More Than Words: An Interview with Anthony Shaw

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

by Stephanie Yeap

Photo by Jagoda Hroboni

If you’ve ever visited York Art Gallery, then you’re probably familiar with Anthony Shaw, whose collection is currently on display at the gallery’s Centre of Ceramic Art. Today, we talk to collector Anthony Shaw about his experiences curating Sarah Radstone’s ceramics exhibition ‘More than Words’ and his opinions on how viewers can begin to appreciate ceramics as artworks.

Hi Anthony, so where did the title of Sarah Radstone’s exhibition, ‘More than Words,’ come from?

The title refers to Sarah’s works being so full of ideas and emotions, and Sarah herself suggested it. Sarah was taught by Ewan Henderson, and his work with ceramics were another way of talking about more than words. I think it’s because she doesn’t sit down with a particular thing in mind while she’s working, as many people nowadays do, so that’s another reason why it’s so full of other meanings. It is very much up to the viewer and how they feel about the work, and what they get out of it.

I see. I thought it was quite interesting that lots of Sarah’s pieces were presented hanging or attached vertically to wall panels. Did you come to this conclusion quickly, or was this due to the physical nature of the pieces themselves?

While Sarah was very keen to hang her work, so we knew we were going to have some walls and screens. A lot of her work is hung as display, and can be very flat, so it’s important to get the right sense of hanging.

I thought that was really interesting, as I have always thought of ceramics as pretty objects you’d display on a shelf. I understand that’s quite a naïve way of viewing ceramics, so I was really fascinated seeing them displayed in such a unique fashion.

Absolutely, and that’s what I hope the whole exhibition does. Most people think of ceramics as pots, and Sarah very much taps into the sculptural nature of the work.

Ah yes, it really was very different! So, I was wondering what gives ceramics such an appeal in such a contemporary context?

I’m not very excited by what’s happening now, because it’s totally visual and I’m much more interested in what’s underneath, what’s there emotionally. Instinctively, I’m not concerned with how [ceramics] look; majority of works is about how things look. I focus on how I feel, and my gut reaction to them, so I’m not interested in that 99% that deals with how things look.

That’s fair enough. I think that’s interesting as growing up I never had much experience viewing ceramics and handmade objects in museums and galleries, you’d usually see paintings and sculpture. So I was just curious as what you thought about that?

It’s rare. A lot of people have never seen Sarah’s work in the flesh; you would see her works in images and magazines. I think a lot of my favourite work hasn’t been photographed very well – you have to be with there to sense it. It’s all about the senses, and not so much about the eyes.

In terms of the exhibition, did you struggle to display or portray Sarah’s pieces in a certain fashion, as it’s quite an odd space isn’t it? The exhibition’s in the middle of the gallery, and doesn’t use many shelves or display cabinets.

I think very early on I decided that the work would be very low, which is quite unusual. It’s quite rare to see works displayed so low. We took the bottom shelf of the display cases, and I think it affects how viewers would interact with the work: you’re looking into it rather than looking at it, and it draws you in. If you look at Corpus, the books, you’re looking at them from a height and almost falling into them. I think that’s a very different way of viewing works, you would be merely looking at a piece of work if it’s displayed at eye level. So that was a strong feeling early on. It’s a magical space, and it came out the way I had envisioned it in my mind’s eye.

Was there any narrative or order to how things were meant to be viewed? I found myself wandering to whatever I thought was most eye-catching, like the piece hanging from the ceiling or looking down at Corpus.

There’s no particular order. Corpus was once displayed on a wall at a gallery at its first show, so that would affect how horizontal it was, rather than vertical. I think it works. Sarah said on the day of the exhibition opening she thought it worked better closer to the ground that on a wall, just because of the way you look down and get drawn into it. The shroud hanging from the ceiling was always another early decision; we wanted to use that void space initially but that was quite complex, so we had to move in forward and align it with the balustrade. I think you still get a sense of it being in that void space. But otherwise, it was just a matter of giving Sarah surfaces to display work on, and there’s no particular order to where things are – they’re just where they work best.

Considering you have quite a large collection of ceramics on display at York Art Gallery, how do you think Sarah’s works complement the rest of your own collection?

I seem to be drawn to people who have put emotional charge in their work, as Sarah does. I think majority of the people I like the most – when they start the make something, they go on a journey, and have some idea of a starting point. But they don’t know the total outcome, so they learn on the way. If you start a work and you know how you’re going to finish it, I don’t think there’s much point in making it. But if you start and learn as you go, I think that gives the work a certain energy, and it goes on living, it goes on giving. And it doesn’t bore me. Majority of work which is totally visual bores me – if you know what the work is as soon as you see it, then that’s it, there’s nothing to be gained from it. I insist on it continuously giving me – when I look at work I like, it differs on my mood.

I see, so for you it’s all about understanding the process the artist has been going through, is that right?

Absolutely, and especially with emotions. If you start out making something and you know how it’s going to turn out – a majority of work is like that now – the artist visualises it totally in their mind’s eyes and there’s nothing to be learnt from it, and they don’t learn very much of it. So, if you start out with a very brief idea of something, a notion of a feeling, it then becomes full of meaning and interest as you continue to work on it. I think Sarah complements the other artists as she works in a very similar way. I think it has to be really personal, I want it to be the person themselves, not an artist putting on a mask and making work that they think will sell. I think as soon as you do that, you’re not yourself. You need to do it totally for yourself.

In light of that, how do you think the audience will be able to feel all of that emanating from a piece of ceramic work? How do you think viewers should view a piece of work in order to get the most out of it? You just said it’s all up to the emotion the work conveys, but do you think there are any other ways to understand ceramics, maybe like going close and inspecting the fingerprints on the surface, or anything technical, do you think there’s anything essential to understanding how ceramics functions as art? 

It’s very difficult. I think generally our instincts are the most important part of us, so I’d say you have to try to connect with your own feelings on things. I’ve been quite surprised at the number of people I’ve met who have been able to do that, and I think that’s quite fresh. They’re getting something from ceramics they’re not getting else elsewhere, because it isn’t entirely visual, which is quite odd. But I’m not interested in how things look, but the underlying instinct. Use your gut; don’t use your head too much. Then you allow all sorts of things to happen. It’s something that’s quite difficult for a lot people to understand to start with, but in an idyllic space it helps people open up to that sort of reaction.

“Sara Radstone: More Than Words” will be on display at York Art Gallery until June 10th 2018.

#art #YorkArtGallery

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