Beauty, Anarchy, Desire – a Stephen Benwell retrospective

Owl Form_Stephen BenwellA forty year retrospective of acclaimed, contemporary Australian ceramicist Stephen Benwell has opened at Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Since the early 1970s, Stephen Benwell has combined the studio based craft traditions of the potter with the conceptual painterly and sculptural concerns of a contemporary artist.

This exhibition, which is a major retrospective of his work, assembles over 100 ceramics and a small selection of paintings from the earliest phase of his career to the present day, exemplifying the remarkable diversity of his oeuvre.

Benwell has continually challenged the formal conventions of ceramics, while simultaneously drawing upon an extraordinary array of art historical periods and styles as points of reference and influence, from antiquities through to 18th century decorative arts, and modernism, resulting in stand-alone objects that resist conventional categorization.

Highlights in the exhibition include Owl form, lidded container 1982 (pictured), a work that demonstrates the way in which Benwell combines technical brilliance in his hand-built pots, with his whimsical yet considered observations and interpretations of the natural world, and the connections between human beings and other species.

Benwell has never considered himself a traditional ceramicist, more a fine artist who uses clay and ceramic surfaces as canvases on which to paint. Of his early development as an artist and his absorption of diverse art-historical styles and influences he has said:

“The history of pottery for me was like a painter looking at the history of art. They would naturally be interested in everything, and I was interested in the entire history of pottery.”

“The Anglo-Japanese influence was so strong that nothing else was thought to be important. I saw 18th-century porcelain as part of ceramic history, just as I saw ancient Greek red-and black-figure ware as part of the history.”

Large Vase, 2004, is a major work that typifies Benwell’s concept of the pot as a ‘canvas’ for his painting. With each turn of the pot the surface and alters in its composition of abstract painterly marks and passages that border narrative vignettes of naked male figures, landscapes, diaristic notations and spontaneous gestures.

Statue, Athlete of 2011, inspired by Greek classical sculpture, is also contemporary in its style and features. From the mid-2000s Benwell has combined the making of pots with the development of male statues that elaborate his imagining of Arcadia, and that meditate poignantly on ideal beauty and the human longing and desire.

Beauty, Anarchy, Desire – a Stephen Benwell retrospective
Heide Museum of Modern Art – 7 Templestowe Road, Bulleen
Exhibition continues to 10 November 2013

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Image: Stephen Benwell, Owl form, lidded container, 1982, stoneware, 13 x 13 x 8 cm, Ken Don Collection, Melbourne