The Poetics of Art: Contingency and Timelessness in the Art of Gilda Oliver

By Carvalho, Denise | Ceramics Art & Perception, June-September 2009 | Go to article overview

The Poetics of Art: Contingency and Timelessness in the Art of Gilda Oliver


Carvalho, Denise, Ceramics Art & Perception


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THE CERAMIC HEADS AND BUSTS OF GILDA OLIVER REFRESENT the body's passage through different kinds of time (or lack thereof): timelessness, or time-suspended and time as contingency in the transitory perception of the human form. Though Hegel stated that Man is Time in his ontology of history, Hegelian time can only be truly experienced in connection to the shared past. As timeless, Oliver's work lacks an over-arching historical context but is composed of fragments of potential fictional histories. These works require the viewer to locate some form of constructed historical memory, thereby creating an impression of something universal rather than individualized. This forged universality is, nevertheless, a product of a broader, though not vague, particularity in the way that the artist utilizes the human form. Like visual memory, the human form is also contingent upon time, both familiar and ancient, known and unknown. Oliver's use of materials and colours evoke a sense of weariness, erosion and in their relation to the human body and mortality, suggesting contingency. Yet simultaneously, and perhaps conversely, contingency in Oliver's work also evokes the everyday, the kitsch, the body as an object of the culture of consumption.

The process of clay-making itself is both ritualistic and utilitarian, dating back to at least the Paleolithic era. Even in the earliest societies, clay was used to create visual language and to help promote social organization. Playing with the links between consumption and ritual, Oliver melts pieces of 14 karat gold onto her ceramics, melding the markets of art and of gold into one, subverting their connection in the economic market. The value of gold is linked to the value of art, as both are economic alternatives to paper money. Gold's significance derives from its durability, longevity, and divisibility; its value remains consistent with its quality. Likewise, the value of art is determined by constant interaction between culture and market, thereby creating the demand for artistic production. The values of gold and art are judgment rather than property-based, since they require a person or culture to establish their values. But when Oliver mixes gold with clay, the only judgment she makes is an aesthetic one. After the gold melts and the clay bakes, their fusion transports them back to their place of origin, perhaps even back to the rock. But, after their alchemical qualities have been altered, the new material assumes symbolic, ritualistic characteristics.

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Penelope's Dream (1996) is a head of ochre and siena tones moulded from layered plaster bandage strips, most commonly used by doctors to set broken limbs. The ruptured, uneven surface caused by the layered strips creates an edginess that challenges the peaceful semblance of the face; the effect is that of something ancient dissolving in front of our eyes. Sculpture #1 (1996) is a ceramic piece that appears to be in-between a rock and a shell. Its blue and red-brown tones and subtle glaze lustre suggest a fossilized shell, also pointing to the process of evolution. In referencing sedimentation, erosion, and fossilization, Oliver hints at an expanse of time more vast than we can realize--perhaps even a geological sense of time--yet we feel connected to it and to the object of its making. Gaston Bachelard stresses that in the human ability to dream, we create distant or intimate relations with all objects, fostering possibilities of our encounter with them. "As the slightest sign, the shell becomes human and yet we know immediately that it is not human." In connection with the human dream, "the shell, in the very tissue of its matter, is alive. Proof of this may be found in a great natural legend." (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p.115) Oliver articulates this element of the dream in her work, fusing it to her need to create myths.

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Oliver's bust of poet Margaret Gibson, I love the poet, (1996) transforms her model's expression into something beautiful, ethereal, and mythical, which the artist intuits as qualities shared by creative people and divine beings. …

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