Toni Warburton

The current resurgence of ceramics is a defiant celebration of the analogue in a world pivoted on the digital. Yet for Toni Warburton, this ancient medium has always been contemporary. A forerunner of the new wave of Australian artists employing experimental approaches to ceramics, Warburton has been working with clay since the 1970s.

Your latest series, ‘Messages from the Bay’, is a good place to start. Can you tell me about it?

I’m interested in the continuing interaction with place by Indigenous people, as well as the visionary romantics in colonial times. I don’t use the term ‘landscape’ for my work: I prefer to use ‘place’ or talk about the experience of being, because with the Indigenous colonial history here, ‘landscape’ is quite problematic.

A lot of the painting on my latest ceramics has been influenced by my watercolours. In many of the pieces, I’ve been working with the temperate climate colours of sea sponges. I started researching them because I’d read this amazing book by Rebecca Stott called Darwin and the Barnacle, which is about how Charles Darwin didn’t publish his theory of evolution until he’d done all the hard yakka of zoology based on the barnacle. The most beautiful drawings of barnacles that I’d found online were all drawn by Darwin.

Also, I’m quite pleased that this show is across a lot of genres, because I’d been making work that was grey and white after my mother’s death. This new work is quite jumpy for the viewer; from big to small, detail and text. There are enough motifs that you can put the story together yourself, and if you don’t feel like it then it’s just a form!

You’ve travelled a lot throughout your career …
In 1987 I received a two-year fellowship to study in India. I learnt so much from the folk and tribal artists who came to MS University in Vadodara to do workshops. India is where I first started scaling up my work, wood-firing and investigating potable water as a theme. This led to my Masters research, Catchment, in 2001 and more recently, water objects – echoes with Louise Boscacci at Cross Arts Projects (Sydney).

I thought I’d make figurative work in India but, being immersed in a culture where people were everywhere, I ended up creating sculptural pieces inspired by travel narratives and Indian textiles. I was interested in the traditional metaphor of the pathway, which I still work with today, for searching, for journeying, for finding a way around an object. I played with scale a lot in terms of how our embodied perception relates to scale, and then tried to translate that back to the experience of the viewer, being able to move around the piece or through the installation.

In 1982 I went to Europe, just before my first show ‘Attachment to place’ at Mori Gallery in Sydney. At this time I was making experimental large pieces inspired by coastal motifs. When I saw French Rococo porcelain I had an epiphany. I thought, ‘OK, that’s how you do it!’ Ceramics can be fluid and organic but still elegant – they can mirror reality but finish in a scroll. There’s an interesting melding of artifice, representation and three-dimensionality, an energy where the object looks like it can get up and walk.

Oval forms seem to recur in your work, such as the recent sculptures Apparition (mind’s eye ellipse) (after J.D.) and What the land has lost. What’s the significance of this shape for you?
The oval, derived from conic sections, has been a really important form in my work. I recently had an experience where I woke up and I wasn’t in a dream nor was I awake. In my mind’s eye I was immersed in a view of a rainy day on the harbour from another time and place. It was incredibly uncanny. This recurred on three subsequent mornings. What I realised is that I’m very interested in the mind’s eye. For me, the mind’s eye is elliptical.

I’ve been making a series of works called ‘Containers for borrowed views’, which are working with the interior/exterior facets of the container and the vistas you can have from different sides. I enjoy the topological aspect of working with the membrane. Many things are hollow, I just reveal the hollowness – it’s a lovely game. In What the land has lost, I wanted to make an elliptical container that suggested a sense of continuing relationship to place. People lose the land but the land loses people too, and without the culture of caring, interaction and nurture, it changes.

This exploration of social relations with natural environments resurfaces throughout your oeuvre. When did it begin?
If you start to work with the natural environment, you start to notice contamination. My focus on environmental issues began in 1979 with a piece called Bass Strait Crude on Coastal Vessel. It was influenced by encountering all the encrusted lumps of oil from oil spills on the South Coast beaches. At the time, Sydney University was researching oil spills in the mangroves at Botany Bay, so I asked for some crude oil and they agreed. It was left for me in a plastic bag outside one of the labs with my name on it. Written on the phial was ‘Bass Strait Crude’, and I thought ‘that’s perfect!’ So I left it exactly as it was and tied it onto the piece. Anthony ‘Ace’ Bourke included the work in a show at the Craft Council Gallery in 1983 called ‘Living in the Pacific’. I started thinking about what it means to live in the Pacific, and began researching nuclear tests, because I remembered in the ’70s listening to the radio broadcast the levels of radioactive iodine in the milk. In the mid ’80s I made a series about nuclear testing in the Pacific.

I had no illusions that making art about this material could change anything, but it did help me understand my position in relation to these things. But then I came to a conclusion that I didn’t want to only make work about dark and terrible things, because one wants to have hope and be inspired. I didn’t want to feel curtailed because I’d found these environmental problems. I was invited to join Williams River Valley Artists Project (WRVAP) in 2010 and share the research burden. In 2015 we staged ‘Instruments of Democracy’ at Cementa II in Kandos to honour the courage of frontline coal activists. I agree with Trotsky’s proposition that a proper society respects artistic freedom. In my work I try to reconcile a sort of position.

Contemporary ceramics has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts recently. Has this changed the way your work is received?
Yes there’s definitely a pulse of enthusiasm that I love. I don’t see it as a renaissance myself, because I always exhibited in a fine art gallery. I knew that my work was edgy and challenging and needed that context and audience if I wanted to have contemporary discourse.

When I started working in Sydney in the early ’80s there was a rift between traditional Japanese-informed ceramics and the influence of American Funk art. I was a member of a group called ‘The Inner City Clayworkers’ and we were causing all kinds of controversy because we were using bright colours, and artists like Patsy Hely were slip-casting in series. Radical craft. The decision to make beautiful, useful things by hand in an industrial society, the William Morris ideal, still has traction. We were urban; we hadn’t gone to the country. Now the long-term commitment of ‘postmodern peasants’ such as Steve Harrison and Janine King is an important benchmark for sustainable ceramics practices.

Today there is more good interpretive writing and curating of ceramics. Because of the internet there is a lot of cross influence, and people don’t have to be hampered by a cloying tradition of technique. Having my work included in ‘Making it New’ (at the MCA), curated by Glenn Barkley, was significant for me as there was a sophisticated acceptance and support for the experimental way I work.

A younger generation of ceramicists is popularising a tradition of sculptural formlessness that you’ve been working in for so long.
When I gave a lecture about formlessness, students were really taken with how you could philosophically apply it to art processes. In my own work, tendencies towards the grotesque come out of observations in nature of the adaptive morphing and eroding of animal, vegetable and mineral forms, allowing the energy traces to remain from the process of working with the clay. Letting things be: sometimes a light touch, sometimes a heavy force. There’s a text by Rosalind Krauss about the notion of formlessness that I feel is relevant to certain kinds of painterly and sculptural abstraction. Artists like Virginia Leonard, Peter Cooley, Ramesh Nithiyendran and Glenn Barkley all studied painting, and that crossover probably contributes to expanding the language of ceramics to carry philosophical ideas as well as the banalities inherent in the material. The plasticity of clay surfaces to receive the flow of pigments and the molten flow of glazes becomes an analogue for the plasticity of paint.

You became emotional earlier when talking about ceramics – what does this medium mean to you?
Ceramics is just a medium, it’s not a religion. This sounds a bit iconoclastic but I really do think that. Ceramics is one of my reference points to take me into the past and into the present and hopefully across the future. For me, art is a way of thinking.

When I’m making work, I suspend criticism and disbelief and let the ideas and materials challenge me as I try to work through things. I create a ‘delusional’ space in the studio where I just believe.

The Drawing Exchange 2018
17 September – 12 October 2018
The National Art School, Sydney


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