Review: Salute to Fusions
Salute: A Salute to Australian Ceramics was a milestone event in the arts calendar of 2008. This invitational exhibition of Australian ceramics, curated by Janet Mansfield showcased the spectrum of Australian ceramics and provided the perfect complement to the new Fusions gallery, which emerged after years of planning. The exhibition was a salute to Fusions and a salute to the strength and dynamic nature of Australian Ceramics. Almost ten years after Ceramics—the Australian Context, also curated by Janet, the rare privilege of witnessing the sheer diversity of the Australian ceramic oeuvre was offered once again. Above all, this exhibition showcased the versatility of clay as a medium for individual expression.
Australia’s dynamic ceramic community clearly embraces myriad cultural influences but from these, a youthful and exuberant interpretation of what ceramics means to Australians emerges. From the delicate, paper-thin porcelain bowls of Mel Robson to the crusty surface texture of a strongly formed blossom jar, Bufo Marinas Blossom by Grant Hodges, this exhibition opened up a dialogue with the viewer about the role of ceramics in today’s society. It is clear that Australian ceramics has evolved from its utilitarian past into an expressive art form while retaining at its core, the traditional skills of the potter. Ray Cavill’s deceptively simple but highly evocative piece The Fire and the Flood, embraces the intangible element of fire and contrasts well with the more traditional control exercised by Peter Battaglene in his beautiful, thrown porcelain vessel, Untitled. The work of the legendry Peter Rushforth, evokes the dawn of the modern potter in Australia. Chun Blue Blossom Jar anchors our young ceramic tradition into a continuous history of thousands of years.The vessel still provided the dominant form in the exhibition, but although the traditional craft of the potter is evident in basic classic forms, the individuality of the artist is paramount. Sandy Lockwood’s, Pourer and Bowl, represents a time honoured subject in clay and yet she has redefined the medium to suit modern values. Classical thrown pottery forms by Owen Rye, Ian Currie, Malcolm Greenwood, Moraig McKenna and Chester Nealie, are further enhanced by the subtle possibilities inherent in the traditional practice of wood-firing. Arthur Rosser’s slab piece Untitled was fired in an anagama kiln using woods from Australian forests.The dichotomy between functional and non-functional has influenced a number of artists in the exhibition. Merran Esson’s Batlow Bucket is conceived as decorative vessel made of slabs, while Kevin Grealy also used a slab construction technique to create Artifact II. The surface of this beautiful piece erupts from darkness into spectacular orange glaze highlights. Both these pieces become decorative because function simply cannot follow their form. The ancient Greeks understood that some forms may appear to be functional but were, in fact, designed only as decorative pieces. Victor Greenaway’s Spiral Lipped Bowl is the work of a ceramicist in total control of technique and yet its functionality has been usurped.There was quite a small representation of figurative work in the exhibition. Led by Fleur Schell, these ceramicists use their professional expertise to further break down the boundaries of craft into art. Working in porcelain, Schell explores the use of ceramics as a narrative tool. Heidi and the Bug is a large piece but a wealth of detail and the humour which it introduces, engages the viewer immediately. Schell has reworked the traditional preciousness of porcelain in this piece, and the associated small pieces – Heidi’s Manhatten. Berhard Sahm’s Forest Farm stands the test of time. Produced in 1992, this piece in its elegant simplicity is still topical. Stephanie Outridge Field combined underglaze decoration with slab construction in Some Property, to produce a lively vignette of a cityscape. Vipoo Srivilasa almost completely disengages with any ceramic craft dialogue in Hideaway Marine Sanctuary. Clay is the medium he has chosen but its unique qualities are not essential for the success of his piece.
On the other hand, the works of Jenny Mulcahy and Rowley Drysdale explore the earthiness of their medium. In Mulcahy’s work, Green Arch, the great geophysical structure of the land-arch is bisected by a keystone of green glass. The glass mimics the texture of the arch and becomes an integral part of her ceramic piece. Drysdale, always a master of surface finish, also explores the dynamics of differing surface textures in his primordial Stack. In contrast, Tatiana Gvozdetskaya manipulates the clay to extremes in her piece Multipolar. Machinelike precision and the industrial construction and composition connotations of this piece clearly foreground the versatility of the medium.
The serendipity of wood-firing is eschewed by artists such as Johanna DeMaine, who operates in the rarified atmosphere of total control over her production process. In Passport to Love, she conjures up recollections of medieval manuscripts through her use of sandblasting, gilding, lustre and enamels on porcelain slabs. The richness of her decorative technique derives from the ancient Moors, but adds another dimension to the modern story of Australian ceramics.
In reviewing this exhibition, I have been conscious how deeply ancient traditions underpin the works presented. Craftsmanship and skill are interwoven in all the pieces but it is the individual response of each artist to a common medium which lifts the commonplace to a higher realm. We were indeed fortunate at Fusions to be able to host such a world class exhibition of the ceramic work produced in this country. The ideas look toward to the future, while the processes remind us of our heritage. That such an event was chosen to mark the opening of the new Fusions Gallery at the home of Queensland ceramics—Fusions: Australian Network of Clay and Glass Artists—in October 2008, is testament to the vision of the Fusions board of directors.
Judy is a freelance writer who lives in Brisbane.