Sally Cleary reviews a recent exhibition in Melbourne
In 2010, four Honours students, Rosanna Caldwell, Natasha Hosny, Robyn Phelan and Jane Walton, decided to have an exhibition at First Site, the RMIT University Union Arts gallery. They called it Resonate, inspired by the meaning of the word: to re-sound or reverberate.
After studying together for more than four years, this exhibition was a celebration, both of their achievements as accomplished ceramicists and the close friendships they developed through their relationship with clay whilst in a learning environment. The interpretation for this exhibition was one of individuality and diversity that (in the spirit of the theme) filled the air with a resounding presence, reverberating within the space. This was assisted by the loan of three Federation Bells, which visitors were enticed and encouraged to strike when entering the gallery.
The First Site Gallery is an exemplary venue for art students to exhibit as it gives them the opportunity to view their works in a gallery environment, sometimes for the first time. The basement vaults underneath the historic building of Storey Hall are divided into three different spaces, which allows for a variety of configurations and formats, and the opportunity for exhibitors to employ curatorial skills in relation to layout and design. These aspects of the space were fully recognised and employed by Caldwell, Hosny, Phelan and Walton, who were keen to use the walls as well as the floor areas to display their work.
Upon entering the gallery, the space surrounding the work was at once noticeable. There were few plinths on the floor, only those used by Jane Walton to display her collections of letters, family photos, postcards from Old Hong Kong and a beetle game, all reproduced in porcelain with enamel decals. These collections were intricately made, then displayed in tawny ceramic boxes made to resemble cardboard. The unknowing eye could be easily deceived by this mimicry, as the ephemeral materials were so life-like. On the wall nearby was a collection of records, complete with paper sleeves, displayed on brackets. Their semblance to the genuine article was startling, except that these records were pure white. Walton’s art works incited nostalgia for objects that belong to the past, which have been stored away for sentimental reasons. They bring back memories from childhood; for Walton they are very personal memories and reflections of her own family’s life.
On opposite walls were the ceramic installations of Natasha Hosny and Roseanna Caldwell, starkly contrasting to one another. Hosny’s grouping of minimal architectural wall-mounted sculptures, Urban Project, was a display of white porcelain paperclay on white painted walls. These works had an ambiguous and intriguing surface – a combination of soft, hard, rough, smooth, fragile and translucent qualities, melded together within fused sheets of thin clay. The eleven individual forms created a series of tracks across the space, representing the urban environment – laneways, buildings, structures and spaces.
On the other side of the room, Caldwell’s work was a brightly coloured display of stylised natural forms, a garden of yellow wall blooms and rich green grass stalks balanced precariously on the floor below. One red flower form sat alone. Nature Recovered looked at a reconfigured artificial world as a celebration of the natural environment, citing the psychological benefits we gain from being surrounded by nature and the vibrancy of colour as part of her rationale. The works by both graduates were highly original, showing a depth of sophistication and understanding of material and spatial aesthetics. Light also played a dynamic role in casting shadows and creating atmosphere.
In Gallery 3, the smallest room in First Site, one work dominated the space. Porcelain Wall by Robyn Phelan was encapsulated by a majestic cobalt blue-painted wall niche at the end of the small narrow gallery. This epic work, inspired by Phelan’s travel to Jingdezhen, China in 2008, consists of thirty-two porcelain objects depicting mountains, which have been traversed by explorers and torn open and depleted for their minerals and clay, and small strange camera-like objects. A representational work, it relates to the history of blue and white porcelain manufacture, trade and collection since the 17th century and is visually powerful, complex and intriguing. For Phelan it was a journey of discovery, and this work was the end of that journey and the start of a new one.
These four artists, with their four diverse bodies of work, have shared the bonds of friendship, material and sculptural aesthetics. In one quiet moment we poise within the space as the works reverberate within it. And then the spell is broken by the sound of a bell, sonorous and vibrant.