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Greg Payce
Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina, March 23, 2002 to May 5, 2002

Greg Payce’s pots are as indelible to the memory as a catchy melody, a poetic metaphor and a clever joke rolled into one. They are novel, often funny, and display consummate craft, formal invention and intelligent design. While some are the visual equivalent of pop songs or one-liners, the best are complex sonatas that invite both pleasure and reflection. Greg Payce, at the Dunlop Art Gallery, offers a sampling of recent installations and work from the mid-90s. While not quite a retrospective, the exhibition does stimulate reflection on his considerable accomplishment and possibilities for the future.

For over a decade, Greg Payce has been riffing on the Rubin vase—that optical illusion found in psychology textbooks in the chapter on visual perception—it has an ambiguous figure/ground: one second you see a vase, the next, two faces in profile. Only, Payce uses actual vases.

Early versions, like Vase to Vase (1995), consisted of three vessels sitting side by side on a shelf, their profiles designed to produce a pair of phantom heads in the gaps between them. Next, he threw vessels based on the negative shapes between pots. The resulting row of eccentric but functional forms in turn created illusory pots in the spaces between them. Restless and ever inventive, Payce profiled other objects—usually giving them pun titles. The three-piece garniture set that produces the apparition of the soles of two Doc Marten boots, for example, is called “Pair-a-Docs” (1996).

Perhaps the most complex extension of this idea is Freeze (1996), a thirteen vessel shelf work that mimics film! Behind and between the equally spaced light blue containers is a frieze of ceramic tiles decorated with fish, the silhouettes of two men, vines and musical notes (part of Beethoven’s Fifth). The spaces between the containers form the very realistic illusion of a dozen Greek jars. This is in part achieved by employing a trick from painting—optically, the warm reds and sharp blacks on the tiles come forward and the light blue of the real vessels recede. If you happen to notice that each of Freeze’s tiles is slightly different, you may try walking along the eye-level shelf and animate the piece. Like a zoetrope, Freeze’s frames produce a film: the fish swim, the men walk, the vines creep and the musical notes scroll.

Freeze is a synthetic work that exceeds its roots in the ceramic tradition by grafting aspects from other disciplines and mediums. The result is a witty, delightful and well-crafted object. But it also seems to signal either a dead end or fork in the road. Looking back, Payce tends to move from simplicity to complexity and back to simplicity when his inventiveness gets out of hand. The baroque vessels of the late 80s and early 90s—with their numerous layers of decoration, illusions and references—gave way to the austere, undecorated Rubin vases, which in turn lead to the complexities of Freeze. Now, with his somber rows of black pillars and negative-space men (Al Barelli, 2001), he seems to be in an austere mode before the next leap.

Behind the idiosyncratic and witty exterior of this work is a serious project. Greg Payce is intent on making ceramics that are as much fine art as craft. Many others have attempted this but their strategy has been to make craft objects so fine that not to admit them into the art gallery would be a crime against aesthetics. Others (the various cracked-pot schools) made dysfunctional ceramic vessels, or funkified sculpture, or made works in clay that baldly mimiced works of art in the hopes of being admitted into that world.

Payce’s strategy has been more subversive. He produces exceptionally well-made functional objects from within ceramic traditions while at the same time addressing issues usually reserved for Art.

Early into his project (1988), he made a series of vases and plates that not only featured encyclopedic quotes from ceramics history, but also cited, in form and content, printmaking, architecture, music, painting, and images from science. These elegantly overwrought urns are busy with references and complex optical illusions. In any other medium they might appear merely as postmodern gestures. But, because they are ceramic, the gesture includes a competitive and political aspect. Literary critic Harold Bloom opined that the motivation of much artwork is one-upmanship. By referring to all these other fields, hijacking them, really, it is as if Payce was issuing a challenge: no longer can ceramics be assumed to be lesser than art if it can operate as art does.

Most importantly, Payce set himself the task of intellectualizing ceramics while not abandoning or violating the basic principles of craft (including utility, mastery, and consciousness of, and respect for, the medium’s tradition and history). A few others have taken this road but most have ended up with ceramic sculpture or conceptual art. Even Payce’s wildest inventions still hold water.

Payce (along with others) has carved out a space between art and craft, a margin that operates in both fields simultaneously without being exclusive to either. His primary project achieved, he no longer needed to make such self-conscious pieces to prove ceramics’ worth as art. The spare, humourous garnitures that followed are playful and unburdened by didacticism. They are not meant to be meaningful, they are tricky and jokey as their pun titles suggest. Perhaps recognizing that the novelty of the optical illusion might fade, Payce has recently taken on deeper themes, aging, and relationships between men and women. And, he has increased their size, suggesting a move from pottery toward sculpture. Al Barelli (2001), for example, features negative contour of an over-life-sized nude male in profile between two black, column-like vessels. This huge piece is part of a multi-vessel series that includes alternating men and women, young children, and the progression from youth to old age (Wane 2000). While these works seem to be addressing the big art themes, Payce doesn’t appear to have anything particular to say about them. He indicates these themes but does not animate them. It may be that the form (symmetrical pots and silhouettes) will not permit complex explorations of these subjects.

A familiar difficulty for artists with something to say, is the problem of communicating in a way that would not be better expressed in another medium (an essay, say), or communicating so clearly that the work is more illustration than artwork. A more subtle problem is to know when to restrain from saying what one knows on every occasion. Payce could continue spinning work in the narrative strand, but this is not his strong suit. The form is novel but the content is familiar. There is nothing here designed to change our minds or behaviour about the world apart from the aesthetic and the perceptual. Payce’s considerable innovations belong to the world of ceramics and art. We don’t go to M. C. Escher for his insights on the human condition: the content, for Escher and Payce is really only a vehicle for formal invention. That said, Payce may solve this problem yet and be more Bach than Escher. The best of Payce’s work is not meaningful in the semiotic sense. Like great instrumental music, his arrangements are formally flawless, inventive, clever, beautiful, and open to interpretation. Meanings are for viewers .

But I think there is another possibility emerging from the latest pieces. If the early work was a meta-discourse about finding a place for ceramics as craft art; the second stage, was the solution without the visual rhetoric; and the third stage was a search for serious content about the greater world beyond the art and craft worlds; the fourth could be either the discovery of a successful means to articulate that content in this restricted form, or, a return to motif (rather than content) but with increased abstraction that might offer more room for formal invention.

SSSSSSS (2000) represents the second strand of his research. On a long pedestal are eight vessels of equal height arranged in a slightly curving ‘S’ shape. From the front, seven snakes appear in the negative spaces between the curvy pots. But, as you circulate the piece the snakes vanish leaving complexly undulating shapes. Exaggerating Payce’s familiar forms, his cool, studied sensuality, these shapes look like a Baroque balustrade decorated with muted, psychedelic blurry dots and striations. The visual delight of playing with the figure/ground reversals as you walk escapes description and specific meanings. Although SSSSSSS references snakes, they are more like formal elements than the content Payce normally chooses. Payce includes musical references in previous works, but those quotations were actual notes. With SSSSS he offers a visual equivalent of music. The onomatopoeic title hints that the piece is about finding a visual rhyme for the rhythm of the snake and for the sound it makes. While most of his other images were illustrations and quotes, this work is more synaesthesic. In my mind, it signals a new direction, or rather a clarification of a previous one—toward more abstract and formal play rather than representation and narrative themes. While a large part of the artworld is still overwhelmed by the linguistic turn, there are glimpses of a return to the visual. Of great artists are expected ever greater achievements.

David Garneau 2002


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David Garneau
Associate Professor at The University of Regina
Faculty of Fine Arts, Visual Arts Department.
RC 245 | (306) 585-5615 |