If you’re a fan of ceramics, mid-century aesthetics and Melbourne history, I’d highly recommend a trip to the Art Gallery at Deakin University, Burwood, to see the exhibition John Nixon's Australian Ceramics. On display are around 200 pieces of functional ceramic wares - mugs, plates, jugs, bowls and similar domestic pieces - produced by artisans who lived and worked in Melbourne in the 1950s-’70s.
All of the work comes from artist John Nixon’s impressive personal collection of over 500 pieces, which he has built up over the last 15 years. En masse, it offers a glimpse into the post-war aspirational lifestyle of the Australian suburbs, at a time when people were reacting against austerity and also wanted products that they felt would enhance the quality of their life. It’s interesting to compare this to the current resurgence in popularity of locally, handmade ceramics (and handcrafted goods more generally), which is often a reaction to overconsumption and the mass-scale production of often inferior quality goods.
The exhibition features the work of the likes of Gus and Betty McLaren (who went on to co-found Potters Cottage in Warrandyte), Reg Preston, Phyl Dunn, Artur (Artek) and Sylvia Halpern, Charles Wilton and many more. The pieces are displayed on trestle tables scattered around the gallery, with each trestle strategically placed around the gallery, in relation to the others, roughly representing where in Melbourne the works were created. I also found it so interesting to learn that many of the artists were based at or near home, many had their own homemade kiln and they often used clay they had dug up themselves, from the surrounding area. Many also live off their work, teaching and selling the wares via stores such as Primrose Pottery Shop and the high-end Georges department store, which were both on Collins Street in the city.
It was fascinating to see how contemporary many of the pieces look, both in form and also in the use of colourful and textural glazes. The exhibition also made me think about so many other things, such as the fact that ceramics will be around long after their makers have passed on (as is the case with many pieces on display here), as well as the value of a collection of this scale, and how fascinating it is to see how the creators’ work developed over time. I also loved learning a bit about John Nixon’s personal philosophy - that the role of an artist needs to include teaching, curating, publishing and collecting.
If you’re interested in going along to the exhibition make sure you get there before it closes, this Friday, December 14.
Deakin University Art Gallery, Melbourne Burwood Campus, Building FA, 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood VIC 3125.
Tuesday to Friday 10am–4pm, Free entry.