The crafted object
26 August – 10 December 2006
Alan Peascod 'Jar' 1986 stoneware with dry glaze Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge
The crafted object 60s–80s brings together a wide range of Australian craft works from the national collection, many of which were acquired early in the Gallery’s history and have not been displayed for over a decade. This exhibition focuses on the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, when a revival of studio craft practices opened up new possibilities for expression in the visual arts in Australia.
The international revival of studio craft grew from a number of influences and traditions which had survived into the postwar period of the 1950s and 1960s. These centred on the celebration of the handmade and the unique object in the face of dwindling craft training and the increased availability of higher-quality manufactured goods; the successful integration of designers and crafts practitioners with the industrial process of applied arts manufacture in Scandinavia; a closer connection between the work of sculptors and designers in the expression of organic modernism; and the exposure of craft practice as a lifestyle choice through popular and professional architecture and design journals promoted through craft organisations and societies and museum and commercial art gallery exhibitions. A major influence in ceramics was the philosophy and practice of the British potter Bernard Leach who, with Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, promoted the appreciation of an Anglo–Japanese vernacular approach to form and technique.
A younger generation of Australian artists, craft practitioners and designers began to engage with these streams from the late 1950s, establishing craft organisations that would shape agendas for the integration of craft training, scholarship, marketing and innovation with the mainstream of the visual arts and design industries. It was an area of practice increasingly promoted and nurtured by the national craft organisation, the Crafts Council of Australia (later, Craft Australia) and its affiliated crafts councils in each Australian state, and supported with the funding and advocacy of the Australia Council through its Crafts Board, which was established in 1973.
This Board represented the Australian government’s first formal recognition of the crafts and operated a number of programs to support the professional development of this nascent industry. It developed its own contemporary craft collection and mounted exhibitions of this work. It also assisted artists through the purchase of their work and encouraged and supported state and regional art galleries to acquire and exhibit Australian craft. The Board’s programs were a positive response to the large number of exhibitions of contemporary craft coming into Australia from overseas in the early 1970s, allowing Australian audiences to make connections with new Australian work.
As a result of the Crafts Board’s activities during the 1970s this substantial collection of contemporary Australian craft in all media was acquired for inclusion in nine travelling exhibitions of ceramics, jewellery and textiles (mounted in the period 1975–83 within Australia and overseas) that were a central part of its program to expose and promote Australian craft overseas.The works in these exhibitions were selected by a number of institutional and independent curators and experienced craft practitioners, resulting in collections of objects that demonstrated a rich and representative cross-section of contemporary Australian practice.
detail: ELizabeth Olah 'Sunrise and shade' 1981sterling silver, 18 carat gold, porcelain, opal Collection of the national Gallery of Australia, Crafts Board of the Australia Council Collection 1980 click to enlarge
In 1980 the Crafts Board of the Australia Council Collection, by that time comprising 898 works, was given to the National Gallery of Australia, substantially boosting its nascent decorative arts collection and providing a strong foundation for the subsequent acquisition of contemporary Australian craft. The Crafts Board Collection remains a rich expression of the most significant period in the development of Australian craft practice and contains important early work by most of Australia’s now senior craft practitioners. As a collection, it is striking evidence of how a group of interconnected art forms flourished through government support and patronage, giving visibility and authority to practices that had previously been excluded from the lexicon of the fine arts.
The ceramics, glass, metalwork, jewellery, woodwork, textiles and leatherwork included in this exhibition have been drawn extensively from both the Crafts Board Collection and the National Gallery of Australia’s own early acquisitions from the mid-1970s to the mid 1980s. They are displayed in thematic groupings to reflect some of the influences that impacted on the field during a period of two decades characterised by enormous social change, design experimentation and the search for alternative means of visual expression in the production of functional and sculptural objects.
While this search for a direct expression of material and form that characterised the craft revival of the early 1960s had antecedents in the British and American Arts and Crafts Movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its late twentieth century manifestations owed less to a rejection of industry than to the exposure of a younger generation of designers and makers to myriad influences on the nature of object-making.
With increased opportunities from the mid-1960s for Australians to travel abroad, allowing a maturing, and design-educated post-World War Two generation of makers first-hand access to the richness and diversity of the material cultures of Asia, Europe and the ‘third world’, a broadened dimension of expression through craft media and techniques entered the repertoire of Australian craft practice. Traditional modes of training, skill development and apprenticeship were encountered and adopted by a number of Australians willing to subject themselves to such rigours.
These experiences gave many makers a foundation for their own studio practice and were revealed through hybrid work (particularly in the area of ceramics) that explored and combined the qualities of both foreign and Australian materials, techniques and design motifs. The enduring ceramic traditions of Japan dominated studio ceramics, allowing Australians to engage with its material culture though locally-produced objects interpreting the complexities and subtleties of traditional Japanese firing and glazing techniques.
Johannes Kuhnen 'Bracelet' 1981 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Crafts Board of the Australia Council Collection 1980 click to enlarge
The intrinsic uniqueness and material qualities of the hand-crafted object existed as a counterpoint to the wider world of art and design from the mid-1960s, from pop and op art and minimalism to the new design forms and use of plastics and other synthetics in furniture, industrial design and fashion. The postmodernist fervour of architecture and object design from the late 1970s also encouraged a new appreciation of other design and craft traditions, such as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century porcelain, Venetian and Bohemian glass, Victorian jewellery, art nouveau and art deco design, and those more broadly determined examples of kitsch and popular culture. Such traditional modes of expression found new proponents among Australian craft practitioners who would expand the stylistic and technical vocabulary of the crafts through work that offered witty, intellectually engaging and technically accomplished interpretations of these styles.
These influences ran parallel to that of Scandinavian design, which reached its peak of marketing exposure in Australia during this time. Offering models of rational production and astute marketing through eloquent expressions of natural and indigenous materials, the Scandinavian approach to design (which combined craft and functionalist traditions with modernist ideals) provided models for the curricula of Australia’s newly-developing tertiary craft and design courses.
From these programs emerged a new generation of craft artists and designers with a thorough understanding of materials and techniques, allied with a confident approach to design and the expression of narrative and content in their work. For instance, the abundance of native woods in Australia provided a challenge to designers and woodworkers to exploit their particular qualities while addressing the rising concern for the preservation of natural resources. Similarly, much work in ceramics and textiles addressed environmental issues.
Such discipline encouraged experimentation with materials and processes not usually associated with crafts. The increased availability of refractory metals, high-performance ceramic and glass materials, synthetic fibres and composites, allied with the skilled use of high-tech equipment (including the early use of computers in the design process) gave makers the confidence to explore new approaches to form, colour and texture. This was seen particularly in the fields of jewellery and metalwork, where the use of industrial materials led to not only new forms and materials for personal adornment but also a rejection of the values of the traditional world of commercial jewellery, with its emphasis on prestige and the value of precious materials. Instead, the body became a site for design experimentation and a focus for discourse on the nature of personal adornment and expression.
David Ralph 'Set of thirteen nesting boxes' 1978 Huon pine Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge
Engaging with these modes of practice brought many Australian designers and makers into contact with overseas institutions and colleagues, building professional relationships that resulted in visits to Australia from well-known and experienced artists to undertake residencies and workshops, hold exhibitions and participate in conferences. Some stayed, or came specifically to take up teaching positions, injecting new approaches to training while developing their own work to reflect their experience of Australia. In turn, Australians began to find opportunities to travel and work overseas, undertaking research and developing their skills for extended periods on Crafts Board of the Australia Council travel, research and overseas studio grants.
The travelling exhibition programs of Craft Australia and the Crafts Board offered numerous opportunities for Australian participants to travel with exhibitions and represent their fields of practice, while organisational affiliations with international craft organisations such as the World Crafts Council facilitated dialogues for Australian delegates on broader issues in the field. Such expanded horizons helped Australians to frame a view of their own contribution and to begin to define what qualities characterised Australian craft and design. For the first time, through direct experience of works in exhibitions and their publication in specialist and established art and design journals, Australian crafts began to be seen and evaluated in an international context by audiences with few preconceptions of an Australian style.
The twenty years from 1965 to 1985 were characterised by radicalism, social upheaval and change, generational conflict, the exploration and politicisation of gender issues, war and global concerns for the state of the environment, all fuelled by increased access to information and the accelerating availability of new technologies. While the revival of the slower and more introspective modes of craft practice may have seemed escapist in the face of such global urgencies, its intimate and individual nature allowed a number of artists to use it as a form of protest, satire and subversion.
Feminism, for instance, opened up modes of critical inquiry into what had been categorised and marginalised as women’s craft, politicising materials, techniques and approaches to production. In Australia, the Vietnam war, Indigenous rights, the rise and fall of the Labor government (under which the Australia Council had developed its programs of support for the crafts), ecological concerns and environmental activism, gay politics and outright larrikin humour were all subjects for craft practitioners to investigate and enjoy though work that was unconventional, sometimes impractical and often deliberately garish and grotesque. Pride in popular culture, allied with a revival of interest in the vernacular (from traditional trades, bush crafts and handicrafts to overt expressions of Australiana subjects and motifs in the decorative and applied arts) broadened the historical frame of reference for craft practitioners.
Peter Rushforth 'Blossom jar' 1984 glazed stoneware Purchased from Gallery admission charges 1984 National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge
The experimental and adventurous atmosphere that surrounded the crafts during this twenty-year period opened new pathways of inquiry to many practitioners, encouraging many to forge unique expressions that would find their way into public collections and, as a result, into the wider world of the visual arts. The National Gallery of Australia, along with most state and several regional art galleries, developed important collections of craft from this period, providing a greater public access to the new work being produced across the country. A new generation has matured since most of the works in this survey were produced, yet there is little understanding of the critical role that these works and their makers played in redefining Australian decorative arts and design.
This exhibition offers a reassessment of the work of the period and encourages a generation born since the 1980s to engage with ideas that redefined notions of the role of craft in the interpretation of the Australian experience. That role has broadened since the mid-1980s, much of it through the later and current work of many of the artists whose work is shown in this exhibition, as well as the work of their younger contemporaries. Their contribution to defining the most important period of craft and design innovation in the history of Australian decorative arts is beginning to be more widely understood and opens stimulating avenues of inquiry for researchers and collectors alike.
Senior Curator, Decorative Arts and Design