December 30, 2014

Clare Twomey at the Gardiner Museum

George Gardiner, a stockbroker and financier, adhered to the “buy low, sell high” principle in art collecting as well as business.  He initially began collecting ceramics, with his wife Helen, as a hedge against inflation.  The couple went on to amass a spectacular collection and together created the Gardiner Museum, which sits snugly across the street from the ROM at Bloor and Queen’s Park.  Sumptuous, intelligent, preposessing, and optimally-sized are all adjectives that come to mind in thinking about the cultural edifice that is the Gardiner Museum.

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Entrance to the Gardiner Museum with ceramic head by Jan Kaneko

On the third floor, in a very large, dimly lit room of the Museum is a current exhibition and ongoing performance, titled Piece by Piece, by British artist Clare Twomey.

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Details of Piece by Piece by Clare Twomey

Over 2800 white ceramic figures, 2000 made by Clare Twomey in England and imported for the exhibition, and another roughly 800 produced over the duration of the exhibition by on-site “makers,” are arranged on the dark floor.  This array of expressive figurines is bracketed by a spot-lit work table at one end; at the other stand the original 18th century commedia dell’arte figurines – vividly colored, glazed and brightly lit in vitrines – from which the 2800 ghostly replicas are cast.

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Detail of Piece by Piece by Clare Twomey

My first impression of the art piece is of a swirling, emotive tableau, suggesting a replica of a battle or uprising like the dioramas at Gettysburg.  The spotlights in the darkness create long shadows of the expressive objects on the gleaming floor, adding to the look of tangled narrative within which surely some monumental event is depicted.

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Details from Piece by Piece by Clare Twomey

In fact Clare Twomey is not recreating an historical episode but is responding to a particular 18th century aesthetic as embodied in ceramic commedia del’arte figurines from the Museum’s collection and raising questions about the purpose of a museum and the difference between cranking out replicas and the exquisite perfection of a priceless original.  The artist refers to this work as an “intervention.”  This “intervention” is very well mannered indeed and functions not only as a striking visual work of art but also as an enhancer of the Museum’s role in society.

Clare Twomey has selected three figurines from the commedia del’arte pantheon: Scaramouch, the roguish clown; Harlequin, the witty acrobat; and Leda, the flighty love object.

On the second floor of the Museum a large collection of 18th porcelain commedia del’arte characters are on display including the following:

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Pantalone and Dottore, c. 1740 Meissen, Gemany

In commedia del’arte performances intinerant acting troupes performed unscripted performances relying on their understanding of predictable character behaviour to progress the story line.  This is similar to today’s soap opera actors who apparently are not given lines before the director yells “Action!” but are simply advised of what’s going on, for example: “Victor recovers from amnesia and turns up in Nikki’s bedroom.”

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Victor and Nikki are reunited

The lower galleries at the Gardiner Museum were virtually deserted as closing time neared.  It was a pleasure to stroll around and privately view these lovely objects made of clay.

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Ballplayer from West Mexico, 500-300 BC

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Apparently by Greg Payce, 1999

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Dish commemorating John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, 1702

Author: ssnbrttn

This blog is all about looking at art in Toronto now.

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