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Collec+ors 
29 JUL - 29 AUG 2010
SALA, Adelaide

Shortlisted for Designs of the Year 2011Design Museum London

All seven participants in Collec+ors – Julie Blyfield, Kirsten Coelho, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Khai Liew, Jessica Loughlin, Bruce Nuske and Prue Venables – have exhibited with a number of different international galleries at Collect, the annual decorative arts fair, held from 2004 to 2008 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and for the last two years at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea.

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Collec+ors 
29 JUL - 29 AUG 2010
SALA, Adelaide

Shortlisted for Designs of the Year 2011Design Museum London

All seven participants in Collec+ors – Julie Blyfield, Kirsten Coelho, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Khai Liew, Jessica Loughlin, Bruce Nuske and Prue Venables – have exhibited with a number of different international galleries at Collect, the annual decorative arts fair, held from 2004 to 2008 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and for the last two years at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. Managed by Adelaide’s JamFactory, Australian Contemporary – for whom Wendy Walker curated an exhibition of works by Blyfield, Liew, Nuske and Venables at Collect 2006 – was an initiative of the Australia Council, implemented to showcase the finest Australian contemporary craft and design. Friendships developed and have endured, resulting in the unique collaborative works with Khai Liew for Collec+ors in 2010.

© Wendy Walker, 2010 

 

An aestheticism for the twenty-first century

I look upon all my work as Art Work. A building is to me as a picture to a painter or a poem to a poet.

Edward William Godwin, 1873

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An aestheticism for the twenty-first century

I look upon all my work as Art Work. A building is to me as a picture to a painter or a poem to a poet.

Edward William Godwin, 1873

Although the seven collaborators in Collec+ors – Julie Blyfield, Kirsten Coelho, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Khai Liew, Jessica Loughlin, Bruce Nuske and Prue Venables – are accustomed to working practices that are solitary, collectively they demonstrably share an aesthetic vision, a common language that is underpinned by overlapping frames of reference, a rigorousness of process and meticulous attention to detail.

It was in the rich setting of the British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Christopher Dresser, E.W. Godwin, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, William Morris, et al) that Khai Liew and Bruce Nuske first began to discuss the possibility of collaborative works. ‘We wanted,’ Liew says, ‘to explore making work for the sheer pleasure and beauty of it.’

Liew’s impeccably resolved, sculptural designs are underpinned by an abiding ‘truth to materials’ philosophy and a raft of globally divergent references – resonant echoes of ancient Egypt and Greece, Ming dynasty China, de Stijl, Scandinavian modernism, Australian vernacular furniture and so on – in a melding of cultural influences that was a formative aspect of his Chinese-Malaysian upbringing. The pared-down, Rietveld-like geometry and austerity of the designs for Long Weekend (2001) became (literally) muted in the more expressive minimalism of the Tiersmen to Linenfold (2007) body of work, which emulated traditional linenfold panels, carved to resemble folded linen.

In an ongoing invigoration of his design vocabulary, the confident designs for Collec+ors simultaneously incorporate and reinvent representative elements from earlier works, whilst exploring the possibilities offered by collaboration – the angularity and linenfold strategies of the Kirsten chair; the strict geometry of the Jessica screen (strikingly aligned with glass panels); the chamfered surfaces and unprecedented organic, Art-Nouveau-like quality of the Julie cabinet on a stand; the flow and diminution of mass integral to the Gwyn serving table and the almost animated disposition of the Prue cupboard.

Liew and Nuske’s imposing American oak cabinet on a stand with painted ceramic tiles is a contemporary interpretation of a remarkable sideboard – designed by the Aesthetic Movement architect and designer Edward William Godwin1 – in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Emblematic of the Japanese influence (Japonisme) on British art, architecture and design in the period following the mid-nineteenth-century cessation of two hundred years of Japan’s isolationism, Godwin’s sideboard (c.1867) – ebonised, rigorously geometric – features silver-plated fittings and embossed and japanned inset panels. Godwin was no stranger to collaborative projects, since his circle included not only Oscar Wilde, but also fellow architect/designer William Sturges (who worked with Edward Poynter on Waltham Abbey) and most pertinently James McNeill Whistler with whom he collaborated on a number of projects. A case in point are the decorative panels (based on floral forms and his trademark butterfly motif) painted by Whistler for Godwin’s Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Butterfly Cabinet. According to the ‘art for art’s sake’2 (l’art pour l’art) doctrine of the Aesthetic Movement3 – which dissolved distinctions between art and life – the pursuit of beauty in art could exist as an end in itself.4

Overflowing with pressed flowers5, insects and ephemera, Nuske’s notebooks also contain the numerous drawings that are a critical component of his ceramic practice. From the outset, he has demonstrated a preference for the Japonisme strand of Anglo-Orientalism – an aspect of Aestheticism exquisitely encapsulated by Whistler in paintings, such as the atmospheric Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864), in which oriental elements include a Japanese fan.

The period since Collect 20066 has been marked by a growing experimentation with (and foregrounding of) form, allied to a subdued and increasingly neutral palette. A crumpled fragment of found paper, concertinaed into a fan-like shape, provided the impetus for the repeated, painted fan-like motifs that cascade across the sixteen tiles of the Liew/Nuske sideboard. An impression of the fragility of the original is conferred through the addition of his trademark sgraffito and intensively pricked detail – a reference to stitchery and textiles that is also an aspect of Julie Blyfield’s oeuvre.

Hovering above the other works in Collec+ors, Liew and Jessica Loughlin’s suspended glass and limewood, three-fold screen involved a collaboration that was explorative and experimental. Employing a technique that Loughlin has been developing since 2008, finely ground glass is applied to the surface of a sandblasted glass sheet and then dispersed using a fine jet of water, which is left to evaporate – causing additional marks to rise to the surface – before being placed in the kiln for firing. It is a process, in which aesthetic outcomes cannot be completely pre-determined and for Loughlin, therein lies the tension and the subsequent energy of the finished work. The resultant cloud-like7 panels of textured white glass on white are (asymmetrically) interspersed with judiciously positioned limewood panels of narrowly incised or reeded parallel lines. With some notable exceptions, such as the asymmetric handles and quirkily skewed base of the Portia chest of drawers (2007), Liew has rarely ventured into asymmetry – a notable feature however of Aesthetic Movement designs.

The Jessica screen is also one of several works in Collec+ors that explores in a restrained and refined way the textural potential of surface. The powdery finish of the glass, which is suggestive of the rice paper more traditionally used in Japanese screening systems, also conjures the rice-powdery whiteness of Liew’s preferred lime-washed finish (originally conceived to emulate the rice-powdered face of his father in Chinese opera costume).

Loughlin, who admires the paintings of Agnes Martin, works within a very restricted range of subdued, mostly neutral colour, eschewing the dazzling range of hues and more blatant reflectivity – readily achievable (and therefore more predictable) in her medium. With the shifting light that occurs in the transition from morning to evening, the misty surfaces of the Jessica screen continually alter in ways that are infinitely subtle and dreamlike.

Of paramount importance to Liew is the attainment of a state of equilibrium between constituent elements – a primary consideration in works of a collaborative nature. Thus, in devising an elevated and flat surface, to complement a grouping of Gwyn Hanssen Pigott’s translucent porcelain works, Liew says he wanted ‘to push the structure as much as possible to create a very fine and pure line.’ Particularly appropriate inspiration (given Hanssen Pigott’s historical points of reference) came from an old Chinese ink drawing of workers in a pottery carrying vessels on a ware-board fitted with handles. The rhythmical, ‘calligraphic’ serving table – with its ingenious solution to the dissolution of mass – supplies in every sense a support for Hanssen Pigott’s fluent sequence of forms, which assumes a serene and poised, yet also commanding presence. For Alison Britton, the trails of objects – and the spaces or pauses between them – appear to resemble the ‘thoughtful sequence of words in a sentence’.8

The leather binding of the table’s handles evokes the bound, cane/bamboo handles of Chinese and Japanese teapots (a detail adopted by a number of mid-twentieth-century Scandinavian designers and a feature too of Hanssen Pigott’s early teapots). Each translucent porcelain bowl is positioned on a roundel of delicately punched, circular motifs that provides a clearly, but subtly delineated ‘platform’ for the six bowls and single beaker. Every aspect is highly considered. Having pushed her vessels towards forms that are elliptical, Hanssen Pigott employs slightly stronger hues on the interior of the bowls – incremental variations of yellow and green, lavender, cream, grey and so on that are breathtaking in their subtlety. Defined according to Hanssen Pigott’s specifications, the height of the table facilitates viewing at eye level, so that it is possible (on account of the fineness of the edges, where two different glazes meet) to see the bowls as floating ovals of delicately calibrated colour.

Reminiscent of a Japanese roofline – and (as Liew has indicated) the entrance to Vodin House (1902), designed by Arts and Crafts architect C.F.A. Voysey – in a characteristic strategy, the sinuous linear base of the Gwyn serving table precisely mimics the curving top of the Liew/Venables rock maple cupboard. Undeniably there are echoes of an Arts and Crafts vocabulary, but also – to revisit Liew’s enduring Australian influences – of early Barossan cupboards. Venables’ four hand-thrown and pierced sieves – carefully perforated in a curvilinear interlocking pattern – have been seamlessly integrated with the facade of the lime-washed cupboard.

That the tilted Prue cupboard – the most playful of the collaborative pieces – should resemble an extremely refined food safe is most apposite, since Venables’ porcelain objects have long synthesised utility and beauty, in elegant sculptural representations of laboratory funnels, sieves, spoons or ladles that reference the consummate simplicity of Shaker objects and eighteenth and nineteenth-century English industrial pottery, as well as more contemporary metal and plastic vessels. Integrating lush glaze finishes with a deft orchestration of colour and nuances of form, the apparent minimalism of these objects, typically masks an intricacy and riskiness of making. Like Gwyn Hanssen Pigott and Kirsten Coelho, Venables’ quest for simplicity and quietness in her work places her within a venerable ‘lineage of quietude.’9

Envisaged as an abstraction of a swan, the Liew/Coelho collaboration is conceptually a variation of the Jeannie bench (2000), which was conceived to emulate a line of birds in flight. There are also certain parallels with the chairs of influential American Arts and Crafts architect/designer Gustav Stickley, as well as an antecedent in Liew’s 2007 Harvey chair (which took Hans Wegner’s Bear chair as a point of reference). A generous, capacious chair, in this incarnation, the lines have been broken up – thereby engendering a play of shadows in a link to the folding strategies of the Tiersmen to Linenfold body of work. The generous side rests that support Coelho’s matt white and iron-oxide drizzled porcelain objects – a high-shouldered bottle, cup and two straight-sided bowls – allow sufficient space for the occupant to enjoy a cup of tea (or perhaps a bowl of noodles).

Often described as a neo-classicist for her elegant forms – inspired by Song and Tang dynasty wares – and assured manipulation of lustrous Chinese glazes, Coelho’s objects nevertheless possess a contemporary sensibility. More recently, her work has been influenced by early Australian nineteenth-century enamel wares and ceramics – made for domestic use – and the abstracted surface possibilities suggested by the inexorable disintegration and corrosion of these objects.

Thus, whilst there are rich resonances with Liew’s previous furniture designs, there are also (as one might expect in a collaborative project) some surprises, such as the organic nature of jeweller-metalsmith Julie Blyfield’s silver handle, which offers a strong counterpoint to the sleek, rectilinear solidity of the silver handle on Liew’s Jian cabinet (2000). On a visit to Adelaide’s Botanic Garden, Liew and Blyfield collected fallen leaves, which she has realised in sterling silver (incorporating small ‘nibbles’ of imperfection) using her preferred, yet laborious chasing technique to achieve the distinctive, heavily textured striations integral to the leaf structure (a preoccupation with intricately worked surfaces that she shares with Nuske). Like the Drought vessel (2009) or Burnt brooches (2008-’09), Blyfield’s work – predominantly based on representations of forms found in nature – frequently articulates ecological concerns.

The organic theme is compellingly reiterated in the branch-like form of the legs of the Julie cabinet that are subtly chamfered to confer a softened appearance. Thus, in the Liew/Blyfield blackbean cabinet on a stand, Liew’s predilection for de Stijl-like angularity has become muted, as surfaces are smoothed and tapered and even the outer edge of the cabinet is discreetly altered (rendered non rectilinear). Furthermore – through the careful selection and application of veneered panels – Liew has manipulated the distinctive grain of the timber, so that it no longer vies with Blyfield’s decorative, yet functional silver handle. Utilising demanding and labour-intensive traditional metalsmithing techniques, Blyfield, who permits the process to determine the finish of her edges, therefore brings to the collaboration a frisson of unpredictability.

For Liew it was an important consideration – consistent with the new expressiveness, which distinguished the 2007 exhibition Tiersmen to Linenfold – that each of the works in Collec+ors should convey something of the persona of the collaborator. Accordingly, although each piece is unique, cumulatively the six collaborative10 works constitute a beautiful and harmonious composition11 – a life-enhancing synergy that is the poetic outcome of a shared rhetoric and mutual regard. As Khai Liew states; ‘Each of us has a level of care and refinement in our work; in the end we all see things the same way.’

© Wendy Walker, July 2010


Endnotes

1. A prolific architectural commentator, Edward William Godwin (1833-1886) also designed textiles, wallpapers, ceramics, theatrical costumes and sets (he lived with the actress Ellen Terry). In 1884, London’s Liberty’s department store opened a new costume department under the directorship of Godwin.

2. The expression ‘l’art pour l’art’ (referred to by Walter Benjamin as the theology of art) has been attributed (although there are other claimants) to Théophile Gautier (1811–1872). In contemporary art, the beauty debate is ongoing. See Jennifer McMahon Aesthetics and Material Beauty; Aesthetics Naturalised, London and New York, Routledge, 2007. See also: Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton Uni Press, 1999.

3. Defined by a spare and refined vocabulary, Aestheticism (1870s-1880s) in the fine and applied arts was concerned with the cultivation of beauty. It disassociated itself from the medievalism of the Arts and Crafts movement and its social agenda (but not from an emphasis upon the importance of art in all areas of life).

4. According to art critic/philosopher Arthur C. Danto, ‘the need for beauty in the extreme moments of life is deeply ingrained in the human framework.’ See A. C. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty, Peru, Illinois: Open Court, 2003, pp. 14-15. (Danto was referring to the events of September 11, 2001 and the shrines that New Yorkers constructed amongst the debris). Cited in Ian North, ‘Notes towards a natural way to do art history’ in Visual Animals, I. North (ed), Adelaide: The Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, 2007, pp. 35-49.

5. Organic elements have typically mimicked gnarled wood, bamboo, or in the modelled decoration of his pale 2004 stoneware teapot, the thorny stems of roses.

6. Curated by Wendy Walker, Bruce Nuske was part of Australian Contemporary’s exhibition Bare & Beyond at Collect 2006, which is an annual international decorative arts fair, held until 2008 at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

7. Interestingly, in a serendipitous link with Godwin, a cloud-shaped detail – cut from the upper rail – was a distinctive feature of a c.1880 Anglo-Japanese, spindle-back chair design.

8. See Alison Britton in Gwyn Hanssen Pigott: A survey 1955-2005, Melbourne, Vic: National Gallery of Victoria, 2004, p. 67.

9. Damon Moon uses this expression in: ‘Kirsten Coelho: Studio Potter’, The Journal of Australian Ceramics, Vol. 41, No. 2, 2006, p. 15.

10. See The Third Hand: collaboration in art from conceptualism to postmodernism, Minneapolis, USA: Uni of Minnesota Press, 2001, for an in-depth analysis of long-term artist-collaborations (of duos and collectives), in which Green posits the emergence of a ‘third hand’ (in effect a third artist) through the collaborative process.

11. It should be noted however, that several of the participants in Collec+ors have consistently made works that incorporate a range of narratives; such as Liew’s Remi cabinet (a memorial to nineteenth-century Chinese immigrant cabinetmakers); Blyfield’s references to familial and ecological narratives; Nuske’s allusions to the fragility of the environment and so on.

 

Bruce 2010arrow

Bruce 2010
Khai Liew + Bruce Nuske
American white oak, oxidation fired
porcellaneous stoneware, slip, stain,
sgraffito decoration
1300x2120x500
Unique
Art Gallery of South Australia  

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Bruce 2010
American white oak
1300x2120x500
Art Gallery of South Australia 

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Prue 2010arrow

Prue 2010
Khai Liew + Prue Venables
Canadian rock maple, reduction
fired hand-thrown + pierced porcelain
1755x1220x550
Unique + 1AP
Art Gallery of South Australia 

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Prue 2010
Canadian rock maple
1755x1220x550
Art Gallery of South Australia 

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Jessica 2010arrow

Jessica 2010
Khai Liew + Jessica Loughlin
European limewood,
fused + sandblasted glass
1200x2400x35
Unique
Art Gallery of South Australia  

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Jessica 2010
European limewood
1200x2400x35
Art Gallery of South Australia 

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Julie 2010arrow

Julie 2010
Khai Liew + Julie Blyfield
Queensland blackbean,
sterling silver
1560x750x420
Unique
Art Gallery of South Australia  

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Julie 2010
Queensland blackbean
1560x750x420
Art Gallery of South Australia 

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Gwyn 2010arrow

Gwyn 2010
Khai Liew + Gwyn Hanssen Pigott
Queensland blackbean, kangaroo hide,
waxed linen, reduction fired
translucent porcelain
1060x1520x470
Unique
Art Gallery of South Australia  

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Gwyn 2010
Queensland blackbean
1060x1520x470
Art Gallery of South Australia 

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Kirsten 2010arrow

Kirsten 2010
Khai Liew + Kirsten Coelho
American white oak, linen,
reduction fired porcelain,
matt white glaze,
banded iron-oxide
720x1280x635
Unique
Art Gallery of South Australia  

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Kirsten 2010
American white oak
720x1280x635
Art Gallery of South Australia 

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JamFactory, Adelaide 2010
Poplar, white birch multiply, Canadian rock maple,
hand-cast float glass, powder coated mild steel, porcelain
190sqm

In early 2010 Khai Liew embarked upon the refit of the JamFactory retail space. The JamFactory was born as a 1968 election promise by the Labor premier Don Dunstan to establish ‘craft workshops’ in Adelaide. His political opponents derided the idea as support for ‘cottage weavers’, ignorant of the fact that Dunstan’s program had its roots in the late nineteenth-century writings of John Ruskin and the decorative art practices of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

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JamFactory, Adelaide 2010
Poplar, white birch multiply, Canadian rock maple, hand-cast float glass, powder coated mild steel, porcelain
190sqm

In early 2010 Khai Liew embarked upon the refit of the JamFactory retail space. The JamFactory was born as a 1968 election promise by the Labor premier Don Dunstan to establish ‘craft workshops’ in Adelaide. His political opponents derided the idea as support for ‘cottage weavers’, ignorant of the fact that Dunstan’s program had its roots in the late nineteenth-century writings of John Ruskin and the decorative art practices of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. Dunstan was defeated in that election but shortly after regaining government in 1970 he pursued the policy and his first move was to send Dick Richards to Europe to study and report on successful design and craft enterprises. Richard’s report was used by Dunstan’s policy secretariat as the foundation document for the establishment of the JamFactory’s studio system, currently working in ceramics, furniture, metal work and glass. Originally located in former jam factory buildings in inner city St Peters, in 1991 it relocated to purpose-built premises on Morphett Street, Adelaide.

For his refit of the Morphett Street retail space Liew went back to Paris in memory, and to the Palais Royal gardens and their avenues of layered angular pollarded trees. With their form in mind he developed a lineal series of display units suspended on steel trunks consisting of 36 branches of display shelving with concealed lighting and decorative hand-cast float glass ends by glass artist Jessica Loughlin. Across from these ‘trees’ the shop’s counter and pendant light are variants of the pollarded branch form, while complimentary upright glass display units, storage cabinets, magazine and fabric racks, jewellery display cases, wall display units and a display plinth complete the suite. The primary materials used are rock maple, poplar or birch ply, 3.5 millimetre porcelain ‘skins,’ and float or toughened glass. Standing on an existing parquetry floor custom stained charcoal, the whole composition provides a visually engaging retail display space with a strong, lively, open and accessible formal character.

© Peter Ward, April 2010

 

Vice-Chancellor 2010 arrow

Vice-Chancellor 2010
Blackwood
1627x847x700
The University of Adelaide

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Vice-Chancellor 2010
Blackwood
1627x847x700
The University of Adelaide