Doug Alexander: A survey exhibition and tribute. ANU Drill Hall Gallery. Until November 6.
Doug Alexander was the first resident potter at the Cuppacumbalong Arts and Crafts Centre at Tharwa when it opened in 1975 under the directorship of Karen O'Clery who leased the property from the government. Alexander continued his residency there from 1976 until his premature death in 1981. In his memory, the Canberra Potters Society initially instigated a series of lectures. Due to declining audiences they were replaced in 1990 with the Doug Alexander Award given to an outstanding work at the annual member's exhibition. This survey of the artist's career curated by Meredith Hinchliffe celebrates the life of this gifted potter and honours the contribution he made to the careers of other potters.
Doug Alexander was born in Victoria in 1945. He obtained a Diploma in Art at the School of Mines in Ballarat. After working for a short time at the Ballarat Potteries he travelled to New Zealand in 1968 where he worked at the Red Barn Pottery at Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands. He returned to Australia in 1970 and set up the Springmount Pottery at Creswick near Ballarat.
There are several pieces of pottery from this period in the exhibition on loan from the Creswick Museum. The forms of these stoneware ceramics tend to be traditional – a lidded container, three thin-necked vessels and a robust teapot. Only the flat vase (no. 25) has an unusual crescent shape on a high foot. At this stage of his development the glazes in earth tones with their minimalist decoration seem to be an intuitive response to the form of the pot itself. Beauty lies in the subtle laying of glazes where they run slightly across the pot and where one area tips into another. It is not hard to see the influence of the Japanese aesthetic so influential among the studio pottery movement at the time. Other decoration is influenced by English slipware with decoration made by using slips before glazing as well as sgraffito or scraping back into the glaze. Alexander also used wax resist decoration effectively for subtle designs with a motif of leaves being repeated on various wares.
For most of his short career Alexander was influenced by the concept of the studio pottery workshop. This was a functional workshop where an experienced potter could mentor other less experienced potters in conjunction with the production of affordable domestic ware and other works that could be sold to provide an income. An inspirational example of a studio pottery was set up by the English potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979) who, with Japanese potter Hamada Shoji, founded a studio workshop in 1920 at St Ives in Cornwall.
In 1976, Alexander left Creswell to establish a studio pottery based on the Bernard Leach model at Cuppacumbalong. Initially the studio was in the old barn which he converted into a studio with the help of Ian Jones – his first trainee potter. (Ian Jones and Moraig McKenna now have a pottery workshop at Gundaroo.)
With another of his trainees Malcolm Cooke, Alexander established a studio production line of functional ware. There are several examples of this ware in the exhibition. Among them are some attractive pieces in blue and white glazed porcelaneous stoneware. They include a beautiful work bottle (no.8) that stands out because of the intensity of the blue glaze along its shoulders and at its foot enhancing the form of the bottle. Connecting both areas is a motif of trailing leaves done with an assured calligraphic and painterly gesture. This motif appears in many works from this period – sometimes prescriptive, at other times loosely painted and more abstract. Other decoration includes chattering which is a method of making regular rhythmic marks into the dry hard clay with a tool before firing. This method of decoration is seen in the large elegant and accomplished vessel Untitled (Large bowl) 1978 (no.1) which is at the entrance to the exhibition. It rightly deserves its prominent position. It is made in stoneware and decorated with a pattern of regular surface markings. The dark grey glaze has the colour and texture of volcanic sand and its rough surface reflects a lively play of light.
Other pots such as the two large stoneware pod forms (nos.52, 53) decorated with brown oxide stains and a delicate small oyster like form (no.18) with a matt grey speckled surface show a more adventurous experimentation with forms and glazes. The untitled skirted form (no. 41) from Alexander's later period at Cuppacumbalong along with some of the earlier work such as the pod forms demonstrate a creative talent that was perhaps seeking new stylistic modes and more freedom of expression away from the imperative of the studio line of production.
There are not many pots of Doug Alexander in the exhibition when you think of his more than 16 years of productive ceramic practice so it is difficult to see any clear development or direction in his work especially when most pieces are undated. Many works would still be in unknown private collections and hopefully being used and enjoyed. It is only when artists are given prominence and recognition in such a serious and thoughtful exhibition in a public gallery that other works tend to surface.
Included in the exhibition are works by some of the artists who have won the Doug Alexander Award. Ian Jones who won in 1995, Daniel Lafferty in 1999, Kaye Pemberton in 2003, Maryke Henderson in 2006 and Cathy Franzi in 2012. The works of these artists add a great deal of visual interest to the exhibition and one can see the resonances between their pieces and the craftsmanship and integrity of the ceramics by Doug Alexander. Indeed a selection of works by the recipients of the Doug Alexander Award would be a good basis for a further exhibition. It would cover a great deal of ceramic history in Canberra.
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