Alan Constable has been creating and exhibiting work in various media for the past thirty years, including painting and drawing, but it is the extensive body of ceramic works he has formed over the past decade that has increasingly garnered attention and acclaim. Constable has the ability to realize captivating representations of still and video cameras out of inert lumps of clay - intimate monuments to an enduring fascination. One is immediately struck by their marvelous hand-built tactility, seductive wet-finish glazes and gestural exaggerations of the most salient characteristics: wobbly apertures, pronounced shutter releases, vacant viewfinders, and inscribed component details.
Constable’s 2011 retrospective Viewfinder, organized by Arts Project Australia and curator Dr. Cheryl Daye, coincided with the recent resurgence and expanding investigation of ceramic sculpture in contemporary art. Like many art world trends, an essential part of Post Disciplinary craft originates in contemporary artists, such as Sterling Ruby or Joakim Ojanen, exerting themselves as “outsiders” to disrupt technical conventions by implementing intentionally naive aesthetics, a generalized appeal to the primitive. As we have argued many times before, as contemporary art exhausts boundaries to break down and traditions to subvert, artists are obliged more and more to invent from nothing, as those historically termed “outsiders” always have.
This methodology for Constable has been a lifelong endeavor that predates this trend by decades, setting him apart from many prominent practitioners of post-disciplinary ceramics and asserting his relevance. Constable has been making art at Arts Project Australia since he was deinstitutionalized by accident, as the result of a bussing mistake that first brought him to the Melbourne studio 30 years ago. He in fact began fashioning camera replicas long before this, from cardboard cereal boxes as a child.
Constable doesn’t use verbal or written language, so his intentions are ultimately elusive. A valuable insight may come his blue-chip contemporary Tom Sachs, who engages concepts surrounding authenticity and sympathetic magic. Sachs often cites an early clay camera sculpture he made as a gift for his father (at age 11) as an important and prophetic object for his oeuvre. Sachs discusses this early work as an important example of the central intention that is still maintained in his current practice, which is to create undeniably hand-made objects in response to personal aspirations - not necessarily to create what he desires to have, but using art-making as a means to capture the unattainable, seeking its power through detailed and diligent mimesis.
In Sachs’ case, he was initially attempting to replicate things he couldn't afford to own, such as various cameras, fine art and design objects, architecture, and eventually the entire American space program (his own NASA). Parallel to Constable’s fixation with cameras, Sachs spent two years obsessively attempting to achieve the perfect chawan (traditional Japanese tea bowl), which resulted in hundreds of variations of hand-shaped porcelain vessels. Sachs uses his own childhood example of this approach to art to illustrate that this relationship of art to aspiration is inherent to art-making on a fundamental level, as essential as expression or exploration. As such, it’s almost a ubiquitous quality found in art that is genuine, if not always so explicitly.
As Constable works, he is hunched over with his face very close to the slab-built structures, intensely studying the relationship of the surfaces to actual cameras or carefully selected advertisement reference photos. Articulated at a slightly enlarged scale, a finished piece most often conceals the internal architecture of its make and model, painstakingly constructed by Constable in the early stages of his process.
To consider what meaning cameras and photographs hold for Constable is compelling, as someone who is hearing impaired and legally blind, only able to see clearly a few inches ahead. For him, looking at a photo may be similar to seeing into another dimension, cameras as machines that reveal the world by flattening it for him to see. Curator David Hurlston writes:
A camera’s ability to act as an extension to our eyes and to capture and preserve images renders it a potent instrument. In the case of Alan Constable, and his compelling ceramic reinterpretations of the camera, this has particular resonance and added poignancy. Living with a profound vision impairment, Constable’s hand-modelled sculptural versions of this device, which is sometimes itself referred to as the “invented eye” possess an altogether more powerful presence...Constable, through his insightful recreations, reveals another aspect to a camera’s purpose and challenges perceptions that its role is simply as a functional device. He gives it spirit, character and life.
Whether reverent tributes, curious explorations, or less rationalized expressions of wonder, they are in effect the highly personal artifacts of a relationship between man and machine. The spontaneous marks left by Constable’s hand (finger impressions, imprecise slabs, and commingling colored glazes) aren’t just exposed, but proclaim a genuine purpose to access capacities of the camera that transcend the merely utilitarian - a world of mystery and magic.
Alan Constable was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1956 and has maintained a studio practice at Arts Project Australia since 1987. He currently has work on view in Group Show at Darren Knight Gallery in Sydney. Previous selected exhibitions include Exhibition #6 at The Museum of Everything (Rotterdam) 2016, Renegades: Outsider Art at The Arts Centre Gold Coast (Queensland) 2014, Melbourne Now at National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne) 2014, Polaroid Project at Horsham Regional Art Gallery (Horsham) 2014, Outsiderism at Fleisher/Ollman (Philadelphia) 2013, Alan Constable/Ten Cameras curated by Ricky Swallow at South Willard (Los Angeles) 2013, Viewfinder at Arts Project Australia (Melbourne) 2011, Exhibition #4 at The Museum of Everything (London) 2011, Connected 09: Black Box at Victorian Arts Centre (Melbourne) 2009, and Bloodlines: Art and the Horse at Qut Art Museum (Brisbane) 2009.