Published In Ceramics Monthly, December 2010
Review, “Golden Ashes,” at Craft Victoria
By Jack Troy
Owen Rye’s mini-retrospective exhibition coincided with the 40th anniversary of Craft Victoria, a premier gallery/exhibition space in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia’s second most populous state. Owen Rye is a 30-year veteran of Australia’s wood-firing cadre, having taught and mentored dozens of ceramists as a professor at Monash University. Writing extensively, organizing his country’s first wood-firing conference in 1986, and traveling widely, he has steadily made his own work while articulating a mission – to deepen his own understanding of his process while extending the range of aesthetic preferences beyond conventional expectations of the wood-firing genre.
Rye’s pots owe much to his background as an archeologist. He is a performer, rather than a composer of forms, which owe much to classic vessels in common use in every culture – bottles, plates, jars, bowls, cups – whose surfaces are almost perversely de-glitzed and un-pretty, by conventional standards. More than a maker of pots; he is an inventor of his own aesthetic.
So what compels the attentiveness they demand? A sense of history helps; our cumulative personal history, achieved after handling the 10,000th pot and somehow retaining the experience of every one, which prepares us for the next and the next. The pots’ own history-of-becoming require long looking. Many have been fired multiple times in various positions and zones of Rye’s anagama, some 5 meters long and 1 meter high – a virtual monument to on-your-knees humility. His working method involves the deliberation of bonsai cultivation; in the midst of loading the kiln, he might crawl out backwards, walk up the hill to a shed and select a piece that’s been waiting 15 years for its third firing. The loading itself usually takes between 2 and 3 weeks, and, never one to uncork a wine prematurely, Rye may take as long to unload after firing.
The exhibition features a number of bottles that tease the eye and hand by appearing to differ from what they reveal to the hand – a neurological short-circuit and true aesthetic experience. This authenticity results from the nearly geological accretion of ash and embers fusing to the clay body and to layers of residual natural ash glaze from previous firings. These deep and intriguing interfaces demand handling, mulling, and musing. If we are willing, they slow us down, like poetry.
Rye often invests far more time in “readying” a pot (working over the surface with various grinding media) after unloading, than in the forming or firing. One of his favorite shino bowls in the exhibition soaked in rainwater for several years before being shown. His working method reveals what a frenzied pace most potters set, keeping the wolf, or in Rye’s case, the marauding wombat, from the door.
Owen Rye’s work in clay is a testament to “getting it right,” and is best understood by reading a passage in Thoreau’s Walden. Just do an online search using the words, Thoreau, Walden, and Kooroo. As the last line of the passage states, ““The material was pure and the art was pure. How could the result be other than wonderful?”