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

A Review

The history of figurative ceramics is marked both by its antiquity and the inherent limitations of the material. Clay has the advantage of being malleable, abundant and virtually free, but it also has distinct drawbacks when used for sculptural purposes. It must be kept moist in order to be modelled but moist clay has limited mechanical strength. This can be overcome by making the piece thicker and consequently heavier, but the thickness itself then becomes a problem if the piece is to be successfully fired. If clay is not fired then it is nothing more than dried mud, and so it goes on. Put simply, making largish sculptures out of clay is not the easiest thing to do.

Different cultures have found different solutions to these challenges. The apotheosis of archaic ceramic figurative sculpture is found in the so-called terracotta warriors [in pinyin bingma yong or "soldier and horse funerary statues"], a collection of around 7,000 life-size warriors, together with horses and chariots, that were made during the reign of the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang around 200 BC. As with all of the Chinese ceramics, an astonishing level of artistry was achieved through a long familiarity with the material and a no-nonsense approach to manufacture that was more akin to industry than art. It is salutary to remember that Chinese ceramics reached dizzying aesthetic heights through a collective approach to making that is antithetical to our contemporary notions of how art is made and the importance we place on individual expression.

Inspired by another Chinese ceramic tradition, that of porcelain, European manufacturers have produced vast numbers of ceramic figures which combined an exquisite control of clay and glaze with imagery taken directly from Renaissance sculpture. The consequences of using that most difficult of ceramic materials – porcelain – to mimic a formal language grounded in the obdurate necessities of carved stone was that the size of the ceramic figure was severely constrained. What may have started life as an imposing figure occupying a central place in an Italian piazza was reduced to a bibelot sitting on a square foot of dining table; where Neptune once raised his trident over splashing fountains and pulchritudinous mermaids, he now lorded it over the halibut.

It is debatable just which of these two traditions had a stronger influence on modern ceramic sculpture, but there certainly were places and times in this country where the delicate and rather effete quality of Dresden centrepieces took the upper hand.

All of which makes Liz Williams work more remarkable, since, despite being at the epicentre of Australian (Skangaroovian) Funk – Adelaide in the 1970s — she has nonetheless developed a language which finds its formal vocabulary in the hieratic, totemic and folk traditions of ceramic sculpture, rather than the florid and gilded excesses of the China cabinet. Just how this has come about is an interesting story.

Williams has been making ceramics for well over thirty years and she is certainly well-trained, although her work reveals no direct influences of Milton Moon, Gwyn Hanssen-Pigott or Paul Soldner, teachers with whom she had direct contact during the 1970s and early 1980s. Her formal education encompassed both the Anglo Oriental tradition of functional pottery and the experimental approaches of Californian ceramics, all of this during the period where ceramics was perhaps enjoying its most diverse and rambunctious phase.

Williams was amongst the first generation of ceramic artists trained in this country where everything — information, publications, techniques, materials and styles — suddenly became available. Faced with this confusion of riches, Williams did the only sensible thing: she began to work through her artistic options. Her early work was not opinionated but neither was it shy. She moved from functional stoneware to Raku, gradually altering the vessel form and experimenting with decorative techniques. In Los Angeles, Williams worked with Soldner at Scripps College and travelled to San Francisco, looking long and hard at the Avery Brundage collection, one of the world's great collections of Asian art, then housed in a wing of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park. She became fascinated by the relationship of Chinese ceramics to bronzes and her work from this time shows the influence of formal and decorative devices sourced from these archaic works successfully translated into a contemporary, personal idiom. Although this work would not provide Williams with her final artistic destination, it demonstrated an increasing ability at interpretation, a facility which would stand her in good stead.

When tracing the development of her current work – those still, carefully modelled and rather reductive figures - one searches for the moment where the decorated vessel finally transited into the sculpted figure, where glaze and colour gave way to plain clay and the subtleties of posture. None of this happens suddenly, over the course of a day or even a year, but looking back it is often possible to identify a time or a place which seems to provide the necessary impetus for a profound change to occur.

In 1993, as part of the National Ceramics Conference held in Adelaide, Liz Williams held an exhibition of figurative ceramics at the Adelaide Central Gallery. Titled Recuerdos (which may be translated as meaning "memories", "memorabilia" or even "remembrances") this work called on experiences she had accumulated during a study tour of the United States and Mexico in 1991. Groups of clay figures were lit by candles, at once evoking a church and a reliquary, Spanish Catholicism and the rich tradition of pre-Columbian (literally "before Columbus") America. In modern parlance, it was an installation. In William's development it was a pivotal moment, one where she publicly declared her own thoughts in a language she has been refining now for over fifteen years.

The changes to her work over this time have been — as they should be — incremental, thoughtful and sustained. The basic elements have remained the same, but there have been a myriad of subtle shifts. One of the most notable differences has been an increasing realism, born of William's involvement with teaching and her observation of the movement – and occasional stillness – of children. The coltish poise of the young ballet student, the slightly "I'm not here right now" expression on the face of a young girl preoccupied with her own world, all of these things have been observed and now re-emerge in clay.

At times, there is an air of intentional theatricality to the work, in the use of props like a bright red chair, an earring or a mirror. But, more and more, the emphasis is on the body at rest and in motion, and in pushing the technical limits of clay to keep up with William's demands. This is made all the more complex when the figure is required to stand without external support, because William's figures stand as we do. This provokes a kind of kinaesthetic exchange between the viewer and the viewed, where we somehow intuit the fact that these figures are not pinned, fixed or glued to the ground and that they therefore rely a little – as we all do – on trust in order to keep standing.

William's constant challenge is to fulfil this very real need for balance without the poses becoming stiff and constrained. Her solution has been to invest the figures with a certain abstract quality, whereby they are not realistic enough that we expect them to be truly animated, but on the other hand they defer to the small gestures — the bunny-rabbit slippers worn by a young dancer — that mark us out as human. After all, the aim of this work is not verisimilitude but empathy, or perhaps in William's case one should say simpático.

There are other, discreet references to be found; the tutu made of real cloth worn by Edgar Degas' famous 1880 bronze La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans is quoted and the curious, pear-shaped figure on one of the larger figures comes from the 15th century Northern European painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 — 1553). Contemporary work is also quoted, with William's friend, the Australian painter Gary Shead, being directly referenced, and one might even think of Charles Blackman, at least in the subject matter. But these contemporary resonances always seem to be balanced (there's that word again) with a very much older tradition found in the anonymous works of pre-Columbian America, of China and in the folk traditions of Christendom.

Williams has plans for the future. Now retired from teaching, her output — which is prodigious, given the exacting nature of the work — can only increase. An inveterate traveller, she will doubtless continue to build on an impressive list of overseas contacts and there is some discussion about a leap in the scale of the pieces, a process that would necessitate some changes in technique and materials. It will, I'm sure, be worth the wait.

Damon Moon
Willunga 2008