Material Culture
Aspects of contemporary Australian craft and design

Introduction | Foreword | Structure | Narrative | Transfomation | Artist biographies | Biography


Narrative Gallery

The expression of narrative and a connection to history are part of many contemporary craft objects. Acknowledging the stylistic, technical or social histories of objects has given a number of artists a way to move through time and link the personal narratives of their work to the historical connotations and interpretations of their practice. The history of place, and the culture we have constructed within and upon it, resonates through the works illustrated in this section. The powerful physicality of Australia's natural environment pervades the narratives of light and space, growth and destruction, investigation and categorisation, and behaviour and social constructions. Through these objects, the traditions of craft and design are deconstructed and reinterpreted to refract a sense of the past into the infinitely more complex and troubled world of the present.

Uniting these works is a sense of identity resulting from the piecing together of elements and the assembly and accretion of materials and visual clues. Using traditional materials and processes and making reference to the historical language of design, the works are either built up, or pared away in layers, giving a sense of the passage of time and the inevitability of change. Through their visual and textural narrative, they provide clues by which to navigate the cultural landscape we have created and inherited, and which, in turn, will become located in a time characterised by uncertainty and renegotiation.


Janet DeBoos Large vase 2001 glazed porcelain, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Janet DeBoos
born Melbourne, Victoria 1948

Janet DeBoos is strongly associated with the exploration and use of Australian materials for clays and glazes, and has written a standard text on this subject. 1 Her work is domestic in scale and intention, its form and use of materials builds upon Australian traditions of functional ceramics. In this work, DeBoos explores the use of functional forms to investigate the nature of the shared domestic object. Through its deliberately 'anonymous' materials and its variations on repetitive forms, the work becomes an object of contemplation, carrying with it a sense of community and shared values.

1 Janet DeBoos, Handbook for Australian Potters, Melbourne: Methuen LBC, 1999



Anne Dybka The shoal 2001 cased glass: engraved, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Anne Dybka
born Portsmouth, Great Britain 1921, arrived Australia 1956

Anne Dybka's designs of Australian flora and fauna draw upon the technical and stylistic traditions of early modernist English and Scandinavian glass engraving.This work demonstrates Dybka's consummate skill and is engraved in a 'cameo' technique on opaque glass, blown in two layers, white over blue, by Australian glass artist, Brian Hirst. Its shape, colour and decoration evoke the swirling surf and drama of the seashore and makes stylistic references to the vivid interpretations and depictions of the natural world seen in cameo glass of the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th century



Tony Hanning Mr and Mrs Anon 2000, sandblasted and engraved glass, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Tony Hanning
born Traralgon, Victoria 1950

Tony Hanning was among the first contemporary Australian glass artists to work extensively with the techniques of cameo glass, a process where layers of glass are blown together and carved and engraved to reveal various colours beneath. This ancient technique was revived in the late 19th century by English and French glass designers, such as Thomas Webb and Emile Gallé, to express the styles of historical revival and Art Nouveau. In his early works, Hanning made reference to the work of these designers in his use of imagery of Australian flora. Later, in more complex works, he drew upon allegorical themes, employing surreal imagery of cityscapes and landscape as a background to visual puns and riddles. Mr and Mrs Anon shows a strong development of these ideas, drawing connections between the propaganda imagery of the Cold War period, advertising and comic book illustration of the mid-20th century.



Brian Hirst Flat form - Teal 2001, blown glass with gold, silver and copper foil, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Brian Hirst
born Yallourn, Victoria 1956

Brian Hirst’s vessels are often made with reference to the degraded iridescent surfaces that characterise classical Roman glass. This work is a develop-ment of this theme and reflects a parallel interest in the subtleties of Japanese makie lacquer, through the fleeting appearance of flecked gold leaf in the vase’s inner surface, a form of decoration also seen in contemporary Japanese glass.1 Hirst’s articulation of gold and silver lustre surfaces and his use of the blue-green colour teal, in almost opaque glass, also alludes to the historical use of glass in jewellery, where its brilliance and fluidity were used to suggest the arcane and the exotic. Through his mastery of some of these more demanding techniques of glass, Hirst evokes its historical richness to underscore a contemporary language of form and colour.

1 Makie (sprinkled picture) is a Japanese lacquer decorating technique in which gold or other metallic powders are dusted onto the surface of wet lacquer.



Kay Lawrence Translation 1999-2000 woven tapestry: wool, cotton and linen, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Kay Lawrence
born Canberra, ACT 1947

Through her work on the subject of change in the landscape, Kay Lawrence is a key figure in the development of contemporary tapestry in Australia. Her tapestries on the subject of bushfires informed her design work for collaborative projects such as the monumental long horizontal embroidery for Parliament House in Canberra. Working in a similar format for this tapestry, she has used local plant dyes from Lake Mungo in south-western New South Wales, weaving a grid sequence that reflects the archaeological construct of this historic Australian cultural site. Woven along the tapestry's length are the Indigenous Paakantyi names for the dye plants, followed by English translations, suggesting the colonial mapping and appropriation of the land.1

1 See Jennifer Lamb, Lake Mungo Revisited, exhibition catalogue, Goulburn: Goulburn Regional Art Gallery and the University of Wollongong, 2000, p.12.



Jessica Loughlin Interval between two horizons 1999, kiln-formed, wheel-cut, enamelled and engraved glass, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Jessica Loughlin
born Melbourne, Victoria 1975

Jessica Loughlin’s work explores the subject of the horizon and the flat landscapes of South Australia. In Interval between two horizons, she uses the form of the shallow, boat-shaped vessel, divided to delineate between actual and interpreted space. Dense handwritten text is engraved into a panel, simulating the way that colonial diarists recorded their experiences of the landscape. This faint narrative counterbalances the material physicality of the glass itself, its bleached colour evoking the shimmer of mirages and the fading of memory.



Helmut Lueckenhausen Wunderkabinet pair (Wunderkabinets 2 & 3) 1999, silky oak, silky oak veneer, silver ash, silver ash veneer, glass and sterling silver keys, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Helmut Lueckenhausen
born Cologne, Germany 1950, arrived Australia 1954

The idea of the 'cabinet of curiosity' has a place in all of our histories, from collections of personal memorabilia to the taxonomic systems of our museums.1 Helmut Lueckenhausen's Wunderkabinets derive from the European Wunderkammer and Kunstkabinet of the 16th and 17th centuries, in which the wonders of the natural world, such as animals, insects, birds, fish, minerals, plants and precious stones, along with crafted artefacts, were assembled together to instruct and delight. Such repositories were often objects of extraordinary craftsmanship and ingenuity, visible manifestations of the enlightened mind and the desire to find and impose order in an expanding view of the world. In this pair of cabinets, Lueckenhausen allows both enclosure and disclosure through similar structures that coexist as display cases and anonymous storage units. Each work is a gallery of refined materials and craftsmanship and, in their emptiness and potential, a theatre for the imagination.2

1 See Helmut Lueckenhausen, 'Wonder and despite: craft and design in museum history' in Sue Rowley (ed.), Craft and Contemporary Theory, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1997, p.35.
2 See Jason Smith, 'Wunderkabinets' in Object, no.46, Sydney: Object-Australian Centre for Craft and Design, for an assessment of Lueckenhausen's Wunderkabinet series



Jeff Mincham Highland journey 2000, glazed earthenware, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Jeff Mincham
born Milang, South Australia 1950

Throughout his career as a ceramicist, Jeff Mincham has pursued the subject of the South Australian landscape through the firing and glazing of his characteristic large, sculptural vessel forms in the raku technique, a process through which the ceramic surface is defined by the marks of combustible, natural materials. Highland journey shows Mincham’s vigorous handling of patinated alkaline glazes to evoke the scarred and scorched earth resulting from bushfires near his home in the Adelaide Hills. The charred surface of its undulating form is overlaid with verdant colour, an abstraction of the renewal of the bush after burning.



Milton Moon Yandicoogina 1998, glazed stoneware, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Milton Moon
born Melbourne, Victoria 1926

Milton Moon purchased his first Japanese pots while travelling to Japan on military duty at the end of the Second World War. In 1950 he began making pottery in Brisbane. Subsequent trips to Japan intensified his interest in all aspects of its ceramic traditions and practices and their relationship to the philosophies of Zen Buddhism. Through this understanding of Japanese painting and ceramic techniques, Moon has developed a language of form, texture and colour that has allowed him to build strong references to the Australian landscape and flora in his work.1 This platter is the result of time spent in the Pilbara and Kimberley areas of northern Western Australia, where Moon experienced the way the harsh physicality of the region is humanised and made intimate through the ancient rock engravings of its Indigenous inhabitants. In this work, Moon alludes to this sense of spiritual permanency by interpreting the night sky, with its endlessly repeating patterns, as a metaphor for the cyclical nature of life on earth.

1 See Christopher Menz, Milton Moon Retrospective, Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 1991, for a complete account of Moon’s ceramic work.



Nick Mount Scent bottle 2001, glass: blown double-overlay, fabricated, ground and polished, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Nick Mount
born Adelaide, South Australia 1952

Nick Mount was among the group of glass artists who developed the craft in Australia during the late 1970s.1 This work, a blown glass form with references to the tradition, design and function of the scent bottle, shows his strong sense of design and colour and his development of the Venetian glass traditions that engaged his interest early in his career. The continuity of these traditions also alludes to the power of scent to trigger memory. His enjoyment of his technical virtuosity is evident in the audaciously balanced form of this object. Its dramatic and witty presence suggests the over-scaled flasks of coloured liquids used in traditional pharmacies and the merchandising displays in perfume shops and department stores, with their exaggerated emphasis on 'designer' brands and signatures.

1 See Noris Ioannou, Australian Studio Glass - The movement, its makers and their art, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1995, pp.3033



Kevin Perkins Cape Barren Goose cabinet 1995, Huon pine, crossfire and birdseye Huon pine veneers, satin sycamore, Ceylon ebony, purpleheart, bevelled glass and silver, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Kevin Perkins
born Launceston, Tasmania 1945

This cabinet is surmounted with a carved, stylised Huon pine figure of a flying Cape Barren Goose, its beak made from ebony and silver with its scientific and common name incised under each wing. The doors open to reveal three shelves incorporating three drawers on each side, each group incorporating a further, secret drawer. Kevin Perkins has used 'crossfire' and 'birdseye' Huon pine veneers in geometric patterns on the door fronts and case back, along with sycamore for the base plinth and ebony and purpleheart woods as accents. This cabinet is part of a series of furniture with design themes based on the endanger-ment of the Cape Barren Goose and of Tasmania's native Huon pine forests.1 Additionally, Perkins' design makes reference to the neoclassical furniture of Tasmania's colonial period (particularly the Chippendale-style 'swan neck' cabinets of the late 18th century) and to the use of local animal imagery in the Tasmanian Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century.2

1 See Tom Darby, Making Fine Furniture - Designer-makers and their projects, pp.3744.
2 See Caroline Miley, Beautiful and Useful: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Tasmania, Hobart: Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, 1987.



S!X Percy Grainger jacket 'Remixed Movement No 6' 1999 wool, silk, cotton, paper, Mylar and heat-transfer print, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

established Melbourne, Victoria 1994 by: Denise Sprynskyj
born Melbourne, Victoria 1960 Peter Boyd born Melbourne, Victoria 1971

The life, work and clothes of the early 20th-century Australian composer and experimental musician, Percy Grainger, inspired this garment. Like Grainger, who also created his own experi-mental clothing, Denise Sprynskyj and Peter Boyd, working together for their fashion label, S!X, have a fascination with found objects and the dissonance created when making new works from old. With wit and ingenuity, their deconstruction of garments makes light of the practice of tailors and dressmakers by allowing raw, cut edges to remain as evidence of the process of construction and modification. Upending the lexicon of male tailoring, a man's traditional tailored jacket has been turned inside out and taken apart, and large sections removed, with only key details such as the collar and breast pocket remaining. Its silhouette is reconfigured in transparent silk, cotton, handmade paper and tulle, with copies of Percy Grainger's music and hand-written notes (transferred to Mylar) dispersed throughout the body of the jacket.