Thoughts on Post Skangaroovian

Sophia Phillips shares her thoughts about Post Skangaroovian

by Sophia Phillips

Earlier this year I received a Helpmann Academy Grant to assist with the exhibition Post Skangaroovian as a ‘mentored writer’. My role turned out to be more varied and I was lucky to also be involved with the set up of the exhibition. I got to touch, and assist in the arrangement of, every single work – quite a privilege for this person who sneaks a touch when the gallery attendants aren’t looking!

Damon Moon wrote the official exhibition catalogue essay identifying some of the ingredients that came together to form Skangaroovian Funk. Writing this essay was a part of my role as mentored writer in the project, and now, once everything is back in bubble wrap, I thought this might be a way to share my less experienced but no less eager thoughts on the exhibition for those who could not attend, and give a little reminder to those who were lucky enough to see this diverse, thoughtful and quite delightful display of non-functional ceramics.

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Skangaroovian Funk was something happening in South Australian ceramics (mostly during the sixties and seventies) that sat outside a predominantly Orientalist aesthetic and philosophy. Some of these distinctly different artworks were collected and exhibited in the exhibition Skangaroovian Funk, curated by Judith Thompson in 1986. Simply put, this current exhibition seeks to identify the legacy, if any, of this movement. It is important to note that the Post Skangaroovian label does not necessarily refer to the artists’ conscious alignment with the original movement. Instead, this exhibition identifies a group of artists whose work sits outside the dominant aesthetic and conceptual reliance on the abstract and functional vessel as a major theme. Skangaroovian Funk has been an influence on everyone exhibiting here – either directly or indirectly – through their education, their mentors, or by simply having been in Adelaide during that period of time.

In this exhibition people have openly taken risks in their aesthetic, as well as the content and subject of their artwork. However, it is also striking how understated a lot of the work is, when compared to the smack-you-in-the-face openness of some original Skangaroovian Funk work – not to say that this work is vapid, rather that potentially risky subject matter is taken on quietly, subtly. I think that this is a reflection of current society. As a general rule, we are vastly overstimulated people, and subtlety is a way to knock the impatience out of someone, forcing them to think; they either do that or they keep walking and gawp at their smart phones. That push for an extra moment’s thought gives an artist a route into their viewer’s mind, revealing the deeper truths and motivations through restrained discord, incongruity and absurdity – all those things that emerge when you look a little deeper.

I have split the work of the thirteen artists into three basic categories: Australian Culture and Landscape, Everyday, and Figure. As a writer it helped me encapsulate major themes identified as ‘Skangaroovian’ – popular culture, politics and the notion of kitsch.

Australian Culture and Landscape

This theme has manifested itself in different ways and, as is often the case with any attempt at categorisation, there are instances where an artist’s work overlaps into the other themes. The artists included here have explored different facets of Australian identity and landscape including how the Colonial beginnings of our culture as a predominantly Anglo-Saxon population have resulted in certain themes, images and conduct becoming intrinsic to our attitudes as a society.

Gus Clutterbuck and Gerry Wedd deal with these issues more overtly but in very different ways. Clutterbuck’s two works Broken Landscape and Plastic Geology were developed as a result of his experiences working in the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) lands in remote South Australia. The refuse Clutterbuck encountered at the edges of communities is used as a symbol of the dysfunction and disconnection between mainstream Australia and remote indigenous communities. Clutterbuck casts and manipulates what was discarded into deflated flattened, disappearing landscapes – as if they were once full, ripe and abundant, and are now empty, squashed and trodden on.

In contrast to the restrained subtlety of Clutterbuck’s work, Gerry Wedd’s figures are unashamedly kitsch and grittily humorous. The domestic scale of the figurines draws the viewer into these scenes, where they are partly excluded and partly dominant over their diminutive scale. Pusher, Junkie and Gay Dogs combine humour and dissonance and a sense of decay that lingers in the scene. Colours are greyed, dirtied and almost repulsive; they speak about a shabby, weird reality, and the outskirts of society. The empty hands not holding a syringe and the child’s pusher disturb the comfort of labels. And Gay Dogs? Perhaps a Native American name in the making? Wedd’s other works all seem to be about the ‘other’ side – of society, of Australian culture; half obscured, not quite right, uncomfortable, but fascinating none-the-less.

Bronwyn Kemp’s Between a Rock and a Hard Place makes direct reference to this figurative saying in its literal form, whilst also delving into themes of abstraction and landscape. Kemp’s original intention was to create an installation in the gallery in South Australia using local deposits of clay, but due to excessive rain it was impossible to dig. So, stuck (as she was) between a rock and a hard place, Kemp hand-built these forms during her recent residency at Mount Barker TAFE using coloured clays local to the area. Lined up, touching, and connecting, these fecund seed-like forms, and the title’s cue, initiate a conscious observation of spaces in between and the abstract and real experiences they describe.

Peter Johnson’s approach to his subject matter, the gentrification of once industrial areas, is lyrical and gentle, much like the gradual washing of the beach that the title, Tide Lines, implies. Cycles of deconstruction and reconstruction are viewed by Johnson as part of the ongoing legacy of colonialism, an urge to remove the old and replace it with the new, ignoring the potential accumulation of memory, identity and sense of place. Scrawled over rhythmic finger marks, spidery imagery of nets, cranes and workers morph into three dimensions as two ramshackle entries emerge at the crest of this almost Grecian pot. Combined with a watery, runny glaze they evoke the movement of the sea, the grinding buzz of industrial ports and the cyclic erasure of history.

In terms of an investigation of Australian identity, Margaret Dodd’s oeuvre is positively iconic. Dodd was a major impetus in the development of Skangaroovian Funk in Adelaide after her return from the United States. The work displayed here is a delightful reflection on her role as artist, but also on the Holden as a part of Australian identity. In contrast to her handbuilt automobiles of the past, these objects have been mostly overseen in the making (rather than entirely made by Dodd) in ‘ceramicity’, Jingdezhen in China. This is an interesting reflection on our developing attitudes to authorship. As a direct example of this practice, Dodd’s work acts as a kind of commentary upon the outsourcing and appropriation of culture, knowledge, and originality.

Everyday

Everyday is an important theme in that it focuses on small things that have the potential to be big philosophical, social or political issues when studied from an honest, subjective point of view. The work I have put under this theme deals with the everyday, in terms of the ceramic ritual object and through everyday occurrences, assumptions, adages and objects.

Phil Hart’s work, 8am Gladys Street, explores the undercurrents of suburbia and domesticity: the undecided safety of living in a box on the hillside, the 9 to 5 grind, and the ridiculous but mandatory participation in rush hour. Hart works on an intimate scale, drawing you in to discover the strange workings of something that appears one way, but is also another. An initial impression of sameness is mischievously disrupted with skull-faces instead of doors and windows, little sayings inlaid on the sides (‘head, heart, hand’, ‘beer’), two matches crossed with ‘burn it down’, and amusing numberplates on the FJ Holdens. The thin layer of outside appearance peels back to reveal something funny, incongruent, poignant and honest; that layer we peel off when we are home alone and put back on like clothing as we re-enter the outside world.

Honor Freeman’s work Leaky Bucket is a thoughtful transformation of an object of the everyday, one that speaks about the most basic, tedious work of the vessel, and how this relates to lived experience. Her literal manifestation of a figurative concept or saying is quiet, strangely elegant, and humorous. Freeman carefully places cues that don’t quite fit – they are just strange enough to require a second look. The bucket is intact and the ‘water’ inside has been poured, rather than leaked, out; the useless plugs plopped in the puddles are comical, as though dropping stoppers into leaked fluid might somehow reverse what has already happened.

Jo Crawford plays with the vacuous vernacular of everyday, locating it within her own life and the things she likes. A splash of green amongst whites, blues and muted tones, Like refreshes the entire exhibition. This is an accessible, conscious, material mark in a space that is predominantly focused on the metaphorical in a world that is increasingly dominated by the virtual. And the significance of the cacti? Simple. Crawford likes them. She’s been fascinated by them since childhood. They are symbolic of an ‘other-ishness’ – an exotic, juicy, succulent form that begs touch or warns of a prickly bite. And the title Like? With the capacity to be versatile, ‘like’ is a word that has become an indicator of sameness, agreement, vagueness, approval and inarticulacy, which is a little bit tentative. But also … kind of, not.

 

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Going along with Crawford’s good humour is the work by the youngest member of this exhibition, Nicole Greenslade, an emerging artist whose own aesthetic is already well developed. The honest and autobiographical nature of these vessels is appealing, a glimpse into Greenslade’s quirky, share-house life full of ingrown hairs, pubes and hair stuck in the drain. There is an eagerness, a freshness, to her flippant lingo. Graphic-inspired text gives her thoughts form as they dance around ritual objects of the everyday and zippers are used as a decorative motif, an introduction to what’s inside, underneath. Greenslade’s focus on hair, down there, everywhere, is funny for its quirkiness, but beneath the humour lays honesty about the shared experiences of womanhood and myths of femininity.

On a very different aesthetic note to that of jokey Greenslade, Maria Parmenter’s work is an abstracted interpretation of everyday life, domesticity, memory and significance. Certain lines and connections are taken up; objects and their initial function are lost, in preference for their role as signifiers of meaning and memory. The Dependants Series could have been made to sit alongside Get Me Out of Here. They interact satisfyingly through a common thread of the everyday experience, domesticity and memory. The adaptation of the ladder form is a playful but poignant reference to escaping the inescapable – the constant readjusting of priorities, the juggle of being a mother, an artist, a worker, a wife – the continual realisation that you cannot be everywhere and do everything.

Figure

Often ceramic artists who work with the figure are relocated into the realm of sculpture, which is fine, but this shift also forgets that although it is connected with function-based tradition, clay has also played an important role as an intermediary as well as core material in the production of sculpture in the history of the ‘fine arts’.

Bruce Nuske’s work Never Believe Anything You Hear And Only Half You See, based on the form of a teapot, is an elegant but absurd form that is both seductive and nonsensical, much like the hearsay it portrays. The title, a saying that Nuske’s mother consoled (and confused) him with as a child, explains a little, but it is the form that elaborates. Bizarre combinations of animal, body and pot come together like a three-dimensional exquisite corpse – nothing is as it seems. A rubber duckie whispers into an elaborate ear; the two-faced stopper describes the opposing forces of rumour – one suspicious and withholding, and the other drunk and delighted with a delicious scandal. This piece is wonderfully playful, showcasing Nuske’s attention to detail and his ability to delight and happily confound.

Klaus Gutowski was taught by, and now works alongside, Bruce Nuske and it is not difficult to identify similarities in their work ethic and shared focus on texture, refinement and thoughtful excess. This bust, Peak Oil, is quite a piece to stand in front of, with its sense of smug eroticism, pouting lips and a black blindfold. The figure’s gaze – her conscious self-determination – has been obscured in preference of desire. The experience of looking at this work is contradictory; while Gutowski is clearly making a comment on society’s reliance on fossil fuels, the unpalatable message is embodied in an incredibly seductive object. And that’s what makes it so eloquent – it is an example of the constant readjustment, and self-delusion, of short-sighted lived experience versus inconvenient truth.

Freya Povey’s work combines an older piece that could be viewed as a part of Skangaroovian Funk’s legacy, with more recent work. Mousse has an intimidating but seductive gaze, not as playful as Too Much Cirque, where the sly figure, rising from a sculpted museum-like stand, is shedding many skins There is a real sense of architecture to Mousse: the arc of the sculpted mohawk continues to the facial profile and the slightly hunched shoulders. A sense of vulnerability in the posture sits in contrast to the strongly defined facial features, punctured, adorned ears and the strips of textured plastic that line the figure. There is a sense of the body as a site of adornment that transforms the figure into an armoured monument of a time and attitude now passed.

CONCLUSION

Compared to some of the intentionally crude, openly ugly and proudly not well made work of Skangaroovian Funk, and the Funk movement it was aligned to, this exhibition could seem a little tame. Look deeper. It makes me wonder if the desire to make things that are beautiful or pleasing to visual sensibility in some way, is the curse of the skill it requires to manipulate clay to one’s desire. All those who use it know – clay can be an incredibly challenging, wilful and sometimes just plain vindictive material. Unfortunately, set interpretations of skill and aesthetic have the ability to be excellent vehicles for discrimination and hierarchy, and these are perhaps what instigated the move away from mainstream ceramics by the Skangaroovians. It seems though, that the legacy of Skangaroovian Funk is less about a particular aesthetic or the exhibition of skill (or lack of it) and more about the way subject and content are explored through one medium with a deft sidestepping of the ceramic vessel as a dominant theme. If I were just beginning ceramics, I think this would be the exhibition that would loosen me up, free me, give me a sense of diversity and inspire me.

Yeah, it’s made of clay. That’s not all folks.

Sophia Phillips, 2012
http://sophiaphillips.carbonmade.com

{jb_yellowbox}Post Skangaroovian was held from 4 September to 12 October at the SASA Gallery at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, as part of the Australian Ceramics Triennale, Subversive Clay.{/jb_yellowbox}

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Author: Australian Ceramics

In 1956, The Potters Society of Australia was formed to encourage and foster the development, appreciation and recognition of potters and pottery. It was the first ceramics organisation in Australia. In 2006, our name was changed to The Australian Ceramics Association to more fully reflect the scope of practice of the members. We are a national, not-for-profit organisation representing the interests of practising potters and ceramicists, students of ceramics and all those interested in Australian ceramics. We actively support and promote quality, specialist ceramics education nationally. T: 1300 720 124

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