Weeden and Williamson deepen art practice

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Steffich Fine Art is celebrating another pair of accomplished artists this month in Oil and Clay, featuring new works by painter Mel Williamson and ceramic artist Judy Weeden.

Weeden’s masterful work needs no introduction, with her black on terra cotta-toned pots and Art Deco-like designs of birds and flowers among the most recognizable (and coveted) ceramic work produced on Salt Spring. A focus on hand-built slab work in recent years has sparked new creative explorations and an always thoughtful treatment of the material.

Weeden’s sculptural works can take a playful turn, such as a series in the new show of comical animals with appealingly rounded features — in this case cat, aardvark and pig. Another stream is more abstract and maximizes the inherently flat nature of the clay slab in figures that focus the eye on line and movement.

Vessels are both functional and decorative, and provide another space for Weeden to flex her artistic muscle with unusual decorative touches. For example, a simple vase made with two slabs for its sides is elevated to something quite unique; stiff edges extend from the side seams and pairs of white seeds are threaded through disc-shaped holes. The show also includes other examples of incised works, in which designs are cut out of the clay wall, and those with extremely detailed design etched into the surface.

Even as her forms continue to advance in new directions, Weeden is also happy to experiment with different types of surface treatment. Many of her pieces in Oil and Clay involve alternative finishing techniques: either direct smoke firing of unglazed works or saggar firing, in which lustrous swirls of black, grey and white are produced by hardwood chips placed in the same small container as the work during firing.

Highlights of the abstracted sculpture series include The Apple Picker. In this tabletop work, a central figure leans into a round-backed curve, suggesting the baskets in each hand are heavily laden. The figure is accompanied by three geese that appear self-important and curious. The sculpture’s squared off forms have a strong line that suggests movement above all else. The saggar firing treatment meanwhile distributes dark and light areas at its own will, in a way that tempts the eye to travel. Sampler (Wall Piece) brings together variably sized and patterned tiles fired in different techniques as one glorious patchwork quilt. Each component has interesting texture and colour on its own, from smoky brown to white bisque to the saggar’s deeper black ripples. Weeden reveals her keen eye for design in how those components are so skillfully brought together.

Williamson’s interest in bodies in motion and human behaviour observed unaware continues in her new work, which includes a series of small paintings of people enjoying outdoor swimming. Her gestural oils ably capture an impression of these scenes’ summer ease like tiny windows into shared life events. In one work, sweet family time is portrayed with a mother helping her young child learn to swim. Bold swaths of layered blue tones serve to suggest a body of water in motion. The mother’s serene pose contrasts with the boy’s readiness to launch.

Braver Together is another lovely impression of a relationship, with small two girls seen from behind holding hands as they head into deeper water. Williamson’s tight framing of the scene limits the view to the girls so the fleeting moment is the key focus. The green-blue water that forms the background meanwhile puts the viewer at ease with its soothing tone.

Less perfect bodies are also a source of interest in works such as Beach Bod, a busier scene that captures some of the chaos of a hot, crowded beach area where older men’s fleshy uncovered bodies are front and centre.

In Venus, one single nude female is portrayed, and while her overflowing belly and thick limbs would not be the typical subject of erotic devotion, there is no sense that Williamson is mocking with her title or her painter’s hand. The piece rather reflects the fact that all bodies are fascinating to the artist, and indeed “more” may be better when it comes to interpreting the human form in paint. 

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