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"Cicansky at work in the studio"
Cicansky at work in the studio at his Regina home.
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Victor Cicansky, "December Apple."
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"Bench with Apples"
Victor Cicansky, "Bench with Apples."
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Victor Cicansky, "Painting Tomatoes," 2003, clay, glaze, 13" x 30" x 14".
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"Ménage à Trois"
Victor Cicansky, "Ménage à Trois," 1994, clay and glaze, 7 7/8" x 7 7/8" x 7 7/8".
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"Cicansky at work"
Cicansky at work in the lush garden at his Regina home.
By Jack Anderson
Inspired by his garden, one of Canada's most respected ceramic artists creates sculptures imbued with humour and a wink of vegetal allure.
In a triumph of understatement, sculptor Victor Cicansky says: “I have always been interested in gardens.” I visited him recently at his home in Regina and instead of going directly to his studio as I assumed we would, we wandered around the side of his house, through a tall black laser-cut steel gate of his own design (depicting, like a line-drawing, crows in the corn field) into a huge, lush, artfully designed garden that consisted of raised vegetable beds, a gently bubbling pond and hundreds of exotic flowering perennials of enormous size. Here, we had a leisurely hour-long discussion about gardening before his career even entered our conversation.
Respected as one of Canada’s most innovative ceramic artists, Cicansky is known for a body of idiosyncratic and gently humourous work based on gardens and gardening produced over an almost 40-year career. Considered now among his signature pieces are replicas of home pantries lined top to bottom with faux glass canning jars made of clay, each appearing to be filled with garden vegetables, from asparagus to pickles to tomatoes to corn. Other early work in this vein includes huge ceramic heads of cabbage ‘growing’ in terra cotta plant pots; overstuffed ceramic armchairs in which various vegetables are cozily seated; and bas-relief tableaux depicting farmers or gardeners surrounded by their harvest.
From the constant display of garden bounty in his work, we would be right to think that Cicansky is addressing nature and its fecundity, even mixing in Edenic notions of the garden. And it is certainly possible to look at these gentle, reassuringly familiar subjects through nostalgic lenses (which might be part of their popular appeal). But Cicansky also understands his sculptures as metaphors representing not only nature’s processes but human processes – cultivated, harvested and canned, these unique objects infer seasonal human labour as much as nature’s rhythmic cycles.
“I was born and grew up in an area of East Regina known as the Garlic Flats named in honour of the Eastern European families who lived there,” he recounts elsewhere. “There were Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Hungarians, a few Germans, some Ukrainians and Russians, and a Métis family. They were... people who lived by the sweat of their labours.” It became clear in our discussion that that particular childhood time and place had not only a profound effect on his world view but figures largely in his work. Indeed, he has completed many large public commissions over the years which extol the life of the working class.
Clay is largely accepted as a sculptural medium rather than a craft medium in contemporary fine art galleries. This has not always been the case though, especially when Cicansky was first experimenting in clay as a university student. He remembers one class in the mid-1960s at the University of Regina in which he was assigned to make 25 mugs. Frustrated and bored by the reiteration of pots, mugs and teapots, Cicansky – always the contrarian – completed the task but, “I glazed them all together as one thing, making them useless.” With this simple early gesture, he effectively denied the ceramic tradition of utilitarian pottery and at the same time opened new creative avenues for himself as an artist.
Cicansky has played a significant role in redefining ceramics in Canada, extending how it could be approached ideologically and technologically. His own interesting artistic history attests to this. Cicansky talks fondly about studying at the University of California at Davis in the late 1960s under influential ceramicist Richard Arneson and painters Roy De Forest, Wayne Thibault and William Wiley. All well-known in their own ways as ‘outsider’ artists, they formed the core of what became famously known in the art world of the 1960s and ‘70s as the California Funk Art movement. They employed humour and irony to turn visual art’s then-current obsession with abstract expressionism and the elite philosophical ideas of powerful New York critic Clement Greenburg inside-out. At UC Davis, younger artists like Cicansky were creating anti-institutional art using a vocabulary of vernacular forms and images that bore more resemblance to cartoons and children’s drawings than to the masterpieces found in museums and art history texts. “I began painting my clay pieces with acrylics instead of glazing them, using bright colours instead of traditional earth tones. I made pots that lacked any semblance of functionality. I even made a zippered casserole.”
Upon returning to Regina, Cicansky wanted to establish his own voice and made a notable series of small ceramic tableaux of decidedly prairies subjects such as out-houses (wittily assaulting classicism by parodying its forms, he supported the roofs of these un-grand scatological sites with fluted Grecian columns). Clearly challenging artistic and social hierarchies, Cicansky’s work embodies numerous other unconventional artistic influences including Folk Art (made by often-rural, always un-art educated folk like his father, a blacksmith and painter whose fabulously charming rural scenes depicting events from his own life hang in Cicansky’s home); the mysterious myth-based sculptural figures of Inuit art; and Pop Art with its ‘unsophisticated’ bright colours and everyday consumer-oriented subjects.
It is not surprising that Cicansky is particularly fond of 20th century French Surrealist artist René Magritte who died in 1967. He was a visual punster known for his puzzling cerebral paintings of both outsized objects and forms transmuting one into another. “I was inspired by how he developed his ideas,” says Cicansky, whose own polychromed bronze-cast bonsai series of the mid-1990s contains visual echoes of Magritte. In one of them, the handle of a free-standing shovel transforms into a twisting tree branch from which hang several pears. Not simply a quirky and elegant combination of opposing forms, this particular piece clearly talks about both the fruits of nature and the fruits of labour.
Visual and conceptual dichotomies like these are typical in Cicansky’s work and contribute much to their gentle humour – and to their depth. At the same time, like the pendulous pears, Cicansky’s work has an inescapable frisson of sexuality about it. If we look again, that tomato on the chair looks rather voluptuous, those cucumbers phallic and that cabbage… after all, he is concerned largely with nature and gardens and, consequently, fecundity and fertility. Indeed, Susan Whitney of the Susan Whitney Gallery in Regina where Cicansky first showed in the 1970s and continues to show today, suggests that “the sexiness in the work is part of the humour.”
“I am inspired by daily experiences,” says Cicansky. “My ideas often come out of nowhere: a kiln firing that doesn’t work out could suggest new ways of doing things. Some line in a poem will set me thinking… It all started back with that first ceramic jar of sauerkraut I made, which came to me as an idea while I was canning some real vegetables.”
Sitting on his back garden deck many years later, a glass of homemade lemonade in hand, laughing frequently and talking volubly about his life and career, it is easy to see that not only is Cicansky’s work “joyful and full of life,” as Susan Whitney says, but that this vibrant, inventive 70-year-old’s life is still full of work and joy.
Victor Cicansky is represented by: Douglas Udell Gallery, Vancouver and Edmonton; TrépanierBaer, Calgary; Susan Whitney Gallery, Regina; Mayberry Fine Art, Winnipeg; Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto; Galerie de Bellefeuille, Montreal; John Natsoulas Gallery, California. A show of Cicansky’s work runs November 19 to January 8 at TrépanierBaer; the show marks the launch of a new book on the sculptor, entitled The Garden of Art, with text by Don Kerr of the University of Saskatchewan.
Jack Anderson is an artist, freelance curator and the art critic for the Regina LeaderPost.