During my recent, and first, visit to Toronto, I made time to visit the Gardiner Museum – Canada’s national ceramics museum, and considered one of the world’s great specialty museums. The collection, donated in 1984 by Museum founders George and Helen Gardiner, forms the basis of the Museum’s reputation – which is impressive in both its reach and scope. Enhanced by other major gifts, the collection now consists of more than 3,000 pieces from across the enormous and diverse field of ceramics. I am greeted outside by an enormous and beautiful striped head by the ever-captivating Jun Kaneko (installed in 2013), and I already know I’m in for something very special.
During my visit there was a special exhibit titled Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, Gold and Ceramics in Ancient Panama encompassing the entire third floor which was certainly interesting (though not my particular predilection); but I found it largely overshadowed by Oracle and Under the Rocks and Stones #2 by Steven Heinemann that stood guard just outside its entry. Reflective of his affinity for the natural world, in both material and process, these life-size pieces are evidence of the truths he speaks of when discussing his work: “I have come to recognize that clay, an organic material with a long history of human use, readily refers to both nature and culture, to historical as well as to geological time. The physical facts of hard/soft, inside/outside and surface/form offer diverse opportunities for considering new relationships among the seemingly disparate. Connections emerge linking human activity and natural processes, deliberation and chance, what is seen with what is sensed.” It is easy to see why I spent more time with his pieces than any others in the museum.
Overall, I enjoyed viewing the works from their permanent collection, as well as several pieces notably on loan from outside sources. Top favorites were The Monkey Orchestra: a collection of 21 figurines in one of the most whimsical and classical styles of Meissen Baroque; and the superb installation of a recreated desert table highlighting 18th century porcelain on the 2nd floor.
Moving downstairs to the 1st floor in a small room just off the main entrance, I found what I had really been looking for: a sampling of their dynamic contemporary holdings. Some artists and/or works were familiar but many were new to me – all a fascinating grouping that provided both ample inspiration and fodder for research upon my return home. Here are just a few of my top picks…
Apparently by Greg Payce consists of three earthenware albarelli (a type of maiolica earthenware jar, originally a medicinal jar designed to hold apothecaries' ointments and dry drugs), two black and one striped, are one of the larger and bolder statements of the room. Drawing on history, ancient ceramics, film and photography, Payce’s ceramics are illusionist, cinematic, and always rich with history and humor. So it makes sense that for him, ceramics is about the discourse rather than the material: once stating “Ceramics is about ideas and transmission of culture.” He goes further, “Clay is the raw material and ceramics is the fired cultural object. They are very different things physically and conceptually. I am particularly interested in how ceramics has historically shaped culture. It is fascinating to learn how and why people made things and how these objects fit into the social and aesthetic framework of the time.” In the formation and arrangement of his works, specifically here in the coupling of these three towering and expertly thrown pots, their negative spaces create images of two children standing between the sensual forms. This is, in fact, the very crossroads Payce speaks of, hidden in plain sight.
Léopold L. Foulem is often considered Canada’s most well known ceramicist and it is easy to see why in his evocative work titled Contemporary Blackamoor Candelabrum, an image of Santa Claus glazed all in black, with the exception of the pouting red lips—resulting in a wonderful and weird critique of our conventional view of faith and popular culture.
For over three decades, Foulem has explored, parodied, and transformed the history and role of ceramics through a variety of techniques, objects, and intentions. Never one to shy away from complex or unmentionable ideas, Foulem is an artist who places ceramics – as a discipline and not as a material – at the center of his concerns. Once asserting: "I believe that authentic art is a matter of concepts, certainly not of the means of expression or of style, or even of execution. My work in ceramics expresses ideas. My artistic production has nothing to do with individual expression or a quest for beauty. I see myself as a composer and a theorist, not as a virtuoso." The work is an electrifying and composed thesis indeed.
Other notable works are Suitcase with one strap and Doctor’s Bag by Marilyn Levine, each an early and exemplary example of her signature and nearly unimaginable faux leather style; Perforated Vessel Series by Tony Marsh, a quintessential composition of his exploration into his own fascination with the vessel and everything it represents; and I never regret seeing anything by Hans Coper. Two delightful works titled Vessel and Spade Vase are on view here, each a beautiful, minimal, sculptural container.
An inviting destination that inspires and connects people, art and ideas through clay (and now one of my favorite destinations in Toronto), The Gardiner Museum is open every day of the year including holidays, with the exception of January 1 (New Year’s Day) and December 25 (Christmas Day). It is located at 111 Queen's Park, Toronto.
Images (from top to bottom): Jun Kaneko, Untitled, 2002, glazed ceramic, galvanized steel, photo credit: Antonio Tan; Steven Heinemann, Oracle, 1992, pressed earthenware once fired, 84.75 x 17.3 x 16.6 inches, courtesy the The Raphael Yu Collection and Under the Rocks and Stones #2, 1988-1990, pressed earthenware, sandblasted, multiple firings, 36.6 x 16.6 x 15.75 inches, courtesy The Raphael Yu Collection; Johann Joachim Kändler and Peter Reinicke, modelers, The Monkey Orchestra (detail), Germany, Meissen, c. 1753-65, hard-paste porcelain, overglaze enamels, gilding, gift of George and Helen Gardiner and 18th century recreated dessert table; Greg Payce, Apparently, 1999, earthenware, overall dimensions: 34.5 x 40.25 x 13.5 inches, purchased with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program; Léopold L. Foulem, Contemporary Blackamoor Candelabrum, 2002-2005, ceramic and found object, 20.5 x 10.25 x 4.5 inches, courtesy The Raphael Yu Collection; Marilyn Levine, Suitcase with one strap, 1979, ceramic and mixed media, 7.5 x 29.2 x 18.2 inches, on loan from the Raphael Y. Yu Collection and Doctor's Bag, 1970, stoneware, reinforced with nylon fibers with china paints and metal clasps, 5.8 x 15.75 x 8.25 inches and Tony Marsh, Perforated Vessel Series, 2003, white earthenware, dimensions vary, gift of Ann Mortimer and Hans Coper, Vessel, 1967, stoneware with engobe, courtesy of an anonymous loan and Spade Vase, 1974, stoneware with slip, courtesy of an anonymous loan