Breaking some eggs: recent artwork by Marty Shuter.
WHO KNEW? WHO KNEW THERE WERE SO MANY chicken jokes or egg puns? Who knew that chickens could have such a presence? Who knew that ceramic chickens could be the focus of a successful exhibition in beef-biased Alberta? Especially in a city defined by the Calgary Stampede (rodeo) with a visual persona manifested in myriad images of cowboys, bucking broncos and wild-eyed steers; where visitors soon discover that the only real meat is beef. Where chickens are hardly worthy of note--second cousins--small fry. Certainly not to be taken seriously. So it was with tongue firmly planted in cheek that ceramic artist Marty Shuter set out to break tradition as she confounded Calgarians with ominous chicken shadows, brooding chickens and a wall of 'eight-point' trophy chicks.
Breaking Some Eggs: Recent Artwork by Marty Shuter marked the culmination of a year spent at the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) as the Visiting Artist in Ceramics. ACAD is one of only four designated art colleges in Canada and boasts of a strong commitment to craft, offering majors in fibre, ceramics, glass, jewellery and metal. The visiting artists play an integral role in the ceramics programme and in the mentoring of ACAD students, for besides being provided with a studio space they teach several courses over two terms and help senior students as they begin to consider their own practices. Their influence is evident in student work as students are exposed to new skills and a broader visual language as they begin to ponder their own place within the greater craft community. Certainly Shuter's positive experiences with various residencies including the Anderson Ranch Arts Center (Colorado), the Vermont Studio Center and the Belden Brick Factory (Ohio) inspired many students to consider this by-way on the path of learning. The final exhibition of new work by the Visiting Artist has become an exciting and highly anticipated event on the ACAD Craft calendar and comes at the end of the winter term, when everyone is ready to celebrate.
The first hint of the scope of this year's exhibition, Breaking Some Eggs, took the form of four metre-tall black chicken 'shadows' that Shuter painted along the long wall of the gallery These stark shadows were 'cast' by a series of slip-cast mid-fire clay chickens--Chicken Scratch. These 'chicken-sized' chickens have eggshell white bodies with black silhouettes painted on either side, echoing the shadows that dominate the room. While these white chickens brood, their black 'inner roosters' crow; a new twist on the old dichotomies: black/white, male/female, extrovert/introvert, art/craft, public/domestic (but here it is perhaps chicken identity that is being addressed) rooster/hen. In Shuter's work, particularity meets universality often with disconcerting results.
Shuter is an American artist who earned her MFA from Ohio State University in Columbus and has been the recipient of numerous awards; most recently the 2007 Individual Excellence Award in Sculpture from the Ohio Arts Council. Her relationship with craft is long-standing and broad-based: journalist, critic, curator, educator and practitioner. She describes herself as a sculptor and is perhaps best known for her portrait heads, insightful if grotesque manifestations of excess, of greed and the North American obsession with consumption. Her web site provides an overview of these works. The majority is made of clay but she has also worked using tubs of Crisco shortening and brightly coloured packages of ubiquitous mass-produced candies, thus the descriptive 'sculptor' rather than 'ceramic artist'.
Nonetheless, Breaking Some Eggs is not about her previous work. Rather it is about her time as part of the ACAD community, as it was here that the plan was laid, the chickens came home to roost and the exhibition was hatched. Throughout the year, conversations with students and colleagues concerning craft were underpinned by ideas about the exhibition's conceptual import: craft as a theorized object was framed by chicken references. Is craft media specific? Does the subject matter ... matter? Did anyone else notice that a figurative head in ceramics was sculpture yet a ceramic chicken was categorized as craft? Is function or even the domestic a defining characteristic of craft? Is craftsmanship the final frontier? Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Relational aesthetics and craft came together as she and her students considered how community and communication could be defined and expanded through the serving of food. And chicken would definitely be on the menu.
The staging of the exhibition was well considered: the large rectangular white space was dominated by the huge black chicken silhouettes along the length of the gallery while at the far end of the room a row of abbreviated shelves held a series of ceramic cups. These overtly functional objects were seductive as they were of a familiar form and size: work-a-day; domestic. The subtle use of colour, the screened chicken drawings and surface patterns delighted the eye while the textures and slightly irregular forms invited interaction. Visitors to the gallery were comfortable reaching out and touching, picking them up and holding them--finding that perfect fit. To know the maker and to recognize in the object its history, its function and its aesthetic presence is a rare gift that craft offers us. To reach these mugs, however, one had to face some discomfort. Walking the length of the room meant that it was necessary to pass by a series of mounted ceramic rooster heads, with beady avian eyes, watching critically as the viewer negotiated the central space that held mixed media and even mixed species objects.
It was in this central area that one encountered three extravagantly handbuilt chickens sporting removable cast red rubber cockscombs. Chick with a Strap On is, well, jaunty, sporting her fashionable accessory much like a vintage bathing cap complete with a chin strap. Like Shuter, her chickens wear many hats and here is a clever illustration of our ability to take on a variety of behaviours or characteristics that at one time would have been considered inappropriate. If Chicken Scratch and Chick with a Strap On question contemporary attitudes regarding identity, what then does the series of trophy heads, Eight Point Clucks, say about our values? Our desires? Each of these ceramic heads is mounted on a plaque (and labelled) obviously ready for hanging. The largest trophy is indeed large--and is resplendent in his cast rubber wattle and eight-point comb (points refer to the number of branches on antlers). Is this series then a critique of the hunting of game and the display of trophy heads or even an honest denunciation of the slaughtering of animals? Both of these readings are possible; however, given the self-reflective nature of the exhibition it may be argued that this is in fact a critical examination of the culture of display and the flaunting of art as a trophy. Surely Shuter intended that her tiny chicken magnets (mini-trophy-heads) serve as sly commentators as they hold up 'art' on refrigerators everywhere.
Shuter's works are entertaining, thought provoking and arguably didactic (These are, after all, the works of an educator as well as an established practitioner.) raising questions about techniques just as they acknowledge contemporary craft discourse. For instance, I would suggest that on one level these personable birds provide entry into the examination of the role that ceramics play, or have played, in everyday life. This is especially relevant given the recent interest in craft as a tool of mediation and remediation, with hand crafted objects signifying an individual's commitment to the community. Thus the overt references to kitsch and mass consumption--you only have to think of the chicken-themed plaster wall plaques, salt and pepper shakers, wallpaper and egg cups that defined the mid-century North American suburban kitchen--are not so much a critique of the past as a reminder of bygone eras. In fact, Shuter is drawing upon the rich visual history of narrative ceramics and food service. Her whimsical chicken casseroles and brooding chickens slyly reference the fine porcelain serving dishes that graced elaborately laid 18th and 19th century dining tables. In these cases it has arguably been the ritualistic use of specific items, ceramic serving pieces, that underscored the significance of the presentation of the meal as a means of drawing together family and friends and forming community.
Thus this exhibition and these crazy chickens demand careful consideration as each object serves a variety of functions, whether that is to be displayed (as trophies?) or to be used on a daily basis. Certainly one of these chicken cups is destined to become an integral part of my daily ritual, for I have decided to take on board the suggestion of slow activism; to carry my tea into class using a Shuter mug rather than a cardboard cup. Marty Shuter has not only given Albertans a new appreciation of chickens, she has added her voice to the ACAD community and to Canadian craft discourse. We have benefited immeasurably and will miss her but know that her contributions will continue to surface in the work of those she has inspired. Given time, we may even miss the yolks. Who knows?
Jennifer E. Salahub is a professor of Art and Craft History at the Alberta College of Art and Design (Calgary, Ab. Canada). Her BFA and MA in Canadian Art History were awarded by Concordia University, Montreal and she earned a PhD in the History of Design from the Royal College of Art, London, UK. Before moving to Calgary she taught art history at Concordia University, University of Ottawa and Montreal's Marianopolis College. She writes and lectures internationally on art, craft and design. She is active in a number of professional societies, lectures internationally and has been published in numerous journals including the Journal of Design History (England), Canadian Collector, Fusion and Artichoke (Canada), Textilekunst (Germany), Metalsmith and Fiberarts (US).
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|Publication:||Ceramics Art & Perception|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2009|
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