Has Australian ceramics reached a tipping point; a moment when its character, social role and context will change so seismically that the fruits of its kilns and its core ceramic identity, will never be the same again? Yes. Is that a good thing? Yes. Will it cause some pain to Fortress Ceramica? Yes. But only for a while. This is a high tide that will eventually raise all vessels (including the traditionalists).
I was last in Australia a decade ago to give a keynote address at the 11th Australian National Ceramics Conference in Brisbane. This April, the amazing Bernadette Mansfield brought me back, together with Mark Del Vecchio, to perform the same role for Gulgong Clay 2016, her sold-out week-long conference in Gulgong, a charming 19th century town about a four-hour drive from Sydney.
Above image: Garth Clark in a Zen state contemplating Abstraction of Confusion by Taro Shinoda, a clay installation at the 20th Biennale of Sydney, at the Art Gallery of NSW, April 2016.
The ten-year absence provided with me with a stark snapshot, allowing me to see the country’s growth in visual arts in a more dramatic (and admittedly black and white) context than a local who experienced this growth incrementally. At the same time this does not school me in nuances and contexts that longer submersion would provide. I encourage our readers to take me to task when necessary and correct those shortcomings.
The dynamism today is startling. Not only is the Aussie art world alight but so is its fledgling: the design field. And its approach to ceramics has become cutting-edge and internationally viable. Contemporary fine art in most developed countries has embraced the once verboten ceramic medium with surprising fervor, particularly over the last five years. (The Scandinavian art establishment seems to be a rare laggard in this regard).
Ceramics has become so ubiquitous that New York Times art critic Roberta Smith calls it the “new video.” Art in the ceramic medium (and unfired clay) is everywhere, including most of the top-50 art galleries in London, New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and elsewhere. And it’s growing. Australia’s enthusiastic grasp of this baton and its forward sprint is impressive. For three weeks I enjoyed a feast of fired (and unfired) offerings.
The 20th Biennial of Sydney with its smart catchphrase, “the future is here, it is just not evenly distributed,” bristled with energy. Yes, it was uneven, but that also suggests real risk taking. There was a lot of actual clay and ceramics to be seen as well as artists who used pottery memes in other media.
I managed to see three excellent shows covered in cfile.daily, two by Japanese artists Taro Shinoda and Yuta Nakamura, and a cup and coffee room by Danish artist Nina Beier, all profiled in cfile.daily.
Grayson Perry’s utterly disarming “My Pretty Little Art Career” at the Sydney Museum of Art was a popular show (reviewed in cfile.daily), and drew good notices, except from The Guardian, which reached across vast oceans to brutally condemn this show in their increasingly ugly vendetta against Perry. (More about this in future weeks.) It did not hurt his popularity and his lecture at the Sydney Opera House was packed to the rafters.
In Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, the Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibition was just coming to a close and included its share of ceramic work from Ai. This was a stunning show in its simplicity and effectiveness. Had they added Marcel Duchamp it would have been without peer. (See the reviews for Adelaide and Pittsburgh.)
This was all imported. What about home-grown? To get a snapshot of this we turn to The Magic Object – 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art that included a lot of ceramics, shown in a large scale wunderkammer format.
This Biennial ostensibly represents the best in Australian art in all media. To have so much ceramics in this major art event is a great step forward and high prestige for the medium. Given all that I have discussed so far, and this show in Adelaide, the ceramic folk at Gulgong must have been ecstatic with current directions…right?
The country was over 90% white 1960, today it is 76%. But positions of true power are still 90% white. Its large ceramics community is largely conservative aesthetically and skill-based in its values. And they are not happy. The Biennial’s five ceramic artists did not reflect the Fortress Ceramica. There is only one white male, Glenn Barkley, and his presence is problematic.
Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran is Australian, but he was born in 1988 Colombo, Sri-Lanka and he moved with his family to Australia in 1989. He Now lives and works in Sydney. Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s garden of totems spoke of his Hindu roots mixed with gay male culture and the power of ritual. He currently has a solo exhibition commissioned by the MNSW. I saw it in mid-process.
Pepai Jangala Carroll is an Aborigine artist with a firm, inventive, primal voice in the ceramics medium, although ceramics is a recent medium for this painter. In the Biennial literature it is noted that, “While he has been painting for a number of years, it is only of late that he has begun to also create objects. Both his paintings and his ceramic offerings exude extraordinary powers. It is through his practice that Carroll conjures up Luritja/Pintupi country, merging his deep knowledge and custodial responsibilities of country into these wondrous works of art.” A post on this artist will be coming soon.
Then there are two women: Juz Kitson, who divides her time between Melbourne and Jingdezhen, China; and Sydney-based Nell. This is good, almost 50/50, but neither are potters or working traditionally. Nell’s idiosyncratic approach is explained in a great podcast interview with Ben Carter, The Red Clay Rambler.
If I were to add a few more local stars to this list it would not get any better from the Fortress’ point of view. The two most noticeable absences from the lineup were, Vipoo Srivilasa, who has a wide international market, particularly in Asia, and the internationally known figurative sculptor, Penny Byrne.
I see the selection as perfect, a compliment to the sophistication and inclusiveness that is growing in Australian culture. Curator Lisa Slade did a great job (maybe with some nudging for Barkley is my guess.) The result (and I speak only for the ceramics) was diverse, balanced in gender and sexual orientation, included Native art and immigrant influence, without any of the choices looking like tokenism.
Barkley is the most controversial. He was one of two lighting rods at Gulgong (Ramesh was the other). Barkley is a famous Aussie curator, then he became a ceramist. His pots were in a bloody red space that felt like an abattoir. His work is often poorly shown. Set out in groups on a table they seem to diminish, whereas the royal ancient artifact treatment, one per pedestal, maybe with a glass box, would add irony to their amateur aesthetic and give their complexity space to breathe. For more go to our profile piece “Is Glenn Barkley Really the Worst Studio Potter in Australia?”
A highlight was Juz Kitson’s fecund installation that The Guardian praised as “extraordinary bulbous collections of bone, hair, porcelain and teeth, which seem to drip from the ceiling and walls, begging to be touched” assuming one had the courage. It all seemed a little feral as though it could bite, sting or fertilize.
This line-up did not play well in Gulgong because ceramics is now a world divided by a common medium. This less true of the US or the UK where change is transitioning more smoothly. The ceramics world speaks one language, ceramics in the art world speaks another. Neither is better by the way, they are just different and for the moment unintelligible to one another.
Fortress Ceramica has not processed the fact that ceramics in art is no longer part of their world. Those makers have decamped and will forever be defined by art world mores, the traditional ceramics community can seek to inform and educate, but it has no real influence or role.
My advice? Ignore the art scene if you are not part of it, the Fortress has enough urgent potholes of its own to fill without worrying about someone else’s real estate.
Not all ceramists dislike the new wave. Some enjoy the frisson, the informality, the accent on emotion over facility. Some enjoy it as spectators even if their work is other. But either way ceramics in Australia now has some art world celebrities, something it has been short of, so while there are dark mutterings from the mud room about the unfairness of their success, ceramics is still trying to grab a bit of their spotlight. In a year Ramesh received over $90,000 in awards and grants, much of it from the ceramics community. Barkley was invited to curate an issue of the magazine, Australian Ceramics. Love and hate make for awkward but electric and exciting bedfellows.
What is happening fine-art-wise in Australia is sophisticated, boundary-breaking, widespread and is rapidly going global. Pottery’s challenges are in forging a union with the design world (you can still work by hand, the Dutch call it “free” design) if it wants viable careers because that is where the market will grow. Potters need to become aesthetically current if they want to win an audience. Merely channeling Asian ceramics of the past and Leachian concepts is a losing game.
I respect those currently doing this, very much in fact, but I cannot imagine why a young creative today would go this route and become, as I once characterized it in Shards, one of Bernard’s Orphans. Part of the ceramic community down under has leapt into the international arena with both feet, it would be nice to see the other part dip their toes. Wrestling with the zeitgeist of one’s own time is the finest cultural sport.
Garth Clark is Chief Editor of cfile.daily.
Do you love or loathe these works of contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.