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Summer 2011 Cover
Summer 2011 Cover.
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Brendan Tang in his studio
Brendan Tang in his studio at Medalta. Photo: Steve Mcsweeny.
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Brendan Tang, "Gookie Jar," ceramics, mixed media, 2005.
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"Manga Ormolu Ver. 2.0-k"
Brendan Tang, "Manga Ormolu Ver. 2.0-k," ceramics, mixed media. 2008.
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"Manga Ormolu Ver. 5.0-g"
Brendan Tang, "Manga Ormolu Ver. 5.0-g," ceramics, mixed media, 2010.
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"Manga Ormolu Ver. 2.0-o"
Brendan Tang, "Manga Ormolu Ver. 2.0-o," ceramics, mixed media, 2009.
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Brendan Tang, in one of the old industrial spaces at Medalta. Photo: Steve Mcsweeny.
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Summer 2011 Cover
Summer 2011 Cover.
BREAK OUT - BRENDAN TANG
After a series of high-profile shows, Brendan Tang is getting ready for the next big thing.
BY: Jill Sawyer
In 2009, Brendan Tang was in a show called Nothing to Declare at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto. His work was exhibited alongside artists like Liz Magor, Luanne Martineau, and Kerri Reid — the gallery described the show’s artworks as pieces that “revel in humble materials and everyday processes.” Tang recalls going to the gallery during installation, and seeing some of the signage outside the gallery. “All the artists were listed as coming from Montreal, New York, you know, Toronto / Berlin. Then there’s me — Kamloops,” he says with a laugh. “I’m definitely the guy who’s representing small town western Canada at every show.”
Not for long. Tang had his first post-grad-school solo show in the Kamloops Art Gallery’s Cube space — often reserved for contemporary, local, experimental stuff, and a space to watch for great emerging artists. That was in 2006, and in the five years since, he’s landed group shows at galleries including the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Ottawa Art Gallery, the Mendel, the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, and the Gardiner Museum in Toronto. Last year he was on the short-list for the Sobey Art Award, and won the Winifred Shantz Award from the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery (other than the Saidye Bronfman Award, probably Canada’s most prestigious prize for fine craft).
He’s spent late winter and early spring holed up at Medalta in Medicine Hat as artist in residence, occupying a light-filled studio lined with sketches and toy models. He’s preparing for upcoming group shows at the Denver Art Museum and Museum London (in Ontario), and he’ll spend part of the summer in a residency at York University in Toronto, interacting with art students and doing what he calls an “artist in a fishbowl type thing.”
“This is my year of the gypsy,” he says, thinking about having an extended period of rootlessness and creativity. “It’s turning out to be quite adventurous. It’s not uncommon for artists of my generation — there are very few of us carrying a mortgage.”
There’s no question that he’s not in Kamloops any more, but Tang is very conscious of how he got from there to here. And the evolution in his work is clear, over those five short years, even as his practice has hit this swift, steep rise. He’s been working on a series of ceramic works that have advanced in detail and sophistication, while giving him endless outlets for a unique strand of creativity.
Despite his association with western Canadian locations outside the mainstream, Tang has a widely international background. He was born in Dublin and his parents are Trinidadian, of Chinese and Indian descent. The family emigrated to Canada in 1982, and he grew up in Nanaimo — fortuitously, as it would turn out, from a ceramic art perspective. The southern half of Vancouver Island is home to multitudes of ceramic artists, many of them occupying idyllic home-studio hybrids, and sharing their work in seemingly weekly artisan shows, studio tours, and juried exhibitions.
As a teenager, Tang got to know some of the local artists, beginning to learn techniques. So when he left for art school at the local Malaspina College, and later at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, ceramics were already on his radar. Through college and grad school, at Southern Illinois University, Tang was already starting to play around with the forms that he’s now known for — the mix of traditional and hyper-modern shape and design, what he calls the “technology-human interface”. But he also says he had to get over a tendency to take himself too seriously.
It was around that time that he discovered the work of Howard Kottler, an artist whose later work was known for its humour — using elements of kitsch and mass-production to make an impact. “Humour is a big part of my life,” Tang says. “That was when I stopped doing all that serious research.” That humour and casualness is obvious on meeting Tang — in the way he interacts with artists and visitors at Medalta, and with his friends and fans on Facebook and his studio blog. But the rigours of his evolving practice, and the precision of his technique, have been a constant in his work, even if the individual pieces provoke a smile at first glance.
After grad school, Tang found himself in Kamloops after moving with his partner, who had secured a job there. He began infiltrating the art studios of Thompson Rivers University, a place that had what he calls a “serendipitous” effect on his practice.
TRU is one of Canada’s newer places of higher learning, but even in its short life-span it’s managed to attract more than a few key players in visual art — including conceptual artist David Diviney, writer and new media artist Ashok Mathur, and curator Jennifer Budney (former curator at the Kamloops Art Gallery, and currently at the Mendel in Saskatoon). “One of the benefits of a small community is that if artists are there, you’ll run into them at some point,” Tang says.
Though he had landed quite a few group shows during school, the 2006 Kamloops Art Gallery show in The Cube was his first significant advance, post-school, and it gave him access to a growing circuit of opportunity. Called Cultural Reflections, the show followed on a solo exhibition at a gallery in Edwardsville, Illinois, called Through the Gilded Looking Glass. The early versions of Tang’s current forms and techniques were all there.
Tang’s most recognized body of work is the Manga Ormolu series, which mixes thrown vessels modeled on traditional Chinese porcelains with hand-built futuristic sculpture. When he was researching Qing Dynasty porcelains, he found a long tradition of European decorative artists reproducing the patterns and forms for commercial markets. He’s interested in that hybridization, and the idea that cultural forms can be remade for newer generations. “I wanted to reflect the fluidity of culture and archetypes,” he says.
The robots and ray-guns started as a way to bring more of a focus to his work, and to make it relevant to the 21st century. It also reflects a long-standing personal interest in pop culture, sci fi, manga, and game design. “I come from a family of three boys, and we’re all varying degrees of nerd,” is how he puts it, recalling plenty of afternoons in front of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In grad school, he even thought about wiring up his work, so it would interact digitally with viewers, but then realized all the technical skills required to pull it off were boring to him.
Together, the series is highly accessible, which has given his practice a boost. “There are a lot of access points for people of all ages,” he says. “Attracting people to the work becomes like a special effect, and I enjoy seeing that kind of visceral response. I lay out a bunch of little traps to get people to look longer.” He read a stat somewhere that said the average person will spend only seven seconds looking at any one piece of art — an idea that has its drawbacks and its benefits.
His work has inevitably taken him to the source of his inspiration, on pilgrimages to see traditional porcelains wherever he can, in Japan, and in the collection of the Gardiner Museum. “I’ll think that my work is emulating some exquisite Chinese art, and then I’ll see the real thing and I’ll think mine is so bad. Thankfully, people are only looking at mine for seven seconds.”
As playful as it is, there’s a clear and exhilarating advancement in Tang’s work over the past five years. The first Manga Ormolu pieces were grafts — the mechanical, future-tense sculpture attached precariously to the painted vessels. More recent versions, including the 4.0 series (Tang early on started titling the work like versions of software) became more organic, and strange. Vessels sag and wrinkle, pulled apart and stretched by the modern device struggling to break through. Mechanical forms cinch tightly around the delicate vessels, collaring them in. “This is a more violent relationship,” he says of the newer work. “The robotic parts are pinching and pulling up on the skin of the vessel.” It plays with the concept of the made object — in reality, if you pressed too tightly on a ceramic vase, it would shatter.
At Medalta, Tang created the latest advancements in Manga Ormolu, which take the idea of organic interaction even further. In one piece, the vessel appears to be “birthing” a chunk of hard-edged technology. In another, the porcelain jar is emitting a viscous goo (Tang refers to it as “ectoplasm”) from a torn skin. He was preparing for his upcoming participation in the Barroco Nova show at Museum London this fall. He’s particularly gratified to be invited into a high-profile show that’s not medium-specific. “I’m excited to be part of a show with all these massive Canadian badasses,” is how he puts it — David Altmejd, Kent Monkman, Jin-Me Yoon, Shary Boyle.
It’s all moving in a direction launched by the banner year he had in 2010 — sharing billing at the Gardiner Museum with Boyle, and Marc Courtemanche and Carmela Laganse, and exhibiting with other Sobey finalists at the Musée contemporain de Montréal. In addition to Barroco Nova, he’ll travel to Europe for a three-month residency at the European Ceramic Work Centre in Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands (while he’s there, he plans to make a pilgrimage to Delft, ground zero for the ceramic factories that filled the world with reproduction Willow-patterned porcelains). The residency is part of the prize package for the Winifred Shantz Award, and Tang may use it as a jumping-off point for a wide-ranging exploration of the continent.
In the meantime, he’s considering what comes next. Judging by the growing intricacies of the Manga Ormolu series, and their favourable reception at every show so far, Tang still has a great deal of creativity to explore within that theme. But he’s thinking about a second act, experimenting with digital illustration that still has its roots in traditional Chinese scrollwork and painting techniques — the results are quite haunting. Whether or not that translates into new ceramic forms, he’s still working that out.
Tang has in no way exhausted his interest in ceramics, and can easily get lost in the beauty of making something with his hands. He was thrilled to share exhibition space with Shary Boyle, and hear her talk about the joy of being a “maker.” Tang also gets a kick out of playing with forms that have traditionally been grounded in pure commercialism.
“My work can’t be pried away from consumerism,” he says. “Ceramics in a gift shop, people understand. I feel like my work has snuck out of the gift shop and into the gallery.”