British Potter Explores New Realms

Elizabeth Fritsch's bold shapes and abstract surface designs push her firmly into fine-art territory

ELIZABETH FRITSCH encourages the notion that her pots, while thoroughly modern, have the air of a remote time and an unspecific culture.

It is possible to imagine that some of her pottery might have been discovered in a recent archaeological dig - at Pompeii, perhaps, or near the site of 4th-century A.D. baths in Antioch. But the imagery with which she decorates these oddly formed vessels is abstract. If it echoes any archaic tradition, it would be some of the geometric patterns found in the borders of Roman and Byzantine mosaics: repetitive cubes or shifting shapes of compelling ingenuity.

A traveling exhibition of Fritsch's work, now in Aberdeen, Scotland, displays more than 100 pots from the 1970s to the '90s. The artist, who was born in Wales and originally trained as a musician, has been described as ``Britain's most important living studio potter'' and as ``perhaps the most influential potter of recent decades.'' Though one substantial book was published about her eight years ago, and she has had several solo shows and retrospectives, her work has not been publicly exhibited as often as her preeminence would seem to demand.

Although Fritsch has said that she makes pots for ``ordinary people,'' and that is why she insists on museums rather than collectors having the first choice of her work, the current show is likely to be the first opportunity many people have had to see her work.

The pots in the exhibition belong to the 70s and '80s. Certainly serious, there is nevertheless a persistent game-playing quality to them, a kind of elated playfulness and a toying with paradoxes that makes them unfortunately vulnerable to the accusation of ``Post Modernism.'' They also have an air of eclecticism.

At the same time, the freedom with which this potter uses geometric shapes to expressive rather than decorative ends acknowledges the significance of abstract shapes to 20th-century painters. Kazimir Malevich is cited as an artist she likes. But her work owes more to '60s kinetic and optical art (like that of Agam, Soto, Bridget Riley, or Derek Boshier) and to British sculpture of the sweetly painted fiberglass variety (like that of Phillip King and others).

Fritsch made an important break with previous British studio pottery. Although an admirer of Hans Coper and a recipient of his advice, her work has none of the solemn primitivism or pretension to high-art sculpture of his work. She takes for granted the idea of pottery as art rather than domestic craft in the wake of Coper's and Lucie Rie's redirection of British pottery away from the Anglo-Oriental sensibilities of the previously dominant Bernard Leach.

Fritsch has been able to make pots about music, painting, and pottery itself - and to open up avenues of imaginative and intellectual potential in pottery that mere teapotmakers and pseudo-Korean pot decorators would never have dreamed of. Her decoration is certainly not prettification. Although she emphasizes that it results, for all its precision, from improvisation rather than planning, it is a long way from the kind of spontaneous decoration of a pot that involves a quick, inspired movement of a brush, Leach fashion. Her decoration displays a degree of calculation, meticulous thought, and studied adventure that has been new and stimulating to other potters as well as pottery lovers.

In common with a number of other outstanding potters making unique art pottery today, Fritsch cannot sell her works to the ``ordinary people'' she says she makes them for: the prices they command are out of reach. And many museums are not able to put such works on permanent display because of lack of space and lack of money to increase their space. Although the exhibition in Aberdeen (which originated in Sunderland, England) will be seen over the next year in several cities, Fritsch's work is still likely to be encountered by most people in photographs rather than firsthand.

In her case, however, as this exhibition startlingly demonstrates, photography of her work involves distortion, if not outright misrepresentation.

Fritsch arranged the show herself in somewhat old-fashioned museum display cases. The hand-built pots are lit from above in ways that accentuate their every rough texture, every slightest ridge, bump, and hollow. The light rakes across their surfaces, and the decorations - so elaborately painted in colored clay slip - are also seen to be not nearly so smooth and flat as photographs suggest.

Since Fritsch supervised their display, she must be concerned with making plain the difference between her actual pots and the immaculate color photographs taken of them by David Cripps. Cripps has made the photographs for the exhibition's well-illustrated accompanying booklet by Edward Lucie-Smith and for the 1985 hardback by Peter Dormer. Excellent though these photographs are, it is clear they render Fritsch's pots two-dimensional and substanceless in a completely misleading way.

With some potters this might not be crucial. With Fritsh - and this indicates the subtleties that she explores - it matters a great deal. One of the paradoxical elements of her work is the interplay between two and three dimensions. Many of her pots are more like relief sculpture than fully rounded three-dimensional forms. In other words, they fall visually between the flat world of painting and the round world of sculpture.

If a pot is depicted in a painting, the roundness of its rim, unless seen from directly above, will be drawn as an ellipse. The viewer still knows, even if he doesn't see, that it is actually a circle. If a pot is made out of clay, the predictable assumption is that its rim, and its whole body and foot too, will be circular. Viewed from most angles, however, the eye will see what it knows is a circle as an ellipse.

The game Fritsh plays is to make pots which are not circular at all, but elliptical. They are pots about paintings of pots. And the viewer can no longer be certain of the difference between what his eye sees and what his mind knows.

Then this ingenious potter, prompted partly by a desire to make the decoration and form of her pots perform in counterpoint like visual music, compounds the illusion. She paints decorations on the surfaces of the pots that act as further illusions. These decorations may open apparent windows in the pot's walls; or cover those walls with rhythms that may either reinforce or negate the convexity or comparative flatness of the pot. Sometimes she floats cubic forms across the pot's surface in ways that completely re-orient that surface, breaking it open.

Fritsch's pots, particularly seen face to face, persuade the viewer that they are, finally, unlike any pots seen before. And that has got to be an utterly surprising feat of imaginativeness and thought. That they also make you aware of the sensitive, capable hand of the potter herself in their fresco-dry, scrupulously painted surfaces, in their unusual range of color, and in the weird naturalness of their forms, is not just a bonus. It moves pottery into fresh, unsuspected realms.

* `Elizabeth Fritsch: Vessels From Another World' continues at the Aberdeen Art Gallery through Jan. 22. It will be shown at Birmingham City Museum & Art Gallery in England (Feb. 26 to April 23); National Museum of Wales branch gallery in South Glamorgan, Wales (May 7 to June 19); Crafts Council in London (July 7 to Sept. 4); Norwich Castle Museum in Norwich, England (Sept. 17 to Nov. 20); and Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin (spring of 1995).

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