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Creative art from tiny pieces of clay

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June 14, 2017

Sydney-based artist Glenn Barkley’s giant ceramic wall piece being created at Shepparton Art Museum is inspired by Shepparton’s Australian Botanic Gardens.

:Vasterthenempires by Glenn Barkley. Picture: Supplied

Urn with garden interior. Picture: Supplied

Sydney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award finalist Glenn Barkley in his studio. Picture: Supplied

If you think ceramics is all about useful jugs and nice glazes, think again.

Glenn Barkley’s tiny pieces of clay are fired and glazed to become shiny jewels then densely arranged on a wall to appease what he calls the ‘‘horror vacui’’.

He uses his obsessions — gardening, history and literature — to play with the curious Latin phrase which means ‘‘fear of empty space’’.

So threaded through a 2.3m-diameter circle comprising hundreds of glittering ceramic pieces pinned to a gallery wall at the Shepparton Art Museum, a simple sentence appears in unglazed brown clay.

It says: ‘‘under the dump a garden’’.

Barkley said his startling work was inspired by a visit to Shepparton’s botanic gardens created on the site of the old Kialla tip.

‘‘I came here six months ago and saw this garden built on top of a tip. It’s got a clay cap — don’t you think that’s great? It’s a really compelling story,’’ he said.

He compares gardeners finding treasures in the soil to ceramicists digging back into history to find inspiration.

He said Shepparton’s Australian Botanic Garden is a great reflection of the city’s history.

‘‘It’s a really multicultural city — it’s quite astounding,’’ Barkley said.

‘‘They’ve interpreted that into the gardens, and I’m told people also use it to run up and down and keep fit. What could be better than a garden?’’

Barkley is one of five finalists being judged for the richest ceramic art prize in Australia to be announced in Shepparton on Saturday.

The $50000 biennial Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award attracts some big players in the world of contemporary ceramics.

Barkley is up against the work of fellow Sydney-based ceramicists Karen Black, Jenny Orchard and Yasmin Smith and Byron Bay-based Laith McGregor.

Each presents an exhibition of work at the leading edge of the art form.

Barkley admits he is not the most technically proficient ceramic artist.

‘‘I’ve only been working in ceramics for five years. I never went and studied it. But the more you do it, the better you get technically,’’ he said.

Barkley has been a curator for most of his artistic life, which explains his extensive use of imagery from ancient Greek, Chinese and Arabic cultures.

‘‘My visual data bank is full. I’ve spent 20 years just looking at stuff, now it’s all coming out,’’ he said.

He is also interested in poetry, particularly the work of TS Eliot and his large pots are circled with Eliot quotes.

‘‘The thing I love about it is that I don’t understand it, but I feel there is something deep there,’’ Barkley said.

‘‘The Four Quartets has this doomed quality. He wrote it during the Second World War when everything seemed to be falling apart.

‘‘I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I feel the same thing is happening now — civilisation is changing and America is collapsing,’’ he said.

Barkley’s 2017 Sidney Myer award installation titled ‘‘Garden Garniture’’ also includes framed collages with images cut from gardening and art magazines and even old Shepparton ceramic award catalogues.

One has a quote from iconic 1980s grunge band Pearl Jam: ‘‘Everything has changed, but nothing has changed’’.

‘‘You see the same techniques and colours in ceramic art being passed from Arabic culture to China and Japan then to Europe then back again,’’ he said.

The Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award winner will be announced at the opening of the exhibition on Saturday at Shepparton Art Museum on Welsford St from 4pm to 6pm. The exhibition runs until August 13.

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