The Yum and the Yuck Bump Uglies in Alwyn O'Brien's New Show
courtesy of james harris gallery
A lwyn O'Brien cleans toilets in an old-folks' home on the British Columbia island where she grew up, Salt Spring. Her grandmother has lived in the home. Her mother has been the cook there. The low-down experience of interacting with the plain facts of aging is as much an influence on her latest work as her history in ceramics. Given that experience and her background in craftsmanship, it makes sense that she's trying to break down what she's building up: O'Brien is one of those skilled technicians who's always struggling to shed her control. Rather than make pots or vessels, she makes objects that leak and lean and look like they will break at the slightest touch. Her sculptures are webs coated in goo, with exposed sections of raw, fingered clay.
The nine new works at James Harris Gallery fall into two overlapping categories: luscious-tragic and disgusting-excessive. There are elements of yum in the yuck and vice versa. Hold My Hand and We'll Swab the Decks One Last Time is a tribute to a former shipman who works the cleaning shift with O'Brien. The piece is in the shape of a traditional ceramic boat form, but storm-tossed. The glaze is a disconsolate gray. Instead of walls, the piece has tendrils, hand-rolled coils like tiny nets thrown and arrested in midair, or waves at their break. It is not a boat, it is a gnarled fit.
Destroying Angel comes right out and bares its teeth. Its dark unglazed surface is like barbed wire and sweet Japanese prints all at the same time. Little cast tchotchkes (a Buddha, a bunny rabbit) are hidden in its super-intricate web of clay shavings—the meanest-looking and most fragile surface area imaginable. She Said One Day the Poetry Left Her is a sketch in the air. An old woman in the home who'd been a regularly published poet said that's what happened one day: The poetry just up and went. For all the existentialism in all three of these delicate pieces, they also have stubby erections on their sides.
Meanwhile, Wean Off and The Last Harlequin are over-the-top, drippy/blobby, green, yellow, sexy. They lick the air around them. Most disgust-inducing is Cradle, a handmade tray bearing a pyramid of cream puffs the artist baked and drizzled with caramelized sugar bunched in a gluey-glop at the top. Without Qualities looks like a wig made of gilded turd. It brings to mind fecal transplant surgery, where the shit of a healthy person is implanted to heal a sick patient by providing good bacteria. Waste and redemption, illness and seduction, all rolling around together.