Linda Swanson Looks at the work of Meghan Smythe in "Episode"
Assistant Professor of Ceramics Linda Swanson curated the second Virginia McClure Ceramics Biennale at the McClure Gallery in Montreal.
The exhibition entitled "Épisode" features four artists whose works speak not only to excellence and innovation in ceramics, but to its relevance as a discipline that allows for a specifically corporeal, embodied articulation of contemporary human experience
“The ceramics scene in Canada is developing rapidly alongside resurging interest in materiality in the arts,” says Swanson. “These exhibitions showcase what is happening in Canada and internationally and brings these exciting developments in the contemporary ceramics scene to Quebec for the first time.”
Swanson’s choice of artists — Phoebe Cummings (Stafford, U.K.), Benjamin DeMott (Chicago, U.S.), Janet Macpherson (Toronto, Canada) and Meghan Smythe (Los Angeles, U.S.) — has resulted in an inspiring, materially seductive exhibition. Each artist recognizes the historical heritage of ceramics, yet offers a highly original and imaginatively provocative vision.
“The exhibition is deceptively clear. The complexity of the materials in play and the issues involved slowly unfolds to you. As you walk in, the first piece is made of raw clay, it’s extremely fragile and seems to suggest ideas about our own mortality,” says Swanson.
"Épisode" is the second of five biennales taking place between 2014 and 2022. Below please find the essay written by Curator Linda Swanson on artist MEGHAN SMYTHE who is based in Los Angeles and was featured in this exhibition.
My studio practice embraces the alchemy of ceramic/glaze processes. This history — geology and chemistry — meets a quicker temperament in synthetic materials. Ceramics holds a long and fascinating history, at times documenting where contemporary definitions of the criminal and the civilian collide, a form through which one may relate the idealized and the debased all in a genuine search of the sublime.
For this project, I worked to interrogate (undermine) the notion of the narrative, to find points at which the weight of an archetype gives way to the space of the chaotic and the exposed. I continue to work in and out of representation to find a visual lexicon, where lunacy meets levity, where the indulgent narrative breaks, begins to turn back on itself, and becomes undone. Working in this way helps me navigate a kind of spacial sense making. Material may play a simple metaphor while images take shape and, when moved around, reanimate place.
An experiential recount of memory, to best glean a thing (un) known. Through the vitality of materials — soft, hard, wet, plastic — the works in Épisode interrogate the sentimental (a cruel device) to find a slip, release. Working with the tradition of the monument, the installation presents a theatrical choreography, large fragmented figures (characters caught in belief) combined with loose amalgams of disassociated gestures, coupling the urge of desire, with feeble, futile attempts, to a held moment in time.
- Meghan Smythe (2017)
At once flesh and figure, MEGHAN SMYTHE’s clay and mixed media sculptures assert the visceral qualities of the body. Plump and writhing, emaciated and broken, parts of bodies are entangled with and piled onto each other in
a series of vulnerable and revealing moments. tumultuous and disturbing, we are confronted with exquisitely tense situations that, rather than tell a story, evoke a cast of characters. Narrative yields to sheer episodes of human nature.
Despite their distortions or even abstractions, Smythe’s clay forms underscore their essential figural quality. Her touch and technique with clay render a succulent blossoming of hands, heads, limbs, and genitalia. Each of them variously conceals, or reveals organic interiors secreting colorful glazes that drip, flow and pool throughout the pieces. Smythe’s clay appears as soft bone, creating a supple exoskeleton for her entangled forms. At the same time, we can feel the clay stretch and pull as if it were our own tendons.
For a period during graduate school, Smythe set aside the sculpting of figural forms to work with bulging mounds of clay in the spaces of abandoned sites. This work enabled her to discover a ‘stubbornness’ in the material, in its great mass and volume. She arrived at a place where the material of clay pushed back, and took over, a limit point that continues to intrigue her. Smythe works within this liminal zone of material possibility, traversing the breaking point only to pick up the pieces, reconstruct and recombine them yet again.
Smythe utilizes diverse media along with different qualities and colors of clay and glaze to arouse the viewer’s curiosity. Soft silicone interrupts the hardness of red clay; epoxy resin retains its “wetness” and reflectivity. The qualities of various elements and materials seem to associate freely in the viewer’s perception as a psychological experience, rather than a distinct narrative. Her figures recall the
use of clay in dolls and ritual figurines, but of an uncanny scale. They assume gestures that we might witness only in dreams, with bodies that are often impossibly contorted or broken apart.
Speaking of her work, Smythe notes that a piece is finished when the elements and “characters” finally become a caught in a paradox that is simultaneously tragic and comic, as if in a Shakespearean drama, and invoke classical themes like desire, power and loss. She sees her challenge not in resolving this paradox, but in sustaining the contradictions.
- Linda Swanson