Gus Clutterbuck’s Broken Journey

Drawing from the porcelain traditions of Jingdezhen, Gus Clutterbuck’s work is a journey across culture and geography.

I’m holding in my hand a ceramic shard – the base of a Ming Dynasty vase. It has some market value but its real worth lies in a small figure flying a kite, drawn by an anonymous artisan. As a drawing goes it rates with any that one could wish for in capturing the moment when a kite lifts into the wind. Artist Gus Clutterbuck takes it back and places it alongside others he acquired at a market in Jingdezhen. You could call it his bank of images. Known as the ‘Porcelain Capital’, this city in northeastern China has been producing pottery for 1700 years.

Of Jingdezhen it has been said, “To it craftsmen, come from four directions; from it, vessels go to all parts of the world.’’ Clutterbuck first came here in 2013, lured by the possibility of learning more about the traditions and techniques associated with qing-hua (blue and white or ‘blue flowers’ painting). The student was ready and a teacher appeared – Haung Fei, who became Clutterbuck’s mentor, instructing him in not only illustrative and technical skills but also traditional stories and symbolism.

There was much to learn – how to hold a brush, how to use different brushes including the remarkable chicken head brush (which looks like a Ginger Meggs haircut), and how to mix colours using solutions mixed with green tea and honey. Alongside this, Clutterbuck was introduced to the grammar of qing-hua design, patterning and pictorial composition. Clutterbuck has continued to visit and work at Jingdezhen, still learning at the elbow of Haung Fei, gradually refining his brush work and stretching the possibilities of fusing his world with the vernacular and spiritual realms of Chinese ceramics and wider culture.

A recent example, to be displayed within his forthcoming Artroom 5 exhibition in December, is a very large plate, Self Portrait as Li Bai, surrounded by eight Auspicious Shards. This imposing piece is typical in its scale and decorative design to ware produced routinely in many ceramic workshops in Jingdezhen. In the central panel ‘the artist/Li Bai’ stands against an APY landscape backdrop in northwest South Australia. In the surrounding panels, designs referencing shards, including the boy with a kite, float against backdrops of repeat patterns.

This item says much about Clutterbuck and his creative journey. Within a wide-ranging art practice, which includes painting, photography and community arts, Clutterbuck worked in the APY lands at Ernabella Art Centre and in Aboriginal schools teaching ceramics and design. This experience left him with profound perspectives on the turbulent nature of cultural fragmentation set against a timeless landscape in which individual human experience is measured against the cosmos.

But, being an artist, he sought ways to bring such lofty thoughts to ground. Some answers lay literally at his feet as he collected rubbish such as crushed drink bottles, fired ceramic ‘copies’ from casts and re-presented them in mini-installations that looked like scaled-down landscapes. The move from drink bottles to shards was a logical and opportunistic step. Making something special from discarded, everyday items has become a hallmark of his practice.

While many of his current works, plates, bowls and tiles, superficially look like qing-hua homages, closer inspection always turns up disarming contemporary references to life as he encounters it on the streets, in The Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, or in the Australian outback.

Curator Vivonne Thwaites has drawn attention to a common thread in his practice – a “fascination with brokenness and dysfunction”, in effect, “a broken aesthetic”.

The fact that shards and scraps of rubbish are wrapped in something bigger and better, even the sublimity of a heavenly Chinese landscape, is an indication of Clutterbuck’s belief in the healing power of art. Add to this his inclusion of images of his mother and father posing under a tree in a traditional landscape, or in a tea house, and images of the artist as a boy with a cousin astride a bridge in a classic willow pattern setting and you have a picture of an artist who has the courage to deal with cultural difference in a robust and inventive manner.

Robust character also extends to his illustrative style. The experience of working regularly alongside Haung Fei and other artists from various parts of the world has given him technical confidence; particularly in brushwork, Clutterbuck has retained an engaging, rough-hewn boldness in the manner he goes about articulating ideas and the world he observes. This is particularly evident in lively designs based on street views around Jingdezhen in which a teeming modern city is translated into a wonderland of activity.

In his constant journeying and determination to immerse in other cultures, Clutterbuck resembles one of those hermit poets who populate the uplands of Chinese paintings, dwarfed by sublime landscapes and far from home, but clutching familiar robes of family memories.

Gus Clutterbuck
Artroom5
Saturday, December 1 to Sunday, December 23
artroom5.com.au

Header image:
Gus Clutterbuck, Self Portrait as Li Bai, surrounded by eight Auspicious Shards, 2016

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