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Canberra Times Review: A Shared Enchantment has enamelling from three countries

Kerry-Anne Cousins, August 2, 2021

Various artists: A Shared Enchantment. Japanese, Australian and New Zealand Contemporary Enamelling. ANU Drill Hall Gallery. On until August 15, 2021.

Enamelling is a form of decoration on metal that goes back many hundreds of years and crosses many cultural boundaries.

Tsuruya Sakurai, Kazuko Inomata and Hiroki Iwata are leading exponents of the art of enamelling in Japan. Helen Aitken- Kuhnen and her daughter Mio Kuhnen are Canberra artists who have made enamelling a major part of their art practice. Their work uses century-old techniques to make new and striking contemporary jewellery. New Zealand artist Jasmine Watson, a former student of Helen Aitken-Kuhnen, shares her interest in Japanese enamelling techniques.

In 2007 Helen Aitken-Kuhnen attended workshops with Sakurai and Inomata as part of an enamelling conference in Brisbane. Since then she, her daughter and Watson have continued their association with these Japanese artists, attending workshops in both Australian and Japan. Helen Aitken-Kuhnen has often referenced the experience she has gained from her interaction with these Japanese artists acknowledging their skill and artistry in enamelling techniques. This exhibition provides a very special opportunity to see work of all these artists brought together from this fruitful intercultural exchange.

Sakurai’s round boxes are decorated delicately with traditional and contemporary Japanese motifs and flowers. She uses the cloisonné technique on copper where cells or cloisons created by thin wire and soldered onto the copper surface are filled with coloured enamel. Sakurai also uses a moriage technique of layering the enamel so that the pattern is built up instead of being a flat surface. This highly skilled technique is used by Aitken-Kuhnen to great effect in her Ocean Transition series and by Kuhnen in her Moth Composition brooch series.

 Hiroki Iwata (Tokyo), Objects. Picture: Supplied

Inomata’s series of four small enamelled panels on copper is delightful. They depict four individual female heads with fantastical headwear that the artist has decorated with great skill. The detail in the wreath of flowers worn by one figure is unbelievably intricate. Their jewel-like hues dance with colour and light.

Iwata’s three brooches are contemporary in style. Particularly attractive are two green, blue and gold brooches that are based on intertwining curling shapes.

Watson’s intricate brooches are impressive with their display of painstaking skill, delicate symmetrical filigree patterning and subtle, rich layering of colour.

Aitken-Kuhnen’s work is influenced by her response to the natural environment. The Land to Sea series of armbands, pendants and brooches has a certain elegant restraint. Their decoration is a judicious interplay of carefully placed lines and shapes balanced by burnished silver surfaces. While she is skilled and technically meticulous, her work can appear free and spontaneous. The Coral series of pendants and brooches based on organic forms are ornamented with abstract shapes in bright glowing colours.

Kuhnen’s work continues to develop in assurance. Her jewellery demonstrates successfully her interest in working the metal with small areas of colour introduced through line. A beautiful, subtle group of works, The chaos before the abyss – Murray Canyons, 2017 references the topographical theme found in the Amazon River series with colour used with discernment. In her latest work, a series of brooches and pendants titled Moth Migrations, 2021, the “moth” which is a continuing motif in her work returns in a new and lively guise. It becomes part of a composition of interacting abstract shapes that sing with subtle colour.

Image: Helen Aitken-Kuhnen, Carwoola: Coral Pendants

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.