Matthew Monahan at the CAG

I went to Matthew Monahan’s show at the CAG a few weeks ago and have been thinking about it ever since. The pictures I found online are all gallery shots and fail to describe the layering and rich detail that infuses the work. I’m writing this post because I found a You-Tube video of him talking about his sculpture, and I wanted to write out the sentences he used to describe his artistic process.

Monahan says that modern sculpture is about stance or silhouette, but that for him those are the last things he’s aware of when he’s creating his work. For him the image starts like a puddle and spreads outward. It starts at the tip of the nose and ripples around the form eroding space, mass and volume. He explains, “you don’t pre-imagine the image, you set-up a relatively simple task and try to perform it. The will of the artist is secondary to the process he initiates.”

A reaction to conceptualism and minimalism, his work attempts to reverse art history by working backward from postmodernism and abstraction to figuration. He’s digging through the rubble of these previous movements for clues back to that realm. He’s taking an abstract concept and gradually stuffing it with organs and layering it with skin. That’s his movement – a violent form of regression.

His sculpture is an extension of drawing. He uses soft, absorbent, sticky materials that are easily wounded and damaged, prefering permeable surfaces that can absorb fingerprints and fats. He uses pigments and minerals that are created at different temperatures in the earth and under different states of compression. Every color he uses has an aspect of landscape, earth and temperature.

My favourite quote from his video came when Monahan summed up his artistic perspective by saying, “when you take a lump of stuff and turn it into something else you’re asking some variety of spirit to pass through it. If you’re violently metaphysical you’re going to wage that battle there. If you’re spiritual or ideological you’re going to be disappointed by the lumpy mass that you find in your hand.”

He contrasts these properties with sheets of glass that transition his work into the gallery space.

Damien Hirst Retrospective at Tate Modern

After visiting the Beaty Biodiversity Museum last week and seeing the preserved fish and snake exhibits, I began thinking about Damien Hirsts preserved shark, cow and sheep sculptures. I found this video on You-Tube called Damien Hirst Retrospective at Tate Modern, London which documents the the first major survey of his work and includes over seventy of his pieces.

“Damien Steven Hirst (born 7 June 1965) is an English artist, entrepreneur and art collector. He is the most prominent member of the group known as the Young British Artists (or YBAs), who dominated the art scene in Britain during the 1990s. He is internationally renowned, and is reportedly Britain’s richest living artist…Death is a central theme in Hirst’s works. He became famous for a series of artworks in which dead animals (including a shark, a sheep and a cow) are preserved—sometimes having been dissected.”

I remember people talking about Hirst when I was in art school during the 1990’s and seeing his work online, but I’ve never considered him to be a major influence until more recently. At art school I was influenced by Peter Voulkos’s ceramics, Robert Rauschenberg’s sculpture, and paintings by Jean Dubuffet and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Since then I’ve mostly been influenced by all the art shows that I go to in Vancouver at the VAG, CAG, Blanket, Satellite, OR, Grunt, Western Front, Vivo, Center A, Access, Helen Pitt, Dynamo, Gam, Shudder and many others. It would be great to see Hirst’s work come to a gallery in Vancouver. I learn a lot about art by going to exhibitions and looking at how art is made, installed and explained. I would especially like to see one of Hirst’s shows because they explore subject matter that I’m interested in as a result of my job at Vancouver General Hospital. I especially like his title for the preserved shark, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”.

The Beaty Biodiversity Museum

It’s taken me too long to get up to UBC to check out the new Beaty Biodiversity Museum since I saw it listed in the Georgia Straight’s Best of Vancouver issue last year, but I finally did this past weekend.

“On May 13, 2010, the University of British Columbia officially opened the Beaty Biodiversity Center which houses the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, and the Biodiversity Research Center…The biological collections that are the centerpiece were each started by a different collector, some as early as the 1910s. Over the decades, the collections have grown from a myriad of research to contain over 2 million specimens.”

The museums collection of plant and animal specimens were all amazing. They included fully articulated skeletons, mammoth bones, fossilized plants, shells, bugs, birds, fish and snakes preserved in large glass jars. There were so many species that I didn’t have time to follow the tour and instead ran around looking at everything – opening display drawers and taking pictures. At the end of the tour I was able to ask the guide how the specimens are prepared for the exhibits. She said the skulls are cleaned by colonies of dermestid beetles and that the aquatic specimens and snakes are cured in formaldehyde before being stored in jars of isopropyl alcohol (55%) and water.  Although the preserved fish and snake jars were great and had a ghost-like other-worldliness to them, I liked the museums skulls and bones the best. My favorite exhibit was a collection of 40 wolf skulls wrapped in zip-lock bags and lined-up in rows. I don’t know why they were wrapped in plastic, but it was like they were being suffocated and that not even death could keep their big teeth from grinning at the viewer. Of everything I saw, they seemed the most alive. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat

I was talking with a ceramic artist the other night at Paul Mathieu’s show “Elegant Disorder; Perspectives on Porcelain” at Satellite Gallery in Vancouver, and our conversation led me to thinking about Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’ve been wanting to do this post about him for a while, but so much has been written about him that it’s hard to know where to start. The vase in the photo is the only example that I’ve seen of him painting on a ceramic object. Although he started out as a graffitti artist painting on buildings in Lower Manhatten in NYC, most of his work is painted on canvas, wood panel, found objects and paper. I saw a show of his paintings at the Art Beatus Gallery here in Vancouver in 1997 when I was at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design.  It wasn’t his best work, but it still had a lasting effect on my own artistic awareness. I’ve looked at his work online many times since and I’m always amazed by its energy, originality and insight. His painting below was included in the show and was featured on the cover of the catalogue that I bought. I cut all the pictures out of it and put them on my studio wall.

Born December 22, 1960
Brooklyn, New York City, U.S.
Died August 12, 1988 (aged 27)
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
Nationality American
Field Graffiti, painting, poetry, musician, producer
Movement Neo-expressionism
Influenced by Jean Dubuffet, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol

Open Ceramics Studio

I added a studio-cam video to my You-Tube channel a few days ago and thought I’d throw these photos up on my blog before I shift gears and start working on my next piece.

This is my ceramics studio in downtown Vancouver. I have 175 square feet of space in a 700 square foot room that I share with 3 other artists.You can see from the pictures that I have a small electric pottery kiln. It was less expensive to buy than it was to install and wire to the building’s power source. I had to buy the wiring and conduit housing to run it to the fuse box (100 feet), and then connect a kilowatt hour meter and a dryer outlet to plug it in. The kilowatt hour meter measures the electricity that the kiln uses so I can pay my hydro separately. After that I bought and installed a new window with a square cut out of it for a fan and had an on/off switch installed where we could reach it. The whole effort cost quite a bit, so anyone thinking of setting up a ceramics studio should realize that it’s a fairly involved process. Make sure that you match your building’s power supply specifications to the kiln you want to install. My building is a commercial building  that runs on 208 volts, not 120/240. Your kiln will perform better (and reach temperature) if it matches the buildings power set-up. Anyway, it was worth the cost and the effort. I’ve been there for 3 years and I still love it. These photos also show the plaster molds that I use to make my ceramic bones. I pour liquid clay into them, and a day later I remove the cast forms. When the clay bones have been cleaned up and dried they’re ready to be fired.


You Forget That You’re Packing Bio

These are detail shots of one of the bone sharks that I have up on my studio wall right now.  The ceramic (human shaped) bones are slip cast in plaster molds and fired in an electric pottery kiln to around 2000 degrees fahrenheit. Afterward they are broken, re-assembled and coated with a blue metallic pigment. When I was thinking about doing this piece I looked around for some pictures and videos of sharks and found this amazing documentary called “David Attenborough – Wildlife Special: The Great White Shark.”

It’s filmed with cameras that bob at the water’s edge and give an alternating view of what’s going on above and below the surface. As a result, a lot of the underwater footage is really dark and lends an ominous tone to the video. It’s this tone or atmosphere that I try to capture in my art. My bone sharks are intended to be metaphors for the various dangers that people face in their daily lives.

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You Were Born For Good Luck


The whale skeleton on ebay in my previous post made me want to include these photos of my new work entitled You Were Born for Good Luck, 2012, 96x40x10 inches, ceramic and mixed media. The ceramic (human-shaped) bones were slip cast in plaster molds and then fired, broken and finished with a blue metallic pigment.
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Ebay Whale For Sale

This photo is from a newspaper article that appeared in Victoria’s Times Colonist in 2003. It’s titled, “Collector puts antique humpback whale on eBay in attempt to finance museum project in Toronto”. The caption reads “Bill Jamieson is asking $350,000 for his 12-meter-long whale skeleton. The whale washed up on the Maine coast in 1844 and its bones were exhibited at the Niagra falls Museum.”

I’d like to buy it and put it in my condo.

Vallis, Mary. “Whale Skeleton for Sale”. The Times Colonist Newspaper. Victoria, British Columbia. December, 2003. April 8, 2012

Peter Voulkos’ Ceramic Sculpture

These are two of my favourite Peter Voulkos ceramic sculptures. I like these two in particular because they are among the few that he made with coloured slips and paint. I like his wood fired ‘stacks’ and plates as well – with their ash glazes and burnt surfaces, but these coloured bottles have a power of their own and a more direct connection to the abstract expressionist painting movement that influenced him throughout most of his career.

 “Peter Voulkos (January 29, 1924–2002) popular name of Panagiotis Voulkos, was an American artist of Greek descent. He is known for his Abstract Expressionist ceramic sculptures, which crossed the traditional divide between ceramic crafts and fine art. Voulkos’ sculptures are famous for their visual weight, their freely-formed construction, and their aggressive and energetic decoration. He would vigorously tear, pound, and gouge the surfaces of his pieces. At some points in his career, he cast his sculptures in bronze; in other periods his ceramic works were glazed or painted, and he finished them with painted brushstrokes. In 1979 he was introduced to the use of wood kilns by Peter Callas; much of his late work is wood-fired.”