As part of Sydney Contemporary 2023, Artereal Gallery will unveil a solo presentation of deliciously seductive new ceramic works by celebrated contemporary ceramicist Ebony Russell. Alongside this solo focus, Artereal will also showcase a dynamic cross-section of paintings, video and mixed-media works as part of a curated group exhibition featuring represented artists: Ashlee Becks, Patrizia Biondi and Elwira Skowronska.
To view the solo presentation of Ebony Russell’s new artworks for Sydney Contemporary, and read the accompanying essay by acclaimed Australian author Nikki Gemmell, keep scrolling down this page.
To view artworks by Ashlee Becks, Patrizia Biondi and Elwira Skowronska, which will be shown as part of our group exhibition at Sydney Contemporary, click here.
To visit Artereal Gallery at Sydney Contemporary, find us at Stand F03.
Strap yourself in, because Ebony Russell is challenging our notions of what it is to be feminine – and what female art should look like. Look closely, because under the bubblegum coloured, fairytale façades, this is subversion. “I never wanted to make ‘pots’ because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of woman as vessel, as hole. So my work has spaces and absences.” She explains: “It’s an illusion of a pot. Hollow. Open-based. They’re orifices.”
Russell is informed by feminist writers Margaret Atwood and Rebecca Solnit; inspired by songwriters Kate Bush, Courtney Love and Deborah Conway. Her work is unashamedly feminine, unashamedly decorative. And she’s reclaiming that much maligned D-word. “Decoration is seen as feminine, architecture as masculine. And that’s the foundation of a building, seen as its strength. Decoration is placed on top of it. It’s not perceived as serious or relevant to structure. It’s sidelined in the pantheon; viewed as frivolous and feminine. The feminine is ‘lesser.’”
Russell’s work blazes with the beauty of things that refuse to be seen as lesser. ‘Suspicious Beauty’ is an apt title for her show – it’s strong beauty, spiky beauty, thoughtful beauty. “My work is pretty and dangerous. It’s been wounded.” It has the enchantment of fairy tale – but like our darkest childhood narratives, prick your finger and … ouch. It may draw blood.
Russell’s creamy, foamy surfaces look melting and soft but they can be vicious. “Our true selves, as women, have always been hidden. No one ever saw blood or muck. No one was prepared for the reality of womanhood. So much was hidden. So much truth.” She adds, “As women we always have to cleanse ourselves and deny ourselves, for other people.”
And so in these beautiful creations we have cracks and skewed surfaces and air bubble pops of farts. Do not expect perfection. That is one screwed-up word that keeps women bound, exhausted, suppressed. “I won’t strive for perfection,” retorts Russell, of her work. “This is womanhood.” Look closely and beneath the dollops of the most delicious-looking icing in its bubble gum hues you might find mini labias. Clits. The sour gurning of Weird Barbie. The vicious teeth of Vagina Dentata. Handles that mimic the curve of fallopian tubes.
“One of the main pieces of the show is pink and red bits,” laughs Russell. “The pink bits! That is womanhood.” Her work is decorative but useless. It subverts the patriarchy. Russell may be cackling like a fairy godmother in the darkest of fairy tales as she whips up her luscious creations, but there’s complicated thought behind the beauty.
No one else in the world is making art like this. Her almost lickable pieces are ceramics as sculptural medium. At first glance you may think it’s functional, but it’s not. It’s art elevated from the decorative and the prosaically useful; qualities so often associated with female works, with their diminishment by our traditionally male gatekeepers. Russell refuses to obey. To conform. There is anger behind the work. It blazes.
The artist’s past informs her present. Russell has kept figurines from childhood – pieces from baptisms and birthday cakes. Ceramics from her immigrant family were cherished. “They were objects I went to when I was feeling unsafe, or when I mourned (for example, her parents’ seperation.) The idea of icing came from a ballerina on a childhood birthday cake. “I wanted to make sculptures about her. Spaces, diorama for her. To keep her safe.” Russell says you’re always in a position of vulnerability, as a woman. You’re never quite safe. “For me, embedded in all my work, is trauma.”
Her studio feels safe. It’s a tiny space, as pin-neat and ordered as a 1950s kitchen but packed with subversion. Razor sharp, fired surfaces; angry, ugly grins on sherbet surfaces; black-dyed clay. The patriarchy’s worst nightmare. Woman unleashed. Woman loud. Woman speaking her truth. “Suspiciously beautiful” feels like the perfect term for this show,” Russell concludes. “Anything beautiful – it’s just there for sex. I think all beauty should be treated as suspicious.”
She’s an artist who wants to question everything. The role of women, femininity, motherhood. She creates vessels – but not. They have holes. They’re not useful in the traditional sense. They’re cheeky, brutal, confounding. They exist by a woman’s rules, not a man’s. They refuse to be boxed in or bound and for that they are glorious. Subversively so. “My art is all sugar in a sense,” Russell smiles, “but sugar is a seductive, dangerous product.”
– Nikki Gemmell
The following artworks can all be viewed in person at Sydney Contemporary. Visit Artereal Gallery at Sydney Contemporary between 7-10 September 2023 at Stand F03.
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