Words: Camilla Wagstaff
If you ask artist, curator and gardening enthusiast Glenn Barkley what he makes, he’ll tell you he makes pots. Frequently asked follow-up questions include “pots like plates?” (not really, but sometimes) and “can you use them?” (not really, but if you want to maybe put a “proper pot or vase” inside first).
Barkley is captivated by the handmade, the crafted and the functional, and how these kinds of objects integrate with contemporary practice. His own brand of “pot” manifests in loopy handled amphoras, wonky vases, garishly glazed bottles, and flamboyant flasks. These (mostly) hand-built vessels often come adorned with tiny baubles, hand pressed stamps, patterns, figures and texts, a sense of energy and delight abundant in their weird, tottering forms.
Barkley is also a collector. Of art, yes – when I visit his Sydney home for a chat we’re surrounded by a cacophony of objects vying for space on the walls and shelves. But also of stories; of ideas; of poetry. Of old hardcover tomes dedicated to a single object. Of whacky novels from obscure writers. These collections provide fertile ground for Barkley’s practice.
“I’m really interested in things that have an intriguing story to tell,” he says. “Not just the visual aspects of the object itself, but also what has happened to it since it was made. I really get interested when the object undergoes a sort of cultural fusion, where things get just a bit mixed up.”
Barkley’s recent show at Shoalhaven Regional Gallery in New South Wales, Plant your Feet, saw him turn his talents to both curation and creation. Barkley’s own work found a home alongside relics from the region’s colonial past and objects created by local artists and community members. The resulting visual feast provided a unique insight into the peculiar histories of the Shoalhaven region (where Barkley himself grew up) while also acknowledging its many Indigenous custodians.
Plant your Feet serves as a springboard for Barkley’s forthcoming show at Sullivan+Strumpf in Melbourne. Barkley says he’s working “on the scale of abundant”. There will be loopy handled amphoras a-plenty, and countless gold luster baubles. He’s working on an “over-the-top fluro group”. Expect to see some pots on wall-mounted shelves, also elaborately crafted by the artist.
Barkley has been collecting ceramic molds for a while now, many of which will debut in this next series. Molds of choice so far include a variety of shells, kitschy Australian animals and the cow from an old nativity scene. He’ll also bring in some of his recent experiments with porcelain, the fruits of a JamFactory residency alongside friend and contemporary Kirsten Coelho.
Barkley is also working on a show for Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), in which he’ll again don both the curator and creator hat. brick vase clay cup jug sees Barkley use basic search terms to generate the show from the AGNSW’s more than 36,000-piece strong collection. “I’ve always liked the logic of the storeroom,” Barkley tells. “Quite often you pull out a rack and objects will be together simply to maximise space. But when you do that, all these odd conversations start to occur. It’s like chatter on the racks. I want that energy to be in the show.”
If three major shows in the past 12 months wasn’t enough to keep Barkley busy, he’s thrown publishing a book in there for good measure. Scheduled for release in August, Ceramics, an Atlas of Forms tells the global history of ceramics, through more than 100 objects found across several Australian collections. “I don’t think many are fully aware of the breadth of things in public collections in Australia,” says Barkley. “I hope people will read the captions and be really impressed.”
In everything he turns his attention to, Barkley’s sense of playfulness and joy is almost palpable. “The joy of making things is just the greatest,” he concludes. “My work might be funny or light-hearted or it might have a whole lot of different meanings. But there’s one thing I can say about all of it. And that’s that I really love making it.”
Featured image: Glenn Barkley, flouro double gourd pot, 2022. Earthernware, 18.5 x 10 x 7 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Melbourne.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 104, April – June 2023.