Improvised Protection

It is mid-winter, and Cheryl Lucas is making work right down to the wire. The survey Shaped by Schist and Scoria opens at the end of August, and she has been working without a break since being awarded the Creative New Zealand Craft/Object Fellowship in 2019. This timespan, which will be inevitably thought of as the start of the Covid years, saw Lucas develop a new body of work that responded to a deep need, personal and societal, for protection while continuing to take risks. Protection from contagions, from financial hardship, food insecurity, the cost of living, global warming, economic recession, and the violence that invariably attends disasters, big and small. Protection from whatever is coming at you. But not to deflect it, to integrate it, to use it as fuel. Grist to the mill.

This new work was developed in tandem with a project to extend three earlier bodies of work that speak with a tough poetry of the tactics people employ to cope with unforgiving environments. They figure the forms and gestures of the back-country Central Otago station-life of Lucas’ childhood and the privations of post-quake Ōtautahi Christchurch in objects dense with referents. Here, a jug can be a symbol of fecundity and plenty, but aesthetically point to a time when the land was being ripped apart by predators, and a china kitchen jug might be co-opted to mix poison. Pendulous forms can mimic food hung to cure and keep in a larder, and they can invent ghost food (or hoped-for food) bearing crackle glazes like veins, webs, maps and rivers.

Lucas’s studio makes certain aspects of her process self-evident. She starts with a bag of clay and her process is different every time, adapted to make some new reality possible. It is dependent on what wants to be made – on what is called in – so she makes it up as she goes along: the process, the techniques, the tools, the equipment, the mud-building. One thing is constant though – the studio she has used since 1987, which is among the hill houses that look out over the working port of Lyttelton like an audience looking to a stage to the south. At night, lit up, the houses look like birds, gulls, resting in a group, poised to take flight at a moment’s notice. Sleeping with an eye open, standing on one leg.

The houses brooding above the port get a fine view of the light hitting the hills on the other side of the harbour – sometimes hot-metal orange, sometimes lavender or damp green, more often browned, the colour of an old lion, skin pulled over its bones. Inside the studio, it is abundantly clear that working with clay is hard physical work and requires constant improvisation. I am taken with the chopped-down wheelie chair set-up onto which she works – the seats removed and replaced with circular plates from a potter’s wheel. The piece underway (one of the last of an intended seventeen or eighteen) is the size of an adult torso, and she is building it in the round in front of a mirror, turning the work as she goes, drawing freely in space. Here she continues to apply something that she learned early on about drawing, that if you look at your work in a mirror you can instantly see what is wrong with it.

This new body of work, collectively called Subterfuge, comprises two groups of mostly large-scale objects, related but different in form and glazing. There is one crowd that involves complex head-like snares of lines drawn with clay and glazed in single colours; the others are tall planar vessels with complicating surfaces painted in multi-coloured glazes. It is said that growing up in the back country gives you an eye for form and texture, and looking at the three non-vase works in the studio – one red, one mustard, and another not yet fired – Lucas does seem to be working from memory, from something imprinted by the landscape and our flora, shaped as it is by fauna, weather and climate. In the branching angles of these works there is the definite spirit of the divaricating plant – a form particular to Aotearoa New Zealand and Te Waipounamu especially.

The South Island’s central plateau is geologically older than the rest of Aotearoa. It is a place where the hillsides once moved with rabbits, and massed shoots took place that resulted in the pests being hung along barbed-wire fence lines by their ears as far as the eye could see. Where sheep’s wool is snagged on matagouri, which is not as thorny as it looks but is still hard to penetrate. In open shrubland, divaricating plants grow in clumps and branch finely at wide angles to provide themselves with protection against grazing animals, extremes of dry and cold, prevailing winds – their habit makes the most of available light by self-sheltering. They form dense structures like a three-dimensional net in which their small confetti-like leaves grow: kowhai, matagouri, muehlenbeckia, caprosma, kaikomako, corokia, pittosporum, olieria…

A divaricating plant has no right angles, Lucas reports: they are all just off the median. By ‘off the median’ she is referring to something she explores, marvels at, in drawing. If the page is divided up into a grid, and a line is added that is ‘off’, an energy is set up within that instability. When something is drawn that deviates from a grid, the picture plane is directly, immediately energised by new angles. This is an energy that is established in this new body of work, which is all slab- built. She has a great pile of these inch-thick (maybe thinner, the width of a finger) flat slabs of clay piled up, separated by sheets of plastic and hardboard, the result of the hard work it takes to get the clay kneaded and through the roller. It is like a great pile of fabric, or something through which an impossible princess might feel a pea.

To Lucas the divaricated form is a symbol of our little island, and the things done to adapt to climate and predation – things done for protection, to keep ourselves safe, like incantations that have taken physical form. A divaricating plant is growing this way and that all the time, and this whole body of work is about setting up that energy. And about always going back to the mud as a starting or branching point. The clay itself must be firm enough to stand on its own, but not so firm it can’t be joined. It is full of grog – or the ground-up bisque-fired clay that makes the body of the clay stronger – and it is tough on hands, but Lucas is used to it. Pieces are sliced off and built with, edges scored with improvised tools and joined with slurries, all without a roadmap as forms emerge from the making.

These new forms – or at least the three that sit in the studio on wheeled platters when I visit ­– feel like something alchemical, a fusing of plant and human aspiration, concern and desire. The divaricating forms are there, the no right-angles, the basket fungi-like attempt to spin the self some protection. They have the feeling of a snail’s shell that light or radiant matter can pass through – light, warmth, love, safety, survival, inspiration. Protection as a definite substance is implied by block colours, as if the forms are lit up by the spirits of ox-blood caprosma berry, or an acid wasabi green picked off moss growing on a dull brick bubble-pocked scoria wall. There is the mustard of something that was once green and might yet be so again because it is able to weather dryness and heat. There is the pale milk-jade of lacey lichen, and the shocking yellow that can appear against a stone outcrop, one thing playing against another within a certain range.

In Subterfuge as a body of work there are the torso-like figures with their divaricated tangles, hiding some growing heart, but there are also vase forms with glaze-schemes that suggest the zig-zagging paths of an animal trying to avoid being shot. Theirs is the crookedness (or angular sophistication) that comes from trying to evade discovery, attention, capture or just to survive anything inhospitable for a long time. A snail can seal itself behind a dried mucus door that will keep it safe somewhere dry for months, even years. And artists developed WWI camouflage schemes not just to give the hardware and installations of warfare protective concealment, but to make the war disappear. Likewise, the cubist glazes of Lucas’ new vase-form works act out their own aesthetic enchantments, changing realities one disturbed visual field at a time.

The patterned decoration of her vessel forms proposes alternative volumes and voids, rearticulating contrary shapes on the surfaces of things that might hold water. They become animated vases that might spit water and flowers back out. Extremely-dark-grey-but-not-black is crisscrossed with marine fluorescent blue and the gold of something escaping caught in an incandescent searchlight. All the Subterfuge works have one of the same two satin matt glazes, sprayed straight onto the raw dried pot – not onto a body that is already bisque-fired. Fragile, they are then slowly fired, the matt glazes chosen so they do not become so shiny they lose form. The risk is there that they become too dry; but then, she points out, you are not sticking any of these to your lips. The only shininess permitted is when she wants the sheen of a wet stone or the lick of a lake to appear later, after firing. And she might go back and paint on glazes anywhere up to ten times to resolve something for herself, courting surprise each time – devoted as she is to working in a way that is unpredictable.

Sorting out how something works within given limitations, and moving on to the next form, Lucas’s work feeds off excitement and mysterious chemistry. Subterfuge shows us that it is the process of doing that is important. Flying by the seat of the pants is not safe, but we all put our guards out somehow. Subterfuge is tactical activity: we move forward, concealing what we are doing by blanking, blinding, and distracting. As a plant might grow to make its own safety, Lucas improvises forms as she works – if she already knew what a thing would look like before she started, what would be the point? The object would be doomed to never ask a question, or to never provide a living answer to an actual problem.