With her third American show of rolled, coiled, pinched, and cut porcelain, prominent Canadian artist Alwyn O’Brien continued to prove that a container—or bucket, to use her term—can still act as a point of departure for sculptural explorations. Her way to cope with the lack of sculptural mass in vessel-based art is to build up the sides with lacy, see-through networks of connected pieces of clay. With two exceptions, O’Brien’s entire show at James Harris Gallery (www.jamesharrisgallery.com) in Seattle, Washington, proceeds from this assumption and, for the most part, succeeds. One knows the interiors are empty; their outlines operate rather as linear, dimensional grids that define each work’s form, profile, and silhouette.
To her credit, although everything shares the same craft process, each work has its own identity. And this, too, is a fair test—can the sculptures exist on their own, away from the collective cluster of the installation?
What to Do With All These Blues? is the exhibition centerpiece, five spectacularly wobbly and wonderful vases lined up in a row on a white fireplace mantel. The pitch-black hearth interior below grounds the airy, flighty things above, each a study in piling, netting, and globing together the porcelain coils and strands.
The three middle pieces, Together, In-Between, and Apart, remind us how porcelain can look simultaneously hard and soft, even when the tops are dipped in dark cobalt glaze. Flute I and Flute II bookend the group, the only solid-walled vases, anchoring the battered or shredded middle ones. The austere woodwork of the fireplace surround suggests 18th-century England, a heyday of blue-and-white porcelain mania. O’Brien comments on that past, but also explodes it, as if a nuclear detonation had left these behind. The tipping and imminent collapse of Apart recalls the Hiroshima building tower left standing as a reminder of the destruction wrought by the atomic bomb dropped over the city. Add to this a consciousness of the extreme firing temperature of porcelain and one sees how O’Brien is slowly building historical as well as ceramic-specific cultural references into the work.
All dark black and brown, Final Fantasy may be the definitive expression of the exploded, see-through vessel idea. With the greatest variety of coils, and made using manganese clay, it seems the least serial, without any really close siblings.
The problem is that her last three shows have all used the same techniques and processes. It would be a shame for O’Brien to stick with the same look for years. Or to fall into the trap that another Canadian ceramic artist, Robert Sperry, once warned of, “With such technical difficulties to master, most craft artists have only one idea per decade.”
Midway through her decade—if it is to last that long—Alwyn O’Brien is at least extending the limits of her chosen technical challenge. Elsewhere, Coil Pastoral uses celadon glaze and gold luster to imperialize two tall masses of coiled and pinched shapes that come close to touching. Deluxe and flashy, this is the most abstract work on view. Perched on shelves spaced a few inches apart, the two pieces that make up Coil Pastoral still address the same art-historical problem as the mantelpiece display—how can container objects emerging out of a decorative arts tradition transition from knick-knack or display-shelf status to the sculptural pedestal?
O’Brien faces this conundrum by giving each work a different kind of support, implying there is no one single answer to the dilemma. If the 1980s Simulationist artists Meyer Vaisman, Ashley Bickerton, and Richard Artschwager could flaunt their shelves, incorporating such supports into the sculpture, then why can’t Alwyn O’Brien?
Somewhere in between, the clay elements of Wound, Wind, Wound sit on a plinth placed on top of an incised, diamond-patterned column that sits on the floor. Squatted on the floor on low, white-painted wooden slabs balancing on crumpled and fired clay piles, the four buckets—Constellate/Wine, Honey, Milk, and White Barley II—may allude to the original food or liquid containers being dismantled. Charred black, they seem shattered aftermaths of a restaurant fire. However, this sensation is countered by the instant apprehension of their laborious, coil-by-coil constructed origins.
With her art rich in contradiction, paradox, and possibilities, O’Brien has concluded this particular exploration of clay’s properties and will no doubt continue to discover and mutate new aspects even farther, toward its often uncanny outer limits.
the author Matthew Kangas, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, has also written about Canadian artists Robin Hopper, Léopold L. Foulem, Jerry Pethick, and Brian Gladwell. His latest book is Chihuly: Drawings (Museum of Glass, 2015).