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Material Culture
Aspects of contemporary Australian craft and design

Introduction | Foreword | Structure | Narrative | Transfomation | Artist biographies | Biography

 

Transformation Gallery

The transformation of raw materials through the traditional techniques of the crafts has been a measure of achievement and material culture for millennia. The resulting objects have provided us with physical manifestations of artists' imagination and ingenuity and a pride in skill and the effective use of natural resources. Contemporary makers preside over not only the technical transformation of materials, such as silica to glass, clay to porcelain or digital signals to fabric, but also the transformation of their meaning and value. The manipulation of graphic imagery and surface design, the juxtaposition of materials, the recycling of objects and the subversion of techniques and traditions bring a new understanding to familiar forms and imbue everyday materials with a poetic presence.

Objects play a part in our perception of space by involving us visually and physically, and even the most arcane still engage us with visual and tactile clues to their origin. Although we can sense the temperature of glass, the weight of ceramic or the texture of fabric through our prior experience of materials, we are in turn transformed by objects that challenge our expectations and hint at other, unknown experiences. Even though the group of objects illustrated in this section may never be exhibited together again, in this context their relationship to each other transforms their meaning and intensifies their presence.

 

Les Blakebrough Forest floor 2000,carved Southern Ice porcelain, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Les Blakebrough
born Great Britain 1930, arrived Australia 1948

Les Blakebrough is one of Australia’s most experienced ceramic artists and brings to this work a distillation of a number of themes that have characterised his work over the past 50 years. Developing and using his own porcelain clay has encouraged him to explore its particular qualities of translucency and crystalline whiteness.1 This bowl’s raised relief decoration has been achieved by masking areas of the unfired clay surface with shellac before sponging away the background to a thinness that, when fired, will allow the passage of light. The resulting effect has the subtlety of a watermark and a sense of transience and luminosity that one might expect from a coating of frost or ice on foliage or rocks. While visually reductive, Blakebrough’s forms are strong and grounded in a precise and generous functionality, reflecting his finely-honed design sensibility and a celebration of the science of craft.


1 With five Australian Research Council grants since 1991, Blakebrough has undertaken research into Tasmanian porcelain, flexible kiln design, porcelain clay development, and industrial processes for craft-based industry.

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Pippin Drysdale Koh-E-Nida 2000 glazed porcelain National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Pippin Drysdale
born Melbourne, Victoria 1943

Pippin Drysdale produces series of ceramics based on her experiences abroad and extensive travel and research in outback Australia. This work is from a series she developed after a period of research in Pakistan. Its surface decoration of multicoloured and multiple-fired glazes derives from her earlier ceramics depicting the colour and landforms of Australia's north-west. Drysdale's innovative glazes are realised with particular brilliance in this work, giving it a richness and intensity of surface that suggests the shifting colour of Pakistan's mountain landscapes and the vivid, layered and wrapped silk garments typical of this region.

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Marian Hosking Vessel with four brooches: Leptospermum, Casaurina, Banksia, Angophora 2000, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 

Marian Hosking
born Melbourne, Victoria 1948

A close observation of the Australian bush environment informs the jewellery and objects of Marian Hosking. In this work, she celebrates the qualities of four familiar plants, abstracting their physical characteristics through intricate metalwork. Her familiar technique of piercing shapes into the metal, and loosely affixing to it myriad elements that move with the slightest touch, is seen in these brooches and their accompanying branch-like vessel. While conjuring the fragile texture and constant transformation of the micro-environment of the forest floor, such objects are not frozen as specimens, rather they gain a new life through being worn and used.

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Helge Larsen and Darani Lewers Traces neck ring 2000 sterling silver, stone, iron and glazed ceramic shard, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 

Helge Larsen and Darani Lewers
Helge Larsen born Copenhagen, Denmark 1929, arrived Australia 1961, Darani Lewers born Sydney, New South Wales 1936

In this work, we see the influence of the organic design and functionalism that characterised Scandinavian jewellery and metalwork from the 1950s. Helge Larsen, in partnership with Darani Lewers, was instrumental in the establishment of these principles in Australia and they have developed work that expresses a highly individual interpretation of the Australian environment.1 The genesis of these objects can be seen in their work from the early 1980s, in which fragmentary images of the Australian environment are combined in flexible jewellery objects. This work is from the artists' most recent production, following a period of travel and research in Central Australia, North Africa and Europe. It reflects their long interest in the structures and systems that underpin the natural and the built environment, and in combining precious metals and stones with found natural and industrial materials, in this case, a fragment of the ubiquitous, organically-shaped ceramic electric kettles found in Australian homes from the 1930s.

1 See Judith O'Callaghan, Helge Larsen & Darani Lewers - A retrospective, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1986, for an account of the development of Larsen and Lewers' partnership and work to 1986

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Mitsuo Shoji Gaman I - Tattoo 2000 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 

Mitsuo Shoji
born Osaka, Japan 1946, arrived Australia 1973

Mitsuo Shoji's work, like that of a number of Japanese ceramicists, encompasses both functional and sculptural objects, united in an approach to surface decoration.1 His repertoire of design ranges from gestural brushwork in the traditional Japanese mingei tradition, to black-fired works with torch-fired decoration of gold leaf and, more recently, works with formal geometric decoration of coloured clay inlays. Using the square, the circle and the triangle, the design of this large vessel is a synthesis of Shoji's investigations into the relationship between volume and surface. It reveals his interest in the marks of human intervention in the landscape, scarification and the tradition of the Japanese tattoo. Like these tattoos, which envelop the body and cannot be fully revealed at any one time, the totality of Shoji's web-like decoration on a three-dimensional form can only be sensed and partially glimpsed. Its lustred triangular sections shift in and out of reflectiveness as one handles or moves around the object, engendering a sense of close involvement with the object and its structure, function and materiality.

1 See Eugenie Keefer Bell, The Japan Inspiration: Influence in crafts and design, Perth: Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1997, for a discussion of Shoji's work in relation to Japanese influences in Australian crafts.

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Alan Watt Speckled pinnacle 2001, black-fired earthenware with terra sigillata, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Alan Watt
born Melbourne, Victoria 1941

Alan Watt has drawn upon violent human interventions into the landscape such as clearing, mining, road con-struction and erosion and expresses in his ceramics the raw beauty of the earth as it is revealed through these processes. His abstractions of these interventions and transformations have assumed sentinel-like proportions, with sharply cut surfaces reflecting light through rich and elusive iridescent surfaces. This com-manding work is a development of these themes and illustrates Watt’s innate understanding of the processes that transform clay to ceramic and that are in turn metaphors for the industrialisation of nature.

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Margaret West Double damask 2001, 506 phosphor bronze mesh units and paint, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Margaret West
born Melbourne, Victoria 1936

The boundaries between the traditional Australian domestic interior and the outside world have become marked by the use of codified materials and conventions, such as the metal mesh insect screen. The insect screen allows openness and security, modifying and softening the view beyond, yet obscuring the interior from outside. Margaret West exploits the dichotomies of this ubiquitous material in this screen-like work, cutting it into shapes of the four-petalled damask rose and painting each to emphasise the moiré effects of light and shadow.1 The grid-like repetition of these abstracted forms suggests the symbolism of the cultivated rose garden, as a mediating element to the undomesticated natural environment beyond the home. It also alludes to the woven structure of that most cherished of domestic textiles, the formal white damask tablecloth, with its double-sided and subtle white-on-white reflective pattern, often based on roses. West’s wall of roses is permeable and elusive, a metaphor for continuity and tradition in the face of change.2


1 See Julie Ewington, ‘Wide (true) blue yonder’ in Object, no 28, Sydney: Object – Australian Centre for Craft and Design, 2000, for an account of the development West’s rose imagery in relation to her jewellery.2 West developed this work during a 2000–01 Fellowship from the Australia Council.

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Maureen Williams Clouded interaction 2000, blown and painted glass, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Maureen Williams
born Port Pirie, South Australia 1952

The boundaries between the traditional Australian domestic interior and the outside world have become marked by the use of codified materials and conventions, such as the metal mesh insect screen. The insect screen allows openness and security, modifying and softening the view beyond, yet obscuring the interior from outside. Margaret West exploits the dichotomies of this ubiquitous material in this screen-like work, cutting it into shapes of the four-petalled damask rose and painting each to emphasise the moiré effects of light and shadow.1 The grid-like repetition of these abstracted forms suggests the symbolism of the cultivated rose garden, as a mediating element to the undomesticated natural environment beyond the home. It also alludes to the woven structure of that most cherished of domestic textiles, the formal white damask tablecloth, with its double-sided and subtle white-on-white reflective pattern, often based on roses. West’s wall of roses is permeable and elusive, a metaphor for continuity and tradition in the face of change.2


1 See Julie Ewington, ‘Wide (true) blue yonder’ in Object, no 28, Sydney: Object – Australian Centre for Craft and Design, 2000, for an account of the development West’s rose imagery in relation to her jewellery.2 West developed this work during a 2000–01 Fellowship from the Australia Council.

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Liz Williamson Flower 2 2001 Jacquard-woven cotton and linen, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Liz Williamson
born Sydney, New South Wales 1949

Liz Williamson's intensely coloured and textured woven textiles - shawls, scarves and wraps - envelop and transform the wearer, allowing intimate encounters with the fabric's lush tactility. Her recent works investigate the life of less elegant, but equally personal, domestic fabrics and the physical effects of wear and tear - disintegration, fraying and fading - and the subsequent transformation of these materials through repairs such as patching and darning. This work is part of a series of textiles, handwoven on a computerised Jacquard loom from digitised, close-up images of such repairs.1 As the individual stitches of darning build new texture and prolong the life of a fabric, their digital images form the building blocks of these new textiles. Through this process, the craft of necessity becomes an abstracted shadow of experience, celebrating continuity and change.

1 Williamson's Jacquard Project was undertaken during 1999-2001 at Le Centre des Textiles Contemporains de Montréal in Montreal, Canada, with assistance from the Commonwealth Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, and the University of New South Wales.

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