A kiln prop in ceramist Kirsten Coelho’s studio

Ceramicist Kirsten Coelho’s largest exhibition in Sydney is currently gracing an upstairs gallery at the UNSW Galleries in Paddington. The space is atmospheric with dim lighting and strategically positioned spotlights to best show off her delicate, predominantly white forms with a dramatic play of shadows. Their installations – groupings and solo objects – command the space with their presence. Their staging invites contemplation and reflection upon the artist’s theme and inspiration – The Return – Odysseus’ return to Ithaca – and the ruins of Pompeii.

Moving through the darkened room, lots of meanings come to mind. Where the names Ithaca and Shore are employed we are directed to think of a sea shore or ancient cityscape. As a metaphor of a city, the vessels are perfect with individuality in their shapes yet devoid of variety in their softly textured white surfaces – stating diversity exists without naming it. Each vessel houses untold stories – anonymous, untold lives.  Let each observer reflect their own understanding.

However, with their cylindrical vertical emphasis – of varying heights and breadths- modern city buildings come to mind not ancient ones. We are directed by the artist to see in the bottles and cups ancient ruins, yet each piece is perfect. 

And we are told about an ancient Odyssey – one that has been referenced over successive millennia as a metaphor for inner change and discovery, yet this hasn’t been addressed. Ironic when you think that Odysseus’ journey was told and retold on the surface of Ancient Greek ceramics. In fact, when you consider the variety of Ancient Greek ceramic forms and their specific uses, whose span encompasses the human journey from birth through initiation, socialisation and death – their absence becomes conspicuous. It’s about the shapes that are missing – not the illustrations. If we aren’t told to conjure Homer and Pompeii in our imagination I wouldn’t have expected to see  the whitened shape of a krater, amphora or kylix.

Coelho’s works represent a personal statement on the human journey with the installation of beautiful domestic forms – drinking vessels. Across the foyer, Fernando Do Campo’s To Companion a Companion, presents domestic, urban works that succeed in being non-binary in reception. His work proposes the human as a companion species to birds.

The exhibits downstairs focus more on the environment and self-consciously, the reception of the works themselves.

Designer Kyoko Hashimoto’s Bioregional Bodies challenges society’s use of plastic, concrete and coal by incorporating them in engaging jewellery design: wearable art – mostly. Wearable statements on what mainstream jewellery design values – you won’t see aggregate and coal brooches in Tiffanys. Wearable statements about what society values – setting fossil fuels and concrete in fine metal as if they are so desired – as desired and indispensable to high living as diamonds – in another sense they are. Hashimoto incorporates rings and necklaces that are statements – not of wealth, power and haute couture, but of society – objets d’art. 

Taking up the lion’s share of the ground floor is Capture, the first comprehensive survey of artist Sam Smith. Smith questions image making conventions and presentation with his video installations that incorporate sculpture and performance while he uses these to explore relationships between geology, technology and environment.

You can see the works of Kirsten Coelho, Fernando Do Campo, Kyoko Hashimoto and Sam Smith at the UNSW Galleries, Cnr Oxford St and Greens Road, Paddington, until 31 July, 2021.

Featured image : Ceramicist Kirstin Coelho.