Now in its fourth year, the RBC Emerging Artist People’s Choice Award at the Gardiner Museum celebrates innovative design within the field of ceramics. From the Pop Art-inspired marketing to the nominees themselves, this year’s competition provides a particularly fresh outlook on ceramic art, whether in subject matter or negotiation of material.
With a $10,000 prize at stake as voted by the public, the five nominated artists – Zimra Beiner, Jess Riva Cooper, David R. Harper, Robin Lambert and Jordan McDonald –collectively fuse their respective ceramic practices with conceptual approaches, taxidermy, sculpture, and the reinvention of traditional pottery.
Each artist was given the opportunity to contextualize his or her work through a short video statement, made viewable in the gallery space alongside the submissions. For artists like Robin Lambert, the video acts as a particularly resonant extension of the piece itself; I should like to give you a kiss (2014) – a mixed media interpretation of the classic Peter Pan moment in which Wendy Darling places a thimble in Peter Pan’s hand – features a series of bone china thimbles lined along white, wooden ledges against the gallery wall, with a corresponding cream-coloured floor mat inviting the viewer forward. Lambert’s video poetically frames the artist as Wendy, beckoning visitors forward to take a thimble and subsequently claim their kiss. The interior of every thimble features a simple, yet touching ‘x’ inscription, each individually signed by Lambert: a dreamer, a boy at heart, and an artist against all odds. Nominated by Alberta College of Art + Design instructor Mireille Perron, Lambert creates a piece that is subtle, beautiful, and nostalgic, leaving his audience in a sweet reverie from which one does not wish to wake. And yet, while unique in its conceptual aims and a likely crowd favourite for its participatory nature, the work is not nearly as technically rigorous as some of the other submissions.
Jordan McDonald’s work, Set of Deep Serving Cups (2014), demonstrates the scrupulous precision and finesse afforded by the artist’s extensive formal training in the field of ceramics. For the creation of his vessels, he notes the influence of a book on Japanese ceramics that acted as food containers, and he consequently takes interest in the ambiguity of their function and the various ways people relate to such objects. His utilitarian vessels blur the distinction between form and function, upholding the timeless assertion that functional objects are also items to behold for their aesthetic value. While McDonald’s style is highly methodical and perfectly executed, the glazed stoneware lacks the stimulation expected of a reinvention of this traditional medium. McDonald’s nominator, NSCAD professor Walter Ostrom, describes the artist’s work as “challenging and on the edge,” and yet despite their technical merit, the vessels ultimately share more parallels with the ancient relics that make up much of the Gardiner’s permanent collection.
Zimra Beiner opts for a far less figurative approach, commanding the glazed earthenware of his submission, Dark and Still (2014), while simultaneously allowing the form to consume and envelope negative space. Dark and Still grows and morphs into a creature of its own volition – a Dr. Frankenstein and monster allegory if there ever was one. Beiner’s impressive handling of material gives birth to a metallic, abstract heap that oozes down a conjoined step, attesting to the artist’s interest in, and study of, supports. In this case, it is the simple idea of a bookend, and yet the execution is anything but simple. The sense of incompleteness and ongoing process is ever present and to great effect, catching the light in different ways and offering an entirely new perception from each subtle change in perspective as one moves around the voluptuous figure. Beiner notes the importance of introducing his own language, one that is physical, not verbal, and perhaps this explains why he is hesitant or unable to articulate the significance of his abstract form. Though his fusion of the ubiquitous and the nonrepresentational attempts to invent a new mode of communication that works to demystify the unknown, Beiner’s sculpture feels empty, devoid of any tangible meaning.
Somewhat surprising is curator Virginia Eichhorn’s nomination of David R. Harper, already a highly celebrated and established artist in his own right; Harper has had a number of recent solo shows at institutions such as the Textile Museum and the Doris McCarthy Gallery, he has been featured in the annual C Magazine Contemporary Art Benefit Auction, and his work also currently resides in a number of national collections, including those of the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Harper hardly needs the exposure, but his work pushes formal and conceptual boundaries, and should be celebrated for its wry intellect and haunting beauty. His union of ceramics, taxidermy, and story telling in Field Study: Der Junge und Die Wiese (The Boy and the Meadow) (2014) is a complex trifecta of the artist’s negotiation of material, producing the illusion of suppleness in a substance that is rough, coarse and gritty in nature. Harper’s installation takes its inspiration from an image, which he then uses as a point of departure to animate the scene and physically recreate the moment. Harper’s work signals a number of conventions, from the art historical reference to classical antiquity via the boy’s severed head, to the modes of display found in natural history museums in his treatment of dried foliage. He recognizes the uneasiness that his work tends to evoke, and similar to Beiner, he mediates this tension through textural familiarity. Harper aims to make tactile the orated histories that interest him, and while the veteran of the group, he manages to imbue a raw, undulated process to his narrative development.
David R. Harper, Field Study: Der Junge und Die Wiese (The Boy and the Meadow), ceramic with opalescent glaze, wood, acrylic, cast acrylic, dried flowers, wool roving, plaster, cast paper, glass, enamel, 2014 / photo courtesy The Gardiner Museum
The fifth and final nominee, Jess Riva Cooper, combines the various strengths of her competitors to produce what might very well be the competition’s finest submission. An amorphous entanglement of overgrown vines and fungi rooting out of gorgeous gorgon-like statue heads, Viral Series (2013–2014) manifests Cooper’s interest in invasive plant species and the way they overrun unexpected locations as their growth spirals out of control. Cooper’s knowledge expands beyond the realm of making, and while extremely well versed in ceramics and decal work, her fascination with the biologic effects of the natural world frame her artistic practice – a joint focus that is not evident in some of the other works on display. Her research of Southeast Asian Kudzu vines and the run-down, abandoned houses scattered throughout Detroit informs her work, among other interests, and makes Viral Series all the more compelling in its verisimilitude. Cooper describes her practice as performative, evident in the way she transforms standard PVC tubes into organic structural forms, all in an attempt to demonstrate the relentless forces of nature and its reclaiming of the surrounding world from the effects of human interference. The intricacies of each individual leaf, spore, and flower are breathtaking, resulting in a thoughtful and beautifully executed creation in which organic forms flow freely. Cooper’s discussion of her process is itself mesmerizing, as if she is herself “becoming that idea of nature enacting itself on art, on our world and taking over”.
With their various strengths and shortcomings, all of the works manage to command the space they inhabit despite a very cramped and underwhelming corner space within the Gardiner. The Museum seems to be aware of this issue however, and will be mounting next year’s competition on the much more expansive second floor wing, allowing for more than one submission from each nominee.
Competitions such as these can make an extremely important contribution for an emerging artist’s career. The prize demonstrates a need to recognize the relevance for contemporary, young ceramic talents, producing work that rivals their contemporaries in a variety of other disciplines. And with shows like these, the Gardiner Museum itself is gaining steam as one of the city’s more hip and energetic art destinations.
*Exhibition information: September 2 – October 14, 2014, Public voting closes on October 12, at the museum and online (http://www.gardinermuseum.on.ca/pages/rbc-2014-cast-your-vote), and the winner will be announced at the Gardiner Museum on October 14 at 7 p.m., The Gardiner Museum, 111 Queens Park, Toronto. Gallery hours: Mon – Thur 10 – 6, Fri 10 – 9, Sat – Sun 10 – 5 p.m.