JAPAN-BORN artist Hiroe Swen first started learning English seriously during the 1960s and she loves playing around with the language.The petite ceramicist who used to make pots almost larger than herself, has named her new exhibition at Belconnen arts Centre, “Austral-Japanese Harmony.”
Everybody is happy—Belconnen Arts Centre, because her sought-after work is selling like hot cakes, the Embassy of Japan staff, who supported the exhibition and who emailed me describing the show as “truly wonderful,” and best of all, the artist herself, who has emerged from a relatively reclusive working existence in inner Queanbeyan to show the world what she’s been doing for the last three years.
Swen, at 79, needs no introduction. An exacting taskmistress for 18 years at the ANU School of Art, she is known by generations of students as a generous supporter and fastidious critic of their work. Recently listed on the Queanbeyan’s Cultural Honours list marking the city’s 175th anniversary, she is also a former Canberra Times Artist of the Year.
Whether enormous, like the kimono-style sculpture installed in Queanbeyan’s Sister City Park or tiny, like the exquisitely crafted ceramic brooches and pendants that have sold out in Belconnen, Swen’s work is always technically sophisticated.
When she makes a cup of tea, it’s an exquisite work of art too, beautiful tea beautiful in beautiful vessels.
In her current exhibition, Swen has hand-inscribed minute glaze decorations resembling trees onto her ceramic forms. These works, especially the work inspired by Japanese drumming and therefore called “Taiko drumroll,” give the impression of being quintessentially Japanese in inspiration, as do several dark-coloured textured ceramic forms, self decorated with abstract relief.
But the exhibition—and you need to see it to believe it—is a substantial one, beautifully installed, with many striking plates and other forms, including ikebana vases, decorated with what look like dramatic slashes of a calligraphic pen.
Those more dramatic works, Swen says, bring out a more directly emotional side that she associates with Australia, where she has lived and worked since the late 1960s.
It is not Swen’s style to indulge in excesses of colour, so it is white, black and grey that dominates this exhibition. But every so often, as with the flash of a cockatoo’s tail, a glint of gold appears in the works. As well, cleverly, the artist has interpolated several beautiful, highly-glazed green bowls into the sea of monochromes.You won’t see a finer-looking exhibition than this one, but as well as drama in the wider installation, the contemplative quality of the smaller works invite closer investigation.
As part of the exhibition, a new book by the artist and her husband, the graphic designer Cornel Swen, is also on show and for sale. “Cornel’s Eurasian Art Trail” is a work of love, with his superb and often mischievous designs juxtaposed with Hiroe Swen’s unique stories of how they started new lives in Asia then Australia, straddling the cultures. This is a highly appropriate book to balance the exhibition.
“Austral-Japanese Harmony,” Hiroe Swen at Belconnen Arts Centre, 118 Emu Bank, Belconnen until November 17, 10 AM to 4 PM, Tuesday to Sunday.
Free Public Program: Sogetsu Ikebana demonstration by Ping Block, 3pm, Sunday, November 10.