By Emily Venn
The first thing you notice in the main gallery of Hazelhurst Regional Art Gallery is that the space has been split into two parts. An accompanying exhibit of work by Adam Geczy and Jan Guy called An Unnatural History of Nature has been placed alongside In Clay, an exhibition of work by students and teachers of Gymea TAFE. Although it may seem unusual to pair two differing exhibitions at such close proximity, they complement each other through the recurring theme of ceramics.
Dainty birds constructed from bone china are perched inside glass plinths within the space of An Unnatural History of Nature. The plinths are sited to create a transparent line of vision to a video projection on the wall behind. With the addition of an audio track, the room is transformed into a nature haven. Birds glide over the walls of blue sky while sounds of the ocean and calling birds transport you out of the interior space.
After passing through this section, you enter the main exhibition, In Clay. At first glance it appears disjointed but after viewing each piece the coherence of the exhibition is revealed and the complexity of contemporary ceramics practice becomes apparent. Dimmed lighting casts shadows from the works onto the walls and floors. Tall white plinths on which sit small bowls and shelves adorned with glazed crockery evoke notions of domesticity. For example the works of Catherine Fogarty and Peter Workman are assembled on plinths at eye level, mirroring a shelved domestic setting. Fogarty’s engraved bowls entitled Vessel Coloured, 2010, do nothing to deter our perception of ceramics as a decorative aesthetic.
Perhaps this view stems from preconceived notions that ceramics are mostly kitsch household ornaments traditionally displayed on mantlepieces. Challenging this perception is Somchai Chareon’s Keep Out, 2010. This work is an electrically fired white porcelain bowl that provides a refreshing contrast to functional objects. A small gate constructed on the bowl’s side swings open to reveal an oriental town painted in blue. The image inside is of mountaintops and forest with a foreground of small traditional huts. Beside the bowl rest two chopsticks. This contemporary work sits atop a white table, fusing the domestic with the conceptual. The bowl speaks volumes about the inclusivity and simultaneous exclusivity of small towns, and the spiritual connection felt by the artist towards his community and heritage. It epitomises a concurrent theme of the exhibition that ceramics is a community-inclusive practice.
The work of Lynda Draper exemplifies an apparent binary idea embedded in In Clay; her work has conceptual nuances, perhaps referencing themes from past art movements and ideologies, while still embodying a domestic feeling. Home Alter, 2010, conjures notions of the domesticated space, riddled with kitschy ornaments. The work is compiled of multiple hand-built porcelain objects, alluding to the banality of mass produced materialistic trivialities.
A conceptual split becomes evident in the grouping of material forms on a benchtop; on one side among a bed of rounded, porcelain flowers sit innocent, sweet objects. Soft undulating forms permeate this section, which includes a vine-covered horse, a kitten cocking its head and a daisy-circled swan. On the other side pointed, phallic forms erupt from the ground and encircle demonic gnomes and hybrid creatures. The stalagmite structures are almost coral like, and intrude into a habitat of disfigured bunny rabbits and floating limbs. A mermaid with a phallic head sits atop a rock while menacing blades of grass and coral threaten to dismantle her.
Another artist who uses the technique of unheimlich, or the creation of an unsettling feeling of strangeness within the familiar, is Michael Keighery. His ceramic installation, The China Syndrome, 2011, showcases garish glazed ceramic items inside an old wooden display cabinet. The figures have animal heads atop formally-dressed torsos; some exposing their genitals.
Draper and Keighery use stereotypical assumptions about ceramics to challenge our views on its viability as a form of high art. Their incorporation of contemporary concepts shifts our perspective on ceramics, and we see that with progression in technique comes progression in concepts and attitude. This is evident in the stand-out installation of the exhibition.
Aedan Harris’ Silent Rhythms, 2009, is an installation that seems to crawl across the dividing wall of the exhibition space. Vibrating organic forms made from hand-built fired porcelain are assembled at random across the white wall. Each element is varied in size and shape, evoking seedpods, nuts, shells, husks, animal faeces and coral. They are reproductions of nature’s excrements; red and black hand-made forms which can be identified as shapes from the earth. The collection heaves and falls and swells from every angle. The clusters appear to have multiplied as though part of a cellular mass that is feeding off itself.
In the exhibition catalogue Harris describes the work as the power of multiplicity and assemblage as always in a state of flux and transformation. This installation is a refreshing take on ceramics; by signifying the regenerative potential of our natural world it shows the practice’s capacity to address themes beyond the domesticity.
In Clay is an exhibition alive with potential; the potential to visualise a practice that has expanded from humble beginnings, in its technique as well as its implications. It challenges preconceived notions about the creativity of ceramics by fusing conceptual ideas with contemporary techniques. With its title of In Clay, the exhibition could easily be misconstrued as a ‘crafty’ display of domestic objects. The spirited and, in some cases, unsettling nature of the featured works throws this assumption out the window.
In Clay, Hazelhurst Regional Art Gallery, 20 Aug – 9 Oct 2011.
In Clay, exhibition catalogue, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre, 2011.
Tags: Aedan Harris, An Unnatural History of Nature, Catherine Fogarty, ceramics, Emily Venn, Gymea TAFE, Hazelhurst Regional Art Gallery, In Clay, Keep Out, Lynda Draper, Michael Keighery, Peter Workman, Silent Rhythms, Somchai Chareon, The China Syndrome