For the Table and Beyond
Article by Stephen Bowers
THE EVERYDAY OBJECTS WE CHOOSE SAY SOMETHING about who we are. The choices
we make about the pottery we live with reveals our aspirations and concerns.
Drought, landscape, change and decay were aspects of ceramic art explored
in TableWare, an exhibition of new work by Kirsten Coehlo, Philip Hart,
Bronwyn Kemp and Bruce Nuske at Adelaide’s Jam Factory in South
Memories of objects and landscape inform Coehlo’s and Kemp’s
work. For Kirsten Coehlo, rusting industrial buildings and iron towers,
as well as the chipped edges of enamelware are inspirational. The message
being that both classical form and daily life are equally subject to change
Growing up in Broken Hill, Bronwyn Kemp meditated on distant horizons
and landscapes rendered vague and hazy by heat and light. Kemp draws on
memory of these places to create evocative porcelain forms whose surface
and glaze suggest the atmosphere and clouds, distant horizons and sweeping
Philip Hart respects the tactile qualities of clay, allowing evidence
of making to speak in his works. Hart also lets his work give utterance
to other voices; like an ancient amanuensis, he transcribes text on to
the surfaces of his functional bowls.His narrative is a self-conscious
reflection on pop culture; didactic texts sit alongside images of skulls,
houses and hearts.
Bruce Nuske’s pitchers, dippers, jugs, bottles, beakers, bowls,
cups and teapots are all connected to fluids. His concern is with water
– in some cases the lack of it.Through skilled homage to fluids
via vessels, Nuske reflects on the universal need for sustaining moisture.
His Water Bowls are bleached, skeletal, pinched and drained – holding
precious little moisture while his crisp jugs, pitchers and dippers freely
The exhibition TableWare, also included a display of ‘Standard
Ware’ pots from the studio of Bernard Leach (1887 – 1979).This
invited audiences to consider the impact and position of Leach, the 20th
century’s major advocate for making utilitarian – so-called
‘ethical pots’ – over pots which only reference function.
For Leach, aesthetics, truth and beauty, as expressed by the Japanese
word shibui, were integral to his work as a maker of functional pottery.
Leach’s influence on craft and design in North America, Australia
and the UK during the 1950s and 1960swas substantial.His establishment
of a modern cooperative studio workshop offering handmade pottery to the
general public was seen as a model for self sufficiency and creativity.
The presence of the Leach pots in this exhibition also celebrated the
role of a particular collector of pots – the painter Gwen Leith
Harris (1931 – 2006).Known for her subtly reductive landscapes,
delicate interiors and composed portrait studies,Leith Harris was a lifelong
user and collector of pots. The Leach standard ware in the exhibition
came from her large collection, generously made available by her family.
The exhibition included a selection of related paintings by Leith Harris
and text panels told more of the story of the collector and the pots.
While Leach’s influence is substantial, 1970 onwards has seen
a shift away from his views towards pottery forms and ideas reflecting
a wider pool of influence and experiment. Concerned with culture, comment,memory,
existence and identity, a new generation embraced diverse sources to create
works reflective of the plurality, paradox and difference that condition
so much of our perceptions of ceramics today.
Some works in Table Ware exhibition were sculptural, most obviously
functional – all were conceptually rich.They invite a ‘second
reading’, contemplation and sensory engagement. Touch them, use
them and your hands tell you more. Pottery gives ready permission for
use and tactile exploration, often missing from many other forms of visual
art. These are pots for the table and beyond.
Stephen Bowers is the Managing Director of Jam Factory Contemporary Craft
and Design. Table Ware was presented 26 January – 18 March 2007.
For an incisive summary of Leach’s complex impact see Peter Timms
in What’s Wrong with Contemporary Art, UNSW Press 2004.