The exhibition “Playing with Fire: Ceramics of the Extraordinary” at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, combines beauty and high craft with the risky and provocative in ways that are both challenging and accessible. Playing with Fire, as the title implies, touches on controversial issues without being obscure or didactic. The eleven artists in the show have used their considerable skills to contend with issues concerning racism, identity, consumerism, and injustice. Their inspiration has been drawn from diverse sources—history, pop culture, humor, nature—and funneled intensely through the filters of beauty, longing, and desire.
A Notion of Danger
Curator Carol Mayer’s intention was to take a risk, to sharply focus on deeply significant political, cultural, and psychological issues without sacrificing the uses of beauty. All the work had to be geographically local, but global in terms of messaging, it had to value craft, each artist had to present the issues concerning them with humor and hope. Mayer’s chief aim was to combine a number of artists whose work expresses that notion of danger as it is played out through the great and terrible issues of the present moment. When this intention was described to artist Judy Chartrand, she replied, “You do this and you’re playing with fire.”
The exhibition includes work by Judy Chartrand, Ying-Yueh Chuang, Gathie Falk, Jeremy Hatch, Ian Johnston, David Lambert, Glenn Lewis, Alwyn O’Brien, Bill Rennie, Debra Sloan, and Brendan Lee Satish Tang. Internationally recognized and acclaimed for their extremely skilled work as ceramic sculptors, these artists make work so diverse and idiosyncratic that, despite the fact that all use clay, they might seem to have nothing in common. Language is a strange and imprecise thing, but in this case, the words of the title describe what these artists do: push boundaries; produce provocative and edgy work; and risk getting burned, misunderstood, or rebuked. The title is also a clever pun. Ceramics is a medium fundamentally about playing with fire. These works could have been made in no other medium without compromising their meaning. Each work is deeply rooted in history, not just in terms of subject matter and relevance, but also in its deep connections to the global histories of ceramics.
Each artist takes something ordinary and makes it extraordinary by questioning expectations and dealing with issues that may be uncomfortable to viewers or threaten pre-existing beliefs. All of the exhibiting artists live and work in Vancouver and they represent a cross-cultural spectrum in terms of age, ethnicity, and conceptual focus. The oldest works in the show date from the 1960s, the latest were made three months before the opening. There are more than 35 ceramic installations, many of which are immense in scale. The artists have contributed works that are highly detailed and often made up of numerous individual components. Due to this style of fabrication, there are thousands of objects in the show. Although the diversity of the work makes it difficult to categorize, the artists work through related concerns expressed in radically different ways.
Dealing with Issues Through Concept
Judy Chartrand, a Manitoba Cree, First Nations artist, was raised in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She makes work that contends with issues of displacement and segregation focusing specifically on the oppressive racism that has characterized Canada’s relations with its First Nations populations. Her ceramic work is represented by a series of five large bowls festively decorated with cockroaches and the names of flophouse hotels. During a time of brutal segregation practices, these substandard hotels were among the few rental spaces available to urban First Nations people. Five banners behind the bowls display the neon signs of each of these old hotels.
Brendan Lee Satish Tang employs multiple influences: contemporary pop culture (plastic toys and Japanese comics), art history (Chinese Ming-dynasty vessels and 18th-century French Rococo), and remix culture (electronic music and mash-ups) to make objects that deal with the notion of the hybrid. Intrigued by cultural appropriation, his highly refined Manga Ormolu series uses, reuses, and reconfigures parts and pieces belonging to different objects from different time periods. He likens aspects of his artistic practice to “channel surfing, where I absorb, interpret, and bank a great deal of visual information to inform my personal aesthetic.”
Manipulating elements of Western and Taiwanese cultures, Taiwan-born Ying-Yueh Chuang addresses cultural identity through her art. She is interested in the notion of the hybrid, drawing from her Asian heritage to produce delicately rendered botanical images. Her interest in hybridization has led her to borrow and invent elements from plants or sea anemones. Her spectacular, multi-partite Cross Series and Flower Series 1 spotlight her unique conjunctions of the hyper-real with the imaginary, of scientific inquiry with the mythological. Using the floor as a platform in Cross Series, Chuang produced a mini-landscape of intricately conceived botanical specimens reminiscent of an old-fashioned science museum diorama.
Influenced by California Funk, Gathie Falk is also engaged with techniques utilizing repetition, seriality, and accumulation. It has been said that Falk venerates the ordinary. Her work deals with daily interactions with the world of things using common domestic objects such as boots and sneakers.
Glenn Lewis, like Gathie Falk, pursues the ordinary into another dimension. His conceptually based work interrogates his environment, making the familiar unfamiliar and unmooring it from its intended purposes. His large ceramic wall mural, Artifact is a diaristic process piece. He cast eight salt shakers in a variety of positions each day for 22 days and wrote about his day on the backs of the blank tiles.
Partly because they are so intensely abstract, Alwyn O’Brien’s objects stand out from the others in her focus on intensely beautiful dissections of the vessel form. Pure color and lacy, hand-rolled coils characterize her deconstructed, seemingly chaotic columnar forms. She pushes the fragility and plasticity of clay almost to the point of collapse. Each section is irregular, the coils constructing the volumes of the forms in a way that seems too precarious to hold together.
Jeremy Hatch’s life-sized, spectacular Tree House is for him an icon of childhood. As he says, the idea of recreating a childhood memory was a way of evoking “the fragility of childhood memories and nostalgia from our past.” This life-sized object is cast in porcelain from tree segments: a hybrid of the natural and the industrialized world. He speaks of this beautiful and unearthly piece as “a symbolic gesture . . . freezing a moment in time . . . recording and preserving forms and events that are impossible to relive.” This work deals with the way objects from the past keep their hold on memory and also emphasizes the fragility and embattled circumstances of the environment.
Through a vacuum-forming process he developed, Ian Johnston created the most overtly political work in the exhibition, his immense installation Antechamber. Johnston describes Antechamber as being comprised of “four installations that explore the other end of the consumption process: the invention.” It employs casts of important 19th- and 20th-century inventions that have contributed to our culture of consumption. Through this overwhelming display of consumer goods, Johnston intends to destabilize the viewer’s response to these objects. He aims to intervene in the social cycles of desire and consumption that have brought about global, economic, and environmental disruption.
Bill Rennie’s work evokes a fantastical sense of place in highly detailed constructions of fabled architecture and specific locales. Producing one of the most spectacular and moving displays in the exhibition, Rennie recreated in miniature his English childhood home in Surrey. This large, diorama-like piece is entitled Where I Was Brought Up: 6949 Harris Road. The obsessively detailed, complex landscape stands on a tall pedestal under a large vitrine. On the floor, surrounding the pedestal on four sides, are Google-Earth photos of the site from the air. Because the site has changed radically, he has outlined the footprint of the space that the original building occupied. There are now twelve houses in its place and the address no longer exists, as the original house and grounds was demolished to make room for a subdivision. This model of his home renders in detail every building, plant, tree, and secret place he remembered. Rennie took the anger and sense of loss he felt at the destruction of this old family place into action—becoming president of an advocacy group, Artists For Creative Environments. He was ahead of his time as a voice for affordable housing and responsible development.
The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia is renowned for its emphasis on world arts and cultures and in particular its focus on the arts of the First Nations. This exhibition is as much about its curator as it is about the artists in it. Carol Mayer is the founder and president of the Northwest Ceramics Foundation and teaches a course in the social history of ceramics at Emily Carr University. Mayer views art objects from the perspective of her training as a cultural anthropologist. As an anthropologist, she focused on historic ceramic artifacts and began speaking to contemporary ceramic sculptors in order to understand fabrication. Mayer believes that ceramics is a binding force across cultures, and her selection of artists for this exhibition underscores this belief.
14, 15 Ian Johnston’s Antechamber (installation view and detail), 28 ft. (8.5 m) in length, 2013.
the author Kay Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.