'Fragile Flesh', Australian Journal of Ceramics / by Travis Kelleher

Brent with Porcelain Skull (Portrait of Brent Harrison) , digital print, 2016

Brent with Porcelain Skull (Portrait of Brent Harrison), digital print, 2016

Fragile Flesh: The Works of Andrew Nicholls, Nathan Beard, and Susan Flavell, by Travis Kelleher

Despite the closure of major facilities across Australia during the past decade[i], recent years have seen a resurgence of ceramics practice internationally, in particular by visual artists from a non-craft background approaching the medium from an historical and conceptual perspective.[ii]Nathan Beard, Susan Flavell, and Andrew Nicholls are three such Perth-based visual artists, whose shared interest in the body has seen them embrace the discipline, drawing particularly on its historical context in relation to race, gender and class.

Nicholls, whose practice is largely centered around illustrative ink drawing, owes his aesthetic sensibility to a Spode Italian meat platter that hung on the dining room wall of his family home. Fascinated by it as a child, the platter’s enduringly popular blue and white pattern – in continual production since 1816[iii]- worked its way into his psyche from an early age. At university he came to appreciate its cultural lineage, reflecting the economic rivalries of East and West during the 18thcentury as Europeans developed the techniques to produce their own ceramics, rather than having to import wares from Asia.[iv]In 2004 he undertook a residency at the Spode factory in Stoke-on-Trent, the first of many such international pilgrimages he would curate for himself and others, seeking to unpick the darker historical motivations of aesthetic legacies we commonly consider benign. ‘Of all the great British china factories, Spode more than any other has always glorified its colonial roots,’ Nicholls explains, ‘iconic patterns such as Indian Sporting,which depict hunting expeditions from the British Raj, have been in almost-constant production for over two centuries. It’s staggering to me that people have such cosy associations with objects depicting colonists killing bears and wolves, or being attended to by slaves.’[v]His Australian Sporting series, produced at the factory utilising centuries-old copper plates, presents an Australian colonial drama set on stark white bone china, in dubious homage to Spode’s iconic Indian designs.

For Nicholls, Britain’s commercial ceramics industry is inescapably linked to decline, violence, and death, and driven by the racial tensions that emerge from colonial expansion. Nothing embodies this chequered history better than the ubiquitous Willow Pattern: probably the most popular china motif ever conceived, and still frequently assumed to be Chinese in origin, it is actually chinoiserie, invented by the English – possibly Spode himself – to undercut the Asian domination of the ceramics market.[vi]The iconic pattern, and Nicholls’ fascination with George IV’s orientalist pleasure palace, Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, inspired his current group curatorial project: ‘chinoiserie remains something of a guilty pleasure, via its undeniable aesthetic charm, but intensely problematic and kitsch appropriation of Asian culture. It reflects the worst excesses of colonial imperialism, yet reflects a level of fascination for the Asian ‘other’ that can be read as (albeit naively) cosmopolitan in spirit’.[vii]The project, currently in progress, invited fourteen Australian artists, including Beard and Flavell, to interrogate this aesthetic legacy, informed by residencies at the Royal Pavilion and The Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, China.[viii] 

Nicholls’ series of ceramic skulls and crossbones were produced for the project in collaboration with various Jingdezhen makers, and reflect his fascination with mass aesthetics. He explains, ‘I liked the idea of taking a symbol as cringe-worthily overused as a skull to symbolise the violence of British imperialism. However for me the works also talk more broadly about the decline of the commercial ceramics industry, and the failure inherent to the bourgeois aspirations it has always capitalised on, as well as the literal use of dead organic matter to produce bone china, the English substitute for porcelain’.[ix]A photographic portrait of his friend, emerging Perth artist Brent Harrison, staring wistfully at one of his porcelain skulls is a contemporary Vanitas, Harrison’s supple body contrasting with the bone-like appearance of the fired clay, recalling medieval ‘Death and the Maiden’ motifs.

Rituals and traditions surrounding death also inspired Beard’s first foray into ceramics in 2014. Beard’s multidisciplinary practice scrutinises his Thai-Australian heritage, and is particularly driven by newly taken and found photography: his installation Avunculus Vale featured an arrangement of ceramic ‘bone’ fragments referencing Thai death customs, displayed alongside confronting photographic banners of his uncle’s corpse, decorated festively in line with Thai tradition. From there the ceramic medium’s broader cultural legacy has resonated with his ongoing interests in kitsch, decoration, and the use of ornamentation in Thai religious, political, and funerary tradition. He frequently makes use of lustres and iridescent glazes to evoke this sensibility, as in a recent series of ceramic tiles reinterpreting family photographs found in his mother’s abandoned house in Nakhon Nayok. Again, these works centre upon imagery of his deceased uncle, his figure obscured from his wedding photographs by metallic PVD, simultaneously glorifying and obscuring him, as if mimicking the processes of memory and nostalgia.

Beard’s recent series of porcelain Buddha heads, Oriental Antiques, was based on his photographs of Thai artefacts from the British Museum. Jingdezhen sculptors were given the images as reference shots, their flattened perspective subsequently transposed into the objects, lending them a subtly off-balance physiognomy as if literalising the layers of inquiry imposed on such objects in a post-colonial institutional context. A related pair of (as yet unexhibited) monumental ceramic interpretations of the hideously kitsch Princess Diana memorial at Harrods makes similar use of distortion through the translation of the original (in itself, arguably, not particularly lifelike) sculpture into Beard’s photograph of it, then via the hands of Jingdezhen craftsmen, and the inevitable warping that occurs during firing. Both series draw from the centuries-old history of memorialising heroes and celebrities in clay to transform cultural icons into imperfect human bodies. 

Memorialisation is also central to Flavell’s ceramic works, which in line with her broader sculptural practice is also deeply entrenched in the corporeal, in particular the relationship between the human and the animal. Her works from Jingdezhen included a series of exquisitely sculpted, life-sized busts of her beloved (and recently deceased) dog Dottie, lending the pet the status of a Roman emperor and recalling the ambitious scale of Augustus the Strong’s porcelain menagerie.

Flavell first embraced ceramics through a Mark Howlett Foundation commission in 2010, which allowed her a year of development time in which to master the discipline via a series of stately slipcast figurines of hybrid creatures. A seminal series of works inspired by Sigmund Freud’s collection of antiquities, Freud’s Desk, followed in 2013, informed by a group residency curated by Nicholls at London’s Freud Museum. The series comprised 100 small works tumbled, seemingly, directly from Flavell’s own unconscious, through which she first began combining ceramics with numerous other mediums, the resulting figurines then further embellished with junk jewellery and other found objects. This sensibility reached its zenith with her recent work for the 2016 Bankwest Art Prize, a richly glazed and lustred raku and porcelain Piggy Bank incorporating a dazzling array of other materials and processes, listed by Flavell in the exhibition catalogue as “…recycled papier mâché, glue, glitter, marble dust, found industrial wooden form for casting, wood, MDF, found fake pearls, found jewellery, gold coin, Chinese note, insect body, seeds, drawing, stoneware, amethyst, marbles, bronze, gold, hair, love, and hope”.[x]

Approaching the medium as a mid-career artist, the plasticity and unpredictability of clay strongly resonated with Flavell.‘Ceramics has a similar alchemy to metal casting,’ she notes, ‘the object that goes into the kiln and the object that comes out are not the same…colours change, forms shrink. As a sculptor working in the medium of ceramics I embrace the accidents, the chance happenings, the bent, the deformed and the lopsided.’In her works the body is almost always in flux, always on the verge of becoming something else, sometimes seeming to barely hold together, yet always replete with boundless possibilities, corporeal and erotic. Her use of materials aims to overcome the limits of the body in its hybridity and dizzying array of surfaces. Many of her earliest ceramic works juxtaposed her drawings incongruously onto their surface, heads and limbs overlaid onto non-related body parts, while her later series frequently incorporate Freudian humour, with eyes peering from orifices, or flowers erupting phallically from crotches and torsos. Her busts of Dottie therefore represented a new direction in their realism, but were created with the knowledge that the beloved companion was nearing the end of her life; like Beard’s works, they continue the historical use of ceramics to memorialise.

Few artistic mediums are as durable, yet as easily-broken as ceramics. Though diverse, Beard, Flavell and Nicholls’ practices each make use of these qualities to interrogate the body and its fragility in the world. As Bryan Turner notes, ‘We need arguments that flesh out the commonalities of the human, especially social, experience. I use “flesh out” deliberately. We can make the cosmopolitan argument more convincing through the argument that the vulnerability of the human body provides the starting point for an account of human commonality as the basis for a cosmopolitan ethic.’[xi]For Beard, Flavell and Nicholls, based as they are in Perth, the history of the medium in the West, already colonial by default, is further filtered through a post-colonial lens. Intimately tied to centuries of racial and economic rivalry, the medium is, by extension, of relevance to the instability of corporeal identity in a contemporary world, where cultural lineage and the borders between nations are more fiercely debated than ever, and where eminently fragile bodies are at stake. 

 

Travis Kelleher, 2017


[i]McCallum, L., (2015). Pathways to Practice. Journal of Australian Ceramics 54(3), 76-79.

[ii]The high profile of awards such as the Sydney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award and the Gold Coast International Ceramic Art Award reflect this trend, the former changing from an international to an Australian-only award in 2009 in recognition of the quality, diversity and breadth of the medium in Australia.

[iii]Drakard, D. and Holdway, P., (1999). Spode, transfer Printed Ware, 1784-1833, ACC Art Books 

[iv]Beddoe, S., 2008. ‘‘Prodigious Charming Pots…’ British Chinoiserie Ceramics’, Chinese Whispers, Chinoiserie in Britain, 1650-1930, The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, pp. 30-31.

[v]Interview with the artist, February 2017.

[vi]Haddad, J. R., ‘Imagined Journeys to Distant Cathay: Constructing China with Ceramics, 1780–1920’,Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Spring 2007), University of Chicago Press, pp. 53-80

[vii]Interview with the artist, February 2017.

[viii]The three artists all acknowledge the ongoing mentorship of senior Western Australian ceramicist Sandra Black, who has assisted them throughout their exploration of the medium, and hosted them during the Jingdezhen residency.

[ix]Interview with the artist, February 2017.

[x]Murray S. (Ed)., 2016 Bankwest Art Prize, Bankwest, Western Australia, 2016, p. 27

[xi]Turner, B. (2002). Cosmopolitan Virtue, Globalization and Patriotism. Theory, Culture & Society, 19(1-2), 45-63.

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