Painter and ceramicist Stephen Bird takes to the conventions of traditional English crockery and attending ideas about etiquette and formality with a joyous subversion. His subjects—including gruesome murder scenes, animal cruelty, dismembered body parts and sex—reveal a taste for the transgressive. Yet there is more to these tableaux of apparently gratuitous violence than meets the eye. The gun-toting messiahs of Ecce homo, for instance, are based on mass-produced plastic Jesus figurines and, while cartoonish and silly, signify the dubious formulations on which modern warfare is based.
Bird grew up in Stoke-on-Trent, the birthplace of English ceramics. His work typically appropriates iconography from the established pottery houses of his home town: a stiff pastoral scene from Spode, a decorative Royal Doulton rose, the cabbage leaf of Mintons’ Victorian majolica. Bird turns also to the intimate realm of his studio and to contemporary art discourse for inspiration and comic effect—one plate gently mocks a gallery visitor’s assessment of Bird’s artwork, another is the non-descript referent bearing the phrase ‘post-non-ceramic’. In many respects these plates exemplify the confusion of categories that now pervades creative industries: in production, process and materiality they belong to the domain of craft, while the subversive content keeps this category at arm’s length.
The stylistic naiveté of Bird’s ceramics belie his technical prowess: his glazes, for instance, are rich and their application considered. The individuality of each work and the inalienable presence of the artist’s hand is also a conscious nod to what has been lost in the age of mass production and consumption. Bird’s works, though laced with sharp wit, strangely invoke the emotional connection which is felt towards things that have been made with love.
Ian Potter Gallery
University of Melbourne