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The poetics of art: contingency and timelessness in the art of Gilda Oliver.

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THE CERAMIC HEADS AND BUSTS OF GILDA OLIVER REFRESENT the body's passage through different kinds of time (or lack thereof): timelessness, or time-suspended and time as contingency in the transitory perception of the human form. Though Hegel stated that Man is Time in his ontology of history, Hegelian time can only be truly experienced in connection to the shared past. As timeless, Oliver's work lacks an over-arching historical context but is composed of fragments of potential fictional histories. These works require the viewer to locate some form of constructed historical memory, thereby creating an impression of something universal rather than individualized. This forged universality is, nevertheless, a product of a broader, though not vague, particularity in the way that the artist utilizes the human form. Like visual memory, the human form is also contingent upon time, both familiar and ancient, known and unknown. Oliver's use of materials and colours evoke a sense of weariness, erosion and in their relation to the human body and mortality, suggesting contingency. Yet simultaneously, and perhaps conversely, contingency in Oliver's work also evokes the everyday, the kitsch, the body as an object of the culture of consumption.

The process of clay-making itself is both ritualistic and utilitarian, dating back to at least the Paleolithic era. Even in the earliest societies, clay was used to create visual language and to help promote social organization. Playing with the links between consumption and ritual, Oliver melts pieces of 14 karat gold onto her ceramics, melding the markets of art and of gold into one, subverting their connection in the economic market. The value of gold is linked to the value of art, as both are economic alternatives to paper money. Gold's significance derives from its durability, longevity, and divisibility; its value remains consistent with its quality. Likewise, the value of art is determined by constant interaction between culture and market, thereby creating the demand for artistic production. The values of gold and art are judgment rather than property-based, since they require a person or culture to establish their values. But when Oliver mixes gold with clay, the only judgment she makes is an aesthetic one. After the gold melts and the clay bakes, their fusion transports them back to their place of origin, perhaps even back to the rock. But, after their alchemical qualities have been altered, the new material assumes symbolic, ritualistic characteristics.

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Penelope's Dream (1996) is a head of ochre and siena tones moulded from layered plaster bandage strips, most commonly used by doctors to set broken limbs. The ruptured, uneven surface caused by the layered strips creates an edginess that challenges the peaceful semblance of the face; the effect is that of something ancient dissolving in front of our eyes. Sculpture #1 (1996) is a ceramic piece that appears to be in-between a rock and a shell. Its blue and red-brown tones and subtle glaze lustre suggest a fossilized shell, also pointing to the process of evolution. In referencing sedimentation, erosion, and fossilization, Oliver hints at an expanse of time more vast than we can realize--perhaps even a geological sense of time--yet we feel connected to it and to the object of its making. Gaston Bachelard stresses that in the human ability to dream, we create distant or intimate relations with all objects, fostering possibilities of our encounter with them. "As the slightest sign, the shell becomes human and yet we know immediately that it is not human." In connection with the human dream, "the shell, in the very tissue of its matter, is alive. Proof of this may be found in a great natural legend." (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p.115) Oliver articulates this element of the dream in her work, fusing it to her need to create myths.

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Oliver's bust of poet Margaret Gibson, I love the poet, (1996) transforms her model's expression into something beautiful, ethereal, and mythical, which the artist intuits as qualities shared by creative people and divine beings. This and other heads and busts by the artist represent creative mortals who have been merged with spiritual beings, transformed into muses of their own creation. With closed eyes and a peaceful expression, this figure wears a crown on her head. The unfinished quality of the clay, with its jagged surface, suggests that the object has been eroded by time. This quality, combined with painted earth tones and glazes, lends the piece an ancient effect. The phrase "I love the poet," inscribed on the surface, brings the work back to the present. Though the relationship between poetry and art has been artistically depicted for thousands of years, the emotive colloquialism of this phrase alludes to contemporary culture; emotive language requires a level of empathy from the reader/viewer/speaker, suggesting a certain intimacy in the engagement with the piece. The use of graffiti--another reference to ancient times--is here manifested as public, but not propagandistic, language.

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A Poet's Whisper: A Portrait of Margaret Gibson(1996) is another bust of Margaret Gibson made from clay moulds and plaster strips and painted in shades of light blue, green and ochre. With her face inclined toward her left shoulder and eyes closed, the figure makes a poetic gesture of intimate containment. This and other sculptural works by Oliver are filled with a quiet sense of emotion and poise. The pastel colours that vividly juxtapose over the layering of plaster create a fluidity that suggests an organic connection with nature. To create this sculpture, Oliver worked in a secluded garden at the Gibson s summer home in Bradford, Pennsylvania surrounded by the scent of roses.

Oliver's most recent series, titled Art (2008-2009), includes large paintings, photography, drawings, and sculptures of portraits and heads with words, furthering the artist's search for the connection between visual art and poetry. Oliver grew up surrounded by poets, writers, artists and actors, friends of her well-known father, the poet, Thomas Krampf. She met celebrities like Allen Ginsberg, Marge Piercy, Victor Hernandez Cruz and others. Throughout her childhood and youth, Oliver saw pain and struggle in the midst of great creative insight (great light often accompanies great dark! Madness, drunkenness, and poverty have often paved the way to fame and fortune). As an artist, Oliver became very sensitized by these opposing forces. Her admiration and respect for creative people led to her use of poetic messages. Elvis Presley, Heddy Lamarr, Rock Hudson, and Marilyn Monroe are among the well-known faces transformed into Oliver's divine beings. Oliver uses text on her sculptures and paintings as messages of hope, good will, sympathy, or more intimate statements on the faces of what she calls her 'angels', often topped by halos or crowns. One of them, She Was Art (2007), exhibited at Naomi Silva Gallery, was inspired by Hedy Lamarr and is inscribed with the phrase "She was an art star". Some of these more intimate phrases can be likened to messages written on ancient stele or other funerary objects, referring to how the deceased is remembered by loved ones. In Oliver's work, however, the messages are intended for the living, and since the figures are considered 'angels,' one may see the relationship between these two realms in the artist's imagination. Likewise, the connection between her father's poetry and her artworks is apparent. Krampf's poetic intensity and complexity is synthesized in Gilda Oliver's visual beauty through a feeling of tenderness in the silent and peaceful faces of her figures, almost as if she tries to find harmony between bliss and struggle in the creative process, perhaps a way to pay homage to her father. In addition, her messages of hope cannot but reveal a sense of altruistic mission, demonstrating her intention to make art and poetry into healing conduits that are accessible to everyone.

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Denise Carvalho is an artist, art critic, independent curator and scholar.
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Author:Carvalho, Denise
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2009
Words:1317
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