Mapping the Landscape

Pippin Drysdale’s Ceramic Vessels

Over the last quarter century Pippin has been refining her forms, her materials and her colour palette to create a unique body of work that is a response to various landscapes. Although an urban artist, she seeks out places that have a special character or resonance, such as the Tanami Desert in central northern Western Australia or the Hunsa Valley at the end of the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan. Once she has absorbed the site, she carries its colours, patterns and ambience back to the studio, where she patiently re-creates their glow and echo in the delicate web of glazes etched into and brushed onto the surfaces of her elegantly shaped forms.
 
The process of analysis, review and revision continues until she is convinced she has captured the character of each new place. The thin, tense lines, sometimes relaxed, often flowing, occasionally broken, trace the shadow gaps between the rows of dunes blown into long scarifications by the wind or the stratified rocks laid down over millennia, the rows of spinifex woven through the desert or the meandering tracks of reptiles cut into the red dirt. Sometimes she combines them with broadly brushed colour, emulating the explosion of spring, an approaching storm, the red dust sunsets of Pakistan, or with rich gold lustres evoking the riches below the surface in the eastern goldfields.
 
The richness of the surface of the Tanami works is the point of immediate contact, the lure and first attraction; it is the play between the void of colour glimpsed over the horizon line of the lip and the complex surface that makes these works exceptional. The interior gradation down to a deeply resonant base is hypnotic and literally breathtaking. These pools of intense colour are moments of absolute calm, a point of slippage into another dimension of thought and existence, where the considerations of everyday activity are left behind. It is impossible not to be moved, deeply moved, elated and calmed by this experience. The sonorous colours seem to come from another place, a place where everything is pitched at a heightened sense reality, so deep and luxuriant that it literally invades your being.
 
The Kimberley Series is a group of works based on the artist’s experience of travelling in the northwest region of Western Australia. The northwest has been lodged in Pippin Drysdale’s psyche since her first visit while still a teenager in 1958, when she sailed on the MV Kanimbla to visit Millstream Station, a property owned by the family of a school friend. The landscape, its people, the dramatic change of seasons and the remarkable geological structures were imprinted on her brain. A trip back to the region in 1998 ignited those memories and linked them to the mature vision of an artist. Over the following decade, she has explored ways in which this imagery might inform her work. However, the confluence of ideas and the opportunity to work on a major new project resulted in a new group of closed forms that investigates the Kimberley landscape anew.
 
The process of distilling visual ideas to encapsulate the unique qualities of the topography, the flora, and the changing nature of the atmosphere from day to night and summer through to winter is a long and arduous process. It begins with the development of new forms. This is a collaborative process involving Warrick Palmateer, a skilled thrower who makes all her vessels. Under her direction, Palmateer creates the shapes and refines them when leather hard to ensure they have exactly the right lift from the ground. Each form is carefully considered in relation to others already made and groupings develop into rounded landscapes that stretch out on the shelves ready for the first bisque firing and glazing.
 
Generating a palette of colours and orchestrating the linear treatment of the surface is an extraordinarily laborious process that is fraught with risk and littered with kiln failures. Master technician Mike Kusnik developed the glaze she uses, and over the years she has gained great skill in manipulated the recipe to give her the colours and surface qualities she needs, but this is never guaranteed. Each new work is an experiment as colour is laid down, lines are cut with laser precision using a blade and more colour is added back into the fine crevices. So much can go wrong in the kiln and so much cannot be predicted with certainty. Sometimes the pots crack, sometimes the expected colours fail to materialise and the hours of work that went into the careful cutting and glazing results in a disaster, instantly relegated to the garden or the bin. Her standards are high, very high, and many of those rejects sitting forlornly under the lemon tree are gems, flawed though they are. And sometimes magic happens and through the alchemy of fire, clay, glass and lead extraordinary things emerge.
 
There are numerous triggers that initiate the development of new forms and new approaches to surface decoration. Most obviously it is through contact with a place and its people. Pip met the Indigenous artist Queenie McKenzie at the Warmun Community in the East Kimberley just a few months before her death. Drysdale sat with McKenzie while she completed one of her dry ochre paintings depicting the rocky protrusions, rolling hills and Boabs of her country. She later bought the painting of tall domed hills to hang in her kitchen. That work has been joined by others by Indigenous artists, including a magical painting by Kitty Kantilla, the revered artist from the Tiwi Islands. The influence of their work is evident in both the Tanami Series produced from 2001 and the current Kimberley Series. Her reference to the works of these artists is an act of homage just as artists from across cultures and over centuries have always done: a nod in the direction of their mentors and an acknowledgement of their achievements.
 
Drysdale absorbs all these influences and combines them with her memories and experiences of the landscape, such as her 1998 trip to Purnululu. Purnululu is the name given by the Kija people to the sandstone area of the Bungle Bungle Range. Rising as high as 578 metres above sea level, the extraordinary linear striping of the domes is due to the differences in clay content and porosity of the sandstone layers. The shapes prevalent throughout the Range are like inverted versions of the vessel forms she had been exploring for the past twenty years and are the main catalysts for her new work.
 
There is something very elegant, gravity defying and poised about her earlier series based on the vessel. Those works have a lively spring, an awe-inspiring lightness and there is the added frisson of their delicate balancing act that gives them a presence that sustains long engagement. The vessel also offers the promise of the interior, that wonderful coloured void into which we fall after circumnavigating the complex linearity of the exterior surface. So why change? The risk of moving into new territory is one of the great addictions of the creative artist, knowing you could loose everything and just possibly gain the world. It’s a gamble, like the stock market, a calculated risk certainly, but a risk nevertheless that it will all collapse into nothing. What greater attraction could there be!
 
To upend the vessel is then a radical act but one the artist had to try. It was a step over the brink that revealed many new possibilities. Immediately the form became non-functional, the void could no longer be accessed, the colour it contains – necessary to keep it stable – no longer visible. The closed form became an object amongst other objects, one that must survive by its own wits, create its own reason to exist, and seek out friends. Although singular works have great dignity they require others to lend support and to tell bigger, more expansive stories.
 
On the benches in her studio these ‘tablescapes’ grew as pots were drawn from the kiln, still warm and fresh with a new blush of colour. Moving from bench to bench the diversity and richness of her response amassed into a vast panorama of geological, botanical and meteorological complexity. Each grouping captured an aspect of the Kimberley landscape, some through nuances of colour and others through a linear extrapolation that flowed over their gently doming forms. They describe the topography of anthills, mountain ranges, tumbling tracts of spinifex and rocky protuberances that spring from the red desert soil. This is the Kimberley, or Pippin Drysdale’s Kimberley, in all its intricate convolutions of form, line, colour and texture, but there was one last facet of the project remaining.
 
The next radical move was to reintroduce the vessel form into the groups of closed forms, and something new and magical happened again. Curve against counter-curve, one arching rising shape locked to the ground by it’s neighbour, one form opening up to lure the viewer into it’s seductive core while others remained resolutely impenetrable. The play of incised lines around every form also establishes a rhythmic wave that draws the eye through and around the installation, replicating the movement through the landscape, as our eye follows strata layers, fault lines and the ripples of a sand dune or Spinifex row. These groupings are full of surprises, just like the landscape she describes, and they are breathtakingly beautiful objects.
 
Drysdale is an exceptional artist, a fact acknowledged by the Craft Council of Australia who nominated her as a ‘Master of Australian Craft’ in 2007, and each pot is wrought with enormous care and great skill to draw out some aspect, to illuminate some quality or identify a particular characteristic of the landscape. She has always pushed at the boundaries of her practice, always sought out new challenges and taken the kind of risks that would daunt most practitioners.
 
As a result the recent body of works that map the landscape and re-create its topography in tablescapes of rich lustrous colour and sensuous form is one of her greatest achievements, not only because it pushes further into new territory than most of her previous projects, but also because of its extraordinary achievement in translating and re-imagining the specificity of place. The open and closed forms coalesce into a vast panorama that is awe-inspiring in its scope and scale – just like the landscapes of Western Australia.

This article first appeared in the autumn issue of Visual Masters. To learn more about the publication, please visit http://www.vmmag.co.uk/. Professor Ted Snell, AM CitWA is the Director, Cultural Precinct, of the University of Western Australia and Chair of the Visual Arts Board, Australia Council.

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