Placing Things

There is so much poetry compressed into the title Kelly Austin has chosen for her exhibition at the Devenport Art Gallery it almost seems a shame to spoil it with more words. 

For those of you lucky enough to see her thoughtful and perfectly-judged collection of ceramics this short essay will be at best modestly informative: words written to accompany objects can be thought of as an aspect of exhibition design, positioning the work and allowing it to be seen in its best light; no more, and hopefully no less. 

But Austin’s ceramics, made, gathered and displayed, also have a context beyond the here and now. They belong to a conversation that has been going on for a very long time; between people and objects, function and meaning, the hand and the eye and the heart, so these words might also be of use in framing this moment and carrying its memory forward. 

In terms of genre, the ‘still life’ originally sought to invest the objects that surround us, both made and found, with a surfeit of meaning. This depiction of things, painstakingly rendered as if to convince the viewer that the unreal could indeed be real, conveyed messages both venal and moral: look upon this display of goods and marvel at my wealth; take note of the withered bloom, the candle burning low and contemplate mortality. These images, for all their verisimilitude, were not ever really about the everyday. You were meant to look beyond the surface, because that is where art begins.

In later times the rendering of forms in paint on canvas became more of an exercise in shape and colour and there was a simultaneous shift in the types of objects depicted. In cubism it might be a chair, a newspaper, the neck of a guitar and a glass of absinthe, the ‘new’ made all the more shocking by the ordinary; in the more restrained of the modernists one might find a tablecloth, a cup of tea and some flowers in a vase; the familiar, the significance of the insignificant and beauty for beauty’s sake. 

The gathering together of objects, in art and in life, for aesthetic if not practical reasons, seems to be a deeply ingrained behaviour; the instinct to collect meets the need to display. When, in the hands of an artist, this is combined with the ability to make the stakes suddenly become far higher and the arrangements assume a significance that mere collections of ‘things’ are not expected to possess, or should one say exhibit?

Kelly Austin’s ceramics and her highly considered interventions are of this order of things. The objects she makes are at once their depiction and this aspect of her work has, over the course of several exhibitions, moved ever-closer to a point of equilibrium being reached between object, representation and display. As an artist, a craftsperson and a designer, Kelly Austin is now turning her attention to architecture. If this exhibition is anything to go by, I want the house and I want what’s in it.