This is an essay about the introduction of funk ceramics into Australia and the affinity this work found in the social, artistic and political environment of Adelaide in the late 1960s and 1970s.
For those not familiar with the term, funk ceramics describes sculptural work that combines a Pop Art sensibility with the history of ceramics as a decorative art. At its inception it could even lay claim to being a regional art form, centred around San Francisco, where its iconoclastic, stoner style drew on the street culture, comics and band posters of early hippydom, as well as finding a parallel in the work of fine artists like Ed Kienholz, William Wiley, Claes Oldenburg, Billy Al Bengston and Robert Rauschenberg.
Arriving in Australia at the end of the 1960s funk adapted to local conditions, morphing into the idiosyncratically titled ‘Skangaroovian Funk’, a term derived from ‘Skangaroovia’, which (believe it or not) was an alternative name for South Australia suggested by Daniel Thomas, Director of Art Gallery of South Australia from 1984 to 1990. The title was then retrospectively applied to this ceramics movement in a small, but important, survey exhibition, curated by Judith Thompson, at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1986.
The grungy, low-tech feel of San Franciscan funk was soon left behind as these new ceramics became sleeker and more theatrical, an approach epitomised in the politically and sexually charged ‘porcelain confection[s]’ of Adelaide artist Mark Thompson.
There surely have been few Australian ceramic movements which echoed so perfectly the artistic and social temperament of a time and place as Skangaroovian Funk did so for Adelaide in the 1970s. Funk was the contemporary Medici porcelain for a city that the sculptor Bert Flugelman had christened “Florence on the Torrens”, a play on Adelaide’s nickname as the “Athens of the South”. Skangaroovian Funk was variously decorative, political, inventive, daggy, provocative, impressively-crafted and camp as a row of tents.
Although looming large in the annals of South Australian art history, this period is not necessarily a comfortable place to revisit, but it is always instructive to reacquaint oneself with the avant-garde, if only to see how it has aged.
The word ‘funk’ has several meanings. One, not used much anymore, is to be frightened of something or to show cowardice. English speakers would say they were ‘in a funk’ if they were sulking or frightened or otherwise out of sorts.
In America, funky is a colloquial expression for something that smells or tastes bad, although the term is also slang for the taste and smell of sex. This usage is still apparent today, as when the character Samantha on the series Sex and the City complains about … oh, never mind.
Funky also suggests a kind of fashionable but casual style (maybe the newest incarnation of this is the ‘hipster’) but by far the most common use of the word is in the context of funk music ‘… an up-tempo style of … music originating on the west coast of America …’, and then there is also funk-art, ‘… a style of art originating on the west coast of America which reacted against the more rigid New York style of abstract expressionism … a regional variant of pop art.’
It’s certainly true that funk art never set out to be classically beautiful or well-crafted, grand, weighty or profound. It set the bar lower than pop and then slid right on under, mating the cartoon-like, flaccid-fakery of Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculpture to the low art forms of advertising, underground comics and the detritus of street life.
Born in San Francisco, funk was officially christened by the writer and curator Peter Selz and the artist Harold Paris in two 1967 articles for Art in America; Selz’s ‘Funk Art’ and the evocatively titled companion essay from Paris, ‘Sweet Land of Funk’, both of which appeared under the single title ‘West Coast Report: Funk Art’. Peter Selz, in his 1985 review of Thomas Albright’s book Art in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945 – 1980, noted that all throughout the 1950s and 1960s West Coast artists felt that they were working outside of the mainstream
‘… artists were willing to take greater chances … they dwelled in … the “Sweet Land of Funk”. The artist … is aware that no one really supports the work. So, in effect, he says Funk!’
Introducing ceramics into the equation, Selz goes on to write that
‘It was in the Bay Area that Peter Voulkos and his extraordinary group of disciples raised ceramics to the non-utilitarian, i.e. aesthetic sphere … at the very time when New York critics, painters and collectors under the tutelage of Clement Greenberg extolled the sanctity of the flat surface.’
This is not quite right, in that Volkous had already reconfigured ceramics in the spirit of abstract expressionism during the years he spent at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (later renamed the Otis Art Institute) from 1954 to 1959. This initial revolution was therefore Southern Californian and centred around Los Angeles, not San Francisco.
Collette Chattopadhay, in her article for Sculpture Magazine, quotes Voulkos as saying that ‘” … there was a certain energy around L.A. at the time …” … The laissez-faire characteristic of the city, without the expectant pressures of gallery shows and sales, granted time, space, and an artistic permission that was intrinsic to the clay revolution.’
If Voulkos, the budding demigod of American ceramics, was responsible for bringing the macho energy and physicality of abstract expressionism to clay, the origins of funk can also be traced fairly accurately.
In 1961 Robert Arneson was teaching craft and design at Mills College in Oakland, California, just across the bay from San Francisco. ‘While demonstrating throwing a pot at the Sacremento State Fair, Arneson topped a small, traditionally thrown bottle with a bottle cap and added the text “No Deposit, No Return”,’ in a comic and subversive gesture that would later resonate as powerfully through the ceramics community as the grandiloquent statements of Peter Voulkos or the hybrid Anglo Oriental style espoused by Bernard Leach.
Later that year, Arneson was appointed to teach ceramics at the University of California’s Davis campus on the outskirts of San Francisco. Although the art department was relatively new, this didn’t extend to the building in which Arneson found himself; a long, low structure which had variously been used as the campus post office, police station and as a store for experimental canned and packaged foodstuffs. This humble building, known as TB9
(Temporary Building Nine), would provide the setting for a generational shift in style which would echo around the art world, or at least the relatively small part of the art world that concerned itself with ceramics.
Arneson recognized that despite - or maybe even because of - the lack of facilities or long tradition, Davis was a place where he could do exactly what he wanted, so he set about creating a ceramics department where experimentation was not just encouraged but demanded, where …’Anarchy reigned. No overwhelming structure or “curriculum” … hamper[ed] … your creative flow. … Bob just sort of sat back and let it all happen.’
Arneson soon achieved notoriety when, given the chance to exhibit with Voulkos and John Mason in a show called California Sculpture curated by John Coplans at the Kaiser Centre in Oakland, he decided to make a toilet.
‘I cut myself loose and let every scatological notation in my mind freely flow across the surface of that toilet.’
The work, originally titled Toilet and re-named Funk John about two years later, was removed from the exhibition, following objections expressed by the Vice President of Kaiser Industries [ … no, I’m not making this up …] that the piece …’ attack[ed] American capitalism …’ an interesting notion given the strong symbolic relationship between shit and money, not to mention the subsequent high value of Arneson’s work on the secondary market.
Following on from Duchamp’s seminal Fountain of 1917 and Arneson’s Toilet, it’s a pity that no one has managed to cause offence with a bidet, thus completing a trifecta of art historical controversy in sanitary ware.
Arneson had many talented students in the early days at Davis. Bruce Nauman would go on to be one of the most important conceptual artists of the last quarter of the twentieth century. There was also David Gilhooly, one of Arneson’s first students who himself became a teacher, and who continued to be associated with Davis and the Funk ceramics movement for several decades. In fact, the roll call of early students reads like a who’s who of Funk ceramics; Chris Unterseher, Stephen Kaltenbach, Peter Vandenberge, Seymour Howard, Roy de Forest, Richard Notkin, but there was one student in particular who provided the connection between what was seen to be the cutting edge of American ceramics and Adelaide in the late 1960s, and that person was Margaret (Helen) Dodd.
Dodd had arrived in California on the Fourth of July, 1965 in the middle of a heatwave, not exactly unfamiliar weather for a South Australian, albeit at a strange time of year. She had originally studied at the South Australian School of Art and worked for four years as an art teacher before travelling to the USA, where, after several moves, her husband had gained employment in the University of California’s physics department at the Davis campus. Given her status as a ‘faculty wife’ Dodd could audit or sit in on subjects without being formally enrolled. She initially chose to study sculpture and so found herself working in TB9, since that building housed both the sculpture and ceramics facilities
At first Dodd studied a range of different techniques, working with metal and wood as well as making wheel-thrown pottery, but it was during a ceramic sculpture course with Arneson she was set an assignment to make a ‘double illusion’, thus initiating a course of work that would last up to the present day. Dodd had recently seen the American artist Dennis Openheim’s work Funk Truck, a cab-truck shape in foam rubber on a wood core and covered with polka dot and leopard skin fabric. She took the idea one step further and made a Fake Funk Truck out of clay, a piece which certainly qualified as a double illusion, and then some. Even the title was in keeping with the spirit of funk, where punning was all the rage and the idea of the ‘fake’ was gaining an artistic and theoretical credibility, a concept aligned with pop art and quite at odds with the basic theoretical tenets of the movement that preceded it, that of abstract expressionism.
In 1966 Dodd formally enrolled in the ceramics course, where she continued to make ceramic automobiles; ‘Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs … and a “run of VWs, beetles and buses”’ work that was readily accepted by her peers and that placed her at the centre of American funk ceramics. Her work was included in important exhibitions, including the 1966 survey show Ceramics from Davis, put on by the American Craftsmen’s Council at the Museum West Gallery in San Francisco.
Given her involvement in an exciting new ceramics movement that was quickly gaining critical momentum, it was with some reluctance that Dodd faced the prospect of returning to Adelaide, again following her husband’s academic career. Soon after her graduation from Davis in 1967 she found herself living in the Adelaide suburb of Holden Hill, where, according to Judith Thompson, ‘…pregnant and with time to herself, she found she had time to reflect on the experiences of being a woman in Australia’.
Nonetheless, she was back in her home town and, artistically-speaking, she had to make the best of it. Drawing on her experiences of California funk, feminism, Australian automotive history and (perhaps subliminally) childhood memories of her father’s stint as a car salesman with Wakefield Motors, Dodd started to make a body of work that would ensure her place as the icon - or perhaps the hood ornament - of Australian funk.
The environment Dodd found herself in was not entirely philistine. South Australia was undergoing a kind of cultural renaissance, due in part to the artistic leanings of the newly appointed Premier, Don Dunstan. In the days when very few cities actually had festivals, the Adelaide Festival of Arts had an international standing. There was also the South Australian School of Art, an institution with a history dating back to 1856, its own purpose built premises on the fringes of the city and an eclectic mix of staff, many of whom had at least a passing interest in ceramics.
In 1963 the American ceramist Ben Kypridakis took over the teaching of ceramics in the new art school building in Stanley Street, North Adelaide, but it wasn’t really until the arrival of the British artist Bill Gregory in 1966 that a Pop sensibility began to creep into South Australian ceramics. Gregory sought to
‘…break down the conventional concepts of ceramics held by staff and students. Functional ceramics did not interest him … Instead, he was interested in an intellectual or object-making approach to ceramics. He devised a set of exercises, designed to develop “conceptual attitudes” in his students …’.
No one came up with a ‘fake funk truck’ in response to his methodologies, but they could well have done. Gregory’s own ceramics, according to Patrick McCaughey’s review of his 1968 exhibition at the prestigious Pinacotheca gallery in Melbourne, were ‘ … splendidly hideous and marvellously useless, taking the mickey out of Arts and Crafts pottery … ‘.
Or, to quote Donald Brook
‘There are far few spectator sports more agreeable than watching someone stride up to a holy cow and kick it in the slats so shrewdly that the sawdust dribbles out. Studio pottery is just such a sacred animal, and Bill Gregory … is the man with the deft boot … his pots are absolutely useless … as refreshing as drought-breaking rain after an aeon of cider jugs with bucolic bodies like boiled oatmeal and orchid jars in a sensitive toffee temmoku.’
One begins to sense a pattern here in the critical reception of funk, at least amongst a group of curators and theorists for whom the positioning of functional pottery within the fine arts had always been problematic.
During this period there were other artists, many of whom were involved with the South Australian School of Art, either as students or teachers, who took a somewhat unorthodox approach to clay.
One such person was Bill Clements, a sculptor who had lived and studied in Japan from 1964 to 1967, arriving at the South Australian School of Art in 1968. Clements worked in a variety of mediums, but clay always played a central part in his practice, where his observations of the avant-garde Japanese ceramics movement brought an entirely different sensibility to that normally associated with Japanese pottery. Another was Ian Smith, who used traditional techniques such as wood-firing in a very non-traditional manner, as in his 1968 work The Generals which commented on the Vietnam War. Ron Rowe made ceramic objects inspired by machine parts and Aleks Danko, a young and precociously talented sculpture student, made several early works in ceramics, amongst which his series of ‘shoes’ and ‘numbers’, circa 1969, clearly showed the influence of Bay Area funk in their bright colours, offhand modelling and a kind of un-sophisticated or even slightly childish inventiveness.
Another student from the art school, Jim Cowley, exhibited a series of Shrines at the Llewellyn Gallery in 1971, the same year that Olive Bishop began working privately with Dodd at her College Park studio. Whereas Dodd had chosen the automobile as the appropriate vehicle to convey her ideas, Bishop fixed on the motif of the shirt and coat. She is perhaps best-known for her Wash and War series of ceramic shirts, based on uniforms emblazoned with medals (literally decorations) that parodied militarism, particularly in the context of the Vietnam War.
In 1969 Milton Moon had been appointed senior lecturer in charge of the ceramics department of the South Australian School of Art. He combined a commitment to traditional workshop skills with a personal body of work that, although often exploring the formal boundaries of pottery, remained philosophically based in the modernist tenets that had informed the development of ceramics within the crafts movement. At that time, Moon was deeply interested in traditional Japanese ceramics and in exploring the origins of the aesthetic philosophy that had informed their development. Many of his students revelled in this learning environment, but some did not.
Mark Thompson was one of the latter. Previously a student at the National Art School in Sydney, in 1973 Thompson enrolled in the Diploma of Painting at the South Australian School of Art. Although during this year he spent much of his time in the ceramics department he was not formally considered a student of the department and therefore was free to pursue his own directions in clay as an extension of his painting practice.
Moon spent the following year studying in Japan and it was during this time that students like Mark Thompson (who was now formally enrolled in the ceramics course) and fellow student Paul Greenaway, together with artists such as Margaret Dodd, Olive Bishop and Bruce Nuske (an ex-student of Moon’s who had graduated in 1972) were finding that their irreverent and satirical take on ceramics was becoming an accepted part of mainstream Australian crafts practice.
Thompson’s work began to make extensive use of dolls, moulded and cast in white earthenware clay or in porcelain. Highly finished and precise, one gets a sense that the original devil-may-care ‘Funk!’ attitude of Arneson and his followers had been replaced with a very calculating approach, one that left nothing to chance. His ‘China Cabinet Objects’ show Thompson using his already formidable skills in painting and modelling to draw on the history of industrially produced ceramic sculpture, which he then parodies to create objects that are quite literally inverted and made strange. For example, a rather trite, traditional sculpture depicting a child sitting amidst a cornucopia of fruit is subverted by turning the infant on its head, so that one sees a pair of legs pointing skywards, pinned between a couple of ceramic bananas and a pear. Beautifully done, and amusing enough in its own way, but really no more profound than the work it parodied. Thompson, however, was just getting started.
His 1976 Jam Factory Gallery exhibition Ceramics and Porcelain Dolls must have been amongst the very first ceramics exhibitions in Australia to delve into the realms of installation art, where entire sections of the gallery space became an integral part of the work.
The main section of the gallery contained a series of his impressive ceramic sculptures, while in a darkened room the small, white bodies of ceramic dolls lay amongst a carpet of eucalypt leaves on the floor, the atmosphere reeking of what - in a kind of weird, tangential Californian connection - the great American crime writer Raymond Chandler would describe as ‘ …that peculiar tomcat smell that eucalyptus trees give off in warm weather.’
It was a show that, once seen, was not easily forgotten. Thompson’s work increasingly
‘expressed his personal beliefs and special views. Religion, politics, sex and art were all examined and realized in his work as personal metaphors. … These sculptural objects often departed from the brashness of the West Coast funk style … to become highly revealing personal images. They also tended towards producing shock or outrage in the viewer.’
Yet, in works like Thompson’s 1979 Ma Don Na we see his extraordinary skills giving life to sophisticated and witty observations on the machinations of local politics, an area in which he was also quite adept. Few artists, then or now, could even approach Thompson in terms of technical facility, and his work from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s represents the apotheosis of the final phase of Skangaroovian Funk.
In considering the legacy of funk ceramics in South Australia, one sees how the various strands have informed contemporary practice. If Gerry Wedd draws on Dodd as well as the spirit of Mambo (not quite one and the same thing, but there are strong similarities) then the refined technique and ornate approaches evident in Mark Thompson’s work find continuing expression in the studios of the Jam Factory; in the work of Robyn Best, the head of the ceramics workshops, as well as in the ceramics of Steven Bowers, the artistic director. Both Dodd and Thompson are still active, with Dodd recently having received an Arts SA Fellowship to work in China and exhibit in Sydney, and Thompson participating in Figuration, a group exhibition of ceramics at the held at Adelaide’s Jam Factory gallery in May.
Some forty years after funk first arrived in Australia, it has become a peculiar appendage to mainstream art history, a role to which it is possibly well-suited. Given the increasing diversity of contemporary practice, funk may yet be retrospectively evaluated and given a weight that escaped it at the time of its making. If this occurs, it will be fascinating to see what conclusions are drawn and what explanations are found for the prominence of Adelaide in this episode of Australian art history.
Willunga 2009 (edited 2012)
Derived from ‘Skangaroovia’, a term coined in 1985 by Daniel Thomas, Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia from 1984 to 1990. see Campbell, L ‘Skangaroovia! Would you believe it’s our State, mate?’ The Advertiser 14/5/1985 p.1 also Editorial ‘That which we call a rose’ ibid.
Mark Thompson, one of the artists featured in the exhibition, also worked on the catalogue in his capacity as the in-house designer for the Art Gallery of South Australia.
McPhee, J ‘Sex, Politics and Religion – an aspect of pottery today’ Pottery in Australia Vol. 24 No. 1 1985, p. 5 Sydney, NSW
A very early type of soft-paste porcelain discovered around 1575 AD and associated with the Grand Duke Francesco I de’Medici. Only six pieces of porcelain from this first period of manufacture are known to exist.
Delbridge, A et al. 1991The Macquarie Dictionary 1988, p. 715, The Macquarie Library, Sydney, NSW
Selz, P ‘Funk Art’ Art in America March April 1967 p. 92, 93, Art in America, New York, NY
Paris, H ‘Sweet Land of Funk’ ibid pp. 94 - 98
Paris, H & Selz, P ‘West Coast Report: Funk Art’ ibid
Albright, T Art in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945 – 1980: An Illustrated History University of California Press, Berkely CA 1985
Selz, P review Art Journal Vol. 45 No. 1 Spring 1985 p 75,77
Chattopadhyay, C ‘Peter Voulkos: Clay, Space and Time’ Sculpture Magazine Vol. 20
No. 2 March 2001 International Sculpture Center [sic], Hamilton, NJ
Mayfield, S Big Idea: The Marquettes of Robert Arneson Palo Alto Art Center, CA 2002
In an interview with Ken Kelly, Arneson states that his work 1961 No Deposit, No Return was made without any knowledge of American artist Jasper Johns’ 1960 piece Ballantine Ale which depicted beer cans cast in bronze, stating that his own work was the result of ‘…goofing off …’, adding that this ‘.. was before Johns …’, which although not actually correct in terms of the dates, suggests that Arneson had no prior knowledge of Johns’ work. Interview by Ken Kelly http://www.verisimilitudo.com/arneson/bobart1.html
Notkin, R in Thirty Years of TB9: a tribute to Robert Arneson John Natsoulas Gallery Press, Davis, CA 1991
Arneson, R 1981 Robert Arneson Interviews, August 14 – 15, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Dodd, M. Interview with the author, 2008
Dennis Oppenheim graduated with a MFA from Stanford in 1965. Funk Truck was first exhibited in early 1966 at an exhibition at Belmonte Galleries in Sacremento, California.
Thompson, J ‘Skangaroovian Funk: Peculiar Adelaide Ceramics 1968 – 1978 Pottery in Australia Vol. 25 No. 3 August 1986 p. 14, Sydney, NSW
Thompson, J ibid
Ioannou, N Ceramics in South Australia 1836 – 1986: from folk to studio pottery Wakefield Press, Adelaide, SA 1986 p. 329
McCaughey, P ibid p. 12
Brook, D ‘A Deft Kick Delivered to the Holy Cow of Pottery’ Sydney Morning Herald 15 August 1968
Thompson was technically in the final year of his painting diploma.
Chandler, R The High Window Alfred Knopf, New York, NY 1942
Ioannou ibid p. 336