Alan Constable’s ceramic cameras capture his scrutinising gaze


In the National Portrait Gallery’s (NPG) annual showcase of new portraits by Australian artists, there is a yearly push to advance our appreciation of contemporary portraiture. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Archibald Prize for portraits is also judged annually, but the competitive aspect of the Archibald has a tendency to restrict the limits of what kind of portraits an artist might submit. For instance, portraits in the Archibald, by and large, have faces.

That’s where the exhibition Portrait23: Identity steps in to offer an expanded idea of this ancient genre. This is “Portraiture”, they promise, just “not as you know it.” There is little better example of this than the work of Melbourne ceramicist, Alan Constable. With a three-decade practice behind him, in Portrait23 he is represented by several glittering, glazed ceramic cameras. A photographic portrait of Constable is also included, taken by artist Andrew Curtis. Is Curtis’s image of Constable the portrait in question? And are Constable’s cameras supposed to stand as a form of portraiture? An oblique self-portrait, without a face?

As art historian Rex Butler wrote recently, in the context of another exhibition by the NPG: “In effect every work of art is now a portrait or even better a self-portrait: the questions we ask of it concern the identity of its maker and what is their relationship to their subject matter, whether they have the right to depict what they depict and what this is to say about them.” By this logic too, every gallery is a portrait gallery.

Andrew Curtis and Alan Constable, Alan examining my kit, 2022

If we understand that Constable’s cameras can flick in and out of self-portraiture, what do they tell us about the artist? Being non-verbal, Constable doesn’t speak about his motivations or how he would like us to perceive his identity. But like all artists, his work is primarily an expression of his thoughts. And these are particularly expressive artworks.

Constable is a hand-builder, crafting resolutely handmade ceramics. This is a common aesthetic in the communal workshop at Arts Project Australia in Melbourne, where the artist has worked since 1991, amassing a nationally and internationally esteemed career, particularly for his ceramic cameras. But while many of his studio peers use brushes to carefully paint their ceramics, Constable pours on his glazes with a confident casualness. Constable is now a senior artist, and you can see aspects of his approach in younger contemporary artists such as James Lemon, Brendan Huntley, Lisa Reid and Georgia Harvey, who could comfortably join a School of Constable.

While learning about his signature artworks seems more important than ever, thankfully, the NPG does not let us fall into literary cliché; Constable is not a camera. The artist does have limited, pin-hole vision, a type of restricted perspective that early cameras had, and perhaps because of this, Constable has occasionally been conflated with the subject he has been making for over 15 years.

Yet, with the inclusion of Curtis’s portrait, visitors are invited to avoid Christopher Isherwood’s famous conclusion, “I am a camera.” As the English writer reflects on his role as an observer of humanity: “… with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair.” I do not think that this flaneur gaze is what Constable’s work implies.

Andrew Curtis’s portrait of Constable shows him looking at Curtis’s photographic kit bag. Constable is not passive, but scrutinising, judging, assessing. When creating the portrait, Curtis noted that, “Alan was hovering around the photographer’s camera on the tripod, peering closely at the lens. This is where I got the idea for this portrait.” Constable has an eye for the mechanical. He has made a series of ceramic tools (such as pliers), and all his ceramic cameras feature internal elements true to the engineering found inside a real camera. He has not, for example, created many sculptures of spectacles—which you might expect him to if ‘seeing’ was his primary subject. Constable prefers binoculars and less ordinary, more complex objects for looking.

Alan Constable, Untitled, 2022, glazed earthenware, 16.5 x 16.5 x 7 cm.

For me, Constable’s cameras lead us to the mechanical and tactile design of the subject, rather than its function. Although he uses photographs constantly as references for his paintings and sculpture, as Marcel Cooper, the ceramics coordinator at Arts Project, mused, “I’ve never actually seen Alan use a camera, or seen a photograph that he has taken.”

I don’t think Constable’s cameras are self-portraits, although they do have facial softness to them. Their structural slouchiness reminds me of the backpack puppets from 90s ABC television series Lift Off! On the day I visited Constable at Arts Project Australia, he made three cameras, two with looping handles that looked unmistakably like ears. I watched as he slab-built the internal and external structure of a camera out of soft clay, then deftly carved the surface detail, before adding the whimsical ‘ear’ handles.

When Constable holds the piece up, closely scrutinising it, I see how the camera is an object that is designed for the hand and the face. None of Constable’s cameras themselves have a face, exactly, but they are works about faces. Like a mask working in reverse, Constable holds the camera up in front of himself, so we can better see the artist behind it.

Portrait23: Identity
National Portrait Gallery (Canberra ACT)
Until 18 June

This article was originally published in the May/June 2023 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Feature Words by Victoria Perin