces that Carrie had bought to the marriage; she had written a poem cycle about the potter: "Through shining glass" -- one of the poems was about an encounter between John Chalke and Claes Oldenburg in London. The title of the poem cycle came from the last three words of that poem (the final one):

Through Shining Glass:
5. Afterimage
-- but all this bores you
you prefer to float absurd and lyrical
in the redness of some sunlit tent, some
bizarre decade where time and space are mere
phenomena in which you have no interest...I succumb,
               and watch you stopping on a London street, ignoring
morning rain to watch a man arranging objects
all alone behind a window...then he beckons,
and together you put all things into place
by pantomime through shining glass --

It was not a painting, and I liked it. However, it was the only remaining piece from the collection, so I included it. I never felt comfortable about doing so, though, but I told myself that it might fetch a good price. Even the Victoria and Albert Museum in London had bought his work and this was an early piece that acknowledged the fact that he was considered a Master Potter by the Japanese -- the only Canadian to receive such distinction.

It was a bad day at the auction, but I did not lose too much. Fortunately, the Fates had decreed that the plate would be the only piece in the collection included in the "silent auction" part of the event, and no one had placed a bid on it, so I got it back and never had to pay any reserve fee. I imagined what might have been said as the people had viewed it: "It's got a crack in it, and the glaze is uneven!" or "It's brown and so seventies -- all it needs is a macramé holder to suspend it from the ceiling" -- philistines!

Despite losing a little, I was happy. Not only did I achieve my goal, but the Fates had made up for my indecision by supplying the best solution for the plate.

Here is Carrie's collection catalog entry:

"John Chalke; large stoneware plate; 7cm deep, 40 cm outer diameter, 24 cm inner diameter; signed "John Chalke" on back.

"According to the artist, this plate was thrown with stoneware clay, enriched with feldspar (and perhaps, other additives?) to mimic the mineral-rich clay found in Bizen, a Japanese potting locale. Bizen clay, nearly black, is so rich with minerals that it self glazes in the kiln. The glaze colours and ash-glazes were chosen to represent this effect; the green salt-glazing, an English invention, was added to marry a British potting tradition with a Japanese one.

"This style of pottery is from 11th century Bizen tradition. The plate was hand-thrown on a slow wheel with very soft clay, fired, then glazed. As ash-glazes and salt glazes both rely on accidental effects, many attempts are made before a successful plate is achieved. The artist will destroy many pots after first firing, or various glazes: he estimates approximately 45 plates would have been destroyed to produce this perfect piece.

"The central diagonal crack was induced, and later filled with gold-coloured "plastic steel": the signature on the back is in the plastic steel, and is quite unusual, as this artist is well known for not signing his work. His explanation, besides that he was very pleased with it and it was the first thing he had signed in three years (this said in 1978, when the plate was bought), was that the plastic steel on the back 'looked like it needed something.' This plate was likely finished in late 1977 or early 1978, as it was bought in the spring of 1978, and the artist spoke of it as a recent piece.

"John Chalke, born in 1940 in Gloucestershire, England, moved to Canada in 1968. He is the only Canadian potter recognized as a Master Potter in Japan."

Monday's edition? Don't worry, I will think of something!

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