Presented by the Centre de céramique Bonsecours, ceramic sculptor Claude Prairie’s exhibition Le contenant comme métaphore is a breath of fresh air. Prairie draws attention to the intricate characteristics of each sculpture that are reminiscent of functional and architectural forms. The colour, texture, and material of every art piece is highlighted as each sculpture is presented with its conjugate. As the title of the exhibition suggests, attendees are encouraged to challenge their preconceptions of ceramics. Often associated with tableware, the artist transcends these boundaries of functional ceramics and compels us to reflect on our understanding of space through her work.
Walking through the exhibition, one can recognize shapes and forms that are commonly associated with tableware and architecture. Large round bowls are accompanied by vases and tall ceramic sculptures that resemble edifices. However, each sculpture’s colours and textures reveal an interpretation that subverts these initial comparisons. Different shades and hues appear on closer inspection, seemingly hand-painted — giving insight on the artist’s creative process. In addition, Prairie purposely designed her sculptures to allow viewers to look inside them. Depending on the abstraction of her pieces, each artwork either features a crevice or is completely laid open for viewers to engage with both the inside and the outside of each sculpture.
Le contenant comme métaphore presents works by Prairie ranging from different periods of her career, guiding the viewer into an intimate understanding of her knowledge and artistry. She challenges conventional ceramics as a utilitarian craft and as a tool to occupy space. The viewer is compelled to reconsider their understanding of artistic spatial rendering by integrating negative space as a key part of each sculpture. She refuses to consider space as a void that must be filled, and instead invites it to be part of her work.
As such, the viewer is offered different perspectives on our individual perceptions of space. Usually, no one thinks to imagine the inside of an object or sculpture. However, in this exhibition, Prairie compels viewers to reflect on the void within each sculpture – as reflected by the title of the exhibition. Prairie turns her sculptures into transformative experiences that push the boundaries of what ceramic sculpture can represent, expanding our understanding of art and our environment by encouraging viewers to explore the spaces that surround us.
Throughout her career, Prairie has moved from studio to studio. This constant migration compelled her to adapt her projects to different environments and develop new skills, which in turn has allowed her to create distinct and innovative works of art. By never having the same kilns, tools, or materials, she can explore many different styles and ideas. The insight she has gained from this process has distinguished her as a true fixture in the field of ceramic technology. Eager to share her knowledge, she has been teaching the theory and practice of color at the Centre de céramique Bonsecours for 30 years.
Her approach is reminiscent of the way the studio artist Robert Piepenburg writes about space: “Without this intentional interaction with that visual void there is no interconnected dynamic of resolution — no final state of contentment — where all of the work’s design elements come together and exist as a cohesive whole.” Prairie’s sculptures invite viewers to reflect on the relationship between artistic form and operative space, urging us to recognize that both of these concepts can be considered in different ways than we are accustomed to.
Prairie reflects on the idea of perspective by purposely creating sculptures that allow the viewer to peer inside each sculpture and understand how a ceramic form can render space more tangible. In this regard, her sculptures are not simply aesthetically innovative due to her choice of color or texture. For instance, the bowls placed at the entrance captivate the viewer’s eye due to their prominence in size and colour. But beyond beauty and brightness, she also reflects on the interactions with space that render her sculptures. By experimenting with the way artistic forms mold our impression of the spaces they both do and don’t occupy, Prairie’s work not only transforms our understanding of negative space but compels us to engage with it. She offers different manners of viewing the inside of her sculptures, pushing our boundaries through familiar forms.
Upon entering the exhibit, the viewer is met first with a series of large bowls in orange and yellow tones, deceptively utilitarian in their shape and figure. Upon closer inspection, however, subtle details in texture and form begin to emerge: throughout the exhibition, imprints left by the artist’s fingertips can be noticed on each sculpture.
Prairie’s sculptures use the method of coiling, a traditional pottery technique in which clay is rolled into long thin cylinders to be combined by hand into larger shapes. This method adds a distinct texture to her ceramics, in addition to allowing for subtle asymmetrical between the sculptures that Prairie displays in pairs. These asymmetries are born from the human touch – a reminder of the actual and deeply physical relationship between the human sculptor and the “spaces” within her artwork.
Prairie says about this characteristic of her sculptures: “The exhibition demonstrates how each corpus feeds the other.” These slight variations from each sculpture remind the viewer of the organic variation introduced by the artist’s touch.
Prairie’s experimentation with innovative materials and techniques is also showcased in her collection. The unconventional choice of using encaustic as a medium for colour in her sculpture distinguishes her from most other ceramic sculptors. A medium normally used in paintings, the technique consists of heating wax until it takes on the artist’s desired coloration. Once heated, the wax becomes incredibly sensitive and hardens almost immediately once it comes into contact with ceramics, capturing any momentary variation in the material. Over the years, Prairie has perfected her technique using this blend of beeswax and pigments to control the intensity of color on her sculptures.
By using encaustic, she also renders all her sculptures non-functional. Since the pigment is toxic, any tableware coated in it would not be suitable for contact with food. In eliminating the possibility of using her ceramics for their respective “functions”, she instead invites the notion of interpreting each container as a metaphor. By decentralizing the aspect of functionality in her ceramics, she allows viewers to reflect on the vessels based solely on their appropriation of space.
Through these artistic choices, Prairie encourages a new kind of thinking about form and function as they relate to each other. By leaning away from the common preconception that function in ceramics supercedes form, she reveals the limitless artistic possibilities that come with this change of perspective.
Prairie further engages with the viewer’s understanding of space by mimicking architectural forms in her sculptures. Shown here, she makes use of shapes and proportions customarily associated with buildings, in addition to applying a brick-like pigment to the ceramics. Curiously, she also leaves an empty space within each sculpture. In doing this she invites the viewer to look inside and consider the validity of spatial dichotomies such as the interior and exterior, or the private and the public – notions often found within architecture. The inclusion of hollow spaces inside these sculptures imbues each one with additional meaning.
Whether they may be bowls, vases, containers, or even abstract forms of clay, each of Prairie’s sculptures retains a central space. Her philosophy and the theme it addresses are reminiscent of the work of another Canadian artist, Rolland Poulin, who shares her fascination with the possibilities offered by our conception of space. Poulin once stated: “Le sol n’est pas un espace nature: c’est l’espace que la sculpture et le spectateur partagent.” (The ground is no longer a neutral space: it’s the space that the sculpture and the viewer share). His observation is sympathetic to what Prairie aims to express with her exhibition, emphasizing the power of space as well as its relationship with – and impact on – the viewer.
In Prairie’s exhibition, the audience are not simply spectators but active participants in her transformative discourse where they are invited to inquire within about their preconceptions and engage in introspection. Le contenant comme métaphore fosters a deep appreciation for the relationship between space and form, allowing for her artistic brilliance to shine due to the subtle and delicate details in each of her sculptures. Claude Prairie’s work is not simply a testament to her mastery in the realm of ceramics, but a subtle reminder that within our imagination is the potential to shape our ideas and create our own realities.