"Hiroe Swen has long been regarded as one of Australia's foremost ceramic artist", writes Alan Watt in the catalogue essay for her current exhibition, From Darkness to Light. The exhibition comes after a period of 'deep sorrow and emotional turmoil' in Hiroe's life and the work reflects this deep, emotional connection with oneself.
Hiroe Swen has long been regarded as one of Australia's foremost ceramic artists.
Her arrival in Australia, in 1968, from Japan, coincided with the enormous growth of students attending art schools where tertiary training courses in pottery and ceramics were offered.
The major prevailing influence in these schools, at the time, emulated from a popular [and, almost, only] book providing technical and philosophical guidelines to pottery - The Potters Book by Englishman, Bernard Leach, first published in 1940.
Leach had lived and studied pottery in Japan in the 1920's and was supportive of the ideas of the philosopher/art critic Soetsu Yanagi, who advocated a return to the folk traditions of Japanese crafts and had coined the term, Mingei, suggesting 'peoples art'.
This approach placed virtue and, almost, nobility, on the ordinariness of humble craftspeople making repetitive utilitarian objects, within an established native tradition.
Leach's persuasive writing turned numerous eyes to the East, especially Japan, and although most students had been weaned on Wedgewood and Royal Doulton they embraced the aesthetics of Zen and Taoism, as reflected in the works from traditional pottery centres such as Mashiko, Bizen, Shigaraki and Tamba as well as the modest teabowls of the dynastic family, Raku. He also found a similar idealism, as a British counterpart, in the English country village potter.
At a time when a number of Japanese Mingei potters were being brought to Australia Hiroe's arrival acted as a counterbalance to this romantic, somewhat backwards looking, anachronistic framework that permeated many ceramic departments at the time.
Not for her the anonymity of the humble, utilitarian potter nor the enthusiastic acceptance of the spontaneous marks of the maker or the vagaries of the kiln's forces.
Her work, when first seen in Australia, was reflective of more contemporary values.
The work was thoughtfully designed with careful consideration given to form and surface orchestration - a synthesis of artistic values of the modernist movement in Japanese ceramics.
Perhaps the only parallels that could be drawn between Hiroe's work and that of the Mengei approach are an intimate knowledge of materials and mastery of techniques.
Hiroe's pieces, then and now, are firmly based on the tradition of the hollow vessel forms, yet hold little allegiance to any functional or utilitarian object.
Their strength lies in a seemingly quiet, reserved, presence yet the apparent calm of the work is often piqued by an incongruous surface change or odd incidental graphic detail. There is often a monumentality in some pieces that belies their modest scale.
It has been a considerable time since Hiroe's last solo exhibition, which was a retrospective held in Canberra in 2000. Soon after, the exigencies of life took a sudden downward spiral which, understandably, caused a lengthy hiatus in her creative output.
Apart from the dislocation that shifting home and studio entails, Hiroe's own health became a major concern. This was followed by the death of her beloved father and then the painful placement of her mother in a home for dementia.
The title of this exhibition From Darkness to Light is an expression of that period of deep sorrow and emotional turmoil, bearing on the titles of the earlier works. As the loneliness and depression began to subside and her emotional strength returned, so too did the somberness of the titles of subsequent works change.
In this new body of work her signatory shapes return, with the confidence and assuredness of a mature artist, yet none of the earlier vitality has been lost. We see an evolutionary change taking place with works taking on a lighter and purer hue - a metaphoric phase, perhaps, of the emergence from some years of little or no production.
Hiroe Swen has a large number of astute and devoted collectors who have assiduously followed her long career since her first exhibition in Australia. This new exhibition will be a welcome continuum from this fine artist.
The exhibition From Darkness to Light, new ceramics by Hiroe Swen is showing at Narek Galleries in Tanja from 22 November to 29 December, 2008