Sunday, 12 August 2012

Review of Rangifer Sapiens

White earthenware with terra sigillata, cobalt sulfate, cobalt underglaze and clear glaze

 A few blogs ago I mentioned that I was working on a review of Michael Flaherty's exhibition at the Craft Council Gallery for C magazine.  While I was working on it I was surprised to discover how many folks here in St. John's were unfamiliar with the publication.  In my opinion, it is Canada's best publication in terms of critical writing about art and it certainly deserves our attention.

Here's a link to their website if you'd like to check it out:

Anyhow, with the editors' permission I am sharing the text of my review, which appears in C magazine's current Summer 2012 issue.
 My favourite image of Mike as a Grey Island settler.

Michael Flaherty: Rangifer Sapiens

Craft Council Gallery, St. John’s, NL February 4 – March 11, 2012

Artist Michael Flaherty describes himself as a “conceptual ceramicist” and occasionally as a “ceramic fundamentalist.” Both self- identifications distinguish his studio practice from functional pottery and highlight the fact that Flaherty is part of a new generation of craft practitioners who are as interested in ideas as they are in materials or objects. Leading craft theorist Glenn Adamson characterizes this generation of makers as “post-disciplinary” because they work across disciplines normally distinguished by
a medium such as ceramics. This is a radical departure in the evolution of studio craft practice. Among his post-disciplinary peers, Flaherty stands out as “ceramic fundamentalist.” He is engaged with ceramics but maintains a critical distance from it.

When Flaherty embarked on a self-imposed exile on one of the abandoned Grey Islands off the north coast of Newfoundland in 2009, he captured the public’s imagination. Why would a young, thirty something artist leave the comfort of his studio and community in downtown St. John’s for the isolation of a remote island? Ostensibly, the three-month project was a self-styled artist residency wherein he set out to “create and document a location specific art piece.” In his presentations before and after the event, Flaherty explained that he was there to build an inside-out kiln. It was a conceptual art event where he would symbolically “fire the island.” In his blog-commentary about the Grey Islands, Flaherty shows himself, the urban potter, decked out in buckskin jacket and coonskin cap, like a campy 2009 version of “a settler.” The title of the resulting show, Rangifer Sapiens translates from scientific Latin as “wise caribou” and it features haunting ceramic sculptures. They are milk-white, life-sized antlers that grow with organic grace from broken pottery—cups, plates and teapots, usually left with a loop of functional handle. Each “shard” is blushed with rust tones and it appears that the decoration of decal or hand-painted motif has migrated from vessel to antler, leaving its imprint. The fascinating result is a rich, ambiguous hybrid object of human and animal, like a mythological creature that simultaneously taps into two interconnected worlds. All of the sculptures in the show are titled by numbers—birth and death dates—found on gravestones in French Cove. These titles hint at the personal and encourage the interpretation of the works as portraits.
Effectively, Flaherty’s invention of antler-shards is a timeline of the habitation of the Grey Islands. From the 1500s onwards, cod, herring and seals attracted French fishermen and ultimately English and Irish settlers to these remote islands. However, by the 1960s, the population of the islands had shrunk from about 200 to 86 souls.

They were resettled to White Bay, which was deemed more easily administered by the provincial government. In the early 70s, a herd of caribou was introduced to the Grey Islands by the Department of Wildlife to save them from extinction due to overhunting by the non-Aboriginal population, who least needed the caribou for subsistence. During his three months on the Grey Islands, Flaherty repeatedly found shed antlers from the living herd and the archaeological remains of the place’s human past. The implications were not lost on him.

Flaherty’s response to the historical narrative of the Grey Islands’ habitation is especially interesting because of the artist’s age and perspective. He is a generation removed from the hot-button topic of resettlement in the province, and two generations removed from Newfoundland joining Confederation. There are many layers to his complicated and intelligent response. On one hand, Flaherty’s vantage point gives him a sobering perspective that his father and grandfather’s generation could not easily enjoy. The questions of whether Newfoundland should join Confederation (and Canada) and whether the government had the right to resettle its rural population were topics of fiery debate, which for decades dominated the province’s cultural identity and threatened to divide families. Resettlement, for exam- ple, was widely regarded as the deathblow to the traditional outport lifestyle that today is the staple icon of the province’s tourism ads.

Flaherty has noticeably avoided the term of “resettlement” in his media inter- views and artist statement. His art points out the human-centric weakness of earlier dialogues on this topic. Succinctly put, it says: where human civilization stops, nature flourishes. It is a subtle wake-up call to a province that has only in the past two years introduced a curbside recycling program in its capital city. In other provinces, it is likely that this body of Flaherty’s work will be seen in terms of colonialism and relevant to a discussion of the residential schools and forced resettlement of Aboriginal youth.

Flaherty’s ability to draw a “connection between past and present, human and animal, presence and absence,” as he sets out in his show statement, is impressive. Flaherty’s ceramic sculptures have a sur- prising, nuanced wholeness, both visually and metaphorically. The fusion of antler and cup assumes a visual logic; they are not awkward or jarring. He is able to communicate that the shed antler, which is scientifically classed as “true bone,” emerging from the skull of the animal is metaphorically equivalent to the shard or “true bone” of the human. The “shard” portions of the sculptures are thrown on a potter’s wheel and then cut with careful precision.

They are not broken or damaged. The “shards” are fragments worn smooth with time and the elements. The language of European settler ceramics and successive contemporary counterparts are documented on the antler portions not as interrupted pattern but in continuous passages that wind around its front and back.

Flaherty’s sculptures function in the manner of a quoted line of poetry: they are sections but are not broken. In fact, some of the decorations are miniature landscapes, which Flaherty has said are of imagined places. The silhouettes of cobalt blue waves or rolling hills echo the profile of the antler’s tines. It is a subtle act of reciprocation.

Gloria Hickey is an independent curator and writer living in St. John’s, NL. Her most recent touring exhibition is The Fabric of Clay: Alexandra McCurdy.
First published in C Magazine issue 114 (Summer 2012)
Mike with an installation of his antler shards.

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