Monday, 2 September 2013

The death of regionalism in Canadian ceramics

Walter Ostrom was a tremendous influence in Canadian ceramics for nearly 40 years.

This week I have been working on the presentation I will be giving out in Burlington in conjunction with the HOT MUD show.  This is a national ceramics show of emerging artists.  It is proving more difficult than I thought.  Explaining which artists I picked and why is relatively easy.  It is establishing the appropriate context to place them in that is difficult.  Contextualizing a work of art is, I believe, one of the most satisfying but difficult jobs that a writer or curator performs.  A fire is a fire, but I can interpret a representation of a fire as either a book burning or a family campfire.  And once I put it in print or say it from a stage it gets hard to take back.  So, I take it seriously.  And by the way, my rule of thumb is: take your work, but not yourself, seriously.

One of the contexts that I have been trying on for size with this project is the death of regionalism.  I suspect this is really true.  And it is hard to believe seeing as I live in Newfoundland and Labrador, which has an incredibly strong sense of cultural identity.  But the fact is that, rather like the global economy, we live in the age of a global cultural identity.  Our cultural expressions, in this case our ceramics, are an expression that reflects forces that are both large and small.  Take for example, Maaike Charron.  Her suite of mugs that are in effect mini portraits of the books in her personal libray have virtually nothing to do with Newfoundland's distinct culture.  These books range from homesteading to Star Wars.  They are an accurate reflection of her life but that life could be taking place anywhere, judging by the books.  They are not books written in her home province or about her home province. 

Group shot of Maaike Charron's library of mugs.

In addition to the impact of a global economy, there are the other isms that I think have snuffed out regionalism.  Feminism and craftivism are two strong players in this game.  In some ways, they are just bigger forces at play. They are higher up on the food chain. When location really makes a difference it is terms of "buy local" that is in effect.  This is still a celebration of place but in addition to hometown loyalty there are ecological concerns with tremendous ripple effects in politics and economy. 

I first started thinking about how regionalism was disappearing in ceramics when I was thinking about how I used to be able to look at a pot or ceramic sculpture and tell you where it was from even if I didn't recognize the artist.  Clay body, a characteristic way of working, glazes, subject matter, whatever –there was a lot that would tip me off as to where the maker was educated and by whom.  Not any more.  In some ways, this is because of who has retired (like Walter Ostrom) and just the number of graduates that schools have produced in the past few decades.  Those makers went in search of jobs throughout North America and have taken their teachers' influence further abroad each year.  But then there's Professors Google and Youtube.  These teachers circulate the globe at lightening speed and their classrooms have no seat limits and there are few budgets concerned.  This is where the digital age kicks in and with it the self-directed learning experience.  I think this is incredibly exciting because it is genuinely democratic and grassroots in emphasis.  It is also the hardest to predict.  Fasten your seat-belts. 

40 x 40 is the book I've been reading while thinking about the contexts.  It is the exhibition catalogue that the Smithsonian published in conjunction with their emerging artist show.

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