Janet Beckhouse and I first met at the Neon Parc booth during the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair last September. I had been looking at her strange and wonderful ceramic sculptures, just drinking them in – with all their amazing colour, detail, gesture, flora, fauna and ultra-phantasmagorical, super-alive and sensitive vibe. I was chatting a bit to Geoff Newton, Neon Parc’s director, and thinking, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I’m seeing these! This work puts into 3-D exactly how I think and feel about Nature…’
Janet’s love of organic form and what she calls the ‘chaos in the order of the natural world’ combine in ceramic sculptures that are both elegant and over-the-top. Her work is currently on view at the National Gallery of Victoria in ‘Melbourne Now’ – an exhibition of over 175 Melbourne-based visual artists and creative practitioners at The Ian Potter Centre: National Gallery of Victoria Australia and NGV International through 23 March 2014.
We have spoken several times since our first meeting in Sydney. What follows is the result of our conversations, as well as some thought and research on my part…
CS: Your work seems to favour the vertical, is that true?
JB: Yes, I do work on the vertical often, even though I think of my work as landscape. I began as an artist making two-dimensional work but I wanted to go to three-dimensional and to find a material that I loved and would behave the way I wanted it to.
Working with clay is a slow craft and a slow process – and it fulfills what I need to do. I love the touch of clay.
The verticality means it’s like a person, a body, a statue – the presence of it. I started doing human figures as an expression of my own feelings and emotions – a manifestation of myself. Originally it was more of an objective thing, yet the sculptures have become more personally and emotionally intense over time.
People can relate to the human body. Years ago, I remember standing in front of a Greek sculpture in Thessalonika and it was like love: this beautiful woman a couple of thousand years old. I had an exchange with her spirit… There was a vibration from the sculpture so compelling and life-like, even though it was sculpted marble.
It really affected me and made me want to make three-dimensional work. People still identify with something organic: they can still relate to the figure.
CS: I was very excited to follow up on your mentioning the 16th century French ceramicist and early natural historian Bernard Palissy as an influence. I read this amazing research paper online entitled, Casting Life, Recasting Experience: Bernard Palissy’s Occupation between Maker and Nature by Hannah Rose Shell (web.mit.edu/~hrshell/www/files/CastingLifeShell.pdf) in which she describes his work, the systems he created to cast from life and his pioneering attitudes toward everything he touched. For Stone, through Palissy’s work:
“clay emerges as a vital new medium for inquiry into terrestrial and organic processes, and for the expression of philosophies of nature… Palissy created a correlation between ceramic practice and natural terrestrial processes… that… helped usher in a new material culture of knowledge production…”
and that influenced natural historians the likes of Leonardo and Francis Bacon, identifying Palissy as a precursor of Darwin and the theory of evolution through natural selection.
Attributed to Bernard Palissy, Paris, 1550
JB: Yes! And he was incredibly innovative in inventing new glazes, particularly translucent, lead-based glazes. His use of flora and fauna and his observations of Nature and his will to learn were so influential for me. He employed taxidermists to do his casting until he learned to do it himself. His work was wild stuff for that time – that’s what drew me to it – and the stories of him breaking up his furniture to fire his kilns when he had no money or support.
If you look at his plates that replicate the life systems in pools of water, you can see that he knew how everything has its own way of growing, its own flow. This morning my partner and I went for a swim down at Elwood Beach, and watching the currents, you could tell that even though it looks like all the water is coming the same way, there are hidden currents and layers.
From Pallisy I’ve been able to balance a strange contrast using my base vessel as ‘order’ and the embellishment I add as ‘asymmetry.’ I’d rather hand build because it’s not perfectly symmetrical – it’s the way Nature is. Of course, I like the piece to look good to the eye and the gestures of all of the leaves, animals, shells and other embellishment has to flow. There’s some art that’s just cold and some art that’s so compelling… and that’s what I want my work to be.
I don’t like symmetry: I like the dichotomy of chaos with symmetry. If you look at Nature, everything is perfect, but nothing is the same.
CS: So, in one of the three pieces at Melbourne Now that you call The Four Elements, the four faces depict Air, Water, Earth and Fire?
JB: Yes. The face that is the Sea represents Water, and she is surrounded by coral. Some of the coral is bleached – to talk about the loss of living coral that’s occurring in the Great Barrier Reef and other areas where a lot of coral are dying. I think people are more and more removed from real responsibility and love for each other and for the environment. It really saddens me… but it doesn’t mean I’m a sad person.
… People don’t surprise me too much but whenever I go out into Nature – out of town or to the beach – I always see something that is different or beautiful or that attracts my attention. The non-human world is more interesting. I would die without plants and animals. I look at things that are different to the generic look. I’ve always liked different things as long as I can remember.
CS: I’m very interested in the way you use the word ‘embellishment’ to describe your process of adding flora and fauna to your pieces.
JB: Twenty years ago nobody wanted embellishment, but I think humans need that. Minimalism as an art movement is very beautiful, some of it, but I didn’t get a lot out of it. People throughout history have put a bloody bit of decoration on everything – Cave paintings, painting their bodies, tattoos, their weapons. They are compelled to do it and it’s denying part of the creatures we are if we don’t.
We are more anarchic in Australia than in other countries. In Australia you have more of an opportunity to do whatever the hell you like. I feel very privileged in that respect because a lot of people don’t have that option in life. It was part of my upbringing that my mom would say, ‘I know you kids will come home when you’re hungry,’ and then we were off in the paddocks or bush or beach all day long.
Art is meant to be part of everyday life. When I travelled in Cambodia, I saw Angkor Wat and other temples. If you look at the bottom layers of the buildings, they are the most embellished. There are fragments of colour left from when the temples were originally painted, and there also holes that used to hold semi-precious stones.
We had a guide who took us on a ‘mystery tour.’ He’d been a Buddhist monk as a child, as are many children as a way to escape poverty. He showed us the little stone room he had lived in outside a modern monastery way out in Woop Woop. Everything was painted, and I mean everything – orange and pink, and green and gold. It’s psychedelic! This is something that really inspires me as an artist.
CS: Your work is so expressive and potent. You tap into an incredible wellspring of energy and creativity that’s simultaneously gorgeous and a bit repelling. Can you talk about the source of this?
JB: I can’t bear the subjugation or dominance of others. So much of this is based on greed. I really like a simple life – it’s all I need. It’s what I prefer and what makes me happy.
My current work reflects the fact that I had previously subjugated myself in all the intimate relationships I had with men up until now. I thought, ‘this is what I have to do for love.’ But I’ve changed – it’s really important to choose the energy you want to be around and now I know it’s not about losing yourself.
The work still expresses the disappointment and hurt, but it also shows the power of the female incarnate and the fear of her power. It’s an alternating between the fearful and the beautiful that I’m after – there’s order and chaos in humans, too, and I’m interested in working with both sides because it’s what’s real to me.
CS: Besides Palissy, who else has influenced your work?
JB: A lot of what I do definitely harks to the past – Goya, Arcimboldo. I just like people with that madness in their work. Gustav Klimt… Frida Kahlo because she expressed her own feelings her own way and depicted them in so many ways. She didn’t have an easy life. She experienced a lot of heartbreak. She loved her animals and plants.
Abstract expressionism is one of the last great art movements for me because it dealt with the subjective and wasn’t always pretty. Pollock just moving and making stuff and going with what the work was telling him to do. Rothko using colour the same way. I find that at a certain point with each piece, I can really describe the process with the phrase, ‘the work dictates itself to me as I am going and I realize it as I go along’ – – it becomes itself.
CS: Thanks, Janet.
JB: My pleasure.
More about Neon Parc at http://neonparc.com.au/
More about Melbourne Now at http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/melbournenow