Hello, and welcome to another online art talk. Before I begin, I'd like to acknowledge that I'm speaking to you from the lands of Ngambri and Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land now known as Canberra, where I live and work. And I pay my respect to their elders past, present and emerging. I don't take for granted that sovereignty was never ceded, and that this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
My name is Rebecca Edwards and I am the Sid and Fiona Myer Curator of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia. Sorry, that was my cat. For any blind or low vision audience members, I'll briefly describe myself. I have blue eyes, pale skin, some freckles and lots of long, red, wavy hair. I'm wearing a white shirt against a white background, in accidental homage to the subject of my talk today.
I'm speaking about an artist and work in the National Gallery collection that gives me great joy, Marea Gazzard's Kamares VII of 1972. Which although the National Gallery is currently shut to the public due to COVID restrictions, is on display at the moment as part of the major exhibition, Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to now Part II.
One of the great privileges of working behind the scenes at an institution like the National Gallery is exploring art storage. And I first came across Kamares in-person in our object store several years ago, not long after starting at the National Gallery. Even tucked away in a dark corner, surrounded by other works of art, Kamares completely captured my attention and it was like finding treasure. It's an entirely white, white, high-fired ceramic, approximately 70 centimeters tall. It's formed through two clay plains, joined at the sides and base with a slight opening at the top. And you can see here are some different views of it to give you a sense of it in the round.
The surface is very rough, almost as though it's been weathered by the elements. And in places, you can see indentations from Gazzard's fingertips and the tools she was using across its surface, where she's gradually worked the clay by hand and flattened it out so it's almost paper thin. Through this method of hand-building, of coiling clay, and pinching and prodding and paddling it into shape, through this manipulation in Kamares, Gazzard transformed clay, something that's of the earth, something that's hard and dense and heavy, into something that seems impossibly airy and weightless.
Kamares is like a paper bag caught and crumbled in the wind or an elephant's ear, flapping and folding in on itself. Now, this might seem like a slightly odd description and perhaps it is, but Gazzard had wide ranging interests and reference points in her art. She looks to historical sources, such as pre-Colombian and Cycladic pottery, as well as the stark simplicity of Modernism.
But she was also inspired by complex and strange forms found by chance in the natural world, such as the flapping ears of an elephant. And she was drawn to the combination of delicacy and flexibility and strength. Seemingly contradictory characteristics that added to their complexity but of course, appear more wondrous when we consider that they're actually naturally occurring in the world and not something that's been designed or engineered.
She looked at elephant ears, she looked at shells, she looked at seed pods and stones, at squashed fruit found in the park. The thin but hard membranes of hatched eggs and abandoned exoskeletons. She even speaks about the fins of manta rays, which like the ear of an elephant, captures the same sense of flexibility and strength simultaneously.
But a bit more about Gazzard herself, because she was really a bit of a powerhouse. During the 1960s and 70s, she emerged as really one of the most innovative ceramic artists in Australia. She was a great advocate of craft, heavily involved in the revival and elevation of studio craft practices that occurred in Australia during this time. But perhaps more importantly, and certainly within the context of this work in particular, she became really central in debates surrounding the traditional distinction between art and craft. And ultimately, breaking these down.
Gazzard was based in Sydney for much of her life. She was born there in 1928. Her mother was of English Scottish descent, while her father had been born in Greece. And her interest in Cycladic pottery, which came from the Cyclades an island group off the coast of Greece, really stemmed from here, from her family heritage. The title of Kamares itself is taken from a type of pottery, Kamares ware, that was produced on a Greek island of Crete during the Minoan period, which is approximately 2700 to 1100 BCE.
Gazzard studied ceramics at East Sydney Technical College, now the National Art School in the early 1950s. And then spent several years overseas traveling and studying before returning to Australia and continuing her studies again, this time in sculpture at the National Art School. By the 1960s, when she was working professionally, many Australian studio potters were influenced by the refined effects of Japanese studio pottery. The work of figures, such as Shōji Hamada and the English potter, Bernard Leach, for example.
The prevailing approach to ceramic production was vessels on a wheel and often sleek and smooth, fundamentally a combination of beauty and function. But now, as Kamares demonstrates, Gazzard worked very differently. Her sources and influences are very different. And while she was interested in the vessel as a form or the basis of a form, there was never any functional intent. Kamares has an opening at the top, but it's too narrow and the edges are too delicate to be usable, preventing it from operating like a normal vessel or container. Now, it's entirely sculptural form. And as Gazzard herself, stated in 1969. She was, and I quote from her, "More interested in sculpture than anything."
In 1973, Kamares, as part of a group of Gazzard's work, was included in the important and influential exhibition, Clay and Fibre, held first at the Bonython Galleries in Sydney and then at the National Gallery Victoria in Melbourne. And it's in this exhibition that Gazzard's impulse as a sculpture came to broader attention. But also, the sculptural possibilities of craft media within a fine art context.
Now, you see the poster from this exhibition here. And as you can see, she paired with the Australian artists, Mona Hessing, a textile artist. They worked very closely together on the concept development and design of the exhibition, producing works that would compliment and play off of each other. But most importantly, they both created bodies of work in traditional craft media, so ceramics and textiles, that were entirely sculptural.
And as you see here, Gazzard worked exclusively in stark, white clay. In this selection from the National Gallery collection, you can also get a sense of the other organic forms that she was looking at in that semi hatched forms of an egg, for example. Now, Hessing produced several textiles that sat in contrast, freestanding and hanging works using natural fibres and an earthy palette. You see here, her textile scoop, which was included in Clay and Fibre, but was purchased by the National Gallery for the collection of the same year.
Clay and Fibre has since been credited as a great watershed moment in Australian art and craft history. By placing craft media, like ceramics and textiles in a gallery setting and a big institutional gallery no less. And craft media that was functioning like sculpture, grand heroic sculpture. Gazzard and Hessing provoked great debate on the nature and purpose of craft. And these debates ultimately led to the dissolving of the traditional distinction between fine art and craft practices and the elevation of the latter, the elevation of craft.
From our standpoint today when contemporary art takes form in so many different ways, these divisions can be taken completely for granted. But during the 1970s, they were actively contested and starting to shift. And artists like Gazzard and works like Kamares, were central to these developments. Kamares VII, as well as other works by Gazzard and Mona Hessing's Scoop are all on display at the moment at the National Gallery as part of Know My Name part two. And if you haven't already, I hope you get the opportunity to see it in person.
Rebecca Edwards, Sid and Fiona Myer Curator, Australian Art, discusses Marea Gazzard’s Kamares VII (1972).