By Haley Bassett, December 3rd, 2020
During a recent trip to the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie, I experienced anne drew potter’s exhibition of figurative ceramic works, Age of Innocence, guest-curated by Derrick Chang. I then had the opportunity to speak with the artist about her practice as well as the issues explored in her work.
In Age of Innocence, broad matters such as race, history, class and gender are distilled into the human figure using the tradition of visual allegory. For potter, the figure is the ideal vessel to convey these stories as the body is the battleground on which large social and cultural issues express their physical consequence. As she puts it, “I want to create work that shows how we project social constructs on to anatomy, as well as debunk those constructs and reflect the more complex reality.” Whether a body is coded as white or racialized, gendered or desexed, othered or belonging, poor or wealthy, these labels coalesce into significant material ramifications.
Erroneously thought by some to be a dated approach to art-making, potter’s wielding of the human figure as well as her mastery of anatomy have produced conceptual work that is impactful, incisive, and, more importantly, accessible. In Age of Innocence, complex cultural narratives are told through the gesture, posture, proportions and expression of each ceramic body.
It is a rare artist who can speak to such layered and all-encompassing subjects so concisely. This fluency is a result of an intensive ten-year period of study and reflection undertaken by anne drew to develop the sculptural vocabulary necessary to convey these intricate realities. Also influential is a varied, full life that gave the artist a nuanced lens with which to approach these topics. potter’s upbringing in Berkley, California, education in history and dance, background working in social services, two masters of fine arts, proficiency in multiple languages, her own personal exploration of gender, as well as a research fellowship in Germany, among many other experiences, helped her contextualize her work within larger social, political and historical frameworks.
Once considered a lower ‘craft’ art form due to the history of pottery, ceramics has since become much more widely accepted in high art circles. In Age of Innocence, the versatility, plasticity and range of the ceramics is celebrated. potter recalls how she originally felt drawn to the medium because of the emphasis placed on engagement with tradition, skill and technique, as well as the relative freedom she had in exploring figuration.
Figuration also carries a stigma in contemporary art due to it being superseded by the modern art movements, which broke with the traditional approaches to the figure to pioneer impressionism, cubism, surrealism and so on. Now, however, the debate has come full circle, and the figure has once again reentered the contemporary art domain, bringing with it a bridge to viewers outside the high art scene. Aware of these implications, potter views her pursuit of figuration in ceramics as an assertion of her populist values. It is important to her that people of all backgrounds can engage with her work. On this she says, “Even if they don’t understand the deeper concepts, they can still have an emotional reaction to the work,” adding, “Most people don’t care if you are uber contemporary.”
Although the pieces in this exhibition span over a decade of production, Age of Innocence bears a sharp, unwavering focus on the human condition throughout its scope. This is a testament to potter’s clarity of vision that has guided her throughout her years of study and studio practice. In Age of Innocence, anne drew potter makes an indisputable case for the rightful place of ceramics and the human figure in contemporary and conceptual art.