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Ian Johnston: Reinventing Consumption.

The grid has been a longstanding element in modern art. In many ways, it has come to typify much of what Modernism accomplished. The clean repetition of elements can be aesthetically enthralling. That is on the plus side of things. On the minus side, it succumbs far too easily to employment as aesthetic camouflage for artistic banality of thought.

The grid has its own, rather marginal place in ceramics. On the one hand, the repetition inherent in production pottery could connote the presence of a grid--of sorts. But that is a forced fit. There are ceramists who have used it deliberately in far more interesting, far more aesthetically meaningful ways.

Canadian ceramist Ian Johnston could be numbered amongst the latter. It comprises a hugely important part of the ceramic-based installations making up his touring exhibition Reinventing Consumption.

First off, it should be noted that Johnston's work is not medium-specific in the ways in which we typically understand. Johnston works extensively with clay (and has for some time now), but only because clay is appropriate to the concepts and concerns he wishes to express.

At the elemental heart of all of this is the workaday clay slab. Something not terribly interesting in and of itself, I suspect most people would think (and I, alas, would not be amongst them). It is what it can do that matters. It is utile and Johnston uses it to create ghosts.

Well, ghosts of a kind. For some time now he has been working with and exploring a vacuum-forming technique whereby he places an object in a bag, lays a wet clay slab over top of it, seals the bag and then sucks the air out of it. In the almost-vacuum within the sealed bag, the clay slumps over the object beneath it and an impression of it is then made. Repeat as necessary.

These impressions--these 'ghosts'--are printed with coloured patterns, kiln fired and then become elements of a series of wall-mounted installations created between 2010 and 2012 collectively entitled The Antechamber in which, finally, the grid comes to the fore. In neatly arranged rows and columns, Johnston's clay impressions of consumer artefacts such as an old rotary dial telephone, an electric kettle, even an old incandescent light bulb are reiterated over and over. Grids of any sort are impressive in and of themselves, but Johnston's are more so. The coloured lines and patterns (silk or block screened) heaving overtop of what is essentially warped and deformed clay slabs is powerfully optical, evoking the heady days in the 1960s when Op Art briefly flared into popular consciousness.

But The Antechamber is not merely about optical illusion. That is a by-product of the presence of strong patterns in a repetitious format. This is also about maps, of a kind, of the traceries and surfaces of everyday things, objects of our consumer culture. The ghostly impression of a rotary telephone or even an incandescent light bulb accentuates its 'pastness'. The clay slab separates us from the thing that gives it its shape. It at once reveals and denies, providing glimpses of our past, but cleaving us forever from it.

And on entirely higher levels, the poetics of clay are written all over The Antechamber. The slab is elemental, powerfully suggestive, of course, of roofing tiles--of utile, workaday ceramics--and coupled with Johston's use of the grid, leads us as well to the realm of the common brick. In his book The Craftsman, philosopher Richard Sennett quotes "the great historian of brick" Alec Clifton-Taylor in pointing out that what counts in a brick is its size, "which just suits the human hand ..."

That is pertinent in looking at and thinking about Johnston's work. The clay slabs he works with are of a size easily manipulated by human hands, the objects he makes impressions of are all of a scale amenable to the human body. His grids, on the other hand, are not. They are, quite deliberately, massive and physically rather overwhelming, visually daunting courtesy of their intensely optical decorative patterns. We are over-awed by them and, behind Johnston's intent in this is a pointed reminder of that sea of consumerism that has made these objects so common, so relentlessly ubiquitous, that we are in fact literally being overwhelmed by them. Consumerism breeds the dystopic world of runaway pollution, of vast floating continents of garbage adrift in our oceans. (And it is worth remembering here that ceramics is rather one-way; unlike, say glass, or even many plastic products, fired clay cannot be returned to its elemental state for re-use.)

The scale of things in Reinventing Consumption matters. A lot. When Johnston moves from impressions of smaller, human-scale things hung in massive gridded installations, to a work more specifically about the large scale, things fall apart. The Chamber is ostensibly a hopped-up version of his slab-impressing technique. Room-sized, in fact. An entire gallery space is given over to what is, in essence, a large plastic bag. Within it is detritus basically, cast off consumer items destined, in some short time span, for the recycling bin or the garbage container. There is a lot of it, ranging from stuff the size of an office desk, to things on the scale of an old vinyl recording no one ever wants to play again.

In a timed cycle of seven minutes duration, a noisy air pump inflates the plastic bag to a size that pretty much fills most of the gallery space, then reverses its process and sucks the air all out again so that the plastic clings tightly to that which the bag contains. It is an ugly, mountainous heap of stuff, to be sure. The process then repeats itself over and over again.

And it is all hugely uninteresting, despite Johnston's point about the waste we generate in our consumeristic frenzies. He is trying hard to turn a technique for making something--for turning flat clay slabs into impressioned objects--into something interesting in and of its own right. And it simply does not wash. Taking a technique indelibly based around the human scale and literally blowing it out of proportion into something immense is to utterly separate us from it. We are estranged. A slab of clay that is of a size two hands could hold, or even a mundane brick which one hand could easily hold, have an essential intimacy to them that is absent in The Chamber. And clay, just in and of itself, has a tactile and visual appeal, an aesthetic, social and cultural meaning with which we engage. The Chamber has none of it. Literally none.

Ceramics trumps plastic bags any day. And every time.

Gil McElroy is an independent curator, freelance critic and poet living just outside of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Ian Johnston: Reinventing Consumption ran from 26 April to 27 July 2014 at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ontario. Its tour continues into mid-2015.
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Author:McElroy, Gil
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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