Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ceramic-Piece Love: Karen Dahl at the OCC Gallery

You know when one work in a group show stands out and hits you hard, so that even if the show is only so-so overall you're so glad it brought you to this one, inspiring, very cool thing?

Well, that's how I felt encountering Karen Dahl's artwork The Midas Touch in the group show "Seduced by Clay" at the Ontario Crafts Council Gallery.

The Midas Touch is a 1994 work but it most certainly is still wonderfully striking 15 years on. The above image is pretty crappy but serves as a starting point—essentially Dahl has crafted clay here in high realist style, depicting a hardware-store paintbrush dripping gold lacquer down the face of a green cabbage, which in turn is balanced on a pink granite rock.

For one, I love Dahl's incredible facility with her medium. As a 2001 essay from the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba notes, "While still at art school, she developed her own recipe for clay and has been using it since, a mixture with the viscosity of thick cream which can be poured to make the moulds which are integral to her work." The granite, the paintbrush and the cabbage all have incredible similarity to the real deal.

But what I really got into here was the symbolism and potential readings of Dahl's arrangement. The idea of an unseen hand gussying up cheap, humble, earthy objects like the cabbage and the rock with a coat of mass-produced gloss/glamour seemed such a critically pointed metaphor for art- and object-making—yet at the same time, Dahl obviously holds the techniques of artmaking in incredibly high regard. I think it's this tension—which is accentuated by the fact that Dahl's material is the ultimate in earthiness, namely earth, and that contrasts so much with that shiny gold paint—that really made me love the piece a lot.

"Seduced by Clay" is up until August 29. Dahl's piece can be viewed through the window, but I really recommend going in to take a closer look.

A couple of other ceramic art shows worth checking out right now:

Mary McKenzie's work is much rougher in form (intentionally) than Dahl's but its simplicity—many small bowls with tiny pools of molten glass at the bottom—seems remarkably friendly in her current show at Brayham Contemporary. Also interesting is that McKenzie chose to install dozens of these small works outside for the course of the show—something I'd never thought possible with a "be careful, don't break it" medium like ceramics. Shows what I know!

Wayne Cardinalli is a master ceramicist who presents really dark, bumpy, etched-out jars and trays for his show at David Kaye. This is like, some really butch ceramics work we've got going on here—another type of combination that's conceptually difficult but in real life, and in a master's hands, works incredibly well.

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