by John Neylon
The ceramic art of Stephen Bowers, with its complex surfaces and the capriccios being acted out upon them, issues an irresistible invitation to look closer. Whether a cockatoo-festooned palaceware vase from the 1980s or a mid-1990s tea set involving the artist’s understanding and control of technical possibilities such as multiple firing, underglaze paint colours and intricate line illustration, the result is a seductive richness: porcelain made plasma screen.
Bowers became involved in ceramics while working as an art teacher in regional South Australia in the late 1970s. He pursued his interest through a traineeship in the JamFactory’s ceramics workshop in Adelaide in 1982. For the next five years he taught by day and worked in his ceramics studio by night, an experience that triggered the autodidact and the ceramics aficionado within. In choosing to use ceramic forms as curved and irregular painting surfaces, Bowers was able to exercise his drawing and painting skills along with his growing interest in cross-cultural traditions of ceramics decoration. As the artist comments, a central part of his practice consists of ‘reaffirming the position, role and presence of painting within the ceramic tradition.’
A parallel interest in period illustration, particularly 18th- and 19th-century copper plate book illustration, continues to provide inspiration for the designs Bowers applies to ceramic forms. Sir John Tenniel’s 1865–66 illustrations for Alice in Wonderland inform Bowers’ Alice, who appears on the side of one of the artist’s (appropriately outsized) 2010 Cup and Saucer exhibited at the JamFactory Studio works retail gallery during the 2010 Adelaide Festival.
The timing of Bowers’ traineeship was fortuitous. The non-functional ceramics movement, which gained prominence in Australia in the late ’70s attracted a diverse range of artists intent on extending the boundaries of ceramics as an expressive or counter-culture medium. A number of Adelaide-based artists, including Bill Gregory, Margaret Dodd, Aleks Danko, Ron Rowe, Mark Thompson, Bruce Nuske, Paul Greenaway and Olive Bishop, made significant contributions to a regional ceramics-based movement later nicknamed ‘Skangaroovian Funk’.[i] Bowers acknowledges that the funk-based ideas underlying the work of Nuske and Thompson in particular inspired him to pursue ceramics as his preferred medium. Their work reinforced the idea that ceramics need not be merely, as Bowers says,‘brown and round’.
The interesting aspect of Bowers’ conversion to this broadly funk aesthetic is that, unlike most artists exploring the genre, he focused his creative energies on the surface rather than exploit the sculptural possibilities of ceramics. In doing so, he created a niche which draws its central identity from the artist’s passion for the traditions of ceramics, porcelain in particular, and links it to a larrikin spirit of irreverence for systems of exclusion which would prefer to see ceramics ‘know its place’. It is also inflected by the deliberate inclusion of Australian motifs and cultural references which leave no doubt that the artist intends to be more than an entertaining pasticheur. As one writer has put it: ‘Bowers is an instigator of a new consciousness in Australian pottery, thrusting our native flora and fauna into the limelight as a legitimate form of decoration. He skirts the edge of kitschness while investing authenticity into the use of Australian symbols in the hope of developing our native visual language.’[ii]
The end result is a practice laced with irony, quotation, inference, creative play and cultural cross-dressing, underpinned by an extensive knowledge and curiosity about ceramic traditions. Consciously or otherwise, Bowers conducts a chameleon-like performance: sometimes cast as a stand-alone studio artist and other times embedded within a team process, like a contract artist/illustrator working in a 19th century Midlands pottery. Bowers has continued to work with fellow artists and artisans, recognising that he does not have the interest, time or level of skill to produce all of the ‘blanks’ on which the illustrations will appear. He is conscious of maintaining, even revitalising, a centuries-old ceramics production model, working regularly with potter Mark Heidenreich, who threw the large vase forms for the Antipodean palaceware series. He has also combined talents with furniture-maker Peter Walker to produce a blue and white willow-decorated surfboard for the Parliament House Art Collection in Canberra.
Juxtapostioning visual motifs and scenarios drawn from or referencing ‘exotic’ cultural sources recalls the design worlds of mid- to late 19th century Britain and Europe, with their spectacular trade-driven world fair pavilions, crammed with decorative design ware inspired by art and design from across the globe. Bowers’ exuberant ‘mish mashing’ of design codes mirrors the audacious spirit in which artists and designers of this period plundered the globe in search of ideas. Into this mix Bowers has inserted personal notes. He was born in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains in 1952 and considers that a childhood rich in out-of-doors adventure has left him with an enduring sense of kinship with the Australian bush and its creatures. Birds have featured prominently as decoration on Bowers’ plates, cups and teapots since the 1970s. Sulphur-crested cockatoos have appeared in Bowers’ designs, often with speech or thought bubbles assigning them a role of conscious commentary as observers within the work. The artist has referred to them as resembling ‘some sort of symbolic question mark.’ [iii]
Childhood comics have also fuelled his imagination. The enigmatic character Boofhead for example, intrudes in a number of works.[iv] Boofhead appears to act for the artist as the innocent abroad, oblivious to the place or occasion, effectively a (high) culture-free zone. His presence and that of other emblems or icons of Australian popular culture such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the FJ Holden, Adelaide’s Popeye river cruiser, rainwater tanks and SULO bins inserted into designs subvert a response which is too compliant or respectful to the work. Central to this is the artist’s affection for visual clichés. Bowers says: ‘We can’t escape stereotypes, so we may as well learn to recognise, understand and work with them.’[v]
The incongruous association of these vernacular motifs with others of sumptuous, elegant taste and aesthetic refinement—passages of gold lustre and rich marbling or ambient quotations from sources ranging from Imari ‘brocade-ware’ to 18th century Middle Eastern printed textiles—has remained a feature of much of Bowers’ work to the present. For Bowers the act of creating pictures and stories on curved ceramic surfaces is a journey of revelation across ever-receding horizons. And the best thing, as he explains, is that working in ceramics ‘has its own logic and language. For me, it remains largely free of the kind of artspeak rhetoric that has been brought to bear on so much visual art. Pottery is stubbornly uncompromising.’
John Neylon is an Adelaide-based independent art writer and curator. He has written and published extensively on South Australian art and artists and is a regular contributor to The Adelaide Review.
Unless otherwise indicated all artist quotes are from a taped discussion between Stephen Bowers and John Neylon 12 January 2010
[i] The exhibition Skangaroovian Funk: Peculiar Adelaide Ceramics 1968 – 1978, curated by Judith Thompson, was presented at the Art Gallery of South Australia, 28 February – 27 April 1986.
[ii] Sophie Ullin, essay Lauraine Diggins Fine Art site, http://www.diggins.com.au
[iii] Gordon Foulds, ‘Stephen Bowers’, Craft Arts International, no. 48, 2000, p. 46
[iv] The cartoonist Robert B Clarke created the cartoon character Boofhead which ran as a comic strip in the Sydney Daily Mirror from 1941 and the Sunday Mirror from 1961.
[v] Gordon Foulds, ibid, p.49.