***This post is a bit late as it took me longer to write than I thought ***
Today’s studio visit sees me reviewing some pics I took whilst on a girls weekend ceramic crawl I participated in on Friday and Saturday throughout regional Victoria. The tour was organised through Clayspace, a Daylesford based ceramics co-operative, of which I was a founding member and director.
The course of the trail was dictated by the Sidney Myer Ceramics Award, an international biennial award recognising ceramic excellence, held at the Shepparton Art Museum or SAM. Luckily there are lots of major potters living and working in the central highlands area which meant that a ceramic trail was easily structured that took us from Daylesford to Shepparton and back again.
We started out at 10am on Friday morning and the first stop was Barry Singleton’s studio, a renowned Australian studio art potter whose studio was established in Castlemaine in 1970. Now in his 70s, Barry was instrumental in raising the profile of studio pottery in Australia during the 1970s. Trained largely in Japan, Barry’s studio set up is amazing, echoing many of the principles laid out in Bernard Leache’s The Potters Book, from clay recycling procedures through to handmade tools and equipment.
While Barry was trained in the “form follows function” Japanese aesthetic his work has evolved and matured within the contemporary context to include a range of organic soft forms, art pieces and sculpture to compliment his functional pieces, creating a diverse and accomplished oeuvre.
Next stop was Sarah Ormonde’s studio in Bendigo. Sarah is recently back from the Beyond Limitations clay mentoring residency in Sth Korea, which she chatted to the group about over a yummy shared lunch. While Sarah’s work is beautifully functional and is careful and considered, it ventures into the conceptual through the abstracted landscape based marks she makes upon the clay surface using coloured slips and lines. This surface treatment conveys a freedom of expression usually reserved for the abstract artist. This approach, however, is not surprising as Sarah is originally trained in painting and spends alot of time drawing in real time in the environment.
After a gorgeous lunch at Sarah’s the next visit was Gary Bish‘s studio. Gary is another hallmark studio potter within the Australian ceramic landscape who, like Barry Singleton, has been working since the 1970s and is a major contributor to the local ceramic scene. Gary has a beautiful showroom, exhibiting so many temptations I had to buy one (I pretty much bought something from everyone). As with Barry, Gary has increased his artist outlook to include a more contemporary approach. While many of his works are based on the vessel, the use of line and decals he designs himself creates a depth and perspective in the work that can sometimes border on early surrealism not the pics I have here – google him & you will see what I mean). Technically innovative, these pieces challenge the contemporary “ceramics purveyor” as they question the viewers ideas about what a ceramic vessel is and what it is meant to convey – concepts very often left to sculpture.
We left Gary’s studio at about 4pm and headed for Shepparton, arriving around 5.30pm. By then it was beer o’clock accompanied by some relaxing before heading off to dinner at the local pub. Needless to say after dinner – six girls booked into an apartment… I’ll spare you a pic!!
Next morning – an early and bleary eyed start… nothing a greasy breakfast couldn’t fix at a local cafe, and then off to SAM to view the finalists in the Sidney Myer Ceramics Award. The award has been a little chequered in its review this year, even by the the artists we had already visited on the trip, which had generated some interesting discussion about what ceramics “is” by definition from both a purist and conceptual basis. There were five finalists in total, Penny Byrne, Ruth Hutchinson, Sanné Mestrom, Adam John Cullen and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, all displaying their work in an installation format, a technique becoming increasingly popular in the ceramics arena.
Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran won the award with a body of work exploring the nature of religion, gender and futility through referencing Hindu deities, Christian symbols and sexualised bodies. His use of clay is crude – not being trained in the medium – but this allows him to not be restrained by the historical conventions of the material, so that he exhibits a freedom in the form and surface of his pieces. Though not my favourite in the award it has certainly opened up the debate about the use of clay as an overall art material rather than being purely a ‘ceramic’ medium.
My two favourite finalists were the works of Penny Byrne and Adam John Cullen.
Penny’s work uses kitsch vintage porcelain figurines and found objects to create sculptural assemblages that explore politic themes and popular culture. Again, this work challenges the conventions of what a ceramic ‘award’ is… here we have mass produced figurines presented in an installation, a format relatively new to ceramics compared to other art forms. Penny’s body of work in this exhibition references the war in Iraq, and is a powerful anti-war statement, and while the theme of politics may not be new to sculptural ceramics the coupling of her use of materials may be viewed as controversial to purists who see a ceramics ‘award’ being contained in the more conventional realm of handcrafted and purely object based.
Adam’s installation explored the notion of museum curation and the display of artworks, and the time in between when artworks are in the storage area of the museum waiting to go on display – a somewhat ironic theme, which could be taken as serious comment or just some fun and humour depending your mood perhaps. The work is about the placement of objects in a space and the ambience created – very much in keeping with museum curation. I enjoyed the surfaces of the pieces in this installation, but then I am “into” textures and layers.
Sanné Mestrom’s work, suitably titled Leftovers, was created by asking artists throughout the world to send remnants of their work which she then combined with unfired clay create a body of work in an attempt to reveal the the original of objects and how they anchored in that meaning, whether cultural, historical or physical. This was perhaps the most controversial work, not due to her method or the finished forms and sculptures, but because the clay was unfired. Unfired clay is technically not ‘ceramic’. Personally I was not very engaged in these artworks as they seemed very slapped together – the components didn’t seem integrated to form a resolved artpiece. Unfortunately I don’t have a pic to show, and I guess that’s why!
Finally Ruth Hutchinson’s work Hellmouth, which was not an installation but rather a free standing piece in a separate feature room, depicted a series of figures descending into the open mouth of the abyss. Traditionally trained in ceramics Ruth used dental tools, materials and techniques to create these tiny figures – again challenging the boundaries of conventional ceramics.
Overall the exhibition was great – and had mixed responses within the group, which created interesting thought and discussion – but I suppose this means the exhibition has achieved what the curators set out to achieve and what I think they were attempting and that is to present a collection of ceramic works that push the boundaries of contemporary ceramic art practice in Australia. This award has been in existence for many years, and from a curatorial perspective, it would be time to shake things up a bit!
As SAM Director Kirsten Paisley says “Their practices span historical and cultural themes, revisit modernist concerns, delve into social issues and moreover, challenge our understanding of ceramic art and it’s positioning within contemporary practice”
And SAM Acting Director Rebecca Coates explains “each of the five artists shortlisted has created an outstanding new body of work that not only extends their own artistic practice, but also challenges our understanding of ceramics within a contemporary context”, and according to Ms Coates all finalists were judged on the criteria of “the conceptual premise of the work and approach to the opportunity; technical ability and engagement with materiality; and spatial considerations – how the work inhabited the space. The work also needed to be innovative, to challenge, excite and intrigue.”
I do think it was a great show which made me think about my art practice and at the end of the day that is a good thng!
Upon leaving SAM it was back on the bus to visit Graeme Masters in Sweeney’s Creek. Graeme is another large figure in Australian ceramics having worked as a production potter in the heyday of Australian pottery during the 1970s-80s. Today he works in his studio producing wares he makes from an amazing carving technique, which he was generous enough to demonstrate to the group, and teaching at Bendigo Pottery. He also makes some sculptural teapots to break the flow. Graeme had an amazing studio setup including a streamlined process for reconstituting clay complete with settling tanks and filter press. At the end of tour of this process he presented each of us with a bag of freshly pugged smooth white clay – can’t wait to try it out!
Next it was off to visit Dean Smith in Castlemaine. Dean was the recipient of the Manningham Ceramic Art Award this year, an exhibition I also had a piece in, which you can see HERE. Dean had recently come back from an overseas trip and was only just getting back into work and had a huge pot on the go which he had thrown in two pieces. He didn’t have much finished work on display as most of it was with the gallery that represents him in Melbourne. We did get to see his studio and firing setup, which was great. Dean is also quite the creative inventor. He rigged up his own spray booth using an old shower base as the floor of the booth, and created an exhaust system for his glaze mixing area using an old oven rangehood! The pic below is not great, but the surface is dry crystalline glazes … something to make the mind boggle!
And then it was time to jump back on the bus and travel home – eventually all good things must come to an end.
It was a FAB weekend and thanks to the Clayspace people who organised a fantastic weekend 🙂