Ceramics Today
Home | Articles | Featured Artists | Contact | Search
A Postcard from...

The Australian Desert
Pippin Drysdale: Resonance. Article by Ted Snell


One of Pippin Drysdale’s ‘Boab’ pots sits on my desk at home, the delicate tracery barely able to contain its swelling form. Each morning I look deep into the maroon void of it’s interior and activate its bell-like tone by tapping the top rim. As I work I look over at its elegant poise as it hovers like a dancer and follow the seismic ripples that run over the surface. It is both a meditative and a perplexing experience.

Confronting Pippin Drysdale’s pots is fraught with difficulty. Should you keep your distance and take in the relationships of the various forms, should you move closer in to examine the intricate tracery of lines or is it permissible to loose yourself in those wonderful voids that lure you over their fine rim into a world of intense colour? There is also the desire to touch and know the form more intimately measured against their delicate balancing act and the thought they might topple over. Somewhere between these polarities of seduction and restraint we find our point of contact.

For the past quarter century Drysdale has been refining her forms, her materials and her language to create a unique body of work that is responsive to the landscapes of Australia. Although an urban artist she seeks out places that have a special character or resonance, like the Tanami Desert in central northern Western Australia or the Kimberley Region in the northwest of the State. Once absorbed the colours, sounds, patterns and ambience of the site are carried back to the studio where she patiently re-creates their ‘hum’ and ‘echo’ in the delicate web of glazes etched into the surfaces of her elegantly shaped forms - lines of sight, of smell, taste and memory.

Although these lines and forms seem arbitrary and abstract there is a remarkable similarity between the rows of dunes blown into long striations by the wind or the stratified rocks laid down over millennia. Back in the studio the thin lines, sometimes anxious, often flowing, occasionally broken, wrap around, enveloping and defining the simplified ceramic form developed in collaboration with her throwing partner Warrick Palmateer. They are vessels refined to a truncated pod-like form balancing on a small base with lightness and poise. The shape is a carefully wrought synthesis, the result of many hours of deliberation in the studio informed by her empathy with the landscape, that carries information about many aspects of the landscape.

Working from her studio in the port city of Fremantle, surrounded by the catalogue of her trials and failures, racks of wonderful pots of all colours and sizes that failed her exhausting test of quality, she summons up the character of those magical places in these beautiful forms. Firstly choosing the shapes thrown by Palmateer, then adding the layers of glaze and carefully cutting away with a scalpel through a masking resist to inscribe the tracery that defines and shapes each work. None is similar, each has its own temperament and each speaks with a characteristic cadence and intonation.

Some works set up a dialogue with the desert, others with native flora, still others with the dramatic gorges and chasms that lance down into the earth. They both describe and evoke in a play between representation and abstraction that is never fully resolved, remaining a fluid choice for each new player drawn into their orbit.

For these viewers another dialogue develops, this one interspersed with silences, creating a space for contemplation and meditation. It is the silence of awe and also of recognition that there is something extraordinary, literally breath taking in front of you, something that needs time before you can fully register its subtlety. This dance with the works takes some time, it is different for each viewer, but then the moment of balance occurs and secrets are revealed.

‘There are so many subtleties to that womb-like interior, to getting it right and to maintaining that sense of containment and tension’ Pippin Drysdale, ‘A Commitment to Clay’ 2003

One of the marvellous secrets in each work is the hollow void saturated in colour that provides an inner radiance, both mesmerising and seductive. In the Boab series that orange glow is so intense it seems to create another light source with the room. In contrast to the mesh of white lines cut into the black skin of the pot it looks ready to detonate, its containment only temporary, the form just strong enough to hold it in, the four forms together looking like reactors whose core might soon explode. The swirling interplay of surface decoration and shape heightening the sense of imminent melt down, the moire patterns of shifting lines making it difficult to fix the image of the group.

Although her individual vessels when shown together suggest relationships this grouping of forms is relatively new, the close proximity of each setting up new tensions, suggesting new dynamics that give the Boab series an extra charge.

The Boab Adansonia gregorii, indigenous to the Kimberley region of North Western Australia, is a large spreading tree with branches that radiate from the top of the swollen barrel trunk that soaks up and holds water. The tree is a source of nourishment and sustenance in a harsh environment, also providing food in large woody capsule-like nuts. In Drysdale’s pots the promise within is evoked by the rich orange interiors while the etched surfaces echo the tradition of Indigenous Australians who decorated the nuts and used them as items of exchange. There is also the resonance of the name captured in the relationship of the forms like a hollow play between two drums and so much more.

Similarly in Spinifex she evokes the colour and soft, blurred forms of the desert grass found in the sandy soil of Central Australia. Growing in a ball shape, its sharp and thin leaves sprouting outwards, the plants when dislodges roll over the landscape propelled by the wind. Something of that erratic tumbling is captured in the lines Drysdale maps around the vessel while the soft grey green colour shifts and blushes in sections just as the rolling balls of grass allow the red earth to bleed through as they move relentlessly across the landscape.

The northwest of Western Australia is a remarkable environment it’s harsh and cruel terrain occasionally providing respite in a gorge or fissure in its dry surface where water collects or bubbles up. In these oases the water is clear and fresh, flowing out and over rocks of the richest red ochre, creating a stinging contrast of colour so intense it is quite literally shocking. In Chasm- MacDonnell Ranges the flow of blue lines around the red form mimics that contrast while the unfathomable void of the blue recreates the depth and intensity of the water pools, so welcome after hours of travel across dry terrain.

One of the most dramatic features of that northwest Kimberley landscape is the Bungle Bungle Ranges, an extraordinary grouping of ochre and black striped mounds, encased in a skin of silica and algae, that rise up to 600 metres about sea level and spread over the land for kilometers. They are like a huge series of Drysdale’s pots, upended and dispersing toward the horizon. Her own Bungle Bungle 1 Kununarra vessel encapsulates that sense of inevitable and unstoppable replication, moving out in waves, her stripes both defining the looping hills and rolling in and through them.

Pippin Drysdale’s latest body of work continues her journey through the landscapes of Western Australia. The seven ‘Earth Drawing’ pots on show at CO[ ]ECT 2005 at the V&A in London explore the visual traces of the wind, of the processes of sedimentary deposit, of weathering and erosion. In ‘Earth Drawing 04’ the subtle bleed of the lines echoes the leaching of salt while the soft pulse of colour around the form contrasts with the dramatic reverberation of the extraordinary pink interior that glows like a James Turrell installation. You can almost hear the wind whistling across the surface of the land and smell the astringent aroma of saltbush. Each vessel takes as its inspiration a site, a place, or a visual experience and documents a deeply felt resonance with the land. Through her articulate language of line and colour she delineates each form and saturates each sonorous interior to offer us new insights about the environment and open up a space for this dialogue with the landscape to unfold.

Article and images courtesy Pippin Drysdale, http://www.pippindrysdale.com. © Ted Snell is Professor of Contemporary Art, and Dean of Art at the John Curtin Gallery, Curtin University of Technology. He is currently art reviewer for The Australian in Western Australia and a regular contributor to ABC radio and to several national journals. He is also the author of several books on Australian art and curator of numerous exhibitions.

More Articles

© Ceramics Today