Marcus Bowcott and Laura Wee Lay Laq: fire/water
At the Amelia Douglas Gallery until April 21
The title of this small exhibition, fire/water, refers to one artist’s subject and another artist’s process. Laura Wee Lay Laq’s hand-built ceramic vessels achieve their distinctive surface markings through the raku-like way in which they are fired. Fire essentially brings them into being. Many of Marcus Bowcott’s paintings depict seascapes and immense, oceangoing vessels. Water is a subject that enables this artist to speak not only to his past employment as a deckhand and longshoreman, but also to his political, economic, and environmental concerns.
The pairing of the two artists celebrates the fact that they were enrolled in the same fine-arts program at Douglas College (where the Amelia Douglas Gallery is located) and that they were in the first graduating class from that institution, in 1972. The location of the show provides an opportunity for Bowcott to mourn the loss of the studio-arts program at the college. In his statement, he laments the fact that fine-arts education, here and elsewhere, has been displaced by a focus on business and on generating enrollment from international students, who pay substantially higher tuition fees than locals.
Wee Lay Laq’s statement is much more poetic—as is her work. She describes the process by which she realizes her wondrous vessels and the sense of peace and harmony—and something like the Buddhist state of “no mind”—she experiences working with clay. Instead of applying glaze, Wee Lay Laq burnishes each vessel before it is fired, when the clay is at the “leather-hard” stage, achieving a smooth and softly glowing surface. Smoky colours and often evocative effects are, again, the result of what she identifies as “primitive” firing, using sawdust—packed in and around her vessels—as fuel rather than gas or electricity.
Early in her career, finding no ceramic tradition to draw from among the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast, Wee Lay Laq looked to ancient pottery techniques of the American Southwest. Many of her vessels assume the basic form of the olla; others are inspired by natural forms, such as spiky seedpods and flowers unfurling from buds. Squash Blossom takes the squat, segmented form of not a blossom but the squash itself; The Geometry of Space suggests the complex form of a protea, much enlarged and with the apparent weight and patina of bronze. All of Wee Lay Laq’s vessels are works of consummate beauty, inspiring in the viewer the same sense of oneness with the natural world that she describes experiencing while she is making them.
Bowcott’s oil paintings take on global warming, the military-industrial complex, and celebrity politicians preaching laissez-faire capitalism and the godliness of wealth. Also on view are a couple of maquettes for public sculptures, the best-known being his Trans Am Totem, with its pointedly critical stack of used cars on top of the severed trunk of an old-growth cedar tree.
More subtle in the context of this exhibition—that is, in dialogue with Wee Lay Laq’s ceramics—are his seascapes and paintings of ocean freighters. Grey Green Wake shows us an expanse of ocean devoid of any marker other than the ephemeral one—the churned-up water a large vessel trails behind it. His freighters are great, hulking paradoxes—floating monoliths, each an immense, implacable presence, occasionally muted by mist. Slightly abstracted, they suggest the relationship between our rampant overconsumption and the sea-borne freight that is such an inextricable part of our globalized economy. (This latter theme was addressed by last year’s Access Gallery show 23 Days at Sea.) With its dark hull casting a long, menacing reflection, R, B & G Anchorage conveys both power and menace. It reminds us that we should look a little more thoughtfully at all those freighters so familiarly moored in English Bay.