Naomi Eller’s studio is in the front room of a sprawling artist studio compound. Next door, a multi-storey apartment block is going up, doggedly changing the streetscape into a vertical view. And across the street, there is a yawning great hole – something like a one-acre excavated site where a supermarket complex will go. Eller’s studio seems impervious to the galloping development just outside. There is wonderful light from the east. “You need natural light when you work with subtleties, I work with eight different types of clay, you need to know what’s what,” she says.
A few sketches in paint are tacked to the wall, figures that appear to be here via Tiepolo or ancient Rome. Their bodies are fleshy, as though made from textured earth, and riff on Eller’s ceramic ‘bodies.’ “I like the documentation of groupings of people in antiquity, particularly in friezes,” she comments. On her work desk there are a few collages from her recent show at Neon Parc, “It’s made from paper and rope, but you get kind of the idea of procession.” In the middle of the modestly-sized room is a ceramic work station, a few pottery bats and shelves to the side with ceramic works completed or in progress. “I painted but never really found my way.” Although Eller confidently handles several mediums, it is clay that provides her with a comfortable language.
Eller doesn’t call herself a potter. “I have a great respect for what potters do. My approach is to look at technique but also to push the boundaries.” Her work, Single weights, plugged & unplugged plus 3 x single hole weights with supports and rope, 2018, displayed at this year’s TarraWarra Biennial drew out a compelling statement on the human condition. The work is made from several clays, wax and rope, and resembles marine-tarnished rope with something like rudimentary anchors attached. It floated on the tip of consciousness – almost recognisable, almost worked out – just like
all the heavy questions Eller was dredging. “I am really interested in the image registering but it not quite making sense.” Initially I had the impression that the objects on the rope were buoys but Eller calls them ‘weights’ – the opposite.” “It resonates but it doesn’t literally look like [an anchor]. I want to muddle up the image.”
Eller picks up a couple of ceramic objects from her shelf, “These are the plugs – and these are the holes which sounds…” She breaks off into a generous laugh. “There’s that connotation too. But it’s how we fill those holes.” I think back to the Tiepolo-esque human body on her wall, how Eller’s clay resembles the textures and curves of a body, but here I think of how weight can manifest emotionally. Her objects remind me of the metal parts of medieval doors, or tools – long-forgotten, not entirely recognisable – they look like they might be unearthed, or found in an old fire pit. It’s not all serious though – the medium provides a sense of tactility, play, haptic resonance, even while Eller ruminates on where we are going, how we live, “all those basic questions.”
Working in this multipurpose studio, Eller drives out to Melbourne’s outer south-east suburbs to have her ceramic pieces fired. She never glazes her ceramics: “It’s claustrophobic, the clay needs to breathe. With glaze once it’s done, it’s lacquered on.”
Eller has been using other means than glaze to complete the ceramics’ finish, among these is burnishing. “The Etruscans used this technique called Bucchero – it’s a blackening of clay. They used to take bones and have a ritual around this firing.” Eller talks about the transformative act of this type of firing, how the objects come out looking aged, “the firing does that, you put something in and it’s being attacked by heat.” It is only through this harsh process that clay becomes vitrified – or eternal. Ancient pottery is pulled out of the ground, perhaps broken, but not lost. Excavation is a thread that runs through her practice. One of her most striking works in her large show at Neon Parc was a cocoon-like object. “In fact,” she says, “there were a lot of contained memories. And it relates to the work at TarraWarra. Things that are suppressed but trying to emerge, things that are fossilised.”
Eller found her way to the Etruscans during a recent residency in Italy that culminated in a museum show. “I feel like I can get lost in Italy, I feel like it’s a good place to dream. There are certain places where you don’t feel the contemporary buzz as much. There’s history in the soil but as an artist, who hasn’t grown up there, that history and legacy doesn’t hold the same sway for me and what I do. I know a lot of artists flee Italy just to get away from that history. I am not overwhelmed by it.”