Modern and Contemporary Ceramics

Gardiner Museum

Canadian, American, and International ceramics in the Gardiner Museum's collection

Encompassing works by leading figures in the history of ceramics, the Gardiner Museum’s modern and contemporary collection shows the remarkable breadth of styles and approaches from the postwar period to  the present day. Holdings illustrate the continued endurance of studio pottery alongside works exemplifying movements that sought to release the medium of clay from its functional imperative, from abstract expressionism of the late 1950s to the conceptual and post-modern approaches of the 1980s and 90s. Modern and contemporary works equally demonstrate the importance of clay as a medium of sculptural expression. The field of ceramics today is rich and varied. The current generation of ceramists takes the medium in multiple directions. In their work they show consciousness of history and popular culture, use the medium to tell stories, and borrow from industrial techniques such as transfer-printing and mould making. Ceramics are also used in the conception of multimedia work. The Gardiner Museum’s collection of modern and contemporary ceramics includes works by Canadian, American, and international artists and has become a major focus of collecting.
Some of the most avant-garde approaches to ceramics emerged in the United States in the late 1950s. A defining moment was the arrival of abstract expressionism in the United States which ruptured traditional forms as exemplified by the work of Peter Voulkos. A more light-hearted approach to the medium subsequently emerged with the arrival of Californian Funk Art, an offshoot of 1960s Pop Art. This movement, which had a strong impact in Canada, liberated art from the tastes of the cultural elite by embracing popular subjects. Pieces in this collection also include work of important American artists who have greatly contributed to furthering conceptual and figurative approaches. American ceramics in the collection of the Gardiner Museum have been donated by Aaron Milrad, Alan Mandell, and many others.

Saxe has an audacious way with clay, incorporating unlikely Rococo flourishers with dime store objects (High-Low Art). His work and continuing relationship with the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory in France is evident.

This piece, with its airplanes, mosquitoes, faux jewels and metal mounts, highlights the planet’s perilous denial (D’Nile) of environmental issues and a world ridden with mysterious illnesses (West Nile disease).

One of the most influential ceramic artists of the 20th century, Voulkos, rejected traditional functional forms, instead making large-scale clay stacks and non-functional plates based on abstract forms. In 1953, at an important stage in his career, he taught summer sessions at Black Mountain College in North Carolina where he met Josef Albers, M.C. Richards, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and other leaders of the American avant-garde.

After World War II, a powerful new direction for ceramics led to a revision of thinking about the possibilities inherent in clay, pushing it in new directions. Peter Voulkos was at the vanguard of this movement. Influenced by abstract expressionism in painting and sculpture, as well as new developments in music (John Cage), he set about ripping up forms and slashing plates.

To me everything has something of the figure in it, whether it’s a mountain or a figure. … the human being is not separate from a cosmic energy that ties us all together. Everything comes out of a great clay bin, and goes back into the clay bin.
Ruth Duckworth

Betty Woodman is one of the world’s most original and most important contemporary ceramic artists. Since the 1970s, she has produced a significant and distinctive body of work that explores the boundaries between ceramics, painting and sculpture in exciting and innovative ways.

As Canada’s national ceramics museum, the Gardiner Museum is dedicated to celebrating Canadian artists and their work. The collection brings together work by ceramic artists from across the country from the 1950s to the present. The field of contemporary Canadian ceramics today is rich and varied. The current generation of ceramicists takes the medium in multiple directions. In their work, they show consciousness of history and popular culture, use the medium to tell stories, and borrow from industrial techniques such as transfer-printing and mould making. Clay is also used for sculpture and in multimedia work. The Gardiner Museum’s holdings of contemporary Canadian ceramics were greatly enhanced by important gifts by Raphael Yu. It has been further enriched by works given by Léopold L. Foulem, Helen Gardiner, Aaron Milrad, Diana Reitberger, Brian Wilks, as well as from other donors.  Many artists have also given works. The Raphael Yu Centre of Canadian Ceramics was established as a virtual destination under which all activity related to Canadian Ceramic art is documented.

The space between objects is very important in the work of Canadian artist Greg Payce, as images appear in this void.
These three albarelli (a 16th century pharmaceutical shape) have precise edges and curves to delineate the children formed in the negative space.

We see, understand, defend and envisage ceramics as a legitimate, sovereign and significant art form.
Leopold Foulem

According to Inuit legend, Sedna is the goddess of the sea. Living at the bottom of the ocean, she controls all marine life and must be appeased by rituals and visits by Shamans to ensure that the sea creatures will continue to give up their lives for Inuit survival. This sculpture shows Sedna riding a bear with a long dog-like tail. Aksadjuak may be combining multiple stories into a single image, or simply allowing his imagination to dictate the subject matter.

As a functional potter, McKinley raised the standards of Canadian ceramics and influenced a younger generation of potters, including Bruce Cochrane and Harlan House. The technical mastery of her work is enhanced by the distinctive results of wood-firing, which can produce attractive surface variations.

Boyle uses commercial moulds and traditional porcelain lace techniques to create sculptures that are simultaneously delicate and disturbing. Porcelain lace is made by soaking lace fabric in a liquid porcelain slip and attaching it to a porcelain support. When the piece is fired, the fabric burns away and leaves behind an extremely fragile porcelain image of the lace pattern.

The porcelain lace technique was originally invented by craftsmen in Europe to increase the realistic appearance of porcelain figures, but Boyle often uses it in a more abstract way to create dynamic forms and textures in her work.

Why ceramics? 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 geological time. The physical face of soft/hard, inside/outside, and surface/form offer diverse opportunity 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.
Steven Heinemann

To create this sculpture, Larocque first made a basic clay framework. He then built up the image using smaller pieces of clay that he applied in layers and fixed with multiple firings.
This process gives the sculpture an organic vitality and a temporal dimension that suggests the forces of both growth and decay. It is as if the head were an archaeological artifact from some mysterious civilization. We understand that it has meaning, but the precise nature of that meaning is unclear.

At the heart of some of the most important developments of the twentieth century is the opposition between ceramic as a functional form, and ceramic as art. The first approach was expressed through the revival of studio pottery which is well illustrated in the Gardiner Museum’s collection of international ceramics. The movement originated in Britain by Bernard Leach in the 1920s and promoted hand-crafted pots for everyday life as a reaction against industry. At the same time, other artists working under the influence of Modernism, including Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, sought to liberate pottery from the imperative of function, treating the vessel as an art form. The collection also includes works by contemporary artists who use clay as a medium of sculptural expression. The Gardiner Museum’s collection of international contemporary ceramics was established by Aaron Milrad, and has since been enriched by gifts from Claude and Christine Bissell, and Helen Gardiner, Iris and Jack Lieber, Elizabeth Lipsett, Michael and Mary Mason, Cawthra and Julyan Mulock, Diana Reitberger, and many others.

A pre-dynastic Egyptian pot, roughly egg-shaped, the size of my hand; made thousands of years ago, possibly by a slave, it has survived in more than one sense. A humble, passive, somehow absurd object… yet potent, mysterious, sensuous. It conveys no comment, no self-expression, but seems to contain and reflects its maker and the human world it inhabits, to contribute its minute quantum of energy… and homage. An object of complete economy made by MAN; Giacometti man; Buckminster Fuller man. A constant. This is the only pot which has really fascinated me. It was not the cause for my making pots, but it gave me a glimpse of what man is.
Hans Coper

Lucie Rie, an influential figure in contemporary ceramics, fled to England from Vienna in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution and worked there with another émigré artist, Hans Coper. In contrast to the prevailing British interest in Japanese and mediaeval ceramics, they transformed post-war ceramics with their adherence to a new European aesthetic based on the simplicity and elegance of the Modernist movement.

When Shoji Hamada’s son went to work with Bernard Leach at his St. Ives pottery, Hamada gave him this tea bowl to sell to help with his expenses. Harold Burnham (later curator of textiles at the Royal Ontario Museum) bought it in St. Ives and brought it to Ontario.

A graduate of the Royal College of Art in 1982, Odundo learned to throw, burnish and polish at Abuja Pottery in Nigeria. This vessel is hand-coiled rather than thrown and made out of red earthenware, but has been burnished and coated in terra-sigillata (fine suspension slip) that turns black in oxygen reduced firing. It is part of her anthropomorphic series and is strongly suggestive of the female body and early African shapes.

Gardiner Museum
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