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Free Flying and Flowing

James Greig - Defying Gravity. Installation shot.
James Greig - Defying Gravity. Installation shot.
James Greig - Defying Gravity. Installation shot.
James Greig - Defying Gravity. Installation shot.
Mark Amery on rediscovering the work of potter James Greig.


Whether it was Len Lye or Claude Monet, I grew up understanding that art played a vital role as free intermediary between nature and culture. A way to better understand fundamental natural rhythms and forms, and the tension we are in with them. 

Yet, looking at the art being made across all disciplines in recent years, I’ve found myself questioning whether artists are getting more distanced from this impulse. Recycling, fragmenting and putting back together the culture we’ve created, we’re in thrall to the technology of our own self-image. Our artists sometimes now make us aware of a different kind of tension. 

Yet it’s easy to sniff a return. For some senior New Zealand artists, say, like Phil Dadson and Chris Booth a mediation between nature and culture remains fundamental. But then there are artists of our moment, like recent Walters Prize nominees Joyce Campbell and Shannon Te Ao who play actively with the tensions in our relationship with the living world. 

We have also seen a returning interest in ceramics. That most elementally physical of disciplines, dug from the earth, turned and fired. In the inner courtyard of the Dowse Art Museum Lower Hutt outstanding ceramic artist Raewyn Atkinson’s installation ‘I Too Am in Paradise’ features rows of endangered young Kowhai ngutukaka (kaka beak) saplings in unfired clay urns. She recalls the value Maori placed in them for exchange and our need for care. “Depending on both the weather conditions and the type of care that the plants receive,” the Dowse notes, “the kowhai ngutukaka will continue to grow and the unfired porcelain clay will gradually decay.”

Atkinson’s rich practise stretches back 25 years, but this work is just an opener at the Dowse for the re-entry of the late potter James Grieg. 30 years after his premature death aged 50, Greig has an impressive survey exhibition featuring 30 years of work entitled Defying Gravity. It is on until March 12. 

“I can see that my whole life will make one work, rather than each work being complete in itself,” remarked Greig, when interviewed for television series Inspirations not long before his death in 1986. 

And certainly, as it’s presented by the Dowse here Greig’s practice proves to have a remarkably strong sense of self. The artist’s focus is sure in translating natural fluid turns of nature into fresh elegant forms that echo the building blocks of modernism. 

Originally studying architecture, as a potter Greig was sculpting the space between the built and natural environment. Capturing the rhythm that binds them together, he moved over his career from domestic ware into sculpture. His cultural and philosophical influences were wide-ranging and big picture: the writings of Goethe and Steiner meeting the modernist architecture of Lloyd-Wright and Plischke and, by the late 1970s, a deep engagement in Japanese ceramics and culture. 

Perhaps not surprising was that Greig’s work was far better appreciated in Japan during his lifetime than in New Zealand. In 1977 he exhibited in the Japanese Tachibana Ten: 100 Best Potters exhibition, and had three solo exhibitions in Japan between 1983 and 1986. In the year of his death, Greig was made a Cultural Ambassador by the New Zealand Government. While well regarded critically, and shown nationally at the time, his work appears to have had limited major exhibition and collection in New Zealand. Belatedly, it has been better recognised by Te Papa’s purchase last year of 23 works from the artist’s estate. 

Defying Gravity deserves to gain James Greig wider national recognition. Beautifully presented by the Dowse, Greig’s work is exhibited in communion in its best gallery space, with bowls, platters and vessels on cubic modular tables surrounding a number of his last large major works, from the standing stone-like series ‘Transformation’. In the next door entrance exhibition space early work, influences and documentation are well presented to provide a strong context for the experience.

For all the cultural influences however natural influences strike me more - the work impresses for its singularity. The objects crystallise our appreciation of the fluidity of the natural forces of life. Vases, platters and bowls have a beautiful formal clarity. They act as cradles for motion, holding competing forces in harmony. They fly, turn and flow in form. They undulate in pleasing unexpected ways, capturing as visual statements the transformative power of nature. I’m often reminded of punctuation. It’s as if with a fluid physical calligraphy Greig was creating a new kind of alphabet, spinning forms with line in the space between living things. 

There’s a strong sense of an artist who discovered and felt sure in his own language. That is stressed by the curation – the majority of the exhibition is given over to work produced in the last six years of Greig’s life. He was clearly working at the height of his powers. There are platters to serve on and vases to place flowers in, but I struggle to imagine them carrying anything other than water or air. 

There is a masterful play between two and three dimensions and different visual characters in both the standing vessels and flat plates. Shapes, colours and textures elegantly enfold each other in a yin and yang-like dualism. And not only are the forms still fresh and fascinating, Defying Gravity demonstrates the range of glazes and bold colourings Greig was bringing to local ceramics. From earthen toffees, to bush greens, red sunsets and blue skies. 

It’s these smaller works that hold the most appeal. The sense of the world being enfolded into something that can be held within your arms. For example, bowls that encapsulate in clear expressive circular movement the life energy that connects plants and land forms. Exquisite glazed bowls, that could as easily have been inspired by the bottom of a rock pool as a mountain range. 

In 1974 Greig trained as a hot air balloonist, and you can clearly see how a perspective on the land above, as well as a life surrounded by big skies and hills in the Wairarapa, led him to see how he could swish the world into graceful shapes. The main exhibition room is awash with movement that reminds you of clouds and undulating ridgelines. Shapes balloon up as if they might have been inspired by air.         

For all their daring the larger ‘Transformation’ series at the exhibition’s centre feel by contrast too static and stolid for me. They lack the dynamic fluidity and connection to nature of the other work. They do feel however, as Greig himself seems to indicate in his words, to be secure containers for the future. Seed pods for the potential for future work he wouldn’t live to complete. 

Of his early works in this series James Greig wrote: “a new beginning, a new growing point – a mass beginning to be transformed.” May other artists now pick up the challenge that these works place before us. 




Written by

Mark Amery

17 Jan 2017

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.