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Day out visiting York: part 1 CoCA

Pam picked me up and drove us across to York where we met up with Sue in the York Gallery. After unintentionally alarming the staff in café by walking out without paying we decided to start with the CoCA exhibition.

We spent the most time in the long gallery, which was divided into two display sections: 1. the regular display of ceramics in the tall long glass case and 2. the Anthony Shaw collection.


I started with the CoCA’s regular ceramics display in the long display gallery. It is totally packed full of pots so dense and in triple rows that it is difficult to view them. Just too much! So, I just went along and tried to pick out either pieces that immediately appealed to me or appeared relevant to my work. Needless to say that smaller and quieter pots probably got totally overlooked that way. Most of the pots that caught my attention to me were displayed on one section. Only at the very end did I realise that the display case was organised along colour groupings, i.e. like a rainbow from browns over oranges to yellows and greens to blues finishing with warm pinks and purples. I had naturally graduated towards the blue section.

Firstly, I was drawn to the larger sculptural shapes, which all turned out to be by Gordon Baldwin. I also came across a very recognisable piece by Merete Rasmussen in the yellow section. However, looking for more purely sculptural ceramics I noticed that the largest majority of the pots were functional or showed at least a strong nod towards functionality. Also, on contemporary ceramics strong patterning and surface decorations were either very subtle or non-existent.

Is the lack of sculptural ceramics representational of what the market and art lovers want or is it just indicative of the problematical positioning of sculptural ceramics within an art canon that doesn’t know where to position them: within terms of crafts, i.e. pottery and ceramics or within terms of art, i.e. sculpture? A similar question can be asked of patterns. Does the presence of strong patterning disqualify ceramics from serious consideration and from artistic recognition? Here too, unless coming with a historical provenance such as an arts-and-crafts background, pattern seems to linked a derogatively perceived connotation of ‘decorative’ and thus excluding it from serious consideration validated by being represented within such as a prestigious collection as the CoCA. This is either disheartening or a challenge – I know which way I will take it!


The Anthony Shaw collection shows his art collection, which showcases contemporary ceramics, in a domestic setting by displaying it an approximate rebuilt of his London living room. It establishes a vital link between the way ceramic generally gets displayed in museums and exhibitions to the way ceramics and art would enter the everyday sphere of people owning art, who don’t own generally own museum like spaces. This display gives a good suggestion how to live with ceramics particular pieces that aren’t utilitarian.

As a viewing experience this is much mores satisfying than the museum’s regular large glass display case on the other side of the room. Even though the visitor is not allowed to handle any of the pottery in the Anthony Shaw collection it offers a much more intimate way of viewing it. Because one is encouraged to walk among the display one can get different points of view of the ceramics especially of the pieces that sit on top of the low bookcase with the missing back wall. I particularly like the way pieces are arranged and the dialogue then create with other works of art.

The works displayed by ceramic artists Gordon Baldwin and Nao Matsunaga really stood out for me in this display. I had come across Gordon Baldwin in books but not taken any special notice. However, in real life they are beautiful because of their organic simplicity of shape and the pared back surface treatment. Scale, which is not so easily conveyed in print, is also important. These are not small pieces but also not monumental. Nao Matsunaga’s pieces in the collection appealed to me because of their organic biomorphous forms combined with their nearly graphic surface decoration of stark contrasting black and white areas and sgraffitto lines.

However what really will stay with me is a strong sense of familiarity. The whole set up reminded my of my late aunt’s living room in Cape Town. Both accomplish a playful mix ceramics, prints, tribal artefacts, modern prints, textiles and tapestries, low bookcases, modern and antique furniture.

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