Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Coming Down After Halifax

Conceiving and delivering an exhibition is an intense experience.  I have been doing shows for a long time now and I still get an adrenalin rush.  It was only a few days ago that I was standing in the middle of Saint Mary's University Art Gallery and watching the Alexandra McCurdy retrospective show taking shape around me.  And I just kept thinking "I love my life!  This is so cool".

Before I left for Halifax I had sent an itemized list of what went on what plinth as I had worked it out for the previous venue, which was the originating instiution, the Burlington Arts Centre.  Saint Mary's was responsible for the catalogue, which turned out lovely.  The two venues are different in terms of floor plan, the display furniture they have on hand, and of course the lights.  No two galleries have exactly the same gear to work with, including staff, so you never know exactly what situation you are walking into.

The Ties That Bind, porcelain quilt by Alexandra McCurdy (2000) it shows the hands of Alexandra, her mother and her daughter.  Around the border are fingerprints

Luckily for Alex and I, the crew at Saint Mary's were on top of their game.  The work was out of the boxes and in neat stacks on the set up tables all cocooned in bubblewrap.  The walls were freshly painted in the requested colours (believe me I don't take that for granted, I've seen spectacular errors in the past.)  The pedestals had been retouched and looked great.  Two of the staff were busy when I rolled in from the airport.  First impressions: Pam had the strongest forearms I've seen on a woman outside of the gym and Adam's owl tattoo charmed me from the outset.  Alex and I got involved unwrapping the work.  Things were going to be just fine.

And they were.  It is great when you can get everything done with enough time to relax a little before the opening reception.  Alex was naturally fretting about who would turn up but when all was said and done 110 visitors came and enjoyed the walk about.

But there was no time to let the adrenalin ebb away because the following day was the mini-symposium at NSCAD.  More smooth sailing.  How lucky can I get?
This is a traditional Mi'kmaq basket made of birch bark and porcupine quills, c. 1890, that is the show because it inspired Alex in her ceramic containers.  Ironically, it is the most valuable object in the exhibition.

Well back in St. John's it is time to pay the piper.  I have a draft of a book chapter due on an editor's desk for June 1st and well, let's just say, it is very far away from being complete. I can see months of rewriting ahead of me this summer. Send me positive energy!

This was the call I responded to:

Tchotchkes in the White Cube: Exhibiting Craft and Design in the 20th century

Conventional art institutions such as museums and galleries have had problematic relationships with three-dimensional utilitarian objects since their inception. As several scholars, including Ruth Phillips and James Clifford, have argued, conventional displays deprive objects of their functionality and turn them into highly anaesthetized fetishes of high culture. The notorious notion of the modernist white cube has often been challenged and debunked by craft and design practitioners as unsuitable and denigrating for exhibiting utilitarian objects. The present collection of essays seeks to address the problematic relationship and possible solutions of the conventional exhibition strategies which may include participatory happenings or alternative exhibiting venues. Submissions which deal with less conventional methods of display in such venues as craft fairs, commercial galleries, department stores, artists’ studios, and life demonstrations are highly welcome. This collection will try to analyse the following ideas and questions: how craft and design displays contributed to the rethinking of the notional white cube and have helped to come up with alternative strategies for display and public engagement; how touch and texture are two of the most pivotal issues of the production of craft objects; how tactile experiences have been conveyed in different situations and venues, for examples those which have  or have not included the opportunity to touch the objects. How have the performative aspects of craft and design production help to attract audiences to museums and exhibitions? How have the relationships between artists and curators changed through the twentieth century, and why? What are the many roles of the media in the display of the craft and design products?
Original previously unpublished contributions of between 5,000 and 7,000 words including footnotes and bibliography are welcome, as well as interviews with craft practitioners and curators. The latter should be between 4,000 and 6,000 words. 

Alexandra's mum was a textile designer for Lee Fabrics in England.  This is a sample of her work.  Patricia Brock was also a painter and Alex's first role model as an artist.  The show is called The Fabric of Clay Alexandra McCurdy and explores the relationship between textiles and ceramics.

Monday, 21 May 2012

A New Context for Newfoundland Ceramics

When I agreed to present at the Planted Pots mini-symposium I knew I would be talking about ceramic practice in Newfoundland and Labrador.  I expected that I would be talking about the influence of the landscape, for example in Alexis Templeton's crystalline glazes, and the influence of Newfoundland heritage, in the case of the slut series of King's Point Pottery.  I knew I wanted to compare Newfoundland with Nova Scotia and Ontario too and what impact not having a NSCAD has had (we have no Walter Ostrom clones) and what impact not having a clay history or clay settler traditions has had.  Both contribute to the fact that there is no distinct Newfoundland regional style. What I didn't expect was that I would be speaking about Newfoundland as a distinct culture or the relationship between Newfoundland and the United States and its military.

I welcome opportunities to think about old things in new ways or to discover new topics.  That's one way I grow as a writer and thinker.  I was prompted to think about the distinct culture of Newfoundland and compare it to Quebec's vision of itself as a distinct culture after The Republic of Doyle got renewed for a second season.  Ex-premier Danny Williams was on the CBC radio saying what a proud day it was for Newfoundland that "Doyle" got renewed and at the same time so did "This Hour Has 22 Minutes" and the "Rick Mercer Report".  And this was against a backdrop of 10% cuts to the CBC by the federal government.  Not long after that, we had the Craft Weekend in early May.  Sure enough, the tri-colours of the old Republic flag were flying everywhere in St. John's.  From speaking with Alexis Templeton, I understand she had a hand in the colours being adopted for the logo that Jennifer Barnable created for the event.  It was obviously smart marketing and the colours dovetail nicely with the spring season as well.

When I tested out my new pet-theory (that Newfoundland saw itself as a culturally distinct society and the suggestion of the Quebec parallel) on Denis Longchamps who has just moved here (in January) from Quebec.  Without hesitation he completely agreed.  
Alexis Templeton's Studio during May Craft Weekend

Now for the U.S. connection.  When I juried the Fusion Fireworks show along with Bruce Cochrane and Christ Gustin last year I was surprised to see that no Newfoundlanders had submitted ceramic work for the event. (Urve Manuel did submit work in glass and was accepted.)  And this is a show with good prize money, documentation, it travels and there is also the opportunity to be acquired for the Burlington Art Centre ceramics permanent collection, which is the largest ceramic collection in a Canadian institution.  The problem is, is that Newfoundland ceramic absence creates a misleading impression and makes it look to the mainland as if we have no serious potters, which is very far from the truth.

I think our focus, in terms of clay in this province, has been directed towards the U.S. and NCECA in particular.  It is obviously the biggest game in North America as far as clay goes.  But it made me think about Newfoundland's long-standing relationship with the States.  For my presentation, I decided to look into that relationship.  This is what I decided to say about it in Halifax,

Instead of looking to the mainland, the focus traditionally has been for Newfoundlanders to look to the United States and there are many precedents for this.  During the 1880s, Newfoundland had its own free-trade agreement with the United States as it did not share in the disputes between Canada and the United States.  Newfoundland granted the U.S. access to its inshore fishery in exchange for duty-free access to U.S. markets for Newfoundland exports.

In more recent history, there was also a strong U.S. military presence in Newfoundland.  During World War II, it extended beyond army and naval bases in St. John's, Stephenville and Argentia to include smaller stations scattered across the island. Intended to strengthen the defence of Newfoundland and the U.S., these installations–with Winston Churchill's blessing– included radar sites, radio transmitters, and repeater stations used to establish an island-wide communications network.  The Americans built the telephone system in Newfoundland–not the British Empire.  Certain sites, such as the repeater stations, were large undertakings that required civilian help to build while others were shrouded in so much secrecy that not even local residents were aware of their functions.  However, nothing could prevent Americans and Newfoundlanders from intermarriage and strengthening the U.S.-Newfoundland bond.

Jason Holley grew up in a military family.  I think the contrast between the militaristic strength and clay vulnerability that is expressed in his work– the illusion of strength and control comes from his family experience.    That aspect was also something that was rewarding to think about for the presentation.  This is what I say in the talk about it,
When I saw Jason's card advertising his participation at The Artist Project with a tag line "The finished product looks so strong, militaristic, permanent, it's not."  I said to him, "That's about your father isn't it?"  His simple response was, "my work has always been about my father."

Michael Flaherty is the other younger maker that I talk about in the presentation.  His last show, Rangifers Sapiens, provided an opportunity to also discuss the issues of resettlement and the challenge to our natural environment.  So, although I talk a lot about pots and our wider ceramic circle in the province, everyone from the older generation of Margo Meyer and Ray Mackie to the "youngsters" Jason Holley and Michael Flaherty, it also turns out to be a crash course in Newfoundland history and culture from pre-Confederation to today's Republic of Doyle.  Not exactly just showing pictures from home and bragging about my kids.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Trying to make sense of the Galapagos Island that is Newfoundland ceramics

Platter by Isabella St. John 2011

This past week I have been chipping away at my upcoming presentation at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design on contemporary ceramic practice in Newfoundland and Labrador, amongst other things. 

I am tempted to think of ceramic practice here as being a kind of Galapagos Island –a relatively isolated place where weird and wonderful things take place that you don't see anywhere else.  I know that's not literally true but I have been struck over the years at how eccentric ceramic practice is on our island.  For example, Bavarian born Margo Meyer taught several potters during the 1970s who went on to become professional potters.  But none of them produced work that in anyway resembled Margo's work, which was gaily painted, functional ware in the spirit of folk pottery.  I am Austrian on my mother's side of the family and I can tell you without exaggeration that I have seen whole towns in the Alps that produce functional and decorative ware that looks like a first cousin to Meyer's wares. 

Feast of Pottery, an annual project masterminded by potter Alexis Templeton that brings together some of the best pottery in the province in an event-based retail environment.

Isabella St. John was a student of Margo's but you'd never know it from any of her ceramic work done at any point in her career.  I think St. John's gift is that she always knew what her own artistic vision was and she never compromised it.  Isabella listens to her own muse.  Her work is varied and it would be easy to look, say at her sculpture of Cormorant Woman, and then to look at her towers series, and think they were made by two completely different people.  Alexis Templeton, in turn, was a student of Isabella's but you'd never know if from her crystalline glazes.  There is no resemblance between Isabella's work and Alexis and from watching the two of them in their respective studios I don't see a similarity in process or methodology either.

Reed Weir at work in her studio on the Horizon Watchers series

Last week, I was working with Reed Weir, writing the essay and revising it in preparation for her Horizon Watchers solo show at the Mary E. Black Gallery in Halifax.  It was the culmination of a long process of telephone interviews and e-guided question and answer sessions.  I get teased that I should have been a shrink and reviewing my notes in Reed's file I can see why.  Weir is a very intense artist and I was able to use that intensity to go successively deeper with my questions and then help her refine the answers.  She is incredibly dedicated and I have no doubt that she will succeed in her career. 

Reed is lucky to have had the support of her dealer Jonathon Bancroft Snell over the years.  He is a man with a mission and it isn't necessarily commercial.  This week he mentioned to me in conversation, that his was the only gallery where you could walk in and see not only Reed's sculptural work but her production work too.  He has everything from a loon whistle to her most resolved examples of figurative sculpture.  I think he's interested in the whole story that is Reed Weir and that is rare.  In Weir's sculpture I see an important shift from the local to the global and universal.  I'll tell you more about that when her show opens on June 15th.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Gloria Hickey's Police father taught writer/curator to pay attention to the details

The Enigmas of a teapot by Michael Massie, 2003, which was made for a collector who shared Michael's interest in Dali.  

Inside a Crafts Writer's Mind

When I am stopped on the street or in a gallery and someone says they like the blog.  I usually ask them, "what do you most enjoy about it?" and the surprisingly consistent answer I have heard is that they enjoy seeing how my mind works.  So, I've decided to share with you an article that was written about my methods by Susan Gay Decker that first appeared Tuesday, August 2, 2011 in the Telegram. The text appeared with different images.

Gloria Hickey's art beat
Police father taught writer/curator to pay attention to the details

By Susan Gay Decker
Special to the Telegram

Gloria Hickey, who was awarded the first ever Critical Eye Award for arts writing at the Excellence in Visual Arts (EVA) Awards May 27, says it was her father, a police officer in the Montreal vice squad, who first taught her how to look at things closely.

We'd be driving around and then stop at a set of lights and a man would walk in front of the car.  He'd ask, "What do you notice about him?" "He walks funny. Why does he walk funny? One leg is shorter than the other? And we'd peel away the layers like that until we could feel what he had in his pocket."

Her observational exercises with her dad were to be excellent training for her future career in arts writing and reviewing in which attention to details and their significance are paramount.

Hickey later built on her skills by studying journalism at Carleton, and then completing a master's degree in philosophy of art at the University of Toronto.

She now has been a professional arts writer and curator for 30 years and has published more than 250 articles in major newspapers, art magazines and books.  Sounding curiously similar to a detective, Hickey says that what gives her the most pleasure about arts writing is putting the pieces of a puzzle together.

She recalls working with Inuit artist Michael Massie when she was curating his 2006 exhibit, "Silver and Stone, the art of Michael Massie" at The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery.
Hey Wait for Me, by Michael Massie.

When he told her that his favourite European artists were the surrealists, Hickey recognized the similarity between the surrealist interest in the subconscious and the way Inuit art draws on the dream world.

Researching further, she then found that surrealists had also expressed an interest in Inuit art and that noted painter Max Ernst had even been a collector.

Making these kinds of connections that enrich the meaning of the artist's work is really satisfying for Hickey.

"Artists don't always put the pieces together for themselves and so you're taking them by the hand and giving them a tour through their world," she says.

Hickey acknowledges that one of the challenges of writing about art is the responsibility to represent an artist's work appropriately.

I'm a little teapot, by Michael Massie, 2003.

As an example, she describes a painting by a Newfoundland artist that depicts a moose carcass being carved up like a side of beef in someone's garage.

"I could say that's a Newfoundland version of a still life, or I can say it's a portrait of domestic violence, and what I choose to say about it really makes for a different relationship between the public and that work of art."

A new award for critical art writing, the Critical Eye Award, celebrates the best piece of critical writing about a Newfoundland and Labrador artist in any print or online publication worldwide.

Hickey won the award for her article on Newfoundland craftsman, Jason Holley, published in Fusion Magazine in its Winter 2010 issue.