I would suggest that there are two primary paths through clay and toward the sculptural: one through (or into) the vessel, and the other not so much.
Okay, that’s not so profound a statement, but really it does rather boil down to this kind of polarity. Either you embrace the fact that clay has pretty much always been about the vessel form and all of its utilitarian associations (and I am here ignoring the fact that clay was actually once the primary means of written communication, but never mind) and work your way through that field towards its sculptural ends; or you pretty much bypass it completely. Do an end run, so to speak. The powerfully abstract sculptural work of an artist like Peter Voulkos might strongly suggest that he took the latter course, but he was no stranger to the pot.
If nothing else, working with the vessel form teaches you what clay can do. It can be an end in and of itself— and for most ceramists, it is – but it can also be a means to an end.
So I want to talk about the work of two Canadian ceramic sculptors— Christopher Reid Flock (www.studioreid.com), and Magdolene Dykstra (www.magdolenedykstra.com)— and how they forged different paths toward the sculpture of clay.
I place Flock first because his path tends toward the more traditional, though the ends are most decidedly not. He comes to clay from a background in literature and music, only then studying ceramics at Sheridan College in Toronto. Following that, he moved to Japan, where he lived and worked for nine years before returning to Canada in 2009. He’s been actively showing since 2007, exhibiting across Canada, in Asia, and in the United States, and won the prestigious Winifred Shantz Award for Ceramics in 2014
To be sure, his work is most definitely about the vessel form, and much of it is derived from his time in Japan. Take Basking Blue, for example. It’s an intense primary monochromatic color (blue), a vessel with seemingly myriad handles. Well, okay, maybe only two at either extreme of the oblong vessel; from its rim billow wide ribbons of clay extending out and away and up. Flock has stated that these pieces are rooted in the realm of textiles: specifically, his interest in the sashes of the kimonos he saw while in Japan. Basking Gaussian Noise is thematically similar, though of gentler colors and smaller, tighter ribbons that cleave closely to the central vessel. In Basking Harajuku Wedding, Flock spatters and streaks the vessel and its ribbons with red and blue.
I see these forms, these ribbons extending away and above the primary container at the core of these works (and they have become inextricably identified with Flock— his hallmark, if you will, though he of course continues to do other work), and I analogously see solar prominences, the filaments and loops solar plasma extending out and away from the surface of our host star in photographic images and film. I see activity, motion and movement of the sort that rococo attempted to emulate. There’s no stasis in these pieces. They’re sculpturally dynamic.
And it’s not just loops. Basking Aubergine Arrangement, another monochromatic work, is another oblong vessel form from which sprout 13 sections of hose— two complete with the metal connectors found on the real deal – like a floral arrangement gone awry. But the vessel form is clearly pivotally central to his work. Everything sculptural both literally and figurative emanates from it.
Magdolene Dykstra comes toward sculpture and clay from a somewhat different direction: the sciences. She holds both Bachelor and Master’s degrees in science, and has long worked as an educator. Currently finishing up work on her Masters on Fine Arts Degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, she’s exhibited widely in Canada and the U.S.
Significantly, perhaps, is the fact that her contemporary work with clay in no way involves the vessel form (early work included the sculpturally figurative). Her sculptures are indeed containers— as are all artworks, of course— but they have no genealogical roots in the vessel. Where Flock’s aesthetic is that of the object, arguably Dykstra’s is that of the subject. I would proffer, by way of example, her piece Framing Landscape. A conventional wood frame hangs suspended conventionally on a wall. But convention ends right there, for within the contextualizing borders of the frame raw clay droops and oozes; the upper left quadrant of the frame is empty, the clay seemingly sagging courtesy the effects of gravity and on the lower right of the frame entirely escapes from (and out of) conventions. There is colour and texture, here, but there is aesthetic activity. In an entirely different way than Flock’s, Dykstra’s work is highly dynamic. Dramatic, even, in this instance exceeding (ignoring?) the aesthetic authority of the frame.
So she dispenses with it entirely, though stays with wall in the piece Nest. Tucked into a corner, it’s a work of reclaimed earth, roughly triangular, but lumpy and bulbous, straggling tendrils hanging down. Its surface is seemingly porous, pockmarked with small holes, and comprises a visually complex amalgam of shapes and patterns. You can call Nest a sculptural object, if you want, but to do so would be to delimit it, stick it back between the confines of a defining frame. But Dykstra’s already moved past that. “I am large,” Walt Whitman wrote. “I contain multitudes.” Nest works within that metaphor.
So too does Colony, and in ways that go well beyond the title. It’s a floor-mounted installation comprising several independent elements. The idea of a parent and her/his progeny springs to mind right away; at one extreme is a visually central element, far larger than any other, tall and occupying a large footprint of space. Like Nest, it’s physically complex, multitudinous— arguably a colony unto itself, perhaps made up of smaller elements that have amalgamated, cohered as a whole. Lumpy and pierced through, geological, even, though not quite. Tendrils hang down, but others poke up and out, bristle seemingly more defensively. Keep away. There’s a consciousness that protrudes, that which is earthy and even a bit geological but from which emanates some sense of sentience. Presence.
And arrayed about it are a number of smaller entities, most lumpy but some which are flatter and more extended. Surface textures seem to evoke the surface of the brain, the folds and convolutions of the core of intelligence, of consciousness. And they bristle too, though in a way more akin to something botanic. Almost as if they were just flowering.
The gallery installation Invasion takes Colony to its abstract extreme. There’s nothing benign about this work— it’s messy, ugly, intrusive, and threatening as hell. It sprawls across floor and wall (in fact, extending up along a wall and across a ceiling). Invasion is indeed invasive, and unsettlingly so. Dykstra has established it so that it appears as if it is opportunistically seeping into the exhibition space from openings in the wall. We are under attack. Sculptural abstraction is poised, here, as aesthetically insidious and highly dynamic. There are myriad levels of tension in this installation.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: this is what clay, what mud and earth, can do. The sculptural work of artists like Christopher Reid Flock and Magdolene Dykstra extends across the chasm between objects and subjects, positing new relationships, new paths.
Pushing. Always pushing.
It’s an aesthetic that is as clear as only mud can make.