Bear with me, here.
I’ll date myself and risk saying that, as is usually the case, those of newer generations of us homo sapiens are stereotypically deemed by those of the previous to suffer shortcomings of the mind, body, or spirit. “Why, when I was a child…” is often how such critiques start, followed by a great deal of tsk tsking as more recent humans are taken to task for faults and flaw and defects that their forebears have miraculously been apparently unaffected by. And I’ll go out on a limb and say that perhaps the greatest flaw newbies on planet earth are accused of is a short attention span, courtesy their exposure to the vicissitudes of contemporary culture from the word go. Technology, the thinking goes, is making us idiots, unable to focus.
My, but we baby boomers are judgmental, aren’t we? In any event, whether or not any of this is actually true, or has any even the slightest relationship to fact, isn’t the reason for my bringing it up. The flip-side to the apparently damnable sins of something as apparently venial as channel surfing and flitting from one idea or image to another without settling on the particular is the opportunity to link the disparate and seemingly unrelated, to maybe see or even create new wholes from fractures and displacements – to possibly find, in short, entirely new relationships and consequent meanings. This is how metaphor is created. It’s akin to what the late French philosopher of metaphor Paul Ricoeur called “deviant predication,” and I’m bringing this up as a way of establishing a bit of contextual basic for introducing the work of Brendan Tang.
He’s a Canadian artist, born in Ireland in 1975. His visual arts education began at Malaspina University College in British Columbia on Canada’s west coast, and then shifted to its east, when he studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (now NSCAD University) in Halifax, receiving his BFA in 1998. NSCAD is renowned for its ceramics program (at one point in its history the university became so strongly aligned with the conceptual art movement that all the pottery wheels were removed from the ceramics studios), and Tang parlayed that critically important background into an MFA obtained from Southern Illinois University. All the while he was exploring the aesthetic possibilities of clay, of what it might sculpturally do if the seemingly incompatible were conjoined into a new whole – if, in the meeting of disjunction and discordance, “deviant predication” might occur.
This is the aesthetic of something akin to the short attention span, of the free movement between the widely disparate diverse, of the aesthetic collision or mashing together of things to spawn new and strange collusions between aforesaid and same – of seeing the truly new spawned from the sediments and residues of the old. And it works – big time. The consequence of it all is a remarkable body of sculptural ceramics Tang calls Manga Ormolu.
The less familiar term “ormolu” is an English word dating back to the 1700s used to describe a technique for veneering gold over top of a bronze artefact (aka “gilt bronze”) and, the more familiar and contemporary, “manga” is, of course, a term used to describe a style of cartooning originally developed in Japan.
See? Even at the titular level it’s the collision and collusion of things seemingly remote and disparate that is foregrounded, the creation and advocacy of the new. And Tang’s work indeed overly resembles the product of collision, abrupt meetings of culturally and historically disparate artefacts and meanings. Tang himself notes that “I liken aspects of my artistic practice to channel surfing, where I absorb, interpret and bank a great deal of visual information to inform my personal aesthetic.”
Collision. And resultant aesthetic collusion. Tang’s work in Manga Ormolu links porcelain ceramic features hearkening back to Chinese Ming dynasty pieces of the 16th and 17th centuries (when such work widely came to the attention of the West) with acutely contemporary technology. From the internal dialogue that occurs, something utterly new shows up. In Manga Ormolu ver 2.0-o (2009), for instance a Ming-like plate is engaged within what might be something remotely akin to the disk brake system of an automobile. In Manga Ormolu ver. 4.0-w (2016) the shape of Ming plate resting on a small wooden easel has yielded to, been grossly distorted and almost folded in half by, a smaller wheel insistently pressing against it, a series of multiple audio jacks dangling down from the wheel’s armature.
Pop culture is hugely important in Tang’s work, and in numerous works its role is almost overtly comical. Manga Ormolu ver. 5.0-s (2009) takes the form of a small, elegant lidded Ming jar from the bottom of which sprouts a tripod of technologically contemporary “legs,” the jar thereby assuming a bodily signification enhanced by the folds in the vessel walls as it fits atop its odd 21st century enhancements. The old makes way for the new, one melds into (or is absorbed by) the other.
Tang’s work respectfully straddles the realm of ceramics – his work tends to be of the traditional scale of the vessel form as it has come to be shaped by the need of the utile and the limitations of the hand. Many works are intended for the small easels typically used to display plates and the like. But while Tang may work loosely within a tradition, he simultaneously blows it to smithereens. The significations of the utile are all afforded due homage, but the sculptural imperative is paramount. To go hugely out on a limb, Tang’s work is broadly demonstrative of how cultural or social movement absorbs what it displaces. And as if to exemplify that, as of this writing, Brendan Tang is a finalist in the Gardiner Museum’s Ceramic Sculpture Competition, to create a site-specific outdoor work for this downtown Toronto institution located directly across the road from the august Royal Ontario Museum.
By Gil McElroy