The Devil is in the Detail: The Ceramics of Jane Robertson

Jane Robertson lives on a hundred acres outside of the township of Nairne in the Adelaide Hills. The property occupies one side of a hill opposite Mt. Barker, sloping from the dirt road that crests the ridge to a winter creek in the gully below. It's summer now and the country is dry and the Murray Grey cattle have cropped the tawny grass down to the ground.

This sweep of the ranges out to where the hills fold down to meet the river is rocky country. Some farmers even sell the rocks to landscape suppliers, where they will end up adorning a small section of manicured garden and a tiny patch of bright green lawn in a suburban housing estate. On Robertson's property the rocks don't suffer such indignities; they jumble down a hillside dotted with ancient red gums, where the grey schists, reddish ironstone and creamy quartz add a subdued and delicate beauty to the landscape. Understanding this kind of beauty is one key to Robertson's work.

I'm here to see Jane's new collection of ceramics for her exhibition at the Kerrie Lowe Gallery in Newtown, where they will occupy a very different, urban setting in this journey from making to display. Not that her ceramics are the clichéd equivalent of wide-eyed country folk coming to the city; far from it. This work is urbane and modern - although thankfully not post-modern – and there is nothing faux about it.

Robertson's pots, mostly variations on an upright bowl-form which sometimes extends to become almost a vase, sit on an oak table in a room full of antiques and artefacts. It turns out that her father, Ivar Mackay, was a respected London dealer with a shop in Kensington Church Walk and an eye for the unusual. As a child she grew up in a house full of objects that glowed with the patina of age and rejoiced in the subtle calligraphy of wear. This also probably gives a clue to Robertson's work, although again the connection is not explicit.

It is somewhat of a luxury to be able to view the work about which one is to write in such a setting, but just for minute I'll pretend that I have not had this advantage, and instead have come across Robertson's work in the anonymous space of a gallery. What then would I see?

Firstly, the scale is – for want of a better term — domestic, expected. The dominant shape is bowl-like, and yet in all instances upright enough to give as much visual emphasis to the outside as to the inside. Both foot and lip are un-accented apart from the slightest variations in the curve of the wall, and the silhouette is restrained. The area covered by the base of the vessel is small as compared to that of the mouth, although in the taller forms the differences are less pronounced. As in the work of the British artist Jennifer Lee, to which the reductive forms of Robertson's work bears some similarities, the base is emphatically present, its attenuation suggesting balance and lift.

The surfaces of these ceramics are satin or matt, the texture of the glaze like smooth-worn pebbles or eggshell, the unglazed clay a little rougher still. The glazes are muted in tone and the porcelain clay is speckled with iron, a refreshing variation on the perfect gloss and high finish that characterises much contemporary work. In a move that would shock those who strive after an ever-whiter paste (and I use that old industrial term deliberately) Robertson adds iron-rich clay from her property to Southern Ice porcelain, adding vigour and life to this rather neutral material.

The effect, the sum of all these parts, is quite European. There certainly is no overt reference to Asian ceramics, to the tea-ceremony or Bizen or the Sung, but instead to a time and place – somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century and in countries from Scandinavia to Australia – where the best ceramics became a sophisticated part of mode

Damon Moon

Published in Ceramics, Art and Perception #72 in 2008