Coming to terms with impermanence

Bronwynne Cornish’s upcoming survey exhibition combines her groundbreaking ceramic installations with smaller figurative sculptures that navigate between the sacred and the divine. Virginia Were reports.
Pacific Sphinx

In his book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, William Dalrymple observes that the wall between the divine and the mundane in India is a fairly porous one, and wonders if the sub-continent still offers an alternative to materialism given its dizzyingly rapid rate of development in recent years.

In 2008 New Zealand artist Bronwynne Cornish completed a six-week residency at the Sanskriti Foundation in New Delhi, and she too noticed the porous threshold between the sacred and mundane. She was also fascinated by the way human and animal forms—like the deity Ganesha who has the head of an elephant and the body of a human—frequently morph in Hindu mythology.

While in Delhi she made two large ceramic sculptures, Howl and Screech, which are strange human-animal hybrids embodying the city’s chaotic energy and eerie nocturnal sounds—the dogs she heard howling at night, fireworks booming during the wedding season and the unearthly shriek of peacocks at dawn. Screech has the body of a dog painted an intense blue, a human torso and the head of a bird. Its sharp beak is open mid-cry and it holds a mysterious lump of gold that looks like a charm or amulet. Much darker more menacing and equally vocal is Howl, a wolf-like creature with a moa’s feet, a sturdy, powerful body and a red gash of a mouth. With her characteristic dash of irreverence and humour, Cornish has given both creatures gilded toenails—an unexpected gaudy detail that would do any Hindu god or goddess proud. “Howl and Screech were born in and of Delhi. They couldn’t have been made anywhere else,” says Cornish.

Bronwynne Cornish, howl and screech
Howl and Screech in Bronwynne Cornish’s studio. Photography: Sheridan Keith

These two were the first in an ongoing series of human-animal sculptures encouraging us to connect with nature and rediscover a sense of wildness amidst our technology saturated environment and the hum-drum routine of daily life. They join Cornish’s long-running series of ‘Pacific Sphinxes’—smaller mythological figures which have a wonderful vitality and a startling anthropomorphic presence. Strongly animistic, they reference ancient pagan religions and celebrate the strong connections between humankind and animals. As devotional objects they affirm the presence of the divine in everyday life and invite us to reflect on the small miracles we often overlook, the undeniable presence of magic in our daily lives.

Cornish is a highly regarded ceramicist, sculptor and arts educator who initially studied industrial design at Wellington Polytechnic School of Design, but soon discovered her love of earthenware. In 1968 she became the apprentice of leading domestic potter Helen Mason in Auckland, making mainly figurative works which she sold at Brown’s Mill markets in Auckland. Since then Cornish has exhibited widely in dealer and public galleries and she represented New Zealand at the Asia Pacific Triennial Of Contemporary Art in 1996. Her solo exhibition Allude, at Auckland Art Gallery in 2002, paid homage to Frances Hodgkins, who often included ceramics in her paintings.

In December last year I saw Howl and Screech in the group exhibition Animaux at Blikfang Gallery in Northcote, Auckland. At the time I was interviewing Cornish about her upcoming survey exhibition, Mudlark: Bronwynne Cornish, ceramics 1982 – 2013, which opens in March at MTG Hawke’s Bay. Much anticipated by her many fans, it includes one of her large-scale installations, Home is where the Heart is (first shown at Denis Cohn Gallery in 1982) which includes 365 separate pieces—one for each day of the year. The work acts as a bridge between Mudlark and her previous survey at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, which included works from 1970 to 1989. It combines some of Cornish’s signature forms—ceramic clothes pegs, cats, tuataras, sphinxes and a small temple—resting on a bed of raked sand, Japanese style, and placed within a circular boundary of river stones.

Bronywnne Cornish, Home is where the Heart is. Installation view, Denis Cohn Gallery, Auckland, 1982. Image courtesy of the artist

Quoted in Anne Kirker’s book New Zealand Women Artists – A Survey of 150 Years, Cornish said: “Home is where the Heart is is about the female mysteries, and as such must remain cloaked in a certain amount of hiddenness, its true meaning visible only to those who can read the signs. With these arrangements I like to create an open ‘framework’ on which people can hang their own stories and interpretations, thus the piece can be read and enjoyed on many levels.”

After its run at MTG Mudlark will travel to The Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland and then The Dowse in Lower Hutt. Because it’s a travelling show the works have been tightly edited, covering four distinct areas of Cornish’s practice—the ‘Pacific Sphinxes’, the temples, the large-scale installations, and a recent series of standing figures incorporating Victorian hand mirrors.

Cornish has been working with MTG curator Lucy Hammonds for the last two years, selecting work from 1982 to the present. The show’s substantial catalogue includes ten black and white portraits, taken by Mark and Deborah Smith, of collectors photographed with Cornish’s work. She feels it’s important the work is seen in a domestic setting: “I’m interested in what happens to the work once it leaves me. It’s important to me that these portraits are included in the catalogue because I’m trying to provide a way for people to have some kind of spiritual input in their lives that isn’t specific to a religion.”

Bronwynne Cornish photographed by Deborah Smith and Mark Smith. Courtesy of MTG Hawke’s Bay

Hopefully Mudlark will introduce Cornish to a new audience who are not aware of her history and the profound influence her work has had on contemporary ceramics—she was one of the first New Zealand artists to combine multiple ceramic objects in large-scale installations, building narratives and creating powerful physical experiences for viewers.

Perhaps her most radical work is Dedicated to the Kindness of Mothers, a site-specific installation shown at Auckland City Art Gallery in late 1983. Cornish was a practicing Buddhist at the time and the work originated from a Buddhist meditation of the same name. It was a potent mix of the ancient and the modern, the emotional and the coolly conceptual. “I started with the meditation, the idea that I wanted to create a large figure lying on the ground, and I wanted to acknowledge past mothers … The lighting of the work is very important to me because I’m trying to create an atmosphere—I’m not really all that interested in all the individual objects. I’m only interested in them as a whole so I see all the things I make as one continuous work.”

Owl jugs by Bronwynne Cornish
Bronwynne Cornish, Owl jugs, ceramic. Courtesy of Masterworks Gallery

Like any figurative sculptor Cornish must grapple with the issue of how to display her work in the white cube. She avoids the plinth at all costs and many of her installations are floor based. In Dedicated to the Kindness of Mothers the large, roughly formed female figure which dominates the work was made from Three Kings basalt roughly heaped on the floor. In contrast the figure’s fired ceramic head was smooth with a curiously animated smiling face. Beside the figure were three cast urns filled with fresh flowers and leaves that were regularly replenished by friends of the gallery. Gazing down from the walls was a row of 52 ceramic skull-shaped masks. As much a celebration as a memorial, the work sought to re-cast death in a more positive light than is common in western culture. It interwove gratitude and love for the sacrifices made by generations of women and an awareness of genealogy with Buddhist notions of the impermanence of life. Though the choice of materials and formal symmetry evoked Prehistoric civilisations, Dedicated to the Kindness of Mothers also felt highly contemporary—perhaps because of the pink neon lights on the floor which cast a hazy glow up over the skulls, adding to the sense this was a celebration rather than a wake.

Appropriately, given the work originated from a meditation, Cornish says she wanted to slow the viewer down and encourage them to spend more time looking. The repetition of objects and their formal arrangement in the space meant the work had a strongly ritualistic atmosphere that was further emphasised by the dim lighting. “Light really influences how people feel,” says Cornish. “If you make the lighting quite low people have to pause while their eyes adjust. It’s extraordinarily hard to get people to look at your work for more than three or four minutes. We live in such a busy world where people are constantly engaged in things technological—their attention span is very short.”

Bronwynne Cornish Mirror Head with Ventifact
Bronwynne Cornish , Mirror Head with Ventifact, 2013, ceramic and mirror. Courtesy of MTG Hawke’s Bay

After 50 years working with clay and indulging her fiercely experimental spirit, pushing the boundaries of what the material can do, Cornish still loves it. “There are hundreds of ways you can work with clay—it’s a very willing and pliable material,” she says. “I think you can be overwhelmed by the craft of it and forget about the imagery—I always want my work to look quite fresh and animated.”

Cornish is careful not to get too attached to her sculptures before they come out of the kiln.

“When you work with clay you truly come to grips with impermanence. It’s not just a theory –  it’s a reality all the time. Clay is something that can easily break at any stage: I can drop it; I can blow it up; there’s never any assurance that you’re going to end up with your object.”

Continuing her interest in goddess imagery, Cornish is now making a series of female standing figures incorporating Victorian hand mirrors. They’re richly allusive—think of the Greek myth of Narcissus the hunter who was renowned for his beauty, fell in love with his own reflection and gave rise to the term ‘narcissism’. Think of the vain queen in Snow White who consults her mirror every day and asks “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”

With their demure pleated skirts, sturdy, powerful legs and ‘moa’ feet firmly planted on the ground, these are curious figures indeed. They hold jackals, owls, temples and other power objects which further underline Cornish’s interest in exploring strong feminine archetypes.

After years of being considered unfashionable, figurative sculpture is ‘hot’ once more, though the many collectors of Cornish’s work clearly never fell out of love with it. Given the current climate in which many artists are keen to activate radical social and political change, Mudlark is sure to be a highlight of  this year’s exhibitions.

Mudlark: Bronwynne Cornish, ceramics 1982–2013 is at MTG Hawke’s Bay from 29 March to 24 August 2014; The Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland, from 7 November to 6 December 2014, The Dowse, Lower Hutt, in 2015.

More from this issue

Ioana Gordon-Smith reports on the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Robyn Maree Pickens on a master of conceptual meandering.
Fantasy and reality collide in an epic photobook project. Robert Leonard reports.
Clare Corbould and Hilary Emmett on an artist addressing the Pacific slave trade.
Gavin Hipkins celebrates a new storyteller.

Read more

Virginia Winder investigates the ongoing efforts to upscale Len Lye’s kinetic sculptures, taking them to a scale the mercurial artist dreamed of but wasn’t able to achieve in his lifetime.
Over five decades of art-making, Graham Bennett has explored navigation and experimentation, measurement and balance. Increasingly, his speculative works in stone, wood and steel convey the artist’s anger about environmental degradation. Sally Blundell reports.
Richard Lewer’s art makes us laugh even as we recognise the painful moments of weakness and failure he’s looking at. Lisa Slade reports.
Karl Chitham surveys recent toi Māori publishing, making the case for it as an essential vehicle to show the distinctive qualities of Māori art and creativity on Māori terms.
Trans-Tasman artist Euan Macleod spends a week on Waiheke Island, painting, talking and collaborating with fellow artist Gregory O’Brien. Dan Chappell listens in.
In the twelfth of his ‘longer looks’ at individual artworks, Justin Paton finds unexpected glory in a portrait of a personal disaster by Richard Lewer.
For almost 50 years the late Pat Hanly captured the light and colour of the Pacific in a vast body of work—paintings, prints, murals and glass works. Art News talks to his wife, photographer Gil Hanly, about the early days.
Julian McKinnon on the alarming but amorphous spectre of climate change.