There is, as a lot of people might remember from their art history classes, the renowned story related by the Greek writer Pliny the Elder concerning the artist Zeuxis, and of the claim that his painted representation of grapes achieved such fidelity to their subject matter that the birds attempted to eat them.
It’s a famous story, but there’s more to it than just that well-known anecdote. According to Pliny, Zeuxis was in a contest with another noted artist of the period, Parrhasius, and after the bird incident Parrhasius slyly asked Zeuxis if he wouldn’t mind unveiling his painting for him. Turns out, the curtain that supposedly hid the painting was itself the painting, leading Zeuxis to famously say “I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.”
Thus endeth the (art history) lesson. My point has to do with artistic representation, with fidelity – or in the context in which I am going to attempt to write, high fidelity – to subject. We perhaps best know it through the painterly techniques and approaches of photo- and super-realism, but it clearly goes without saying that fidelity to subject matter has long been a part of sculpture (well, duh!). But here, I want to write about the aesthetic exploration of what were (and are) interesting contemporary expressions of kinds of high fidelity within the medium.
I know it best via its manifestation at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD in Halifax. It’s an art school that’s been around since 1887; one of its founders was the writer and feminist Anna Leonowens, she of “The King and I” musical fame based on her 19th century memoir having been teacher to the children of the King of Siam (now Thailand). It was a sleepy, provincial art school until an explosion occurred in the late 1960s when artist Garry Neill Kennedy took its helm and radically upended things. NSCAD quickly became one of the most important art schools in the world, and Conceptualism found a welcome home there.
But about the sculpture department: really interesting things went on there courtesy the faculty artists and the students they taught. NSCAD came to be an amenable home to a certain aesthetic school of thought that had much to do with scale: specifically, 1:1 scale. You know, the sculptural iteration of an object accurately proportioned. Faculty sculptors like Thierry Delva led the way. (He has no website, but some of his work can be seen here. Much of it was fascinating stuff, though not always. Sometimes such work relied far too heavily on simple dichotomous strategies – ie. if an object is made of some mundane, everyday sort of material (like, say. Styrofoam), then iterate it in a more ‘precious,’ aesthetic medium (like, say, marble). But by and large, Delva’s work in this vein was extraordinary. Working with sandstone and limestone in the mid-1990s, for example, he carved a series of box works iterating such mundane, throwaway objects as tissue and florists’s boxes, sculpturally detailed right down to the carved folds of the inexpensive cardboard originals. Another series of seemingly abstract works comprised 1:1 scale plaster casts of those strange-looking (but cleverly utile) Stryofoam inserts set within cardboard boxes used for shipping consumer electronic devices.
Working in cast bronze, sculptor Greg Forrest (a NSCAD alumnus) created unusual amalgam works, like his Stanley Cup Washing Machine, a 1:1 scale iteration of a front-loading washing machine with, well, hockey’s big prize, the Stanley Cup, perched atop it; and, oh yeah, there was the disarrayed components comprising the typically destroyed aftermath of the late Who drummer Keith Moon’s drumkit, also done in cast bronze, and exhibited appropriately scattered across a gallery floor (you can see a review of his work here. And more recently there’s Zeke Moores (another alumnus now teaching in Ontario), who also often worked with cast metal, creating faithful high fidelity iterations of , say, a cardboard beer case, or, working in aluminum, full-size sheets of plywood detailed right down to the marks and scars of use. And all, of course, 1:1 scale (see here.)
Others deviated from this norm, pursuing alternative approaches toward the issue of scale. Like Robin Peck. (As with Delva, Peck was a NSCAD grad student who then taught there before eventually moving on. And as with Delva, he maintains no website, but some of his pieces can be seen on Pinterest.). Scale is approached from another angle in a body of work which aesthetically encompasses crystal forms, especially those of gypsum and selenite (a form of gypsum) – you know, that stuff used in construction wallboard for homes, in plaster of Paris, etc. The crystalline nature of gypsum is microscopic, but Peck expresses it at a macroscopic level, magnifying it to a sculptural scale with pieces that are aesthetically recursive – that is, made of the very stuff they signify (gypsum) – and which are remarkably modernist in their angularity and geometric abstraction. They are, in short, gorgeous.
Which brings me to Marc Courtemanche, a NSCAD graduate now living and working in the province of Quebec. We’re back to the world of 1:1 scale, but with something of an interesting aesthetic twist on the notion of high fidelity. See, Courtemanche largely works with clay, but we’re not talking thrown ceramic forms here. His are not vessels, but rather representational sculptural clay artefacts that are subject to, and shaped by, techniques and processes of another medium – woodworking – which has been (like ceramics) long lumped under the convenient rubric of “craft.” See, Courtemanche is a kind of furniture-maker, working with clay to produce artefacts like tables chairs that are virtually indistinguishable from their wooden antecedents. And not only that: he constructs these objects as if they were wood, turning a chair’s clay spindles (as an example) on a lathe, and afterwards painstakingly painting them to further the visual resemblance. Very high fidelity, indeed.
This is fascinating, if ever-so-slightly troubling stuff. Courtemanche is clearly expanding our understanding of what constitutes ceramics, no question about it. Seemingly utile artefacts – tables and chairs, in this instance – that are worked as if they were made in another medium blow a big hole in all sorts of pre-conceptions and notions we might shelter. The question is: what’s on the other side? Where might Courtemanche be taking us? Where will this lead?
I have no answer for that, nor in all honesty would I proffer one if I did. I would rather stand in awed consideration of what is going on here, dealing with what Courtemanche has actually wrought and less with where it might head. I would rather gaze upon his sculptural furniture, upon the tools (clay hammers, chisels, screwdrivers, clamps, etc.), that he has also shaped to further flesh-out this fascinating aesthetically parallel universe, and reflect upon all he has undercut and challenged with this ongoing body of work.
And yet… I worry that what Courtemanche is so eloquently expressing might, like so much of that which takes high fidelity as its guiding tenet (like photo-realism), turn out to be an aesthetic cul-de-sac.
But I’m a worrier, and this is very good work. Very. So I truly hope my concerns are all for naught.
By Gil McElroy