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Stephen Benwell: beauty, anarchy, desire--a retrospective.

STEPHEN BENWELL IS A REMARKABLE ARTIST; HE IS NOT ONLY committed, but also modest to a fault. His great friend Janine Burke has described him as "a sort of natural aristocrat" (1) and this sensibility was especially palpable among the variously scaled, sculptural and painterly works that formed his retrospective at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne in 2013. Benwell is cited as being one of Australia's most critically acclaimed ceramics artists, (2) although you would be mistaken for thinking this has even registered with him. When we met at his studio space in St Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne, Benwell appeared shy, even introspective; yet this professional containment belies an acute knowledge of art history, poetry, classicism and geometry, as well as an incredible inventiveness. His colourful studio is littered with his sculptural vessel forms --from small and lumpish, to large and princely--unfired clay models, figurines, sketches, as well as paintbrushes and modelling tools. No surface is left empty; and his works are constantly being modified. Indeed, many of Benwell's vessels bear the marks of being reworked: the translucent layers of liquid slip revealing traces of earlier compositions. Much like Picasso (an artist Benwell greatly admires and whose painting methods were captured in the 1956 film, Le mystere Picasso) Benwell's surfaces reveal their own history. For him, the incomplete erasure of former compositions is effective.

Benwell is something of an outsider. Having trained as a painter in the early 1970s, he encountered pots almost by chance while experimenting with the supports for his figurative paintings. "I moved towards painting patterns and linear designs on stoneware pots: it seemed a legitimate way to paint at a time when painting was dying out." (3) Benwell's perspective was certainly consistent with the Zeitgeist of the 1970s (a time of plurality) and it was this unconventional approach to pottery that gave freedom to his creativity. Even now, Benwell admits to finding the marginalisation of craft 'liberating'. (4) In the 1980s, the ceramics landscape was awash with painting on pots, which left Benwell feeling he was 'riding a wave', but by contrast the 1990s saw the advent of the new minimalism, with artists such as Edmund de Waal and Gwyn Hansen Piggott. "Things go in cycles," admits Benwell, yet arguably it is this recurrent outsider status that has acted as a catalyst for his creativity; Benwell has been adept at shaping his output in response to the Zeitgeist, buoyed up by his exemplary knowledge of both historical and contemporary practice.

Benwell's ambivalence to defining his practice as either painting or ceramics is reflected in his working methods. A consummate rag-picker, Benwell mines such diverse fields as ancient Greek sculpture, Picasso's paintings, preColumbian pottery and 18th century porcelain painting for a rich palette of formal references; as John McPhee has noted: "While it is possible to occasionally identify a source, Benwell always manages to create an unexpected shape." (5) He surveys the rich gamut of artistic practice, rather than assigning himself to a particular school of thought, or technique: "I never quite left behind my ambitions to be a painter," he states, "and neither did I ever fully embrace the persona of potter. I have kept a foot in both camps." (6) Instead, Benwell is an attentive bystander, who acknowledges formal aspects, motifs and approaches and assimilates these into his own distinct visual language. "To make art," he has stated, "you can't be the same person every day of your life, because you would not be an interesting artist. You have to shift gears in your mind to let other things out." (7) And it is his inability to settle with either traditional or contemporary forms that propels him into action. Instead, he says, "I want to make art that feels like sitting in a good armchair," (8) paraphrasing Matisse's claim for an 'art of balance' that provides respite from the world. (9) His work does just that: his vessels, achieve a melancholy reverie.

In 2013, Jason Smith, Director of the Heide Museum of Modern Art, invited Benwell to assemble a retrospective of his work that would chart the evolution of his practice. (10) The sheer breadth of his work was exemplified in the dynamic range of his handbuilt ceramic forms - from a roughly hewn Sauce-boat (1971) with a crudely pulled spout, to a heroic Grey Vase (1987) whose silver patina is etched in muddied layers of paint; and his more recent Statue, Male Nude (2010) that exhibits both a youthful vitality and a feeling of melancholy. At first glance, the work reflects the narrative layering of British artist Grayson Perry's vessel forms, yet Benwell's surfaces are less "acerbic [and] darkly personal" (11) and more illusionary. This, Benwell explains, is achieved through a process of de-skilling; he opts for 'automatic drawing', (an involuntary method of mark-making favoured by artists such as Andre Masson and Joan Miro) over and above labouring his surfaces, acknowledging that artists can become "too well-practised". (12) Moreover, while Perry's surface treatments are somehow supplemental to the vessel forms, Benwell's are discernibly composite; interior and exterior are conjoined. As Jason Smith notes, "Each pot situates the viewer in an active, dynamic relationship with what is happening in its form and around its surface." (13) What is more, while Perry's vessels are singular works, Benwell's work in dialogue with each other. His immersive approach to painting, often working on several vessels simultaneously, allows for the correspondence of motifs across his surfaces: from the male nude to studies from nature, pastoral motifs to arabesques. Perhaps a more fitting comparison can be made with American artist Betty Woodman's illusive, three-dimensional forms; like Woodman, Benwell's visual eclecticism is rooted in the play between dimensions, ornamentation and function. Yet, for Benwell, it is simple: "It is the idea of the painted-on pot that I follow." (14)

More recently, Benwell has been working on a series of vessel forms to which he glues found materials (including weather-stained paper, plastic, metal and glass) (15) that respond, at least in part, to the noticeable shift towards clay among young Australian artists. He admits that "the new wave of grunge and amateurism is one that I like" (16) and these makeshift vessels have a crude energy to them. Again, this creative buoyancy and adaptation is exemplary of Stephen Benwell's approach: "Ideas are always simmering," he admits and it is this ingenuity that permeates his surfaces.


(1.) Janine Burke. "Foreword: The Gifts of Metamorphosis", in Jason Smith ed., Stephen Benwell, Beauty Anarchy Desire: A Retrospective (Melbourne: Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2013), 45.

(2.) Introductory text, Stephen Benwell: Beauty, Anarchy, Desire--A Retrospective.

(3.) Personal communication with the artist, 1 July 2014.

(4.) Personal interview with the artist, 23 September 2013.

(5.) John McPhee, "Stephen Benwell: Artist-Potter" in Jason Smith ed, Stephen Benwell, Beauty Anarchy Desire: A Retrospective (Melbourne: Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2013), 45.

(6.) Personal communication with the artist, 1 July 2014.

(7.) John McPhee, "Stephen Benwell: Artist-Potter" 54-55.

(8.) Personal interview with the artist, 23 September 2013.

(9.) Henri Matisse, "Notes d'un Peintre", in Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves eds, Artists on Art: From the 14th-20th centuries (London: Pantheon Books, 1972), 413.

(10.) Jason Smith, 'Preface,' in Jason Smith ed, Stephen Benwell, Beauty Anarchy Desire: A Retrospective, 9.

(11.) Amanda Game, "Graphic Pots", Ceramic Review, No. 252, November/December 2011, 32-34: 32.

(12.) Personal interview with the artist, 23 September 2013.

(13.) Jason Smith, Revelations of Beauty, Anarchy and Desire,' in Jason Smith ed., Stephen Benwell, Beauty Anarchy Desire: A Retrospective, 92-101:94.

(14.) Personal communication with the artist, 1 July 2014.

(15.) Ibid.

(16.) Ibid.

Kimberley Chandler is a writer and researcher in contemporary craft, design and architecture and the recipient of the AHRC-funded studentship "Design Agency: Activism, Innovation, Transformation" at the University of Brighton, UK. Stephen Benwell is represented by Niagara Galleries, Melbourne ( All photos by David McArthur unless noted.
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Author:Chandler, Kimberley
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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