Below is an excerpt of the first ever C-Folio, CFile’s lavishly illustrated, single-themed in-house publication survey that focuses on key creatives and mega-movements in ceramic art, design, architecture, and technology. Read Garth Clark’s profile of Ramesh Nithiyendran: A Wild and Gentle Carnival below, then click to view the entire C-Folio for FREE. To view upcoming C-Folios, keep a look out in cfile.library or begin your 30-day free trial.
Careers in art are unpredictable, some arrive like rockets only to crash and burn a few years a later. Others grow slowly and take us by surprise. Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran is more of a rocket, but his trajectory is powerful, growing in momentum and likely to launch him high into the international pantheon of fine art that is now coming from ceramics (or vice versa). Already he is sweeping the Australian awards for his medium and drawing attention from abroad.
He and two of his exhibitions are the subjects of our first C-FOLIO publication: Ramesh Nithiyedran: Mud Men at the National Gallery of Australia (Sydney, until February 28, 2018) and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran: In The Beginning, Ian Potter Museum of Art (Melbourne, November 22, 2016 – February, 26 2017). As the name suggests, C-FOLIO is a single subject photographic portfolio featuring established and emerging artists, designers and architects in visual depth.
For some background on contemporary ceramics in Australia refer to my post last year, “Are Australian Ceramics at the Tipping Point?”, in which we first introduced Ramesh. He and Glenn Barkley are the two most charged lightning rods in the country, highly rated in the art community and treated by the ceramics community with a mix of awe, skepticism and ambivalence. You can read about Barkley’s art and his controversial position in the arts in our Cfile post “Studio Pottery | Is Glenn Barkley Really the Worst Studio Potter in Australia?”.
Ramesh is Australian, but was born in 1988 and came to his adopted country from Sri Lanka when he was one year old. He is one of many immigrant artists who are diluting the provincialism that once characterized culture down under bringing a lively, sensual multicultural influence, important for a nation that is 96% white and geographically remote. Their contribution is part of the reason that the Australian art scene is now so global, diverse and exciting.
We met last April in Sydney at the National School of Art, an ex-prison where he was artist-residence at the time.
If you will excuse a digression, only in Australia will you find an art school housed in grimly handsome ex-prison, the Darlinghurst Gaol. Indeed, the kilns are barely a smoke plume from the courtyard where prisoners were hanged. And to complete the scene, another major school, Sydney School of the Arts, is housed in what was the Callan Park Lunatic Asylum for the Mentally and Criminally Insane. Its future is uncertain due to an on-and-off proposed merger with another school. One could not select a venue for creatives, a prison and a madhouse as it was known in its day, more laden with devious symbolism, particularly in a nation that began as a penal colony.
One likes Ramesh immediately, he is open and funny, with a wily sense of humor and a warmth of body language that fronts for his shyness. For all the outward friendliness one senses a certain skepticism, he weighs and measures one’s words carefully and his big smile does not necessarily signal agreement.
Ramesh studied as a painter. And, while happy with his new medium for the moment he is not necessarily a ceramic lifer, tomorrow it might be woodcarving or light environments, who knows? But we do know Ramesh is one of the most powerful and visionary talents to arrive on the art scene (via ceramics) in this decade.
His signature is blazing color and grotesque mirth but all with an undertow of pathos and emotional disguise that recalls clown-like figuration. The surfaces are so painterly to the point that I was surprised to find it’s glaze. “There are some instances,” he notes “where I use spray paint (oil based enamel), but those bright drippy colors are from slapping on those cadmium glazes!” His glazing is expressive and free but used with intuitive skill, which is why I find it confounding that the criticism of his craft remains current in ceramic circles.
The vibrancy, playful and liberated character of his art is precisely because he is not a craft fascist, chained to shibboleths of traditional pottery. As Beech Writes:
From wherever you stand, Nithiyendran’s approach to ceramics is unconventional. He’s the first to admit that ceramics is a generally conservative realm of art, which is one of the reasons why he would never describe himself as a ‘ceramicist,’ rather as an artist who uses clay. “There are suites of rules and orthodoxies attached to the medium. I avoid those rules at all costs and try and be more disobedient with my use of it. I’ve gotten flack from potters—who are unsurprisingly older, white men—who think I’m shitting on ‘their’ medium,” he says, adding, “But that’s kind of thrilling.”
The older, white potters would’ve had a shock when Nithiyendran, who studied painting and is self-taught in ceramics, recently won Australia’s most prestigious ceramics prize. Last year he took away the $50,000 Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award. “At the end of the day, I don’t make aggressive work,” he tells us. “I want the energy to be celebratory and egalitarian.”
He was modeling part of a work-in-progress when I arrived, a rudely fecund tower made up of hundreds of penii. It was one component for the stunning installation commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia. The phallus has two voices in his art, one part comes from queer identity and the other from Hinduism that uses this form openly to suggest fecundity. At times the phallic form is so repetitive (see Isobel Beech, “Breaking the Traditions of Ceramics, One Dick at a Time | Art Scout” The Creators Project) that it becomes a perversely shaped building brick used to construct towers and walls.
In an interview (“The Phallocentric Artist, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran” with Luke Watson in Oystermag), Ramesh was asked to talk about his discourse of phallus worship depicted through his work and specifically what drew him to phallus worship. He replied:
There are a few fields of interest. There are the historical aspects and I’m really not a fan of – just being frank – white people culturally appropriating whatever they like, so I’m not going to start appropriating from cultures that I have no lived connection to. I’m interested in two phallus-centered paradigms. The first is Hinduism, where phallus worship is literally institutionalized – Lord Shiva, the supreme being, is worshipped as a phallus. The second is Christianity. I believe this to be a misogynistic, patriarchal religion that inadvertently worships the phallus. I grew up going to scripture classes, and there were veiled phalluses everywhere. You’ve got this sprawled, naked Jesus with a loin-cloth and nails driven into his hands. Though, you could also argue that phallus worship exists prolifically on the internet. In heaps of porn and blogs, the phallus is a central form.
He is criticized for a lack of craft skills, something I found no evidence of at all. Some skills are rudimentary but at the same time apropos. The vibrancy, playful and liberated character of his art is precisely there because he is not a craft fascist, unchained to the shibboleths of traditional pottery that are often driven by virtuosity rather than passion.
It is difficult not to be around his work without feeling that one has stumbled on a life-worshipping carnival. If you look at the NSW installation, the centerpiece holds court like a fireworks display, long arms akimbo silently shooting out bursts of color and joy.
Watch closely, this is going to be a BIG career.
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