Playing With Fire: Ceramics of the Extraordinary
At the UBC Museum of Anthropology until March 29
Playing With Fire challenges the formal and conceptual boundaries of that most humble and earthy of materials—clay. Subtitled "Ceramics of the Extraordinary" and curated by the Museum of Anthropology’s Carol Mayer, the show features sculptures and installations by 11 British Columbia artists across three generations and an abundance of art movements and ideas. Themes range from colonialism, human migration, and cultural hybridity to materialism, urban growth, and childhood memories. With this show, Mayer is determined to wipe away any craft-based, little-brown-pot stereotypes that might still adhere to the ceramics medium.
Still, there is plenty of, well, if not craftsmanship, then certainly technical facility on view, usually in the service of a compelling message. Look for Brendan Lee Satish Tang’s glossy and somewhat sinister robotics being birthed out of blue-and-white Chinese vases, Alwyn O’Brien’s impossibly filigreed vessels and towers, and Jeremy Hatch’s ghostly white birch tree with a derelict tree house cupped in its branches.
As for challenging stereotypes, we have the examples of Gathie Falk and Glenn Lewis, two ground-breaking senior artists who, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, employed clay to wed conceptualism and serialism to pop art and funk ceramics. Lewis’s Artifact is a wall-sized installation of 30 white ceramic tiles bedecked with phallic “salt shakers”, its diaristic text and grid format conveying the overarching idea of a calendar. Falk’s Bootcase With Nine Black Shoes uses multiples of the same unprepossessing form—a man’s well-worn ankle boot sculpted in clay—to invest her work with emotional resonance and symbolic power. Made in 1973, this Bootcase is already a classic, exemplary of Falk’s acclaimed ability to bestow wonder and delight upon the ordinary and the everyday. (It’s interesting to remember that Falk studied ceramics with Lewis many decades ago.)
Repetition, popular-culture forms, and the minimal-conceptual grid are used strategically by a number of other artists here. Ian Johnston’s Antechamber, its four walls filled with row upon row of vacuum-formed ceramic tiles, is excerpted from an installation he first created in 2013. Antechamber celebrates significant inventions, such as the telephone and the incandescent light bulb, that have hugely benefited society. At the same time, it laments their absorption into a system of mass manufacture and, consequently, massive waste.
Ying-Yueh Chuang uses her exquisitely wrought ceramic forms to examine both cultural migration and class inequity. Her Cross Series #3 is a colourful kind of garden, consisting of hundreds of small ceramic “plants” on Plexiglas stems, mounted on a cross-shaped wooden base. Each plant is a simultaneously beautiful and unsettling combination of different forms found in nature, from seed pods to crab claws. This curious hybridity symbolizes the artist’s upbringing in Taiwan and her gradual adjustment to western ideas and beliefs since settling in the Lower Mainland.
Judy Chartrand’s hand-built ceramic vessels and mixed-media installations often employ repetitive motifs and elements, too. Multiple images of bedbugs invade her series of large, lustrous bowls while alluding to deteriorating conditions in Downtown Eastside hotels in If This Is What You Call ‘Being Civilized’, I’d Rather Go Back to Being a ‘Savage’. Four shelves of Andy Warhol-esque ceramic soup cans, with critically altered wording on their labels, top an antique wooden cabinet in The Cupboard of Contention. Chartrand’s art is, at first glance, so visually appealing and formally accomplished that it draws us in before confronting us with its social and political messages. She implicates us even as she condemns racism and negative cultural stereotypes, deplores the history and legacy of colonialism, and mourns lost, missing, and murdered Indigenous women.
In a sense, Debra Sloan also employs repetition as a strategy, her recurring form being a mould-made baby-doll figurine, altered or decorated in response to historical pieces in the Koerner Ceramic Gallery at MOA. As an artist in residence at the museum in 2018, Sloan mused upon the social, political, and religious histories embedded in the 17th- and 18th-century European wares in the Koerner collection. Inserted into and around existing vitrines and displays, her paradoxically chubby and cherubic dolls bring themes of religious persecution and forced migration forward to the present day. As with so much of the work in Playing With Fire, viewers are reminded of the immense expressive potential that lies within a lump of raw clay.