Put all shame and modesty aside when visiting Stephen Bird’s exhibition Bastard Son of Royal Doulton. Autobiographical in much of its content, this show features sensational artworks with explicit scenes of sex in the bush, petrol sniffing, and decapitation alongside the banal, stuff of everyday life. This is a survey show of Bird’s ceramics and works on paper from 1992 – 2014. The artist sees the show as a celebration of these 22 years of his career and a creative document of his journey from Scotland to Australia.
Bird has forged an ardent and unique method of expression. His sculptural ceramics are the place where three paths of creativity meet. Bird inventively combines the mass-produced pottery of the Stoke on Trent area, coincidently the town where he was born, with the skilled brush and colour-work from his initial training as a painter, and his vehement social opinion and creative whimsy. Such distinction of style has earned Bird this major survey of his international exhibition practice.
Bird became an Australian citizen in 2000, and has worked between Scotland and Australia for a number of years, settling in Sydney in 2007. The influence of British pottery on Australian ceramic culture has commonly been the oriental teaching of Bernard Leach and the educative visits by Michael Cardew who espoused the studio pottery tradition and a connection with indigenous ceramics practice. Bird, having grown up on clay shards and broken moulds, migrated with industrial ceramics in his blood, and through his technical research and his personal obsession with the history of British manufactured pottery, he has encouraged contemporary Australian artists to re-examine the Anglo-industrial ceramic aesthetic and the clay figurine.
Migration stories hold a significant place in the lives of all Australia peoples. Whether your forbears arrived on the First Fleet, took a punt on finding gold, escaped the horrors of wars and prejudice or were seduced by the promise of sunny shores; the how and why of arrival influences settler and migrant understanding of who we are. These stories of ‘making do’ and ‘overcoming the odds’ often overshadow the acknowledgement of the well-established culture of Australia’s First People. This undercurrent of tension is one of the many observations about the complexity of Australian society that feeds Bird’s perceptions of our culture and is explored in titles such as Long Live Cruel Utopias, 2003; a vase in which Bird draws on the tradition of the commemorative to create a work which immortalised a six-month, 10,000 km trip across Australia with his partner Sarah Benton. Bird says, ‘It was just like another world after living in Dundee for so long…those huge national parks, free camping, warm weather, wild life, open space, and free fire wood.’ It was on this trip that Bird also came face to face with the other side of this ‘utopia’, the living conditions of Aboriginal Australians and the legacy of a colonial past.
It was after the artist immigrated to Australia that he began to unearth his family’s ancestral history. Bird discovered he was not the first of his Scottish clan to find a new life in Australia. In 1842, his great, great grandfather; a farmer, emigrated with his wife Emily from Kingussie, in the highlands of Scotland to Australia, settling in a rural area near the Queensland/New South Wales border. Initially a migration story of success, Reid established a sheep farm and raised twelve children. Twenty-six years after his arrival, Reid committed suicide. This tragic story unfolded for the artist during a camping trip to locate his great, great, grandfather Ralph Reid’s grave, the old homestead and familial connections in this remote area.
This unforseen family history became the subject matter of his most recent exhibition, Once Upon a Time in New England. Several of the works from this show feature in the survey exhibition and they are indicative of Bird’s practice. Whether watercolour on paper or coloured glaze on earthenware, Bird’s work records literal events such as the artist’s campsite populated with his travelling companions and then moves into darker realms through reconstructed dreamscapes, subconscious fancies and explicitly violent or sexual diorama. The artist could never have known the intimate details of his elder relative’s life, yet he has constructed a traumatic narrative using the New England landscape, filled with symbolic images of invented homesteads, a father-figure and family members overlaid with heightened emotions of sadness and loss.
Also featuring in the Bastard Son survey are works form an earlier series entitled, Industrial Sabotage. This was a significant technical and sculptural revelation. He explains, ‘in 2007, I returned to the Potteries area of England to visit the Potteries Museum in Stoke on Trent and the Gladstone Pottery Museum. I studied their collections and archives and presented a solo show of my ceramics based on these experiences.’ Mimicking the forms of mass-produced Staffordshire pottery such as arbour group figurines, commemorative ware, betrothal and Toby Jugs, Bird created personal and archetypal narratives of love, life and death. Bird sees this as ‘monumentalizing’ events in his life, and the lives of those around him.
A frequent sculptural motif of Bird’s is the use of a large ceramic serving platter, the type usually reserved for a Sunday roast. These have become a blank slate for Bird’s recurring use of text; surfaces are slung with subversive puns, homilies and banal everyday observations. In the exhibition One Upon a Time in New England, a wall of sixty plates with announcements such as, ‘When Dad wasn’t making us cry, he really made us laugh!’ or ‘I wish this could go on forever!’ exemplify Bird’s black humour and his ability to distil universal experiences of family dynamics. I wonder whether these two works are also a way of defining his great, great, grandfather’s temperament.
So why is Bird the ‘bastard son’ of Royal Doulton or any other of the many pottery manufacturers whose output held pride of place across all classes of British society? With no direct familial links, Bird’s choice of title reminds us of his decisive choice to master the skill of slip casting, assemblage and masterful colour glazing. ‘Ceramics can also be a very working class,’ he says. ‘Maybe that’s its potency – as a medium with which all people and socio-economic groups have their own history and affinity. People feel comfortable with pottery and that makes it a good propaganda tool.’
Bastard Son of Royal Doulton boasts sixty-nine ceramic works, twenty-five paintings and prints, four assemblages and one animation. The majority of the works have come from Bird’s personal collection, with a few important pieces borrowed from Australian public and private collections. The installation is a colourful riot contained within the substantial glass cabinets of the Mann-Tatlow Gallery space, located within the Wollongong Art Gallery, 80km south of Sydney. Stephen Bird: Bastard Son of Royal Doulton exemplifies Bird’s ability to utilise the ceramic process, using everyday objects and words that act as an artistic device to stimulate heightened narrative and provoke social and political conscience. Colloquially, Australian’s use the term ‘bastard’ as a term of endearment, in that respect, Stephen Bird; is a very clever bastard!
Robyn Phelan is a Melbourne based writer and artist working with the ceramic process.
Wollongong Art Gallery, NSW, Australia 20 June – 25 October 2015
Touring to: Tweed Regional Gallery and Margaret Olley Art Centre 20 November 2015 – 10 January 2016
Maitland Regional Art Gallery 6 February – 3 April 2016
Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre 29 April – 3 July 2016
Cowra Regional Art Gallery 6 August – 4 September 2016