Land & Water III (2009)

I entered two large pieces into this Ceramics Victoria exhibition on Herring Island, on the Yarra River.

It was quite an adventure just getting everything there on the punt – I hadn’t quite thought through the logistics! But as a result I met Ann Ferguson who also had given herself a similar challenge of large work. Many trips later we were both installed.

My work was a selection of pieces from my ANU graduating show: Falling to Earth – installed on sand on the floor of the gallery – and Gorges and Gaps. My artist’s statement reflected the same story naturally:

Layers of story – layers of meaning accumulate. The polish of the desert glows. The land resonates with the ever-present. A narrative emerges. We listen.
Across the sky, the ancestral women dance. A baby cradled in a coolamon falls to earth, vanishes, is looked for. Endlessly.
The shattered rocks, sand ripples, desert polish – all mark the fall. The gorges are in deep shadow. And yet they glow. Find your way.
The storyteller’s whisper seeps through us. But there are other voices and other stories kept hidden, inside the land, too deep for us to know.

I was invited to write a review of the exhibition in the Ceramics Victoria newsletter Claylink and here’s what I wrote:

Fruits of the island

Adrift on an island, a gallery of clay works offered hope. Outside the landscape was dried to a crisp. And, just a week after bushfires devastated large swathes of land, shattering families and lives, the sound of women’s voices singing the exhibition into life was a much needed joy.

The gallery on Herring Island is a delightful space. With the doors open, the breeze flows through, linking inside and out. Tall in the courtyard Ann Ferguson’s Spirit Level Totems watched and waited as visitors wandered through. Coiled, layered with slips, and incised with memories, these pieces speak of what is left behind as the water recedes – the layers of clay, the sediments, the leached remains and fragments of past lives. With their grassy top-knots, they seemed friendly enough. Yvonne Torrico’s dramatic work – a set of three guardian forms – guarded the interior space. For her these pieces are about ‘the earth, what is buried, what is unearthed’.

Across the exhibition love and despair were constantly in tension. Robyn Becker, the driving force behind the exhibition and its curator presented two evocative works: Little Heart and Joshua Tree, the former a fragile heart piece formed of porcelain slivers stitched together with blood red thread, on an eroded piece of wood. About to unravel, or a powerful expression of the fragility of hope?

Looking below the surface of the land and the water was a strong theme. Things are just not quite what they seem. Jenny Boyd’s river platters speak of drought – of low water levels, exposed rocks and logs – and of stress, but rendered into things of beauty. Lene Kuhl Jacobsen’s pair of large wall platters Flood and Rising tell of too much water. Her imagery, textures and colours are rich and symbolic; on one platter the big white circle suggests the pull of the moon, raising the height and the impact of flood waters.

In contrast Ingrid Tufts Parched, an unglazed still life of bottles, sat starkly against the warmth of nearby work, with the simple beauty of the forms emphasizing the message of emptiness and aridity.

Rosemary O’Neill offering was three curvaceous pieces of Corner Country, alive and almost moving, reflecting how the desert country has insinuated itself into her work, bringing with it narratives of place and time and people. Nearby Helen Clancy’s archetypal Goddesses of the Pilbara emerge from the layered rock-like surfaces. My own contribution to the exhibition, two installation pieces, similarly hint at what we can’t know – the stories inside the land – the whispered voice that tells of times and creations outside our cultural knowing. And Chandra Paul’s two-part piece offered an abstraction of the landscape in rich black, brown and gold, expressing nature’s pattern, recurrence and rhythm.

Sue McFarland collects from the beach and works these marine objects into the surfaces of her pots, marking the forms, and encrusting them further in the firing to create rich and sensuous sea-stamped surfaces. Sandra McHarg, working with the materials from her bush home landscapes in central Victoria, also uses local materials, this time the ash from her firebox in soft celadon surfaces on her leaf platters.

Boyd’s sensuous pears with their softly glowing terra sigillata surfaces are truly fruits of the land, and of a talented potter. In the opposite corner, Matthew Gove’s Animals of the Jungle piece is exuberant, colourful and alive with vines, birds and animals. A similar and almost naïve joy could be found in Jodie Maree Phelan’s Homage to the Clouds bowl, an evocation of the endless but unrealized possibility of rain. Likewise Graeme Bentley’s Whimsical Waterbird and Coral Form that brought the shimmered blue of tropical waters into the gallery.

More abstract and intensely thought provoking were Robert Lee’s three pieces. One, his zen-like – Five conversations with nature – is a set of five small pots each set with a rock and mirror; perhaps it asks us to reflect on our human gaze and how it impacts the world.

Perhaps the most poignant pieces for me were Vicki Grosser’s Out of the Ashes. Three gum nut forms, larger than life, sat on a low plinth close to the earth. One snarled through sharp gum nut teeth, the others were more tranquil. Her words spoke of the myriad shapes of the gum nut, dormant and patient, awaiting the fury and wild force of the fire to crack each open to let new life begin.

Chris Johnston (one of the participating ceramists)

Land & Water III was part of the Herring Island Summer Arts Festival, a series of exhibitions stretching across the summer days of January to autumnal April 2009, sponsored by five of Victoria’s leading arts organisations including Ceramics Victoria

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