Book Review: His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell

By Sam Finnemore

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Potter Barry Brickell. Photo / David White
Potter Barry Brickell. Photo / David White

His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell by David Craig and Gregory O'Brien
(Auckland University Press $65)

In this book full of striking images, it's the first that seems to best capture the essence of potter Barry Brickell - a 1971 portrait of the artist bent double to work inside a huge ceramic jar, his trunk vanishing ostrich-like into its clay mouth. It's Brickell turned into one of his own hybrid sculptures, a morphed human-animal-pottery form, full of humour and its own odd dignity, the artist literally absorbed in his work. You could read a whole catalogue of Brickell's artistic qualities into it, but the immediate reaction has to be a smile.

It's that same sense of irrepressible energy and creativity that animates His Own Steam, which does double duty as companion volume to Brickell's first pottery retrospective at Lower Hutt's Dowse Art Museum and as a compendium of his works and philosophy over more than 50 years.

Brickell's ceramic works often have an honest earthiness about them that's difficult for the novice ceramics fan to dissociate from the 1960s and 1970s, but as this book makes clear, there's a genuine and rich progression visible through the mid-century pottery boom and well beyond - drawing on touch points from Japanese pottery to ancient British artefacts to Pacific pottery traditions, and the influence of artists and ceramicists who have worked with Brickell at his Coromandel base and elsewhere.

Measured attention is paid to Brickell's use of exotic glazes, his reference to the human and animal body, stylised into curves and bulbs or studded with pipes and rivets. The abstract, towering spiromorphs are here, Brickell's signature works; the faced jugs that peer appealingly at the world past their spouts; the humble but thoughtfully crafted mugs and plates that have kept Brickell's Coromandel pottery operation running over the decades; and a studding of bigger works, steam engines, fireboxes, and other tributes to industry and its reflection of humanity.

Matching the care in the text, the item photographs (taken of collections and in homes around the country by photographer and artist Haruhiko Sameshima) are sublime, capturing the weight and texture of Brickell's pieces as well as anyone could manage in two dimensions.

The commentary by authors David Craig and Gregory O'Brien is dense with information and analysis, yet it keeps a light touch throughout - it's difficult to be po-faced in the company of Brickell's work, even in written form. As curators and artists, Craig and O'Brien have a deep familiarity with their subject, and His Own Steam lets Brickell's own words come through wherever possible in the text and in the margins, keeping things grounded by the voice of the artist himself.

Such is Brickell's wide-ranging activity that it's impossible to discuss any aspect of his work without reference to the others; His Own Steam wisely never tries to bar one dimension off from the others, and thus its scope includes not just the pottery and the famous Driving Creek bush railway (a working tool that's become a crowd-pleasing artwork in its own right) but Brickell's drawing and painting, his "wrerting" language-play and aphorisms, and his creative work of environmental restoration.

These diverse areas are also canvassed in a closing sequence of reflections (cast as "carriages") from fellow artists and others whose lives Brickell has touched over the years, and in Hamish Keith's lively introduction.

His Own Steam is a beautifully crafted object, with gorgeous contemporary and period images, and a superb standard of writing throughout. But it's this particular aliveness to its extraordinary subject that lifts it into the realm of the extraordinary in its own right - this is a treasure of a book, something to bring inspiration and pleasure over years.

- NZ Herald

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