Words: Rose of Sharon Leake
James Lemon isn’t afraid to cause offence. His recent Powerhouse Museum commission of 60 dinner plates testifies to this – their surfaces reading remarks such as “Neoliberal Peanut”, “Horniest here”, “Bald”, “Only a plus one”, and “You have the sexual prowess of a damp vacuum”. There is an honesty in Lemon’s works, born from a curiosity of his medium, its history and its socio-political implications.
Coming from a background in performance, the Aotearoa New Zealand-born Melbourne-based artist started making with ceramics in 2015 during a creatively-frustrated time in his life. “I’ve never been particularly good at the beginning, middle, and end structure [of a work],” he tells me. “I think I’m a bit unfocussed at times, but that’s one of my strengths.”
While his early works were situated within a more design-oriented studio ceramics context, Lemon has pivoted his practice beyond the realm of utility, resulting in a conceptually rich contemporary art practice. “My work can sometimes sit in an uncomfortable place between design and fine art,” he says. Yet it is precisely this uncomfortability that makes it so successful. Just when we think we know what we are looking at, our preconceived ideas come crumbling down.
At the heart of his works there is an honesty, unfiltered by any art school training. This honesty manifests most notably in the form of the brick. A humble building material, the brick has a long historical lineage and is at the heart of the growth and progression of civilisations globally.
Stacked almost naively, Lemon’s bricks melt with gold lustre and salt glazes, their salivating surfaces stripping them of their utility – both within the kiln as a firing tool and as a staple of construction. Instead, they become products of their own construction – their conception the outcome of many other bricks insulating the kiln’s transformative flames. These brick stacks become receptacles for meaning; they tell of their own construction and look beyond their physical limitations.
Conceptually, Lemon’s works focus on three main areas of inquiry: religion, the internet and insects. These seemingly disparate things have more in common than you might think. “There is a familiarity with these kinds of creation stories, they illustrate our rituals and behaviours,” says Lemon. Ideas of creation and storytelling feed into his work, be it through the way religious beliefs are expressed through objects such as crosses and chalices, or how insects are a symbol of our contemporary culture of consumption.
“Insects are also the original ceramicists in many ways. For millions of years insects have been using clay to create elaborate and city like shelters, adapting to the forces of nature.”
In Lemon’s works we are presented with a lineage of evolution; we become witness to our own creation stories.
Having recently been picked up by commercial gallery Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Melbourne, Lemon has a big year ahead. His commission Swarming for Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria in March 2023 will present an immersive participatory work converting the space into an interpretation of a beehive complete with ceramic lava, large soft textile pupae that you can climb into and moving UV RGB lighting that will shroud the space in an iridescent glow. Lemon’s purpose with this work? “I’m thinking about how we think as a species. What is it like to be a bee?” I make a bad pun riffing on Shakespeare’s “To be, or not to be…” but Lemon goes with it. “Big questions can be answered with the right joke,” he tells me. Thus is the beauty of Lemon’s conceptually rich practice – poignance is expertly interspersed with humour.
Featured image: Artist James Lemon with his dog Beatrix Anna Nicole Smith. Photo: Charlie Ashfield.
This article was originally published in Art Collector Issue 103, January-March 2023.