From ancient cultures, ceramic objects have held a peculiar prestige that still calls for an explanation. Painting, such as we know it today, is relatively recent. The only extant painting from ancient Greece, for example, adorns ceramic vessels. The idea of a free-standing easel picture was apparently unknown, and in ancient China (the name, at least in European languages, connoting ceramic). Throughout Asia, ceramic and bronze vessels and figures were arguably in the front rank among signifying objects. But, unlike bronzes, Chinese ceramics were painted, in certain epochs evoking or imitating bronze. In many traditions (pre-eminently Greek) the painting on vases was humorous, as if the pot gave the painter a licence to approach the mythological patrimony with blithe irreverence. While Greek sculptors were making nothing but sublime portraits of ideal divinities, Greek vase painters enjoyed themselves with the burlesque, the cheeky and the domestic. Was it thanks to the hybridity of painting and ceramic combined?
Sadly, the art history that we have inherited from Modernism tends to recognise the prestige of objects according to their autonomy, whence they are assumed to enjoy artistic and intellectual purity, as of poetry or music. Painting rates highly because its pictorial arrangements achieved remarkable degrees of autonomy, that is, relative independence from architectonic or ornamental schemes; for, by degrees, it detached itself from decorative conventions and functional objects and became free of a perceived servitude to design. Painting achieved this autonomy slowly (from the coating upon sculptures in Hellenic antiquity or the glazes on vase painting to mosaics and fresco, with their strong architectonic parameters) and often the work best loved belongs to the least autonomous periods. This is true of early Renaissance altarpieces and cassone panels, whose status was still intimately connected to Church furniture or domestic furniture respectively. With the development of a middle-class market, the autonomy of the easel picture is strengthened.
In this all-too-familiar history, an implicit hierarchy developed, by which painting and ceramics - once so mutually reinforcing - revealed their inverse fortunes; for as painting rose in esteem among writers and other intellectuals, so the appreciation of ceramics receded to the popular, to bourgeois decoration, a cut above crockery, perhaps received by a dedicated cabinet, but not over-endowed with philosophical virtue. Judging by the literature that history has emphasised, ceramics did not stimulate intellectuals to direct their ambitions to an understanding of the range of ceramic aesthetics. And when, in the 19th century, Keats writes in heady terms about a vase, the object is tellingly from Greek antiquity. In this regard, ceramics differs markedly from glass, whose transparency and luminosity have long been used with indulgence as a symbol and metaphor in literature.
For ceramic artists, the paradoxes of this history are discouraging, regardless of the various heartfelt revivals of craft, from the Arts & Crafts movement to the Hamada-Leach tradition, to Memphis and beyond. The criteria are invidious, for as ceramic artists join painting and sculpture in the quest for autonomy, they potentially run headlong into a denial of the spatial and functional relationships that have animated the development of ceramic form in the past. The relationship with design has long provided the cues for artistic invention in the forms of ceramic. Because design is so function-oriented, it has yielded social connotations, ritual significance, moods and memories. The link with design is the bank, as it were, whence the ceramic artist may redeem aspects of the tradition for an expressive poignancy that is unique to the medium. They may, on the other hand, legitimately neglect design traditions and create sculptures in ceramic, just as they have been formed for centuries in China. But among contemporary ceramic artists or designers, the zeal for expressive autonomy is offset by the desire to dwell in the metaphoric content and potency peculiar to the medium. This return to the phenomenology of clay, construction and the life of the vessel is supported by postmodernism, with its hatred of artistic absolutes or universals, and is also supported by a contemplation of Korean and Japanese traditions.
My reading of the current exhibition entitled HyperCrafting relates to the broader history of ceramics as art and design. I do not see hypercrafting as a claim for new and exaggerated levels of finish or craft. Rather, this knotty neologism suggests to me a level of craft which is over-craft, to which further craft would be superfluous, or which reflects on the condition of craft beyond the level of finish or technical prowess that an individual ceramic artist might achieve.
All the works in the exhibition are exquisitely crafted; but more than that, their meanings dwell in paradoxical echoes of the connotations and the history of the medium. The work of Fiona Murphy is poised between vessel form and abstract sculpture and perhaps the living forms that might be placed inside a vessel. Her shapes snake their way in sinuous movements that deflect your consciousness of their vessel-form. Even the decorative patterns stretch the lineaments of the pieces rather than terminate their energies at the base or the lip. But, for all that, the works are steeped in the imagery of ceramics. To me, they resemble the fruits or fish that might be placed in a ceramic vessel. With each piece, another ceramic vessel - which you do not see - is somehow implied or invoked, as if containing the one that you see.
Gary Bish has similar levels of abstraction but offset with representational imagery, drawing upon illusionistic traditions that punch through the surface, the sacrosanct skin of the ceramic or the wall. In many revisionist traditions, beginning with the Arts & Crafts Movement, the figurative piercing of the plane is seen as violating the integrity of the surface. Bish makes his architecture fiercely perspectival but at the same time it respects the plane on which it is drawn.
Stephen Benwell¹s interests are more dramatic in human terms. He is best known for his large ceramic vessels, seething with figures of taunting innuendo. He also creates sculptures, as of the tradition of figurines, except that Benwell¹s eroticised protagonists do not flatter the conformist stereotypes of the tasteful bourgeois imagination. From the figurine tradition (and the comic tradition of Greek vase painting, for that matter), Benwell takes the humour; but the sexuality of his figures spills out of the forms in transgressive and hilarious ways.
Michael Doolan also works with the figure, only his figures do not belong to the canonical anatomy of the ancient Greeks but to the manic world of toys in the department store. You could argue that the satirical tradition of ancient Greece is married to popular culture in a way that could be related to Rod Bamford¹s coffee cups or Richard Slee¹s life forms. Things are deliberately put forward, decisively advanced in the exacting medium, and yet are simultaneously ironic, questionable in their meaning, quirky, a toy but not a toy, a latte-icon but not commercial, a duck but not quite a ducky.
Heightened ironies riddle Stefan Szonyi¹s work. He is the creator of the most amusing figured boxes, sometimes musical boxes, with bizarre protagonists and narratives unlike the icon of revolving ballerina that normally feminises the sonorous cube. The diminutive sentimentality of Szonyi¹s sources is just sacred enough for the new constructions to be cheeky, naughty, a painful mirth that threatens to send up taste with an oxymoronic aesthetic misbehaviour, somehow endearingly annoying.
This exuberance of form and meaning also prevails in the relatively chaste style of Lynda Draper. Surfaces and extrusions are resolutely mineral, but at the same time evoke far-away places in the sand. The forms, though they are not as explicit as imagery, have many architectonic associations but are also quintessentially ceramic, talking the language of the tabletop. The illustrious tradition of ceramics is recovering its humour, its imagery, its happiness and rejoicing in hybrid morphology. Hyper-Crafting makes me feel that even though the other fine arts retain their supremacy, this cannot be a bad time to be engaged in ceramics.
Associate Professor Robert Nelson is Associate Dean, Research and Graduate Studies, at the Faculty of Art & Design, Monash University, and is art critic for The Age. Dr Christopher Headley, Studio coordinator, Ceramics & Sculpture Faculty of Art & Design, Monash University, curated the exhibition HyperCrafting, held at the Monash University Faculty of Art and Design¹s Gallery, April, 2003, on which this review is based.