Since I wrote about Canadian ceramist Alexandra McCurdy’s porcelain gridded boxes a couple of blogs ago, I’ve been re-engaging with interpretations of the container as an aesthetic form. Sure, Donald Judd’s boxes I evoked in that blog are there (and how could they not be), but so too is a sculptural work like Richard Serra’s One Ton Prop (House of Cards) done in 1969, one of his self-supporting pieces comprised of four massive square lead panels leaning against one another so as to give shape to, well, a box. The form as aesthetically self-referential, brilliantly evoked by Serra.
I don’t think I’d be out of line in saying that there is, of course, a certain machismo to the work, as there is with much of Serra’s work, a heroic, even epic quality. (In the interest of full-disclosure, and just in case you hadn’t noticed) his is work that I admire very much.) Beyond the issue of materiality of his work (the earlier lead pieces, his concrete “earthwork” Shift done back in 1972 and situated just north of Toronto, and his ongoing exploration of monumental forms and the possibilities of Cor-ten steel) it’s the scale of things that matters enormously, the human body’s response to and interaction with these works. And so they are all containers, marking out and denoting the shapes of the spaces they encompass.
I’ll be blindly obvious, here, for a moment: art works of any kind are, of course, all containers, be they overt material expressions and manifestations of the conceit, or more indirect conceptual, intellectual, emotional evocations of the idea of what can be held and embraced – of what it is to contain something.
And that actually leads me back to the issue of scale, down towards the smaller end of the spectrum, and to a medium with little heroic or epic quality but which has long had absolutely everything to do with the concept of the container: clay. Putting aside clay’s early use as tablets for cuneiform writing, as recording surfaces (which are, clearly, containers of a kind), this is a medium that has long had absolutely everything to do with those containers that are vessels. You know: pots, bowls, jars, vases…
So it’s here that I find myself returning, time and again, to a consideration of Skate Pod, a piece by Canadian ceramist Ghita Levin (ghitalevinpottery.ca). It’s small, and like so very much in the field of ceramics, it’s intended to be held in the hand. It’s a 1:1 scale representation as well, based on something from the natural world: the egg casing of the skate, a fish of the ray family. These casings can be found washed-up on the beaches not far from Levin’s home and studio in northern New Brunswick, and they are, of course, vessels, containers. And Levin’s representation of this small, fascinating bit of fauna is, of course, sculptural in intent and outcome, a perfect marriage of medium, meaning, and form. Levin has long worked with the representation form in her work, creating exquisite representational sculptural forms of creatures like birds (in addition to her work with vessel forms like pots and bowls). But it is her egg casing that makes a sculptural case for the idea of the container.
From Maritime Canada to downtown Toronto, and a recent exhibition by ceramist Heidi McKenzie (heidimckenzie.ca). It’s work that’s overly all about the vessel, but the utilitarian component that’s seemingly been all-but permanently welded into our notion of what constitutes ceramics has here been, well, literally deconstructed. McKenzie’s explored and extended the conceit of the thrown vessel form, rising up in the ceramist’s hands from a shapeless lump of clay spinning on a wheel. When you think about it, that constructive motion – moving clay articulated in the skilled grasp of human hands – actually shapes out a spiral, and McKenzie made it sculpturally manifest in porcelain pieces like her China Bound series, ribbons of fired portion just barely articulating the shape of a vessel. The containers of this series may materially decay into the elemental shapes of unarrested motion – those lazy ribbons of spiraled porcelain flopping onto themselves or the objects they ostensibly contain, or even straining upwards seemingly in defiance of gravity – but it is multiple meanings, allusions, and connotations that gather and hold true, contained within the work’s sculptural parameters.
As I’m writing this, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (www.vam.ac.uk) is mounting Alison Britton: Content and Form, an exhibition of forty years of work by the renowned British ceramist, forty years of her intense exploration of the vessel as both a utile container and a stand-alone sculptural form. We’re not talking, here, about some ornament and decorative features simply adorning a working vessel and passing the consequent amalgam of things off as a legitimate piece of sculpture. Britton’s work (not thrown on a wheel as is conventionally expected of any form akin to a clay vessel, but rather sculpturally created of slabs of clay) uses the domestic associations that have accrued around the vessel form as a point of aesthetic departure as she takes a utilitarian form and makes it decidedly sculptural. But what’s utterly elegant about Britton’s work is that the working vessel is still present and accounted for; her pieces – like the enigmatic Yellow Pot from 1990 – hover in that aesthetic space of either/or between the decidedly and domestically utile and the articulately sculptural. Here is where meaningful slippage between disparate realms can occur, where one can become the other – and then back again – without categorization and aesthetic decidedness and fixity. The conventional holding patterns we’ve assigned to forms give way.
None of this – neither Levin’s work, nor McKenzie’s and Britton’s – is about shape-shifting. It’s about fluidity of another order.
It’s about the making of forms that live.
By Gil McElroy