Elements: Clay

7 October to 5 November 2011

Greg Daly, Janet DeBoos, Patsy Hely, Bev Hogg, Ian Jones, Anita McIntyre, Gail Nichols, Kaye Pemberton, Joanne Searle, Jaishree Srinivasan, Hiroe Swen and Alan Watt.

Gail NicholsWhiteface, 2010, soda vapour glaze stoneware

Elements: Clay by Peter Haynes

It is a highly selective exhibition with 7 of the 12 artists showing only 1 work. The artists – Greg Daly, Janet DeBoos, Patsy Hely, Bev Hogg, Ian Jones, Anita McIntyre, Gail Nicholls, Kaye Pemberton, Joanne Searle, Jaishree Srinivasan, Hiroe Swen and Alan Watt – each have a connection (most a continuing one) with Canberra. Within the ostensibly limited number of artists represented we are nevertheless offered a diversity of imagery reflective of the range of formal and conceptual practice at play in the contemporary ceramics world. Each of these artists is intimately involved in a dialogue with their chosen medium and through this, with the external world. While meaning in each work may be personal to the artist, and particular to individual works, the whole is united through the choicer of clay as the tool for creative expression.

In The birth of tragedy (1872) Friedrich Nietzsche stated that the meaning of each experience (in the widest sense of that word) is expanded through exposure and reference to other experiences. This is, maybe obliquely, particularly apposite to the world of ceramics. Ceramics embodies not only its own vital and living internal culture but also (consciously or unconsciously) its own history and the history of other cultures and cultural artefacts. The works discussed below clearly aver the power of the individual creative imagination and also the multilayered assimilative processes which have informed and continue to inform, that imagination.

Greg Daly's Morning mist (2011) reinforces his position as one of Australia's significant visual artists. The open form is simple, indeed almost classic in its simplicity. It is essentially a vessel which simultaneously maintains an active and a passive role as both holder and giver, container and contained. It also provides a surface for the artist's exuberantly baroque decoration. Colour is rich and lush, draping the inner and outer surfaces with seductive tonal veils and flows which speak at once of the natural light which gives inspiration to Daly, and of his joyful celebration of that light in ceramic form. The alluring aesthetic tension achieved through the coalescence of the classic (form) and the baroque (decoration) is a tenet of the artist's oeuvre, and one that he continues to successfully explore and expand.

As one would expect from an artist of such aesthetic intelligence as Janet DeBoos, her works Scratching the surface: vase and Scratching the surface: bell form (2011) are intellectually challenging and aesthetically beautiful. The forms are exemplary of ceramic history and allude not only to their substantial history as domestic objects (and thus reference the artist's earlier work), but also speak of the liturgy of the domestic, the ritualised quotidian activities in which forms such as these play (and have played) an important part across the cultures of our world.

For DeBoos the simplicity of her chosen forms imbues them with a certain universality which moves beyond any single cultural voice. To underscore this, her decoration overtly references the arts of the Orient (and in particular China) and also intimates indigenous Australia (amongst others). The individual decorative motifs intersect and overlay each other across and around the surface of the forms in a multicultural patchwork that is informed by the continuing influence of ceramic history as well as by the artist's contemporary cross-cultural aesthetic and conceptual excursions.

Like much of the work in Elements: clay, Patsy Hely's is concerned with place and how individuals express a connection to places which have touched them and, how that touching in turn impacts on the places. Her work is intimate and carries within its finely delineated traceries an intense delicacy of execution which expresses the fragility of nature and the sensitivities which should inform all human contact with the natural world. There is a quiet contemplative character in these pieces On the mountain (2011) reinforced by the co-authorship of Sarah Rice, and the literal (and visual) inclusion of her poem of the same name. The vessel form, here small and able to be enclosed by the hand, is perfectly suited to the calling up of memories and the visualisation of personal experience that is so insinuatively redolent in the muted beauty of On the mountain.

Bev Hogg also comments on her external world. Her work embraces social commentary and exploits the speculative possibilities that arise from human contact and interaction with the community (in its most immediate sense) and with the wider environment and the natural world. The interrogative is always present in Hogg's work. Any question though remains unanswered. Viewers must find their own responses in the process of comprehending the work. An innate sense of the absurd, of the humour in the everyday, informs her art as does an understanding of the attractions of the ceramic surface and its ineluctable ability to draw viewers in and thence to explore the conceptual and the philosophical at play.

It could be said that Ian Jones is a potter's potter in the importance he places on the processes of making his tough and aesthetically exciting art. My response to that would be that all good potters should ipso facto be potters' potters, because if you are not, in Jones' case, master of your processes, then what results will be bad craft without any possibility to transcend its technical processes or material constitution and be judged as art. Making for Jones is a mode of thinking plastically, an integral aspect of his aesthetic thought that incorporates a range of inclusive and varied risks that ultimately link hand, heart and head. Making simultaneously embraces and expresses knowledge and emotion and, in Jones' case, produces objects, here Large platter (2009) that speak not only of their physical source but of the imaginative processes of the maker.

The ability to universalise the particular is a characteristic of Anita McIntyre's art. In Songlines/survey lines (2011) she continues her articulation of her family's history and the places in which that history occurred, and her own confrontation with history and place. Like much in this exhibition, the coexistence of the personal and the universal is a given, and in the instance of McIntyre, this results in a unique pictorial language. One immediately thinks of maps when first viewing the above work, but the epistolary in the form of not only letters but also postcards, is clearly evinced. The marks and gestures on the surface behave like words in a text, but this is a text where decipherment lies with the individual viewer, where the artist's sharing of experience opens possibilities for the viewer.

Gail Nichols continues to investigate the expressive qualities of glazes while exploring the sculptural potential of closed and open organic forms. There is a feeling of plastic mobility in her forms, clearly exemplified in Whiteface (2010) and Snow pillow (2010). These works are imbued with a feeling of immanence. In the first the rich fullness of the body seems as if it is in a state of ongoing expansion. The second is invested with a quietly introspective presence which gently nudges the form back into itself. Despite this, each form is beautifully modulated and achieves aesthetic resolution through the embracing swathes of glaze which clothe each and which assert their individual aesthetic and conceptual integrity.

I have referred to the domestic previously, and it has a particular relevance in (some of) the work of Kaye Pemberton. Her art questions the silly and surely by now out-dated and outmoded boundaries between the functional and the artistic. Is beauty a function? I think so! In Kitchen (2011), her exquisite teapots, cups and bowls are placed in small kitchen cabinets. One is covered in newspaper; one is left in unpainted timber; the other is made (or perhaps made to look like it has been made) in distressed timber. The implications of one cabinet possibly being made to look like something it may not be, raises the issue of art/artifice in an oblique but cunningly appropriate manner.

Pemberton's cups etcetera peer quizzically, almost hesitantly from their containers. Overt assertion is not what they are about. The cupboards and their contents speak of the everyday and the rituals in which we are all involved. Enclosure implies a need to hide, a sort of aesthetic reticence that presumes a lowly status for the functional object. Pemberton however is posing in a very sophisticated way a number of questions about contemporary ceramic practice and in the doing raises ceramic history, cultural appropriation and viewer expectation. That her covert arguments are simply beautiful reinforces the rightness of her philosophical statement and the strength of her imaginative conviction.

Joanne Searle's work, Untitled (2011) is also concerned with place. For her place is about topographical realities and imaginative potential. It is also concerned with memory and time, themes which reverberate across this exhibition. The details of particular sites visited and revisited change with each visit and for Searle it is the whole experience of place that impacts on her expressive imagination. What may appear to be a close-up of a very small part of a much examined site is, in fact, a diary of a range of distilled experiential responses encapsulated in a carefully composed slice, replete with symbolic and emotional impacts, peculiar to the individual viewer.

Jaishree Srinivasan incorporates traditional Indian decorative motifs into her art to comment on her experiences as an Indian and as a woman in cultures outside that of her native country. Her references may be personal to her and indeed, as in Belong (2011), India-specific, but they move beyond the individual and speak to more universal phenomena of cultural disposition and the position of the other. The use of kungumam (the powder used to make the red dot seen on the foreheads of Hindus), and the floor-based positioning of Belong raises notions of hierarchy and personal place in both Asian and Occidental societies. The delicate porcelain dishes and the seemingly incorporeal character of the powder, add elements of the transitory and the ephemeral to te artist's unique personal vision.

The simple and robust form and graphically bold decoration of Re-energised #3 (2010) by Hiroe Swen, are hallmarks of the art of an artist confident and assured of the authenticity and validity of her stylistic language in a contemporary context. Swen is a master craftsperson totally adept in the technical requirements and knowledge of materials necessary for the successful interpretation of her artistic concepts. Her powerfully individual language continues to be informed by the deeply-entrenched traditions of Japanese ceramics, by the (often) harsh but always invigorating beauties of the natural environment, as well as by the exigencies of daily life with which each of us deals.

As Head of the Ceramics Workshop at the Australian National University School of Art from 1979 to 1998, Alan Watt must be regarded as one of the most significant players in the ACT (and wider) ceramics field. His work, particularly immediately prior to his retirement and continuing, has resulted in a remarkable series characterised by some of the most stridently beautiful works produced by the artist. They reveal the clarity of his sculptural language as well as his understanding of the expressive powers of the medium of clay. For him clay is not only used to comment on its source i.e. the land, but also to comment on the way man interacts with the land.

The proud vertical presentation of Stepped pinnacle (2007) belies the sinuous flow innate in the elision of the composite parts. His adroit use of formal and tonal contrasts and an accompanying need for close examination places the viewer in a seductively intimate relationship with the object, a relationship that concurrently raises the relationship between the individual and the wider natural environment.

Elements: clay asserts the dynamism and relevance of ceramics in a contemporary context. Through each individual artist's dialogue with clay the exhibition establishes extended dialogues with the external world. The diversity of visual language, the range of conceptual and formal approaches, conversely perhaps aligned with correspondences of approaches across the selected artists, point not only to the healthy state of ceramics in the ACT but also to the importance of non-restrictive practice as a shibboleth of a continuing fertile and innovative creative environment.

Peter Haynes, University Art Curator, University of Canberra