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Playing with Fire: Ceramics of the Extraordinary

The exhibition Playing with Fire: Ceramics of the Extraordinary consists of a series of installation works by 11 ceramic artists who have lived and worked in British Columbia: Judy Chartrand, Ying-Yueh Chuang, Gathie Falk, Jeremy Hatch, Ian Johnston, David Lambert, Glenn Lewis, Alwyn O’Brien, Bill Rennie, Debra Sloan and Brendan Lee Satish Tang. Using clay as their medium, the artists have created individual commentaries on many of the issues that face us all. They reach beyond the functional imperative usually associated with clay, drawing inspiration from pop culture, art history, humour, beauty, hope and nature, to bring fresh, playful and challenging perspectives to the ongoing debates and concerns we have about racism, poverty, identity, social injustice, censorship, loss and the state of our environment.

Cross Series #3 (detail), Ying-Yueh Chuang, 2008. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The artists have created large, intriguing installations that embrace the “wow” factor and thereby lure you in to discover that nothing is quite as it appears. One example is Ian Johnston’s Antechamber, based on the wonders of inventions once thought to be agents of great change but that proved only to create the chaos of mass consumption. Johnston says, “I think of my work as an object for facilitating and engaging audiences to explore, examine and reinvent their relationship with the environment. I create archival documents and spatial experiences that engage the senses and the desires that advance consumption, as opposed to a stick-waving exercise of admonishment.”

A Matter of Shadows, Alwyn O’Brien, 2017. Photo by Ken Mayer.

His use of repetition in this work is echoed in Glenn Lewis’s mural, Artifact, created for the 1970 Expo in Osaka. Small salt shakers, some erect, some not, are mounted on a series of tiles (176 in total) alongside a tongue-in-cheek commentary on his quite ordinary day. This work was considered too suggestive by the Expo organizers and was never exhibited in Osaka. What began with making something extraordinary out of the ordinary became a focus for criticism—not, in the end, about the work itself but about the power of censorship. Gathie Falk also takes ordinary objects, such as a man’s boot, featuring it in multiples; through her installation Boot Case with Nine Black Shoes, she points out, “This very ordinary thing will be made very special.” Other artists use humour, beauty or fragility to lure you in. Witness the hundreds of tiny, fragile and beautiful porcelain plants or sea creatures in Ying-Yueh Chuang’s installation, Cross Series #3. They are hybrids, inspired by organic material and imagined objects derived from the land and the sea. Their fragility and size invite you to peer closely, taking time to examine their details—something we generally do not do in our daily lives. Think about how you walk by beds of flowers, perhaps absorbing some colour and texture, but how often do you crouch down and really see the complexity of Mother Nature: the sepals, petals, stamens and carpels? Chuang also addresses notions of class and culture in her wall-mounted Flower series. “It is by close observation of plant life,” she says, “that I have noticed how, within each structure and environment, patterns are created and repeated.” Fragility is further explored in the works by Alwyn O’Brien. She rolls thin lengths of porcelain and connects them in a chaotic yet strategic journey from base to tip. Together they are strong, while their transparency reveals a complex interior and may leave us wondering, by extension, what is holding us up. Look for the hidden text in her sculpture, A Matter of Shadows.

Counteract (detail), Judy Chartrand, 2006. Photo by Alina Ilyasova.

Not all works in the exhibition are elusive. Judy Chartrand’s messages are immediate, challenging and sometimes difficult to view. One of her installations, Counteract, is based on a fictional diner, painted white. As Judy recalls about her experiences in Vancouver, “There were places like the White Lunch.” Three coffee cups are set on the counter with “white only” inscribed on the cappuccino foam. Amongst the knick-knacks piled haphazardly on the shelf behind the counter, there are blatant examples of discrimination. “When I was researching it,” Chartrand says, “I gasped at quite a bit of it, like feeding black babies to alligators; it’s a whole bunch of quite heavy racism.” In other works, like Cupboard of Contention, Chartrand appropriates Campbell’s soup cans, recontextualizing the labels to interrogate the inequalities between Indigenous and white communities. The theme of appropriation continues beyond the confines of the gallery. There are installations in the Museum’s Koerner European Ceramics Gallery and Multiversity Galleries, where Debra Sloan’s and David Lambert’s works speak to this concern and the associated discourses that have played such a significant role in the history of the arts.

These are only a few of the examples of the works and commentaries you will encounter in this exhibition. We invite you to join the conversation, exploring for yourself how these extraordinary ceramics are truly “playing with fire.”