Rayner Brothers Circus
with special guest
Paul and Mark Rayner, British-born brothers, produce ceramics that draw upon two contradictory traditions: one, the affection of the middle classes for porcelain figures that reproduce sentimental icons of a romanticised rural life epitomised by Staffordshire figurines of the eighteenth and, particularly, nineteenth centuries when improvements in technology made these figures available to a popular audience.; two, a European tradition of political satire, culminating in the work of painters such as James Ensor (1869-1949), a significant influence on Dunedin painters such as Sharon Singer. Within New Zealand, the painting “Against Truth” (ca 1830?), attributed to Augustus Earle and purchased by the National Library of New Zealand in 1987, testifies to the seriousness with which this form was viewed within a colonial context.
The wry humour and whimsical motifs that mark the Rayner brothers’ figurines insure them an important following among a generation defined by the legacy of postmodernism and the manner in which it privileged irony as a rhetorical strategy. The creations of the two brothers are, nonetheless, too often dismissed as “bad boy” tongue-in-cheek humour, more appropriate to the design store than to the serious at gallery. This assessment overlooks that, taken as a whole, these works offer a sustained critique of contemporary culture—from its obsession with celebrity and “true’ crime to its investment in sexuality as the playground of twenty-first century adulthood. We may congratulate ourselves with a knowing chuckle as we enjoy the “joke”—all the while wondering whether these small ceramics also signify the kinds of class allegiances that led our grandparents to adorn their lounges with shepherdesses and flute players. The Rayner brothers keep the spirit of social critique alive without resorting to a rhetoric grounded in guilt and moral superiority––encouraging us to engage with their playful invocations while questioning the larger social structures that these invoke.