Ursula Briar, 2022

James Lemon’s work is creaturely. Artists love etymologies; it’s a way of turning everyday language into a found object. A creature is something that has been created, as in, I love all God’s creatures; so it first connotes a thing of design, before it passes into common usage to mean a living being, animal, or beast. In Middle English, it could mean a totality, the whole of the world. In contemporary speech, it carries a valence of creeping, goofy servitude, like an igor or a love-struck idiot, as in, I am your creature. The Romans sometimes used it to mean a young child, which might also apply to Lemon’s work — a feeling of helplessness in the wake of vast, heaving networks of life.

Lemon’s work traverses — by way of hopping, crawling, flying, and squirming — the great gulf between the now and the horizons of the thinkable. If we can’t approach ecological catastrophe head on, Lemon’s work suggests, maybe we can burrow there. The result is intense, complex, obsessional. Painting, building, layering, glazing, and mark-making, Lemon’s work stages a hyperfixation, thinking beyond the box by chewing through the box, portending the future through intuitive, bodily gestures — like Nostradamus, but a termite.

Lemon works out of his studio in Northcote, where he’s been located for the past three years. A whitewashed cavern stacked high with treasures, the floor space is occupied by half-finished sculptures, mounds of clay, gems and bricks, interrupted by a large, comfortable couch. The energy is both chaotic and cosy; studio visits are always welcome. This is the space in which he crafts his work and tutors both handbuilding and throwing. Lemon started his journey as a ceramicist in 2015, focusing on tableware. Interest in his work, primarily vessels, developed rapidly, culminating in an NGV commission for the 2018 Nendo x Escher exhibition collection. Since then, his practice has shifted to larger-scale sculptural projects, with recent works such as ‘Kiln Brick Wall’ for Ace Hotel and ‘Zoe’ for Craft Victoria representing a foray into more diverse materials and forms.

This creaturely work tries to catch a glimpse of non-human consciousness, a dot of light refracted in a compound eye. It speaks to intuition rather than logos — connecting with bodily senses, blurring of the human relationship to reality. Works such as ‘LAMB SHANK’ are chimeric, at odds with the rigidity of fired ceramic: a stoneware vessel, formed on the wheel and turned with a circular saw, mounted on a plinth made of salt brick, with a glazed green lamb bone perched on its lip. There’s a joyful wrongness to this object; it’s somewhere between a cake, a kinder surprise toy and a lit cigarette, like West German fat lava mated with a rococo urn.

This category confusion is deliberate; Lemon works at high temperatures so the objects flex, warp and deform in unexpected ways. Some works are tortured like man-made monsters,

some are as finely-wrought as a root system, and some, again, are distressingly human, blistered with heavy glaze and peeling like burned skin. Appetite always factors in, so the work is surreally located in the realm of both bug-eating and carnivorous insects, bug-eat-bug. Yet all this bug- and body-horror is somehow high-spirited; full of vibrating, beating wings, the play of light. The vessels are lively; their total asymmetry assures that the eye never rests in one place, and instead roves over the morphing and devolving shapes of alien eggs, ants, biblical figures, catfish, birds shot point-blank like revolutionary casualties. The logic of association, such as there is one, is textural.

Lemon repurposes objects, such as kiln bricks, at the end of their useful lives, converting the metaphoric into the material. This can be seen in works such as ‘Kiln Brick Wall’ , which takes literally the very building block of western industrial expansion itself. There’s a tension between human technological development, design, and environmental concerns — his brick-based works are always in conversation with the visual language of rock formations, extreme weather degradation, volcanic activity — expressing a complicated love of energy-intensive methods of production. This conversion of natural substances into productive materials intimates something spookier: a subordination of all stinging, flying, crawling things to the kiln.

Lemon’s use of colour, too, reconciles opposites — noxious greens are paired with fleshy pinks, competing primary colours, subdued jewel tones. Lashings of gold evoke a kind of perverted alchemy, as if precious metal were being turned back into base materials. In recent works, metals predominate, invoking the specter of luxury consumption, as in ‘worm bowl,’ recently acquired by the NGV, or ‘Zoe’, a bronze swing half-melted, as if in a heatwave. This esoteric blend of visual associations is part of what makes Lemon’s work so compelling; the viewer thinks at once of the high Middle Ages, a grotto at the heart of an anthill, an alien invasion arcade game, a pimple.

All this registers as a frenetic resistance to anything that could be called an ‘argument’. Lemon’s work does not crudely address this or that calcified idea. It reminds us that art isn’t a form of action, but a form of knowledge. These works are knowing, though it is a creaturely knowledge: instinctual, ecstatic, and vital.



A gaggle of garrulous totems arranged apparently haphazardly across the gallery floor; their gloopy, tumescent surfaces at once inviting and repelling. The very viscous glamour of them beguiling.

Artist James Lemon admits he wants the viewer “to be a bit confused” by his “functional-ish” sculptures and I’ll admit he’s got me there.

Mostly they’re composed of refired kiln bricks poised upright to form elemental pedestals atop which perch bulbous vessels that appear simultaneously proud and imperilled.

Lemon refers to the formation as “a forest” and if so, it’s one of those dark ones in which strange beasties abound and into which children have a habit of disappearing.

Looked at it in this forest light, these functionalish (for now it’s a word) sculptures seem to allude to tombstones – the monolithic bricks – and funerary urns: those cupped vessels that fit so snugly in the hand and would amply accommodate the ashes of one or two small beings.

The pieces are, in fact, “dancing around death”, says the artist.

“Symbolically, in their formal references, but also materially, in the process of making them. I’m fascinated by what’s known as ‘dunting’, the cracking that occurs as an ‘error’ in the firing process that leads to the piece collapsing.”

So fascinated, that he provokes the erroneous effect in order to celebrate and elevate imperfection. His is a delirious kind of wabi-sabi.

“I fire each piece several times, opening the kiln door sooner that I should which causes the vessels to collapse. It basically fractures the piece. And then I capture that fracture by refiring it.”

At the same time, he reckons, “there’s a certain amount of sacredness about them, stemming from this idea of birth, death and resurrection.”

If Lemon’s language references the religion that’s likely due to a Pentecostal upbringing in his native New Zealand. As a young boy he was drawn to performance, to theatre and to music, but found his outlets stymied by the conservatism of the church.

“So, I left as soon as I could, fleeing to Australia age 18 with basically no money, no skills, barely any education. I was liberated, at least geographically, and determined to make something happen.”

He got jobs in hospitality, made friends, “began dating a guy who was a potter”. Waitering at night, he spent days experimenting in the tiny home studio, throwing, hand-building, wheel-turning.

“I’m not good at boredom, and guess I was attracted to ceramics because it drew my attention to so many locations around the studio where lots of different processes were involved.”

Ultimately, the pleasure of working with clay “is that it’s one of the most fundamental materials around,” he says.

“For me, it was initially a really physical response, it was the tactility. And then as my curiosity deepened, I became intrigued by the lineage of objects, this kind of constant brewing and bubbling.”

He uses the term “sphexishness” to refer to his process, defining it as “mindless, routine behaviour”. But it’s behaviour that, in the case of sphex (great golden digger) wasps, results in exquisitely complex, sturdy nests – in which the bodies of paralysed victim insects are stockpiled to feed their larvae.

The term was coined by the American scientist and scholar of comparative literature Douglas Hofstadter in a September 1982 ‘Metamagical Themas’ column in the Scientific American journal.

Metamagical – “questing for the essence of mind and pattern” – seems an apt term to apply to Lemon’s work: pregnant with meaning that’s more imputed than imparted; allusively gorgeous; fascinated with the glamour of decadence.

“My focus on these objects is intense but kind of blurred,” he says. “I like them to incarnate a sense of mystery and intrigue.”

While Lemon may conceive the series as a forest, you can still see the individual trees. At their most basic, you could say this one’s a vase, that one’s a sort of side table.

“While I’m comfortable with suggesting function, I don’t think the objects live or die by what they’re able to do or not do,” he insists.

“That said, there is definitely power in the purely decorative aspect to them. It brings me back to a reflection on the Rococo where it's like just the most lavish, ridiculous objects.”

He makes a quip about “awful art for awful people” and I happily lean into that, since I am the proud owner of a piece from 2022 titled Time To Die 2. Composed as a kind of triumphal arch – one horizontal, triple-fired brick laid across two crazy-glazed vertical ones – topped by a vessel shaped like an inverted hive (très sphexish!) – it is furiously self-possessed, an indomitable presence in my living room. Sometimes, for a giggle, I pop a flower – a peony, say, or a gladioli – in its bowl.

The frisson of impossible fabulosity is sublime.