Barry Tate - Ceramicist, Mixed Media Artist, and Educator

Warrnambool artist Barry Tate’s work is enigmatic, through his sculptural ceramics, and luminescent mixed media work he comments on Australian society, and where we are going.

A painter, ceramicist, educator and mixed media artist he has not been afraid to embellish his work with luminous coatings, gilt, glitter, string, and religious iconography. In both his paintings and mixed media he often experiments with optic fibre, illuminating images and shapes with the tiny filaments to add a glow.

He quips that his love of lustre comes from his childhood growing up in Catholicism “ Staring at all the colour, and glitter and glow, it sort of symbolises wealth. I am having a go at it - I love it and hate it,” he said.

In his early career journalist Peter Anderson described his work as “More casino than cathedral” which Barry loved.

“I was being a bit more literal in those days. It was more propaganda concentrated with much more recognisable icons, now it is a little bit more abstract and a little bit more personal, thinking about issues like world poverty,” he said.

Barry begins some of his larger sculptural ceramics using a mould for the base that looks like a baroque torchiere and then adds to the form, creating something that is beguiling, and fiercely ornamental. Some of these works stand tall at up to 198cm imposing in form yet complex with glazes, colours and embellishments like moulded coils of ceramic grapes, or twisting chains, figures and flowers. With some humour he looks at the follies of extravagance by creating work that is opulent with a distorted domestic scale.

Underlying all of his work, Barry thinks deeply about contemporary Australia and who suffers the most with the impact of Covid-19, massive floods, ravaging bushfires, our fragile environment and the decision to turn back the boats.

These ideas, are expressed in intricate ceramic works such as ‘Noah’s Ark’, a view of the stern of a boat covered in artefacts from children’s stories and native Australian animals, or  ‘Go Back Where You Came From’, that depicts koalas in life jackets seated on a bed of flowers on a boat, or the slightly ominous ‘Minister For Home Affairs’, a towering piece of complex winding ceramic ropes around a central baroque form with a golden child holding a teddy bear sitting atop a foaming cloud of golden balls.

After studying fine art, Barry also studied in Japan with an old master in Tamba, one of six ancient kiln sites. He said it was very strict and serious and he was trying to understand where they were coming from in their work.

He said they lost themselves completely leading an almost monastic life, growing their own food and working six days a week, never deviating from the classical forms. It was there he learned to build a wood fired kiln, a skill he has shared with many ceramicists in Australia.

Even in Japan,  Barry was captivated by  the possibility of colour and laughs that when he painted bright under glazes on his work, the Japanese master said ‘why do you ruin such beautiful shapes’ and walked off.

Barry has worked as an educator and helped to establish ceramics education in several locations around Australia. When his work at TAFE dried up, he began holding private classes for people under the NDIS and found students that are so inspiring.

“They are gutsy, there is no restriction, or fear, or preconceived ideas of what they should produce, it is just coming from the soul and the improvement in their work is just incredible,” he said.

In his current show The Winter of Disconnect, The Great Indoors, that can be seen online at the Fox Galleries in Melbourne he joins with Matthew Clarke to explore this idea.

Rebecca Agnew from Fox Galleries sums up his rich complexity symbolism and social commentary in her description of the ceramic totem ‘Regrowth’ which alludes to the cycle of life and the regrowth after our devastating summer of bush fires.

She writes “It speaks to the tragic black summer of bushfires devastating Australia in 2019-2020. A phoenix, that is indeed a monster with the capacity to kill in its rising. Standing vastly at two meters, Tate’s resurrected Rococo style is theatrical in its illusions and movement. It is its own creationist story.

As a totem, ‘Regrowth’ symbolises a sacred object, an entity that speaks not only for itself but for humanity at large if you view it through the lens ‘of scale, not size.’ It is at once a mound of earth and a sea of pearls.

Barry Tate is now developing works for a new exhibition that will be held at WAG.

Image: Barry Tate, 'Land of Plenty’, 2019, hand-made ceramic earthenware, 70x75x75cm. Image courtesy Fox Galleries