Peter Cooley

Widely known since the 1980s as a painter, Peter Cooley has now spent a little over a decade committed to his ceramic practice. He was first encouraged to paint on ceramics by the former Director of the National Gallery of Australia, James Mollison, and now with honours such as the Gold Coast International Ceramic Art Prize (2010) and ceramic works in the AGWA, UQ Art Museum and NGV collections, all aspects of his modelling and embellishment are appropriately celebrated.

Cooley’s cockatoos, cassowaries and kangaroos bear stark contrast to much that the contemporary art world has to offer. It has been suggested that his work straddles a fine line where art borders kitsch, but his practice is also defined by his virtuosity with the medium. Cooley’s embrace of Rococo asymmetry, and the beauty it found in natural forms, imbues the work with distinction amongst a once-again burgeoning contemporary art form. With gold lustres and richly colourful glazes, Cooley tips his cap to the history of ceramic art, while the unpredictable moulding of his animals acknowledges more modern European influences with a somewhat ironic Australian salute.

Born in 1956 and brought up in the Northern Rivers region of NSW, Cooley attended the Brisbane College of Art and then the City Art Institute in Sydney. He is a resident of the Blue Mountains and shows in Sydney with Martin Browne Contemporary and with Gould Galleries in Melbourne. Other notable collectors of his work include the British Museum and the NGA.

On a biographical note, before we talk about your original career as a painter, from the age of 12 you were recognised for your creative drive and were sent off to attend Mrs Helen Moffat’s Saturday afternoon ceramic classes in Tweed Heads. Notwithstanding everything else between then and now, can you say whether this quintessentially Australian experience was an important starting point for you as an artist?
The pottery classes had been mentioned amongst my mother’s friends and I put my hand up and was fortunate enough to be allowed to go. I also remember being read a story when I was 7 about a boy’s father in Malaya who was a potter and ever since then the memory and imagery resonated with me. It was just a little kid’s story about tigers and the like, but these are the things that get the imagination going from an early age.

When young visual artists start out, it is often the case that they lean more heavily on the framework of a particular historical movement in order to flesh out their individual vision. Might it be true that some of your early paintings were particularly influenced by Die Brücke and the German Expressionists such as Kirchner and Nolde – both for the primitive preferences they adopt and the tension they emit?
One of the earliest memories I have of art was going to galleries in Surfers Paradise between 1969 and 1971, around the ages of 14 to 16. The art had been brought over from Papua New Guinea by retired planters, and they were very good examples of work from the PNG Highlands and Sepik River. It was very common there and also elsewhere in Australia at the time, I think because it is around this time that independence for Papua New Guinea meant that many Australians living and working there were beginning to finish up and come back home.

It’s interesting because [Emil] Nolde had been to German New Guinea and visited these same places and transferred its imagery into his art and influenced other Expressionists from the movement in his time in Dresden – just as the planters too had brought it to my place and time so much later. Whilst mentioning Dresden and its ethnographic collection (Museum für Völkerkunde, Dresden) which clearly influenced the Die Brücke artists, coincidentally another influence of mine [Johann Joachim] Kändler had also settled there centuries earlier. It was where he made his reputation as an innovator at the Meissen porcelain factory.

As your practice gradually moved off the wall and into your earlier ceramics, you reimagined well-known visions of the Australian landscape such as the Blue Mountains’ Wentworth Falls and Three Sisters, and the Northern Rivers’ Mt Warning in a distinctly modernist abstract style. Do you feel this was an important link in the chain between the theatre of your earlier paintings and your most recent ceramics, with their uniquely Australian subjects?
I agree. I do look at modern abstraction but it is always more a pop sensibility about icons for me. Again, going all the way back to my teenage influences, Martin Sharp and his spectacular Cream album cover and its flower power type graphic illustration was a really big influence – I find icons like this everywhere, these interesting organic subjects are all around.

It was [Eugene] von Guerard who famously painted the Wentworth Falls and where he saw a reddish tinge in amongst the falls. The stone beneath the falls is the ceramic beneath the glaze. In this early time, back when I was painting in the late ’90s, I was very happy with what I was doing and played around with painting layer upon layer – layers so thin, the process was like glazing. When I came to ceramics around this time, I thought, “I really don’t have any fear” and was not afraid of really slapping it on. I had developed a new confidence with my mark-making. I have always said I don’t at all resent spending years and years painting.

Aside from the refined 18th Century Rococo porcelain of Kändler, Luccio Fontana’s ceramics from the 1930s have been cited as an influence on you during your time in New York in the early 2000s. Was it the beauty of the natural subjects or his expressionist, sculptural approach, which struck a chord with you the most?
With the Italian ceramicists, firstly it was Fontana that I saw but then I realised there was a whole school of Italians; first, [Leoncillo] Leonardi then [Fausto] Melotti, who perhaps only worked with ceramic for about 10 years. Their approach was very direct and for me they turned ceramics into a really three-dimensional experience in that they played with time and space. It is an interesting concept for a ceramic artist because their works are no longer just objects, but hold a place in time which prevails. Ceramics are metaphysical objects.

Looking back to Kändler, in terms of Rococo, the fact the decoration was applied by assistants seems a little bit disappointing to us nowadays because the artist did not see or experience the work all the way through but he was a brilliant modeller. Of course, it is also formulaic and stylised but jump back to the Italians, and they finally get it. It’s all ‘You go for it!’ And, they shit on the Americans from that time, they really do! The 50s pottery movement post-Abstract Expressionism, after Pollock and de Kooning the rest were pedestrian really…

In your recent exhibitions Through The Archipelago I & II you have shown that you are capable of forming large masses of clay into vessel-like cassowaries and swans (which do not render any vessel-like utilities) as well as coil-formed animals with appendages, which possess an altogether different architecture than what we expect. Are you yourself surprised with the directions your intuition took forming such familiar subjects in preparation for these shows?
It happened… I am really happy working with the spatial aspects of my work and that is what I initially saw looking at the Italians. I began modelling clay because you can push it to the extreme. You can be physical with it before it collapses and then you can push it a bit more after it dries a bit. You can cut it and rip bits out of it, and it’s really a lot of fun. Even after this you can push it a bit more, by taking a hammer to it before it’s fired, and I love the irony of that, not in its destruction but construction.

Looking at the 2012 show, the first of what I call my spatial works – the ‘Corellas 1’ (2011) and ‘Palm Cockatoo’ (2011), my black tail swamp wallabies too – there you can see me really kicking the guts out of the original models. I take the hammer to them, not all, but clearly some more than others. It really is a lot of fun except for when it collapses. And yes it happens, I have my share of complete disasters but I won’t go on about these in too much detail, as there were critical faults in the construction that held them up. I have now written the book on Leaning Tower of Pisa do’s and don’ts.

You described the first Through The Archipelago show as profoundly inspired by Life, Death and Magic: 2000 years of Southeast Asian Ancestral Art at the National Gallery of Australia in 2010. Will your forthcoming exhibition continue to look at Australia as the land at the end of the archipelago?
From Life, Death and Magic, what I really liked was that everything reliefs were decorated, paintings were textured and Batik and other woven materials ended up as the sculptures’ surfaces and in installations. Beyond that, it is simply amazing how many influences can come so far down, from a melting pot of cultures which extend through time right to us now in Australia.

I like to relate my art to what is available. I don’t envy how so many European artists work from their historical surroundings. They get gigs at the V&A, even studios there and they work with collections… I’m not even sure that would work for me. I’ve travelled but I’m legitimate, I would rather work with what is around me – although not in a nationalistic way.

Finally, at a time when so many young artists are immersed in ceramic practices, many too with backgrounds in drawing and painting, have you considered going against the grain and returning to the studio with brushes in hand?
That could very easily happen, and I should not rule it out. That said, eleven years ago, when I was painting with gouaches on a bit of rabbit-skin glue on canvas I thought I should be painting on ceramic… purely for the reason, that I would be painting on dirt, which simply said, has an essence about it which is absolutely fantastic.

Peter Cooley is represented by Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney

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