October 24, 2015

The Gardiner Museum

Bone China is actually made from animal bones; specifically a minimum of 30% bone ash, mixed into a paste with calcium phosphate.  Kent Monkman alludes to this fact in his installation entitled The Rise and Fall of Civilization at The Gardiner Museum, where he has created a diorama-like buffalo jump.

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Detail from The Rise and Fall of Civilization by Kent Monkman

The bison approach the precipice as traditional taxidermied animals, shepherded by a glamorous Cher-like beauty of ambiguous gender.  As they leap to their death they are transformed into cubist sculptures and their remains, below, are a heap of china shards (maybe referencing Julian Schnabel’s Plate Paintings of the late 70s?)

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Detail from The Rise and Fall of Civilization by Kent Monkman

The walls of the installation are covered with large drawings approximating those rendered in the Lascaux caves during Paleolithic times.  The mash-up of iconic imagery from art history next to the buffalo jump scene, (an activity that commenced more than 12,000 years ago on the North American plains) ties history and art history together.  It’s a big subject.

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Detail from The Rise and Fall of Civilization by Kent Monkman

According to Wikipedia, ” The Blackfoot Indians called the buffalo jumps “pishkun”, which loosely translates as “deep blood kettle”.  They believed that if any buffalo escaped these killings then the rest of the buffalo would learn to avoid humans, which would make hunting even harder.  In Kent Monkman’s installation, the bison appear to be resurrected and trot away from the scene of carnage on delicate hooves; flattened, spindly, attenuated ideas of what they once were, appearing now in the style of 20th century sculpture.

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Detail from The Rise and Fall of Civilization by Kent Monkman

A few years ago, while camping in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park I came up fairly close to a massive bison. Maybe it was my imagination but it seemed to me this animal gave me a look of pure hatred.  Is there such a thing as genetic memory?  Did this creature recall that 50 million of his kind where wiped out by white people?  (I also have the weight of global warming on my shoulder.)

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In his article titled The Age of Exhaustion, Joshua Mitchell, writing about the current state of politics in the US, comes up with some very depressing conclusions.  It doesn’t matter if we can trace our ancestry directly to “Buffalo Bill” Cody or not, in still Puritan America we are either pure or stained, guilty or innocent.

I am this or I am that; and therefore no reasoned discussion or argument you might offer need trouble me, for deeper than my capacity to reason is who I am, and who you are—‘white,’ ‘black,’ ‘male,’ ‘female,’ ‘heterosexual,’ ‘homosexual,’ ad infinitum

But Joshua Mitchell is writing about the USA.  In Canada we shook off the politics of division and came up with a hopeful alternative.  The US election is more than a year away.   Soon enough Donald Trump may just blow over.

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Donald Trump may blow over soon

Strolling through the Gardiner Museum I came upon another artwork with a subtle and graceful cultural mash up.

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Mother Teresa Bowl by Carl Beam

Carol Beam’s 1982 earthenware bowl shows Mother Teresa in prayer surrounded by halo of a First Nation’s headdress.  It is a beautiful sketch of Mother Teresa, someone I have always tried to emulate (and failed).

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