I don’t have knick-knacks, but I do have a dog.
Not a live one, but a small ceramic representation of a reclining German Shepherd. It has a chipped ear. And it was made in West Germany, which dates it, and me as well, for it’s something that I’ve owned most of my life.
I have no idea how it came my way, but likely via my parents. I don’t recall having acquired it, but it amazingly it has somehow been along for the ride. I’m surprised that it’s survived relatively whole through the decades, save for the missing chunk of ear. Now it sits safely ensconced on a high shelf, overlooking my living room. There’s nothing remotely aesthetically pleasing about it; it’s only meaning for me is nostalgic in nature, evocative I suppose of a lost or fading connection to my family’s past.
Which brings me to those small ceramic figurines that were once pretty commonplace because they came free in boxes of teabags. Lots of people used to save them, even collect them, and for a short while they had a small place in my family’s life. As a kid I would occasionally play with them, and arrange them into tableaux, like toy soldiers. I would provide them a narrative meaning, however temporary. Their much more “high-brow” contemporaries were and are collectible ceramic figurines, typically depicting 18th century days of yore. Maybe one wouldn’t arrange them on a battlefield (and actually, I’ll get to that) because as collectibles they would tend to spend their time safely tucked away in a cabinet. But they were intended to be dreamed upon – they were (and are) engines of nostalgia.
It’s all stuff we humans do, and do very well – indulge in nostalgia, I mean, build stories and significations around the things in our lives. And of course all of this is, too, part and parcel of the making of art, and so much of it, then, ends up caught up in an aesthetic of representation solely as a means of looking backwards.
But what about, say, looking sideways?
That brings me, at last, to my subject: some contemporary work in figurative ceramics, primarily as it has occurred in Canada of late. I think first of the British artist Claire Twomey (www.clairetwomey.com), and Piece by Piece, the massive sculptural ceramic installation she did at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto in 2014. Working with the gallery’s permanent collection of historical and contemporary ceramic works, Twomey chose three 18th century porcelain figurines from which she created moulds to produce over 2000 unglazed, undecorated copies of the originals. These were arrayed on and across the gallery floor, a vast expanse of teeming figures trapped within a large rectangle and seemingly engaged in myriad dynamic scenarios at times resembling war-like marches and skirmishes (as well as their aftermath: discomforting piles of figurines like accumulated bodies), and even what appear to be attempts to scale the artist’s working space, a table at one end of the room, where Twomey would occasionally cast new pieces. At the far end of all of this mayhem, the figurine originals coolly overlooked the scene from on high, separate and disengaged in the safety of their glass-enclosed cases.
In part it was the idea of the multiple at issue, here, the inexpensive and relatively easy reproducibility clay affords, which factors enormously down in the mundane, nitty-gritty of everyday life (plates, bowls, and mugs, anyone?) and which yet still feeds into the aesthetic at various levels.
Canadian artist Shary Boyle (www.sharyboyle.com) strips all this all multiplicity and mass-production back down to naked singularities, and well into the distortions of the skewed world of surrealism. Like Twomey, Boyle has worked with the aesthetic contextualization of the collectible ceramic figurine, but done so with a decided twist. Like the work Maypole, for instance, a piece from 2010. Atop a circular ceramic base sprouts a mass of lace out of which a spiraled series of legs arise, each tipped with a golden shoe and each attached to a tiny golden chain that gather together atop a central column comprised of women’s heads – seven in all, actually. Or there’s the equally disconcerting Tumbleweed, a female figure, all lace and ruff, seemingly fallen backwards atop something like a stump, her arms and legs spread out in a typically human response to such an unfortunate mishap – but with her cleanly decapitated head nestled amidst the dress’s massed fabric between her legs.
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Where Twomey works explores the situational dynamic of the proverbial masses, Boyle’s razor-like focus is on individual, isolate monstrosities of a sort, extruded from some parallel dream world and set upon pedestals as objet. Critically, both artists are drawing upon the many contexts (historical, aesthetic, economic) of the ceramic figurine, its evocative representation of some idealized bygone era and what that means for contemporary audiences who lap up the stuff (hint: nostalgia). Clay can do this. Clay has that kind of aesthetic malleability.
Which brings me, then, to Janet Macpherson (www.janetmacpherson.com).She’s a Toronto-based artist who’s just been exhibited in a solo show at the Gardiner Museum; my line of thought was originally spurred by the work of her gallery-sized installation there, A Canadian Bestiary. We’re still, of course, within the realm of clay (porcelain, actually), and while it’s an encounter with the many, it’s not an encounter with the multiple, with sameness and repetition. Macpherson’s is the many of the myriad.
For starters, Macpherson’s realm is a mix of the fantastic and the true-to-life. A small deer stands on the floor, seemingly attentive and attuned to what goes on around it. But perched on its back is a wolf, as if this were the normal thing to do. And atop it rests a small tree stump to which clings an owl with gilt-gold eyes. But: the owl is Janus-like, with two faces, and its neck is ringed with a kind of garland of small heads ranging from something mouse-like to an eagle with a golden beak to a horned goat to a horse….
See what I mean?
It’s from a larger work, Decoy, but its stands on its own as a kind of singularity. The myriad is in her Migration. There’s a long, shallow arch – a bridge, really – behind which Macpherson has installed a projection screen. But I’ll bypass that to focus on the microcosm of the sculptural arch and its denizens passing across it – migrating. These comprise small, porcelain figures, creatures of real-world expectation – goats, sheep, pigs – and creatures of the unexpected, like a two-headed bear, or a bird with a horse’s head (or even one with what seems like a human head), creatures of a nature gone awry, wearing head coverings that sometimes extend over their eyes, literally rendering the individual blind to what is going on around it. This is Boyle’s realm of horrors, but at a less surrealistic and campy, and far more pointedly political level; and it’s Twomey’s seething and confined masses, but moving with a very different, more coordinated kind of intention. Escaping, yes, less from one another and more from some unknown fate. (But you can guess, right?)
All of this – the work of Twomey, Boyle and Macpherson – is light years removed the nostalgic pull of conventional ceramic figurines, be they found in a box of tea bags or in a household curio cabinet. None of this takes up nostalgically back to some gussied-up caricature of “olden days.” Rather, its clay and “figuration” used to shine an aesthetic light off to the sides, to make us look at what lurks there.
Like Neil Young once said, the ditch is a lot more interesting than the middle of the road.
By Gil McElroy