Janet DeBoos: A Survey

Janet DeBoos: A Survey – Curated by Peter Haynes

29 May – 11 July 2015

Janet DeBoos

 View the exhibition catalogue

Domestic ware, 2003/4, Huaguang Zibo bone china IMage: Art Atelier

Janet DeBoos. Functioning Beauty by Peter Haynes, Guest curator

Janet DeBoos's art is the result of an incisive intelligence that understands the importance of the history of her medium (clay) and the role of the vessel throughout that history. The intellectualising of making and the processes of making imbues a conceptual edge into the object being made. Art making is not for her just an expressive human utterance but equally an activity of the mind that comes from a place wider than the individual human. There are social and cultural imbrications that inform human actions and that give rise to meaning and significance. DeBoos's oeuvre explores conceptual and aesthetic strategies that announce and embrace their origins as much in social and cultural realms and in the history of ceramics and in contemporary ceramic practice as in her own ways of making.

DeBoos came to ceramics through evening classes initially at St George Technical College in Sydney, then to East Sydney Technical College (the "National Art School") with Peter Rushforth and thence to a full-time Ceramics Certificate at the same institution from 1970 to 1971 following completion of her Science degree at the University of Sydney. The earliest works in the exhibition are from about 1963. The forms are sure and combined while the well-attuned surface decoration speaks of an early understanding of the need for the coalescence of form and decoration to achieve successful resolution.

Examples of student work reveal DeBoos's capitalising on the expertise of the East Sydney Technical College staff (including Peter Rushforth, Col Levy and Peter Travis).The catholic nature of their combined practices provided a heady place from which to launch a career in ceramics, and while DeBoos went on to study for a Diploma in Education her future path was set. Alan Peascod, with whom DeBoos taught at the Canberra Technical College in the early 'seventies, was another whose abilities, particularly with throwing and the handling of clay generally, have a lasting impact on the artist.

In 1982 DeBoos and her husband established the Brindabella Pottery at Wee Jasper outside Canberra, an enterprise that continued until 1998 when DeBoos accepted the position as Head of Ceramics at the ANU School of Art. Brindabella Pottery was concerned with the production of domestic ware, examples of which reveal a consummate understanding of form as well as seamlessly appropriate surface decoration. The extended period of producing multiple editions of a range of domestic wares imbued in the artist an ongoing respect for the functional as well as a deep understanding and respect for the value of repetition as a mode of making. DeBoos's notion of repetition embraces change within sameness.

DeBoos made "exhibition pieces" parallel with her work at the Brindabella Pottery. These were further explorations into the domestic role of ceramics and from about 1995 in porcelain, undecorated aside from subtly introduced gestural flourishes embedded into the form.

The notion of "sets" is important to DeBoos and has produced some of her most convincing works. "Set Theory", the nominal title the artist uses to cover a rather broad range of works consisting of multiple units, was a concept familiar to her through her early education in mathematics (and science). A "set" was a discrete piece consisting of a number of like units. DeBoos proposes that sets do not have to comprise a number of like units. Their composition is determined by the maker not by accepted practice or historical exemplars. They are a "set" because they share common use. DeBoos believes a cup is a cup is a cup, that is that function provides familial relationship even if form, decoration, cultural origin, or whatever do not. That the members of the set were made (or selected) by the artist is arguably the most relevant element in determining familial association.

DeBoos's exploration of issues around function, the domestic and the handmade may be seen to have connections with a nostalgic Romantic vision of the artist but it has resulted in a number of other questioning narratives that have continuing reverberations in her work. One of these concerns the relationship between the appearance of the handmade object and that of the industrially produced object. DeBoos posited the thesis that there were no real qualitative differences between the so-called crafted object and that produced in the factory. This was tested in 2002/03 when an Italian company Paolo C Ceramiche purchased some of her work as prototypes for industrial production. This "testing of the design waters" is another instance of the making through thinking (or vice versa) approach that is essential to any understanding of DeBoos's art.

A more long lasting relationship with industry/design than that with Italy is DeBoos's work in China. An invitation in 2003 to work in Zibo in Shandong Province has proved to be of especial significance. The professional results from the initial period of work have continuing repercussions for DeBoos. Arguably, apart from the plastic results, the determination that while she may now be considered as a designer, that the most intuitive designers must also be makers, has reaped a multiplicity of benefits. The artist's continuing professional relationship with Chinese factories has produced some captivating works. Industrially produced, based on her designs and prototypes, they still hold the lure of the handmade, and are made with the infusion of that lure in mind.

From about 2003 DeBoos begins titling works as "Set Theory". These are as various and rambling as the individual units that comprise them. Their variety, both within a single work and across the "series", imbues aesthetic excitement and does not allow the viewers to be simply passive observers. There is a lot happening in these works. Viewers are required (not "asked") to travel through this work (as indeed they are with all the artist's work) and to question not only the artist's intent but the questions that inform that intent and their own reactions to those questions and their visual manifestations.

Ever peripatetic in 2008 DeBoos began another ongoing working relationship, this time with the Ernabella Arts Centre in remote South Australia. Her role was essentially an educative one but her experiences there resonate with her own work and, like the Chinese collaborations, open new aesthetic opportunities and new questions about ceramics and its role in different cultures and how her experiences can be best translated into her own oeuvre.

From 2008 a remarkable series of works addressing Chinese ceramic traditions, Indigenous Australia, the Australian environment and her own understanding of these in relation to her incisive intellectual way of dealing with art and life, has been the outcome. The elision of Chinese and Australian motifs is a natural step in DeBoos's explorations and is powerfully exemplified in a number of works in the exhibition. The infused elision of motifs associated with the particular cultures has an especial eloquence when it is understood as part of the active thinking/making processes of the artist. DeBoos posits the proposition of the value of the hybrid cultural artefact in not only placing herself in the world but offering possibilities to others.

While sets constitute a major part of DeBoos's formal repertoire single pieces are also present in abundance. The most recent work is "Lidded jar" from 2015. This has a quietly beautiful presence emphasised by its softly modulated palette and its graceful form. Bands of Australian terracotta are interspersed with panels of Chinese motifs in an eloquent iteration of the language of hybridity that DeBoos has made very much her own.

The works in this exhibition clearly show an artist of depth both intellectually and aesthetically. DeBoos's art has gone through a range of transitions but each of these is characterised by an astute understanding of where the artist has been, why she is where she is and where she might be going. Her intellectual inclinations in the making of each vessel imbue her art with resonance and depth and an interrogative character that is simultaneously exciting and didactic.

Peter Haynes has over 35 years’ experience in curating, writing and arts administration and is one of Australia's highly-acclaimed curators and commentators of Australian ceramics.