Bruce Nuske with Khai Liew

Bruce NuskeSamstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia. 27 Mar 2024


The crowd was in a celebratory mood at the launch of Samstag Museum’s Festival of Arts presentation of Bruce Nuske with Khai Liew, originally scheduled to open in 2023, but thwarted by the gallery’s unavoidable closure for most of that year. Its pairing in 2024 with two moving image works by Dana Awartani – an artist similarly preoccupied with pattern, albeit of an abstract kind – is serendipitous.


Exhibition design by the late Khai Liew provides an inspired framing for a dazzling array of more than 50 narrative-laden ceramic objects – some arranged in clusters – which includes several earlier works, as well as pieces from private collections. However, the majority of works have been created for this exhibition.


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Bruce Nuske with Khai Liew, 2024, installation view, Samstag Museum of Art.

Photography by Grant Hancock. Courtesy Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia.


Manipulating three differently patterned wallpaper designs – based on drawings from Nuske’s surface treatments and overflowing notebooks – Liew has cleverly configured the upper gallery as a domestic space with walls and windows that allow multiple viewpoints. Viewers may note that the walls do not quite meet at corners, permitting a flow of air and light and subverting any sense of complete enclosure. (It’s a small detail, but emblematic of Liew’s fastidious approach.) Shelves – seemingly cantilevered – project from windows/apertures, while sculptures are displayed on tables with tapered timber ‘tablecloths’ featuring Liew’s familiar starched ‘Dutch cap’ motif; a detail Liew has amusingly described as also resembling a dog’s drooping ears. Perhaps most striking of all, additional works – teapots and a variety of vessels – occupy three wall-hung, shelving constructions (unit seems just too prosaic a term) of supreme precision and elegance. (Like the tables and stools, there are echoes of the Arts and Crafts’ flourishes that distinguished Liew’s 2010 Prue cupboard.)


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Bruce Nuske with Khai Liew, 2024, installation view, Samstag Museum of Art.
Photography by Grant Hancock. Courtesy Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia.


While other ceramicists of Nuske’s generation pursued the influential Bernard Leach/Hamada (Anglo/Japanese) strand of studio practice, Nuske plotted an alternative path. His frequently playful titles – such as Josiah Baby, Japonesque, Rococo Swan Tea – are an indication of an expansive sphere of influences, which ranges from the pottery techniques and styles of eighteenth and nineteenth century British/European industrial wares to movements such as, Rococo, Arts and Crafts, Japonism, Art Nouveau et al. and as essayist Robert Reason points out, British and European porcelain was heavily influenced by China and Japan. Viewing the array of botanical motifs in this exhibition, visitors will not be surprised to learn that Nuske is a passionate gardener, who works from a home studio surrounded by lush foliage and exotic plants. To achieve the wrapped leaves of Leaf Wrap Tea (2022), Nuske collected foliage from his garden, which he pressed into wet clay and then fired (to create a ‘negative’ form). The ceramic leaves thus formed were manipulated (and carved) to enclose the body of the teapot.


So, what are the elements that constitute the distinctive Nuskean vocabulary? Certainly, the technique is virtuosic, the imagination boundless and the immersion in ceramic/art history on fulsome display. A relatively contained palette is offset by an astounding variety of forms, techniques and clay mediums; stoneware, earthenware, terracotta and porcelain. Surfaces may be variously stained, painted, dimpled, pricked, sprigged, carved, or modelled.


“I like looking, gleaning, glancing backward into ceramic history”, Nuske explains, “to interpret and represent ceramic history, elements from the past, which I can mix with my own narratives and decorative impulse”.


It’s an ambitious undertaking; a potentially risky form of hybridity – rich with allusion and satire – that in the course of 50 years of practice, Nuske has accomplished with aplomb. Care is lavished on each unique, hand-built or wheel-thrown object, which may be appreciated on a purely aesthetic level; however, there are personal narratives – Never believe anything you hear and only half you see (2008), for example – and multiple references to be unravelled by those of an enquiring disposition. In May, there will be an opportunity to hear Nuske’s stories in person, when he will be in-conversation with Robert Reason at the Samstag Museum.


Viewers will find it impossible not to anthropomorphise many of Nuske’s objects, which he intentionally animates with diverse personalities. Details such as eccentric handles, assertive, sometimes avian spouts and meticulously finished and inventive feet are indispensable aspects of their acquired attitude. Observe the corpulent swagger of the Fecundity (2022) teapot, the elegant insouciance of Fashionistas’ (2020-2022) vase and pitcher duo, or the arms-akimbo jauntiness and crenelated headpiece of Wallpaper Vase (2021).


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Bruce Nuske with Khai Liew, 2024, installation view, Samstag Museum of Art. In foreground, Exaltation of Birds with Weeds (2023) and on right, Wallpaper Vase (2021).

Photography by Grant Hancock. Courtesy Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia.


Historically, the teapot has appealed to a succession of renowned architects as both a design challenge and potential ideological platform. Witnessing for the first time, such a comprehensive assemblage of Nuske’s works, it’s apparent that the teapot persists as his form (or canvas) of preference, providing as it does endless opportunities for surface treatments, eccentric handles, unexpected lids and delightfully witty finials. A black swan, for example, which rests on top of Rococo Swan Tea (2022) is an allusion to the Empress Josephine and her obsession with swans. (Courtesy of the Nicolas Boudin expedition, Josephine’s remarkable menagerie at Malmaison included Australian black swans.) A captivating white swan cup may also suggest Meissen’s groundbreaking, eighteenth-century Swan Service. Elsewhere, a bemused cockatoo, a March hare, a Chinese hat, a perky fragment of an acanthus motif contribute to the particularly Nuskean sense of drollery. Interestingly, Nuske says he is especially drawn to the tactility of the interplay between maker, teapot and its user. Writing in the accompanying (online) catalogue essay ‘Living up to one’s teapot’, Robert Reason makes the following point;


“Nuske’s teapots are infused with the human characteristics of wit, satire and glamour, all the while retaining their functionality… and when used, awakening our senses of touch, smell and taste.”


Amidst all the exquisite decoration, the abundance of botanical references, there is also a discernible hint of the kind of whimsical sculpted creatures associated with the renowned Martinware Pottery (1873-1923). A key sculptural object – exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum as part of Australian Contemporary at COLLECT 2006 – is one of a number of past works included in this exhibition. Unusually within Nuske’s oeuvre, it is inscribed with the text; Plainly Ornate & Extravagantly Meaningless. The symbolic creature is a hybrid dodo/pelican and was created in 2004 at a time, when Nuske felt pattern and decoration were viewed as an “unnecessary complication or somehow anachronistic.” Although there have always been outliers, undeniably the momentum at that time resided with the austerity of monochromatic, pared-back forms (Edmund de Waal, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott et al). In 1999 the Victoria & Albert Museum had staged the exhibition The New White, as a response to the colourful, more painterly new ceramics of the 1980s and 1990s.


Ceramics began to achieve heightened art world currency, as important galleries and museums realigned their public collections to incorporate the decorative and applied arts. In the last decade or so, as visual artists adopted clay as a medium, the field of ceramics has dramatically expanded to embrace a colourful and dynamic diversity of practice – a development that has generated lively discourse within the global community.


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Bruce Nuske ceramics with exhibition furniture and design by Khai Liew, 2024, installation view, Samstag Museum of Art.

Photograph by Sia Duff. Courtesy of Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia.


The Samstag Museum has invested in an admirable (and ongoing) program dedicated to showcasing the work of selected, outstanding South Australian practitioners. Bruce Nuske with Khai Liew is the fourth in a series notable for the thoughtful and highly evocative staging of these presentations; Kirsten Coelho’s contemplative Ithaca in 2020, Julie Blyfield’s exquisite Flowers of the Sea (2022) and also in 2022 the astonishing terracotta objects of Helen Fuller – the latter an exhibition designed by Liew.


Clearly Nuske and Liew shared a quest for beauty and perfection, but their antithetical decorative/minimalist aesthetic might have appeared to preclude collaboration. What they did have in common was a practice defined by a deft synthesis of myriad – often mutual – influences and perhaps more unexpectedly, a sense of playfulness. In their earlier 2012 Samstag collaboration, Irrational and Idiosyncratic and most ambitiously in this exhibition, Liew demonstrated his ability to realise and amplify – with an extraordinary degree of sensitivity – the visions of other artists. It is impossible not to wonder where this capacity might have taken him, since the very sad aspect of the exhibition’s unavoidable rescheduling, is that the late Khai Liew did not experience the exceptional outcome of their collaborative project. For Nuske, this exhibition represents the triumphant culmination of a lifetime’s work and experiences. It is also inevitably an exhibition that is wreathed in a sense of poignancy.


In-conversation with Bruce Nuske and Robert Reason: 4 May, 3–5 pm, Samstag Museum of Art.


Wendy WalkerBruce Nuske


When: 1 March to 10 May
Where: Samstag Museum of Art