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Walter Drohan, RCA, "Bottle #2," 1971, stoneware, lustre glaze. Collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. Photo courtesy of the AFA.
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"Ceramic Mural (Rock Field)"
Neil Liske, "Ceramic Mural (Rock Field)," late 1990s, stoneware. Private collection. Photo: Christian Grandjean.
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Neil Liske, "Foothills," 1980, stoneware. Collection of Fraser, Milner, Casgrain Barristers & Solicitors, Edmonton. Photo: Christian Grandjean.
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Walter Drohan, RCA, "Vase," c. 1975, porcelain, cobalt blue, gold lustre decoration. Collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. Photo courtesy of the AFA.
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"Tea Pot (Dogwood Handle)"
Neil Liske, "Tea Pot (Dogwood Handle)," 1990s, stoneware. Private collection. Photo: Christian Grandjean.
WALTER DROHAN, Towards Perfection / NEIL LISKE, Out of Extremes
Triangle Gallery, Calgary
March 20 to May 2, 2009
By Mary-Beth Laviolette
This elegant survey of two Alberta-born artists, Walter Drohan and Neil Liske, who began producing ceramic work at different moments in 20th century studio practice illuminates the larger arts community around Calgary in the pluralizing 1970s. With 85 ceramic works included at the Triangle Gallery, the two exhibitions intermingled, with a particular standout in the narrow main gallery — about 40 pots, vases, plates, bottles and sculptures on different-level pedestals, wall-mounted shelves, and wall space for two of Liske’s murals. The installation had an ebb and flow, managed with ease and a sense of refinement.
Born in 1932 and a student of Luke Lindoe in the 1950s, the late Walter Drohan made pottery partially anchored in the Bernard Leach tradition of functional stoneware and oriental glazes. Neil Liske (born in 1936 and still making art), graduated in 1970 from the University of Calgary with a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts. His focus was and still is dramatically different — grounded in Abstract Expressionist movement in ceramics. His emphasis was on experimentation and sculptural form instead of finely crafted pottery. This exhibition includes an inspired example of Liske’s philosophy — his 1970 two-piece hand-built sculpture, Bolted Boxes, made from stoneware and literally joined together with two hefty bolts.
Walter Drohan stopped making pottery in 1980, and for the remainder of his life pursued a successful second career in painting. A small selection of paintings were on view in this exhibition. In the essay accompanying the show, curator Les Graff writes that in the 30 years Drohan spent skilfully throwing clay and brushing on glaze, it was almost as if the clay surface served as a kind of canvas for his lyrical sense of design, though he still stood as “a foundation artist of the Alberta ceramic scene”. What Drohan didn’t acquire from his stoneware roots in Alberta, he added through studies at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art and a later sabbatical in Germany, influencing his ideas about porcelain.
A large portion of Drohan’s work in this survey dates from his last decade in ceramics, particularly a series of porcelain pottery with lovely cobalt blue and gold lustres. Drohan had a finely tuned handling of decoration and the show could have included more about its obvious aesthetic links to the Far East. His coffee-coloured, textured stoneware bottles also spark questions. Looking “dressed up”, with strips of clay and lustre glaze, they give the impression they’re like figures dressed in an Asian-style robe.
The creative output of Neil Liske is still an unfolding story, inspired by his life as a rock climber, skier and all-around outdoor sportsman. Liske’s unique black landscape plaques depict high alpine terrain, and his idiosyncratic stoneware murals are partially constructed with glazed ceramic ‘boulders.
The show also represents some very fine examples of teapot construction and stoneware plates, with painted and glazed landscapes. It’s a fascinating mix, with moments of inspired success as in the picture plaques of the high alpine, and others not so convincing, as in the awkward composition of some of the ‘boulder’ murals also inspired by the mountain landscape, underscoring Neil Liske’s position as a bit of an outsider in the ceramic world.