A Potter Refashions the Primitive

Alison Britton, herself no mean ceramist, has written of her fellow Briton Angus Suttie (1946-1993) that ''he knew how to play, in work.'' Suttie's work -- or play -- suggests he was a rather extraordinary combination, not only of seriousness and amusement, but of traditionalism and rebellion.

The Scottish-born Suttie wrote in 1987: ''I started by wanting to make pots which were a reaction against the white, factory-produced earthenware available in every high street. When I looked at pots from other cultures and other times I discovered vessels that were alive, appealing, moving, imaginative, witty, revealing pleasure in the making.''

It is a list of adjectives that might apply, without modification, to his own work.

There is a strange disjunction between the craft world and the world of painting and sculpture that often leads craftmakers to arrive at aesthetic positions years, or even decades, after similar conclusions have been fully digested in the ''art'' world.

Suttie himself was surely aware that the sculptor Henry Moore was just one artist who very near the beginning of the 20th century looked to ''other cultures'' (specifically the pre-Columbian cultures that inspired Suttie in recent years) to break away from the dead conventionality of Western academicism.

But Suttie still writes about the art and craft of these so-called ''primitive'' cultures as if they were a revelation.

It is even at times hard for an observer to decide if hermetic separation of craft aesthetics from art aesthetics might not have been a positive form of ignorance, a deliberately regressive old-fashionedness, or the unfortunate result of years of accepting a lowly status for craft. An effect of this last (perfectly absurd) self-disrespect by craftmakers has long been an excessive concentration on techniques, skills, materials, and finish.

Even when artists have almost presumptuously broken through the barriers and brought their attention to bear on traditionally sanctioned crafts, the craft world has tended -- and still tends -- to look the other way and pretend that nothing has happened.

Thus Picasso brought to ceramics his brand of playful seriousness, his gifted inventiveness, his mischievous disregard for the scruples and unwritten rules of craft practice. But it was years before the craft world itself began to sit up and take notice. Perhaps it was simple snobbery.

Looking at Suttie's work for the first time recently (and he was not a snob), I could see its highly inventive re-creation, in fresh terms, of the primitive pots he admired, particularly pre-Columbian pots. But I could also see that he believed he was coming up with something entirely new in Western or modern terms. He said quite articulately that he believed today's pottery could be enlivened by something of the ritual functionality that ancient pottery had.

''Most cultures,'' he wrote, ''produced pots which were made not to be utilitarian but to function as conductors for that society's beliefs or ritual needs. History sanctions us.''

Well, certainly it does. But much more recent art history sanctions his beliefs too, only he appears not to have noticed. The ebullient way in which his works seem to contain at least some folk memory of the rituals of cultures closer to the earth than suave urban cultures of the modern West also brings his work close in feel and form to a strand of modern Western art.

Indeed, his work is much more like the sculpture (some of it made in ceramics) of the Funk artists of San Francisco in the 1960s, of British sculpture by Hubert Dalwood or even Kenneth Armitage, and of the paintings of Suttie's fellow Scot Alan Davie.

There is nothing new under the sun, and even Suttie wondered whether the ''new'' ceramics were not ''the beginning of a new tradition.'' His own works seem new, and they are certainly individual, entirely recognizable as his work alone. But the odd fact is that they are an extension not of the tradition of pre-Columbian art itself, but -- in the world of craft -- of an established ''tradition'' in 20th-century art.

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