Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception

Ceramics with Attitude -
Kevin Murray


"Chat 'n' chuck" seems the epitome of the throwaway mentality The disposable mobile phone means that consumers can now purchase a device for making calls from a vending machine, along with a candy bar and crisps. Like phone cards, the paper mobiles come with a limited number of calls; once these are made, the device is only good for the bin. The castaway phone is one more contribution to the growing mountain of landfill, along with disposable cameras, clothes, cutlery and cups. While such items offer convenience, the concern is that they encourage an irresponsible attitude to the rest of the world. If disposable products, why not throwaway friendships or a disposable environment? Ceramics seems the antithesis of this reckless mentality. While more food outlets are replacing metal and clay with plastic implements, potters maintain a craft culture of environmental responsibility, longevity, perseverance and the slow accretion of mastery. In an age of instant gratification, their commitment seems heroic. Yet without some means of exchange with the world of crass consumerism, ceramics is in danger of becoming isolated and self-regarding.

In Australia, there are signs that clay is losing its appeal for a younger generation. Ceramics departments are closing in teaching institutions throughout the country. The common understanding is that younger students are reluctant to commit themselves to the intensive study required to master ceramics. Why spend three years to learn just one art form when you can pick up PhotoShop in less than a week? The pottery wheels lie idle as students flock to the computer labs. Yet far from signifying the death of ceramics, this exodus might create the conditions for its re-birth.

Art is a cunning beast. No sooner is an art movement deemed passé than the new avant-garde picks it up. This kind of cultural recycling ensures that arts are re-born on a generational timetable. Ceramics is dead. Long live ceramics. In Australia, a new generation of artists has emerged with the drive to translate its venerable traditions into a contemporary language. Some of them did not begin as ceramists, but have moved sideways out of a desire to be different. As the ceramics departments are emptying out, wheels are being taken over by restless painting and sculpture students. Their work, as evidenced in the exhibition, Attitude, seems to belie the ideological opposition between craft and disposable culture. These young ceramists embrace disposable culture with attitude, casting it in ceramic form.

When objects are designed to be thrown away, there is little encouragement to enjoy their material being. Ceramists like Nicole Lister press the pause button on disposability, enabling us to appreciate the subtle forms of corrugated cardboard that are otherwise discarded as useless packaging. Rather than cast her forms, Lister delicately paints her subjects with a porcelain slip. The bisque firing burns away the cardboard and then the work is fired again at a higher temperature. Lister renders her subject in unique forms, not multiples. She assembles them into quilt-like structures, reintroducing the culture of handwork.

Zoe Churchill casts takeaway food tray containers. She stencils them with edgy messages about sex and desire, far from the noble sentiments espoused by her bearded forebears. Despite the immediacy of her material, Churchill's works are the product of painstaking processes of printing from photocopies. The Melbourne ceramist labours intensively to render the 'raw' feel of her graphics. The use of ceramics as a medium to convey ideas normally seen on posters gives her work added weight. They add the substance of honesty to what otherwise might seem personal indulgence.

Bronwen Garner incorporates the texture of paper into the clay itself. Unlike the other artists in this exhibition, Garner models her work on the grain rather than the form of paper. Garner is fascinated by the fibrous edge that is exposed when paper is torn. She has since developed a clay body and method of forming that exaggerates this inner seam. What results is a baroque 'house of cards' construction that plays with the contrary experiences of ephemerality and solidity.

Two ceramists in this group create work out of inflated materials. Sarah Parker moulds her shapes around balloons. Balloon shaping is a particularly ephemeral creative practice, seen often in fairs or malls. A few twists of the balloon produces an instant creature, destined to a life of a few hours before a bored child finds a sharp object to consign the toy into oblivion. By contrast, Parker's forms speak for a laborious process of rendering into permanent shape. Her exquisitely formed pieces take advantage of the clay medium to create a pearlescent surface. The play of light on these works helps them transcend their humble reference and become objects with an independent life. Parker captures the fleeting structure and reinforces it with ceramic expertise.

Amanda Schulz also models her pieces in inflatable toys. Rather than the whole object, Schulz uses fragments. While the original object is left ambiguous, she retains smaller features, such as a plug stamped with the words 'Made in China'. Schulz places her objects on trays, modelled on the table arrangement in Asian meals ­ an assortment of smaller vessels to be filled with various sauces. Her pieces are formed from porcelain which offers a particularly pure white surface. These soft ceramics laid out in idiosyncratic clusters make for a distinctly individual series of work.

Two other ceramists who cast profane objects have a more ironic effect. Irianna Kanellopoulou creates figures of supermarket culture, such as rubber ducks, Barbie-style figures and kewpie dolls. Her subjects are often crude figures that might be found in the bins of discount stores. She slipcasts with earthenware and deliberately exposes the seams. Kanellopoulou's rendering of a plastic motorcycle is almost heroic in its regard for the toy world. And through the process of multiple productions, Kanellopoulou is able to arrange her objects in a way that grants them mystery.

Ruth Hutchinson moulds delicate porcelain shapes that allude to the more bizarre contraptions found in sex shops. While the practical use of her devices such as ³dicksticks' seems quite lewd, this is contradicted by their clinical appearance. Hutchinson deliberately confuses unbridled consumer desire with the otherwise sterile feel of medical instruments.

Sharon Muir approaches popular culture with a particularly post-modern strategy. She constructs ceramic forms that quote their readymade contents. Inside are objects found often in opportunity shops, such as ceramic ashtrays in the shape of Australia. By this combinative method, Muir maintains a reverence to a world of clay objets d'art that is rapidly disappearing. In the average suburban home, a stack of DVD, video, CD, mini-disk and cassette decks, has replaced the glass cabinet filled with Toby jugs and precious porcelain. Muir rescues these collections from oblivion and memorialises them in modernist forms. The other artists in Attitude build forms directly out of their imagination.

David Ray has established a reputation as one of Melbourne's leading young ceramists with a substantial body of engaging work. Ray defies conventional making technique and applies a critical edge to contemporary consumerism. Like Churchill's food trays, they are designed to look cheaply made. In conventional ceramics, decals are usually applied sparingly to add a hint of decoration. Ray plasters his pieces with decals to create a baroque confusion of imagery. The method in this madness is the 'cut-up' process developed in the creation of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Ray plays with various themes using his extensive vocabulary of decals. He explores the Australian anthem Waltzing Matilda, focusing on the less reputable aspects of national identity in the story of the suicide by a glorified sheep stealer known as the 'jolly swagman'. Ray's works reward many readings.

Fellow Melbourne ceramist Vipoo Srivilasa draws on the apparently superficial culture of gay kitsch. His 'boy toy' works are lovingly decorated with delicate lustre and pearlescent glazes. Look a little closer, though, and you will find hints of a radically different language of Thai religious ornamentation. You might discern outlines of temples and hand gestures of Buddhist meditation. Srivilasa offers us an indulgence of colour and form. He is naturally drawn to ornate subjects, such as coral and flowers, but enjoys the unsteady balance between profane kitsch and sacred beauty. Lastly, Joanne Higgins draws on cartoon imagery. Her colourful figures and forms express a lively and individual imagination. They offer a softer version of the quality of 'attitude' - an American disposition for standing your ground and not giving in to the system.

For some craft purists, this new generation of edgy ceramists might seem like the barbarians at the walls. These are the young suburbanites who bear a lack of respect for the revered traditions of their masters. But maybe it is better to make friends with the barbarians rather than wait to be annihilated. Those who appear to be barbarians might, in fact, be distant relatives. There is something in this generational shift that returns us to the original spirit of ceramics. The most revered object of Japanese ceramics is the Kizaemon teabowl, made by an anonymous Korean potter. It is described by Soetsu Yanagi as something 'anyone could have bought anywhere and everywhere.' The aesthetic push supported by the Japanese was constantly opposed to the self-conscious ascription of beauty. For disciples of Zen, there was no difference between authentic and inauthentic ­ 'the world is natural'.

Might it not seem ironic then, that the masterly traditions which evolved out of this philosophy themselves fall victim to its fundamentalist argument. The equivalent of the humble Korean pottery today is McDonald's Family Restaurant. The challenge faced by the new generation of ceramists is not to remain pure and aloof from popular culture but to sublimate our disposable world in a triumphant act of creative alchemy. To make a monument of trash is an especially Australian contribution to world culture. The classic film comedies, such as Strictly Ballroom and Priscilla Queen of the Desert embody the kind of karaoke exuberance that you might find in this exhibition. They embrace the inauthentic with passion. There are seen to be few original ideas ­ art forms develop by acts of plagiarism and theft. Like Dame Edna Average, Australian glamour is distinctly suburban and imitative. lt worships the profane. It is the attitude that counts.

Kevin Murray is the Director of Craft Victoria. This article is published in conjunction with the exhibition Attitude: New Australian Ceramists presented by Craft Australia at SOFA Chicago, 2002. The Australia Council, the Australian Government's arts funding and advisory body, through its Audience and Market Development Division, assist Craft Australia. Craft Victoria's Website: www.craftvic.asn.au.

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