Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology Showcases the Subversive Potential of Ceramics

Flower Series #1, by Ying-Yueh Chuang (2011). Collection of the artist. Photo courtesy of the artist.

British Columbia is well known for the quality of its local ceramics. Most people, however, tend to view ‘pottery’ as decorative or practical items for serving food or displaying flowers.

A new upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at UBC aims to unsettle this perception by exploring the ability of ceramics to make powerful statements about pressing social issues, like economic inequalities and systemic discrimination.

From November 22, 2019 to March 29, 2020, MOA (UBC, 6393 NW Marine Drive) will be presenting Playing with Fire: Ceramics of the Extraordinary, which will feature 11 BC ceramic artists in 35 displays. The artists will be as follows: Judy Chartrand, Ying-Yueh Chuang, Gathie Falk, Jeremy Hatch, Ian Johnston, David Lambert, Glenn Lewis, Alywn O’Brien, Bill Rennie, Debra Sloan, and Brendan Tang.

These internationally renowned artists were chosen for the exhibition due to their willingness to push the boundaries of what ceramics are capable of in terms of social resistance and creative/critical expression.

Here are five artists to look out for as you tour the exhibition:

Judy Chartrand

Go back to your own Country, by Judy Chartrand (2016). Rennie collection. Photo byAlina Ilyasova, courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.

Chartrand, a Manitoban Cree (urban) who was born in Kamloops and raised in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, has devoted her career to exploring colonialism within Canada, and the racism and disparities within Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

She transforms seemingly ordinary ceramic pieces, like bowls, into political expressions that force the viewer to question their own assumptions about race and socio-economic class. Her installation Counteract (2006) looks like a diner’s bar with stools but on closer inspection, serves as a biting commentary on her local neighbourhood.

Ying-Yueh Chuang

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

Chuang’s works are visually arresting in their merging of Taiwanese and Western artistic sensibilities, which attest to Chuang’s hybrid cultural identity. Born in Taiwan and living in Canada since the early 1990s, Chuang draws upon sea anemones and plants in works that explore the tension between order and creativity.

Brendan Tang

Magna Ormolu Ver.4.0-h, by Brendan Tang (2009). MOA Collection. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In Magna Ormulu, Tang also examines his own in-between identity in his clay/mixed media pieces. He creates unexpected collisions of forms in ways that comment on race, class, and gendered expectations regarding beauty and utility. His complicated and disconnected relationship with Asia, despite some people’s easy categorization of him as Asian Canadian, is interrogated in his works.

Ian Johnston

Antechamber, by Ian Johnston (2010-2012). Collection of the artist. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You won’t miss the work of Johnston, which is the largest installation in the exhibition. The Antechamber (2010-2012) occupies an entire 25-foot-long room and consists of repeated, identical ceramic tiles that are displayed on the walls. In a grid-like configuration, they evoke a certain monotony and predictability. Each tile, formed through a vacuum process, looks unique in isolation but repeated, mimics sterile mass production.

Alwyn O’Brien

Tree of Life, by Alwyn O’Brien (2019). Collection of the artist. Photo by Alina Ilyasova, courtesy of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC.

O’Brien works with porcelain and earthenware in works that seem old fashioned and historical, yet veer into excess. She takes her knowledge of baroque aesthetics and of the history of decorative arts and turns it literally inside out in strangely convoluted coils and ruffles. Her works blur the boundary between the ‘pretty’ and the grotesque, and the ordered/chaotic process by which sculptures take form and grow.

Further information on Playing with Fire can be found on-line, including details on upcoming events (e.g. November 21, 2019, Opening Celebrations; November 23, 2019, Artists in Conversation; November 24, 2019, Clay Workshop with Sharon Reay).

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