Public Works: Voodoo Cleaning Lady

BRONWYN WATSON  From: The Australian February 27, 2010

Jenny Orchard, Voodoo Cleaning Lady, 1987, Gold Coast City Art Gallery, Surfers Paradise. On Display.

ON December 11, 1980, Ettore Sottsass, a highly regarded Italian designer and architect, decided he wanted to break the rules and “turn the design world upside down”. To discuss his radical idea he organised a meeting with a group of fellow designers at his home in Milan.

That meeting was the foundation of a new design collaboration. They called themselves the Memphis Group, a name based on a Bob Dylan song, Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, which had played repeatedly throughout the evening.

Sottsass called Memphis design the “new international style” and it drew inspiration from art deco and pop art. In contrast to the dark browns and blacks of modernist design in vogue at the time, the Memphis designers highlighted bright colours, patterned surfaces and unconventional geometric shapes, often with a sense of humour. The aim of this postmodernist style was to challenge notions of good taste.

The group was short-lived but it was influential internationally throughout the 1980s.

In Australia, the influence of Memphis is evident in Jenny Orchard’s ceramic figure Voodoo cleaning lady, which is part of the Gold Coast City Art Gallery collection.

According to curator Virginia Rigney, Orchard’s figure is “very evocative of that period in 1987 when the Memphis design of Italy, the whole explosion of colour and contrasting patterns, was really influencing ceramic artists, designers and craftspeople. It was a postmodern style with an approach of anything goes.”

When Rigney and I look at Voodoo cleaning lady, we both admire this strong, rather intimidating woman. There is nothing sweet or frilly about this particular lady and you certainly would not trifle with her if she was cleaning your house. She has horns instead of ears. She wears a pointy bra, which looks metal-plated, and wears a sharp-edged tutu skirt. She has feathers, collected from feather dusters, sticking out from her head. But what really strikes you is Orchard’s use of colour and pattern.

“Ceramics are often quite subtle colours and calming, with delicate glazes, but Jenny Orchard has thrown all that to the wind,” says Rigney. “You have got this lurid purple, this vivid green, these bright red horns, polka-dot legs and skin colour. I think there is also a strong sculptural art basis to her piece. She has created quite a totemic figure out of a contemporary personality.

“Orchard is an extremely significant Australian ceramic artist. She wants to create figures that are meant to be seen and really noticed. I think she doesn’t want to be stuck in a craft-based, quiet tradition of ceramics. She wants to push the boundaries of what that material should be about. So, Voodoo cleaning lady could quite happily sit on somebody’s mantelpiece or on a plinth in an art gallery, like we have here.”

Orchard was born in 1951, in Ankara, Turkey. The only child of a British army officer, she was aged five when the family moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in southern Africa. In 1969 she left Africa and lived in London before emigrating to Australia in 1976. In Sydney she started art school, but left, explains biographer Vivien Johnson, to concentrate on making and selling the offbeat cups, bowls, vases and teapots she had begun producing after a semester of ceramics tuition. According to Johnson, “Ettore Sottsass and his Memphis group of Italian design radicals were a formative influence on these quirky vessels with their brightly coloured and patterned surfaces.”

With this early, Memphis-inspired work, Orchard began making a name for herself. A major turning point came in 1983 when Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia bought two of her vases and a teapot for its collection and singer Elton John bought almost an entire exhibition.

Orchard continues to work in ceramics. For those interested in seeing her later work, you can catch the last few days of her exhibition at Canberra’s Beaver Galleries until March 2.

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