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Tamasin Pepper: rising to the surface.

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"WHEN I WAS A KID, I WANTED TO COLLECT ONE OF everything. Walking along the beach would be a doorpiece (the 'lid' on the shell of sea molluscs) or maybe a cowrie shell or a bit of driftwoo." Tamasin Pepper tells this story with a smile but there is also a note of sympathy for that child with unbounded ambition, the adult seeing ahead to point where there is the first painful realisation of limits.

Let us explore this story a little further for what it tells us about the artist. Pepper says "one of everything", but she is not talking about collecting a car, or new clothes or the latest toy. She is speaking about objects that are valueless in monetary terms, but priceless in the way that they feed the imagination of the child and, later, the artist. These objects, so often overlooked, have their own beauty and the act of finding such a thing for oneself, that particular three-cornered shell with its blush of violet and pink on its smooth inside, its delicately ribbed outside, can be the source of an individual and lasting pleasure.

Life itself is remembered as a collection of discrete moments, each moment with its emotion of joy, pain, satisfaction, anger, happiness or sorrow and our memories are collections of these moments. And with each object collected, there is a larger narrative of which it is part. The cowrie shell once housed and sheltered a living creature. The shell is the only reminder of a life once lived, from the chance watery meeting of egg and sperm, to growth, its own acts of reproduction and death.

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Pepper still collects. At first, these objects--pebbles, shells and twigs, petrified wood from her travels in Central Australia and the woody seedpods of jacaranda collected on strolls near her home in Bellingen, NSW--were only reference material in her exploration of texture. Then, inspired by their beauty and their implication of the cycles of time, she began to incorporate them into her work. One of her favourite found objects is the doorpiece. Pepper's doorpiece is the operculum of gastropod molluscs, literally a 'little lid'. She showed me a few. They were cream coloured, roughly oval, about the size of my thumbnail, smooth and flat on one side with a single brown line spiraling outward from the centre, the other side raised in a hump where the mollusc gripped it tightly--its protection against the invading world.

Pepper incorporates these doorpieces in her work, inserting them like jewellery into the surface. They draw the eye wherever she places them, creating a tension between nature and artefact. This is augmented by her surfaces which often draw on the naturally subdued and mottled colouring of sandstone. It is an intriguing effect, as in Coastal Landscape where she uses two doorpieces to form a strong focal point--as though they were fossil inclusions exposed in the strata of a cliff face. She says: "'Remnants' is a word that represents my new, more sculptural work, because it is the core, the bones of shells I'm looking at, the continuum of a plane un folding. It's much less pot materially, but it is all the spaces you can see around."

In Inside Out (2007), there is the fragment of shell, the twist of worn carapace formed around a soft creature, a strip of clay that teases the viewer, making the eye follow a path outside, inside and outside again in a continuous movement. Rather than enclosing the space, there is a sense of looking through an opening, a doorway that connects space and time--time present to time past. Pepper's work has an apparent fragility, a lightness that allows space like a breath to move in, out and around.

Earlier work by Pepper makes this connection between apertures (space) and time. Crescent Remnant (2000) is a rust-coloured crescent moon, the two horns curling together, almost meeting to form the circle of the full moon, the past or future represented as a shape outlined in space.

In Shell Temple (2001) we see a tall vesseltemple topped by a curved slab like an ancient altar. A short distance from the base, at the visual centre of gravity, Pepper has pierced through a circular hole, placing a helix core of shell within it. Again, its eroded descending planes remind us of the turning of time.

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Pepper writes, "The piece becomes a shrine to the object, elevating it, inviting contemplation." These pieces have warmth and tactility. One is drawn to explore those stony surfaces with the fingertips as well as the eyes, to feel for oneself the generous open curve of the platters, the gentle corrugations where the artist has left evidence of the process of her making, coils in their upward journey joined but not disguised.

Marks of the scraper and paddle, the overlap of slabs, are accented with oxides. Subtle blues and greys move across her pieces like clouds. Layers of engobes and oxides rubbed back give the effect of green-grey lichen on a rock or the orange and black mottling of weathering.

Tamasin Pepper has an eye for the big picture as well as details. Looking down at the surface of one of her platters is like looking down on an imagined Australian landscape. Here are the plains and hills worn down by millennia, revealing the junctures of ancient riverbeds and volcanic intrusions, the wide valleys scoured by glaciers.

Changes are occurring within her work. There is a movement from the harder-edged geometric work to the generous open proportions of her platters with their irregular shapes and eroded rims, the undulating overlaps of her bottle forms, the triumphant spiral of Conch Study. It also marks a gradual stepping away from the conceptually situated nature of her earlier work to a more intuitive and what Pepper describes as a 'painterly' approach. In Undulation rectangles and squares of soft and mottled colour, oxide and engobe, meet edge to edge to form a satisfying balance of idea and form. In Seoul Dreaming, we see a bold serpentine of cream overlaid against a horizontal parabola of blue-grey and demilunes of speckled orange, green and black--a composition inspired by the artist's first sight of the great river systems of Korea while flying in to Seoul. These confident and relaxed works are from an artist hitting her stride and it was one of her platters, Mountains, River, Sea, that was chosen to be exhibited at the Fourth World Ceramic Biennale, Korea, in 2007.

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Pepper considers that there are echoes of Asian aesthetic in her work, partly through one of her teachers, Hiroe Swen, the Japanese-born artist living and teaching in the ACT, Austrakia, but also through her early childhood which, until the age of five, was spent in South-East Asia, primarily in Laos. Although this was her first visit to Korea, and she was unacquainted with the country and the language, she felt quite at home with Korean culture. It all seemed familiar.

It may be that this felicitous combination of those dry Australian surfaces and colours and her quiet forms have a particular resonance with the Korean audience, as Pepper has been invited back to Korea for a solo show with the Tong-In Gallery in Seoul, July 23--August 5 2008.

Tamasin Pepper comments that the World Ceramics Biennale was founded with the intention of restoring a creative impetus to the Korean ceramics industry and to "reinvigorate their illustrious tradition". In any meeting of cultures, however, an ex change always takes place. There can be no doubt that Tamasin Pepper will come away from her visit to the shimmering, watery, celadon landscape of Korea with something new to add to her collection.

Karen Weiss is a ceramic artist and writer from Sydney, Australia.
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Title Annotation:sculptor
Author:Weiss, Karen
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:8AUNS
Date:Jun 1, 2008
Words:1301
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