1 November to 15 December 2012

Margaret Brown

Notations by Janet DeBoos

In Speaking Volumes: Pottery and Word (pp6 – 19 Studio Potter vol 35 2007), Paul Mathieu says that 'Writing is the most essential discovery of humankind after the still more ancient discovery of fire, and both are closely related to ceramics, both as an art form and in its contribution to the development of civilization and world culture. If the origin of writing and mathematics is closely related to clayi, it is interesting to note that ceramic technology itself became mature at the same time as these developments, with the invention of the wheel, kilns and the first glazes. This part of the world that we now call the Middle East not only gave us the earliest written texts, but also saw the birth of pottery and ceramics as a refined technology.'

In calling her current body of work 'Notations' rather than 'Writings' or 'Language' or 'Text', Margaret Brown has made connections between the ceramic object and even broader fields of cultural experience. The idea of notations as a specialised system of symbols or marks that communicate information is commonly associated with music or mathematics. The writing of 'notes' on staves with their accompanying symbols communicating to musicians how those notes should be played is generally understood, as is the use of symbols in mathematics to stand for – or represent – functions and quantities.


In ceramics, both the object and the medium are frequently regarded as being 'beyond' words. They communicate, but do so haptically, phenomenologically and relationally. Similarly the lexicon of marks and symbols frequently relate to the medium itself or to its own history.

So here we are faced with work that Brown has invited us to view in a different way – presenting marks and symbols from two very different cultures – and different epochs – and asking that we see the connections that are beyond those usually associated with her chosen medium.

Let's first look at the hieroglyphs – symbols that most of us will be familiar with in their iconic association with not only specifically Egyptian history – but almost generically with ancient archeological endeavour and discovery. There is strong evidence that written language developed independently in Egypt over 5000 years agoii with a system of both alphabetic and logographic forms and that these forms were current for over 3000 years. The lay person today does not know what these symbols stand for in any true sense of translation or comprehension – but that does not deny that they have meaning for us. The meaning becomes embedded in a general understanding about communication and meaning, and the capacity of language to span time.

Graffiti is Brown's other notational source – and here she is using resources and data gathered directly from experience. Whilst travelling through country Australia she noticed graffiti everywhere. Although it defaced buildings, she saw it as more than the act of vandalism. She thoughtfully gathered this material, and made drawings of it, and ruminated about it as the kilometres passed. Gradually it coalesced into an understanding (and a vision for a new body of work) that although it carried different primary messages – both graffiti and hieroglyphs talked a common meta – language. Vast differences in time, vast differences in styles, vast differences in readership – yet somehow connected through the fact that it was an act of communication through markmaking. This essentially human characteristic – to communicate with others beyond oral possibilities – transcended these differences.

The forms that Brown has chosen to be the carriers of these notations are all open bowl forms. Her previous work used both bowls and cylinders, and it is interesting that it is the open form that she has used for this work. There is a visual logic in this – in that her message is about human communication – and an open vessel could be seen as an 'open book', offering, rather than holding or concealing its messages.

She has used a pottery technique that is found in many ceramic cultures – one which she calls 'neriage', a term used to denote a Japanese version of this particular coloured clay process.iii It involves making lozenges of clay of differing colours that when viewed on cross section are recognisable forms. These lozenges are massed together and cross cut into thin slices, which are then pressed into a bowl shaped mould. The method is not unlike that involved in making Brighton Rock – that lolly that contains words and messages (often with the letters distorted in the making) that run continuously through a 'stick' of the confection.

For the 'hieroglyph bowls', Brown has used a very reduced palette, with glyphs of the finest outline imaginable without their complete disappearance. This is done by using a combination of wet clay slip and plastic clay lozenges in the shape of the hieroglyphs. The dark slip dries to a very thin section, and so leaves just the finest trace after drying and firing. This technique requires patience, and the care of craftsmanship of the highest level. Cracking and distortion are constant companions to this type of ware. But there is value in overcoming these difficulties as it means that the same pattern runs through from inside to outside the bowl forms, becoming reversed in the process. In using this technique it becomes a metaphor for transmission of meaning 'through' and 'over time'.

The graffiti bowls use a variation on neriage/nerikomi in that they are thrown after construction using lozenges. This is a new technique that Brown has developed, and was driven by aesthetic needs of the imagery. In having the entire of her professional post – training practice predicated on familiarity and expertise in coloured clay use, she is now able to make decisions that are unbounded by conventional practices in these techniques. What merges in this highly coloured 'graffiti' work is a distortion of the imagery – a slightly 'trippy' alternative reading, quite unlike the faded precision of the hieroglyphs – again a highly appropriate decision using technology to further concept.

In 'Notations' we see the work of an expert in her specialised field, and artist capable of making decisions that are about material and method and their relationship to idea. We see the present connected to the past, and the persistence of craft as a vehicle for communication – not only about clay and craft, but about communication itself.

Janet DeBoos, Head of Ceramics Workshop, School of Art, Australian National University