Off the square

Belconnen Arts Centre: 10–26 May 2013

Leonie Andrews, Paul Dumetz, Myles Gostelow, Trenna Langdon, Moraig McKenna, Peter Minson, Vicki Passlow, Rozalie Sherwood and Kate Ward

Al Munro, Homage to the Everyday (Morandi and Hanssen-Pigott), 2012 – 2013

Off the square by Peter Haynes

This essay accompanies an exhibition of the same name curated by the present writer and held at the Belconnen Arts Centre (10 May to 26 May 2013). It is one of a number of special events developed by Craft ACT to celebrate Canberra's centenary year. The exhibition showcases recent works by 9 artists – Leonie Andrews, Paul Dumetz, Myles Gostelow, Trenna Langdon, Moraig McKenna, Peter Minson, Vicki Passlow, Rozalie Sherwood and Kate Ward. These artists work across a range of media including ceramics, glass, textiles and wood. This essay offers brief introductions to the artists and some of their works.

Leonie Andrews's work in the present exhibition is broadly concerned with the accumulation of discarded objects that populates our contemporary environment. Society's detritus may be found at garbage dumps (where one would expect them to be) but also, less felicitously, surrounding the ubiquitous charity bins that stand as silent social commentators in the car parks of suburban shopping centres throughout Canberra. The objects range through unwanted clothing, household rubbish, car tyres, televisions, computer equipment – the list is as endless as the stuff apparently required to operate as a citizen of our complex and complicated world. The stuff is part of our quotidian world, things we use every day and to which we don't normally give a second thought.

Andrew's expression of the above in her landscape of common objects (her own phrase) is achieved through the elision of textile and printmaking processes. In a sense the mundanity of her overt subject-matter is covertly underscored by her choice of technical means. The simple embroidered stitch becomes a tool for social comment when it is allied with photographically transferred images of charity bins and dumps. These images shock because of the readiness of recognition. Removing the everyday to the aesthetic creates a tantalizing tension which is simultaneously seductive and interrogative.

In some works stitching is applied as a sort of graphic backdrop to highlight the main motif. This formal device reinforces the banality of the objects depicted and simultaneously raises questions about the level of discarding which appears to be an accepted concomitant of urban society. Andrews's work is conceptually clever. Her use of embroidery comments on that medium's essentially domestic history and posits it as a powerful way to visually comment on our world. The choice of subject and the particularity of expressive means imbue these works with incisive subtlety delivered with a formal edge and aesthetic resolve.

Paul Dumetz is an artist whose fascination with the natural world has given him a fertile source of imagery that he has been exploring over a number of years. He has a particular predilection for Australian fauna and these, in particular the fruit bat, have become signature and constitute the majority of his pictorial vocabulary. His imagery is however neither generic nor predictable. He imbues each of his protagonists with an endearing individual personality, evocative of the depth of his interest in his subject.

The individual animals or birds are depicted with a strong concentration on the facial features, particularly the eyes. Bodies are lightly even sketchily indicated almost as background to highlight the intensity of the face. This concentration instils a directness which establishes an immediate and endearing visual relationship between viewer and object.

Dumetz's ceramic forms are simple and attest to the presence of the artist's hand in guiding their formation. The palette is soft and unobtrusive, a further device to foreground the characters who play on the surfaces of the various forms. These works clearly voice the artist's love for his subject and for the medium of clay that he has chosen to portray that love.

Like many artists in this exhibition Myles Gostelow could be described as obsessive in his total respect for his craft and the materials (timber) he chooses to create his pieces. His obsession is not introspective and indeed has enabled him to produce pieces that attest to passion and dedication.

Gostelow is almost evangelical in his use of Australian timbers. These are admired not only for their beauty but for their ability to carry the artist's design and philosophical concepts through to successful resolution. His designs, as showcased in this exhibition, are classic. Not in the sense that they acknowledge historic predecessors but rather in the overt expression of design and material coming together in a successful whole.

The Harbour table exemplifies the preceding. It is an occasional table, made of Jarrah and forged steel. As the title suggests the design alludes to a harbour, here Sydney Harbour. The overall form is relatively simple – two elliptical panels (that form referencing the Sydney Harbour bridge), touching but still unobtrusively separated, form the oval top which sits on four elegantly splayed legs, the splaying beautifully constrained by the serpentine curves of the steel insert sitting under the top (the insert both in form and material is a further reminder of the Harbour Bridge). It is composed of a series of steel bars that affords a fluid grace to the otherwise static timber elements. The combination of stasis (timber) and kinesis (steel) is quietly disclosed, a device which speaks of the eloquence of the designer's concept and the powerful attraction of his source. Gostelow also exploits the marvellous contrast of the rich red/brown of the timber with the blackness of the steel insert. Contrast plays an important role in his aesthetic and is used with seductive effect in the following work.

The Salvaged oak table is an ostensibly simple design. A square table, the top composed of short lengths of oak, sits on steel legs. The steel is also what holds the table together. Intrusive elements such as screws, bolts or glue are minimally incorporated into the essentially dry structure of the work. The abutting placement of the oak units allows each to be individually identified yet the overall surface is subsumed into the single square form, a form that is nevertheless activated by the carefully orchestrated coming together of a range of grain patterns and subtly differentiated tonal variations on a theme of oak.

The black steel legs and the four square black plates at the corners of the table could easily jar with the modulated oak top. They don't. They provide starkly attractive contrasts while maintaining their own visual presence and identity. The clever and bold device of keeping an open square space centrally in the table provides repetition of form that speaks of the layered conceptual approach Gostelow takes when making. It also continues the movement inherent in the visually active surface literally into and hence around the overall piece. While the table remains just that – a functional piece of furniture - it also holds within itself something of where it came from and the insistent presence of the maker's distilled imaginative approach to his role as a craftsman and designer.

The transformative properties of clay provide a basis for Trenna Langdon's creative investigations into that medium. She approaches her practice with a thorough understanding of her medium allied with an imperative to extend the physical possibilities of that to accommodate her conceptual and imaginative concerns. Clay is an elusive medium and that is one of the bases for its continuing attraction. Those that understand this, capitalise on it in their relationship with clay as creative medium.

This is clearly articulated in Langdon's current work. The Dendritical forms are simple vessels, full-bodied ellipses with flat bases and open mouths. The edges of the mouth are irregular and speak of sources in the natural world. Their irregularities are highlighted by the interior blackness of each vessel. The black not only acts a visually unifying element, it also imbues an air of mystery, a questioning aesthetic and philosophical presence. The surfaces are cracked, marked, stained and further enlivened by devices which also speak of origins from the natural world. References are not specific but rather evocative of tree trunks, bark, ruts in the ground, dead wood, rocks, grass – the textures and palette of nature. The overall impact is of a compendium of a range of elements which occur in nature that have embedded themselves in the artist's imagination. They are transformed by her into an individual pictorial vocabulary that celebrates its source.

Other pieces in this exhibition include the White vase forms, a series of essentially white vases also with black interiors. The immediacy of the contrast between external and internal surfaces is visually striking. The white glaze is lushly applied all over the surface, its textural richness a further reference to the artist's ongoing dialogue with the natural environment. The fullness of the bodies of the vases provides a morphological equivalent to the enveloping swathe of the glazed surface. As in Dendritical forms the beautifully activated surfaces with their accumulation of graphic marks move the eye across and around each piece providing a mobile foil to the quiet stillness of the forms. The aesthetic possibilities of contrast are eloquently exploited here.

Moraig McKenna has been involved with wood-firing for over twenty years. Like all ceramics the finished product is informed by a number of choices (conceptual, technical, formal, philosophical) made by the artist and is subject to the aesthetics of chance. For her the intensity of the physical processes required to make her art are an integral aspect of her aesthetic means. The maker's marks present in each work - subtle and insinuative rather than overt or declamatory - provide not only a nexus between maker and pot, but also between maker and user. The intimacy of this connection is exemplified in the vases and baskets in the current exhibition.

The vases are simple cylindrical forms, some footed, others not. Small lugs (2) sit opposite one another on the rim or shoulder of each vase, enlivening either the otherwise plain edge of the mouth or the upper portion of the body. A series of barely discernible indentations encircles the body. These impart not only implications of a gentle softness to the form but express the artist's presence in a real and sensual way. The encircling hand of the maker is repeated when the vases are picked up – the indentations receive the holder's fingers, an action replicating the artist's in the process of making each piece. The surfaces are the green-black of licorice with a veil of dot-like marks an essential part of this. The latter while energizing the surface is nicely constrained by the sturdy elegance of the form around which it is swathed. The consummate elision of form and decoration is beautifully achieved in McKenna's vases.

The baskets are engaging examples of a familiar domestic form given a different character through the skill of the artist's conceptual and aesthetic means. The (mostly) celadon glaze covering the exterior and interior of each piece is appealingly nuanced, its modulated palette and dribbling fluidity highlights each form while simultaneously exemplifying the processes which gave it life. The artist's connection with the viewer is, as always with her work, unassumedly present. The action of picking up a basket means that the hand wraps itself around a part of each piece, echoing the artist's involvement with the technical processes of her chosen medium of clay. McKenna's ability to instil the haptic into her aesthetic vocabulary speaks not only of the intimacy of her relationship with clay but also of the parallel yet subtle relationship with the users of her work.

Peter Minson is a third-generation glassblower, a status he carries with pride and a status reflected in the passion and skill that he imparts to his work. Glassblowing is technically difficult and demanding of its practitioners. The ability of the medium to control the maker is always dangerously present. Only the most adept practitioners are able to transcend the barriers between craft and art and effectively transmit their conceptual and aesthetic considerations to their viewers.

Glass is an entrancingly seductive medium in its capacity to capture the effects of light, to reflect the world around it whilst concurrently capturing that world within its transparent walls. In the present exhibition Minson has concentrated his creative efforts on the avian world, perhaps not an expected choice for either medium or subject-matter, but a choice that has resulted in an entrancing group of works.

Minson's birds are not shorthand executions of individual species. They are images of lovingly observed subjects translated as opposed to transformed into the medium of glass. Each bird (or group of birds) is given, along with its more familiar nominal, its correct scientific appellation in Latin, a pointer to the maker's knowledge of his subject and his ability to express that knowledge in a highly individual pictorial language. While we may be looking at Xenorhynchus asiaticus (a Jabiru), we are also looking at the artist's interpretation of this. Minson's complete understanding of his medium and its technical and imaginative possibilities is given charming expression in his avian chorus.

Vicki Passlow's background is a scientific one, in particular in geology and marine palaeontology. This has instilled in her the habit of close observation of her environment. The results of this habit are clearly exemplified in the work in the present exhibition. The environment that she has chosen to imaginatively depict is that of Canberra, but it is a landscape of memory rather than a landscape of actuality. Passlow lived in Canberra for some thirty years but has for some time lived on the New South Wales coast. Her experience of Canberra was as a working scientist and (latterly) as a burgeoning artist working with clay. The combination of the objective and the subjective, the factual and the imaginative, as well as the (often) fugitive qualities of memory, all inform her current practice.

Passlow's vessel forms have an overall organic character in which subtle variations and irregularities echo the rhythms of the natural world. Her chosen medium of porcelain is exemplary of the lovely unpredictability of ceramics and Passlow uses it in ways that celebrate its delicacy and fragility. The latter may appear to be at odds with her subject viz. the Canberra environment but the artist establishes an attractive tension between form/medium and content that she controls with exquisite aesthetic panache.

A single example will serve to elucidate the artist's concerns. In Foliated the eloquent swathes of the fluid bands of the vessel walls create a wonderfully mobile form that is conversely quietly self-contained. Passlow uses decoration sparely to quietly modulate her surface. Her palette is derived from nature - greens, yellows, browns. In keeping with the recollective stance of her investigations, natural phenomena are intimated rather than described. Here leaf-like forms are caught up in the loosely configured decorative ribbon of natural tones that moves softly around the vessel. Each of her works in the present series relates to the other but still retains its individual imagined reality. Passlow's vessels hold an insistent beauty that reverberates with the simultaneity of their condition as receptacles of memory and releasers of that memory.

Rozalie Sherwood makes clothes. The preceding is a truism that belies the complex conceptual and technical processes involved in the creation of her unique and signature garments. Sewing was of course something that was for many years a given and expected skill required by the female members of lower- and middle-class households. It was a quintessentially domestic craft and really moved beyond that only with the expansion of couture fashion in the twentieth-century. Rozalie Sherwood's practice as represented by the two jackets in this exhibition celebrates the practical basis of her art and its humble beginnings but also the continuing contribution of the individual maker to the art of high fashion.

The woman's jacket – Marriage II – is a simple form, collarless with long slightly flaring sleeves. Giving the piece a title is a clear declaration that what we are looking at is the product not only of precise and careful construction but also of an inquiring and curious imagination, a work of art, absolutely wearable, but nevertheless a work of art.

As any good craftsperson Sherwood goes to great lengths to ensure that the materials of her practice do not constrain any imaginative opportunities. The fabrics she chooses – here, cotton, cotton with lycra, Tencel lining, leather - are layered, combined, folded, sewn, essentially manipulated to give shape and visual identity to the finished jacket. Like other artists in this exhibition Sherwood embraces an aesthetic which avers the visual effectiveness of contrast. In Marriage II a soft brown section (right side) sits with a similarly shaped grey-purple section (left side) in a felicitous combination of contrasts. The contrast is reinforced by the insertion of small diamonds of the brown dispersed somewhat randomly across the surface of the grey-purple section, at once activating that surface and referencing its source. The extension of the brown fabric across the front and back of the left-hand shoulder, and the subtle changes in the edges of the fabric are further examples of the extreme subtlety of the contrasts the artist has employed in this simply elegant garment.

Off the Square in Le Marais is a man's jacket whose title refers to the fashionable district home to, among other things, art galleries and couture houses on the Right Bank in Paris. As in the previous piece, form is simple – a single-buttoned sports jacket, shawl-collared. Sherwood uses cotton with lycra corduroy, charmeuse lining (a light-weight silk fabric), leather appliqué and buttons, to give life to her design. In many ways the aesthetics of contrast inform this work as they do Marriage II. The metallic bronze finish of the leather inserts on the left-hand chest and both sleeves is played off against the gentle honey tones of the corduroy. The free geometric pattern of the leather is both visual and textural foil to the corduroy and to the soft drop of the shawl collar. The most apparent contrast is the marvellous psychedelia of the seventies-style silk lining with its white base colour activated by swirls of red, blue and yellow circles. This is a striking piece of bravura craftsmanship and design flair in which the artist's imaginative adventure, allied with the depth and precision of her technical adroitness, is beautifully expressed.

Kate Ward is an artist who works across a range of media, ceramics, printmaking and textiles. In the current exhibition she is showing a series of porcelain vessels that continue her explorations into historic domestic interiors. She is interested in the objects that constitute the rituals of daily life and the spaces where those rituals take place. The four pieces displayed take as their decorative starting-point the interiors of Mugga Mugga Cottage, an early twentieth-century cottage on the edges of suburban Canberra, whose collection remains as it was when the ACT Government took over its management in 1995.

Her particular interests lie in the role of women in the domestic sphere and how the objects they used performing their role(s) resonate with us today. Objects hold the memories that constitute our history. They are the beginnings of the narratives of the transience of quotidian life. To further resonate with her historical sources Ward has used the form of the billy can as her canvas. The billy can is ubiquitous in Australian folklore as the indispensable cooking utensil. Its contents offered sustenance and warmth and it stands as a metaphor for the small familial pleasures it afforded to those who used it. As such it is the ideal form to carry her decorative messages.

Ward has carefully drawn the interiors of Mugga Mugga and painted these onto the billy cans. Her use of blue and white references late 18th-Century English ceramics, particularly willow pattern ware and its own references to Chinese porcelain. This cultural layering onto the very Australian billy can injects a clever and unexpected visual shock into her work. One associates blue and white with a number of cultural manifestations but not normally with the cooking paraphernalia of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century rural Australia. Blue and white is usually also reserved for decoration, not for historical narrative or comment.

Ward's billy cans require a visual double-take. Each full, open-mouthed vessel is composed of brilliant white porcelain. A long stretch of wire reminiscent of fence wire (knots included) forms the handle which arches gracefully upwards from the vessel. The blue and white interiors of Mugga Mugga as depicted, reveal a female world, a world reinforced by the titles chose by the artist – Her duties were to learn the art of housework, A girl's sphere in life was marriage, Mother was an excellent cook and I have done my best. This is an intimate world, immersed in its domesticity and the business of daily life. But Ward has subverted blue and white ceramics to make a carefully delineated comment on our world by re-imag(in)ing an earlier time and evoking memories of those times through an iconoclastic combination of form and content.

The above celebrates the vitality and diversity of Canberra's creative community. Its eclecticism and the inspired individuality of each of the artists represented is an affirmation of the value of the contribution of each artist to the rich and multi-layered complexity that is so integral to local artistic endeavours.