For the past 14 years, Kirsten Coelho has worked in the same sun-dappled studio. A place that finds her dipping into a multiplicity of histories, poetry and stories that are absorbed into the glazes and shapes that culminate in the fluid, delicate forms of her ceramic practice.
The care and deliberateness with which she conducts discussions of deep feeling is the same that she applies in her studio practice. As I speak to her, the sun descends on scattered vessels of varying shape and colour, shadows elongate as our conversation moves between the prosaic and the personal.
She holds a few of these pieces to the camera to capture the variations of colour, explaining at length the alchemy of the glazes. Behind her, pasted along a wall, are photographs from her visits to Greek ruins, internet printouts of artifacts from the British Museum, and, importantly, poems from the likes of Mary Oliver, Rilke and Emily Dickinson. The titles featured in her latest body of work take their name from the latter, while the exhibition title borrows from a George Sefaris poem, On Stage. Literature and art, in equal measure, hold a mirror to the human condition and provide a lens for the artist to view the world anew.
Despite the mélange of rich cultural and historical influences, an austerity and tender sensitivity touch all Coelho’s work. The subtle colour washes and soft bends and curves of each porcelain vessel render the elegance of the pieces unphotographable. Because any single viewing distance belies a continuum of perceptions which belongs only to the work. In the latest show, a profusion of pale greys, chalky white and a sparkle of iron are punctuated with cobalt blue: a clarion organ chord sounding amidst an ensemble of light, shape and colour.
Cobalt blue is named for the silver-white metallic element which produces the colour, synonymous with Chinese blue-and-white porcelain (known as qinghuaci). Imported from Persia via new trade routes, its use can be traced back to the Tang dynasty (618–906) and proliferated later during the Yuan (1279–1368) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties. A far cry from the intricacies of the classic qinghuaci patterns, Coelho’s resplendent blue acknowledges this history while also ‘removing unnecessary information that may interrupt its power’. The potency of the indigo hue pieces is balanced by their cylindrical form.
Similarly, the inclusion of copper-red is a result of Coelho’s engagement with the Korean Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). From the 17th century, white ware (baekja) decorated with iron brown became popular, especially during periods when the cost of cobalt was too high or its quality inconsistent. Iron-brown painted images on the vessels of the day were highly sophisticated in style and literary in subject matter. Coelho’s absorption of such histories culminates in lines of glittering red brown on the lips of several vessels.
Amidst the pressure of Coelho’s profound attentiveness, she leaves room for the less predictable outcomes of each carefully mixed chemical glaze: drab when brushed on, brilliant when it comes out of the kiln. Once the glaze is mixed, the final product remains at the mercy of the kiln— awaited and watched through a tiny spy hole, sometimes at hourly intervals, through to the wee hours and fired up to five times for the desired result. The downward pull of the ruddy, glittering iron glaze, for example, is only achieved with repeated firings.
Patience and comfort with failure are vital for a ceramic practice as finely tuned as Coelho’s. It is sustainable because she is a romantic of the medium and because she manages the expansive possibilities of porcelain, chemical glazes and heat by working with a discrete vocabulary of shapes and colour. The artist’s oeuvre comprises just five different handmade porcelain bodies, including a newly introduced cylindrical form made possible by a particular type of porcelain. This focus on simplicity, directness, and a continual sense of the hand allows for a play of textures and an introduction of colour while preserving the serene visual chorus of each arrangement.
Once removed from the furnace, the works appear cold to touch, sacrosanct for their museum-like delicacy yet familiar for their semblance to quotidian, domestic objects. The varied shapes and textures grouped together mirror the incongruent pairings found in the lived-in home. Sharp modernist lines are nimbly arranged adjacent to vessels featuring looped bow handles, swelling curves, narrow spouts, and curlicue-lipped bowls. Indeed, much of the ancient classical Greek and Roman pottery they are drawn from was not made to be pedestalled as treasures in a museum, but rather to enhance the perception and feeling of everyday protocols.
The modern home is a museum for the self. Born in Denmark in 1966, Coelho was transplanted to North America at a young age before emigrating to Australia. As an adult, she moved to the UK and found herself a stranger once again upon her return to Australia a decade later. Keepsakes of the home tether us to different personal eras, become signifiers of places that no longer exist as we remember them, abstracted by distance and time. The latest body of work engages with the cultural resonance of such everyday objects as well as their classical predecessors.
In parallel with her interest in domestic objects, there on the shore continues the artist’s preoccupation with architectural ruin. This engagement was made salient in Coelho’s recent showing Ithaca, presented at the University of South Australia’s Samstag Museum of Art and UNSW Galleries. There, an installation of luminous white ceramic bodies reimagined the lost island city of Ithaca in the artist’s own vision. The line of enquiry was deepened during Coelho’s 2018 Arts South Australia Fellowship, which took her to Pompeii, the Acropolis Museum, Athens, the Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, and the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, among others. Far from being static remains, these sites are a result of the meaningful reinstatement of monumental space. For Coelho, above all the vestiges of history highlight the inevitability of change, a fundamental overarching theme which informs her process.
The theatrical rise and fall of crisscrossing shadows across the current exhibition recall architectural ruins and lends itself well to the Sullivan+Strumpf space, abundant with natural light. A pair of pale-white cylindrical vessels are perforated to breathe light and shadow play extends each arrangement so that space and objects flow together. The presentation offers an expansion of a practice that is at once intuitive and academic. It sees Coelho carefully introduce exquisite variations to a rigorously minimalist oeuvre. The artist’s sensitivity to material, stylish restraint and consistent ‘editing’ allows for a confluence of rich aesthetic histories to emerge ever so elegantly.