HELENA, Montana — The following is an essay by artist Robert Harrison from his 2015 exhibition Re-CLAIMed: WHITE GOLD at the Holter Museum of Art (Helena, Montana, June 3 – August 26, 2016). The exhibition pivots on two large installations, one a wire structure holding “clouds” of found porcelain items and another a historically-inclined series of Harrison’s arch forms, all filled with porcelain donated by the family of a retired bisque distributor in Butte, Montana. From the artist:
I am a practicing artist, with a focus on ceramic sculpture and large-scale installation works. I have lived in Helena since the early 1980’s and worked out of my Granitewood Studio, west of Helena for the past 25 years. I came to Helena to work at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts and like many before and after my time there as a Bray resident, call Helena, Montana home. My work has created opportunities to work and travel internationally. I take advantage of these opportunities to continue my on-going research into world history and pre-history, often focused specifically on ceramic history.
In the spring of 2013 I took such an opportunity to extend my research on world porcelain with a visit to Dresden and Meissen, Germany. Meissen is a world-famous manufacturer of porcelain figurines, and by many today, regarded as the finest porcelain manufacturer in the world. The city of Dresden is nearby and is one of the cultural treasures of Europe, full of museums and galleries. My intent was to visit the remarkable porcelain collection at the Zwinger Museum.
In preparation for the visit, I had read Janet Gleeson’s book The Arcanum; The Extraordinary True Story** (of German porcelain production in the 17th Century) which provided the necessary historical perspective. The preface to her book reads…
At the dawn of the Age of Reason, some of the finest minds in the eighteenth-century Europe were pursuing the alchemist’s dream: to discover the secret formula for transforming base metal into gold. Geniuses and charlatans, noblemen and fools, even monarchs competing for greater wealth found themselves joining the epic quest for…
The Zwinger Museum’s Porzellansammlung (porcelain collection) is described as:
The Dresden collection is the most exquisite, and also the largest, specialist ceramics collection in the world, not least on account of the outstanding holdings of early Meissen porcelain as well as oriental porcelain dating from the 17th and early 18th centuries. August the Strong (1670-1733) was passionate about porcelain. It is to his “maladie de porcelaine”, as he himself called his obsession with the “white gold”, that Dresden owes its unique collection. The most beautiful items from among the 20,000 objects that have been preserved are now on display in the delightful rooms inside the Zwinger, against the constant Baroque backdrop of the Zwinger courtyard. The spectrum of porcelain wares on show extends from specimens dating from the Ming Dynasty in China and abundant holdings from the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662–1722) to Japanese Imari and Kakiemon wares from the early 17th and the 18th century. The development of Meissen porcelain from its invention in the year 1708 until the late 18th century is also illustrated by works of supreme craftsmanship.
I was overwhelmed by the visit to the museum, not only by the quality and quantity of the porcelain collection, but also by the exquisite installation of the collection and the baroque architecture of the museum. This was the kind of extraordinary museum experience that has the potential to affect the viewer and the potential to impact an individual’s creative work.
The experience lingered, and by the time I returned to Helena, I had already decided that I needed to get into the studio and create a response to the visit. I came to the realization that the best way for me to respond was to create a counter-point to the Zwinger Porzellansammlung (porcelain collection) installation.
For this project, I wanted to create a life size replica of one of the Zwinger installation arched niches, by building a recessed wooden arch form with interior shelves that would contain an homage to collecting porcelain in Helena, Montana. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of collected porcelain objects are installed into the frame, creating an intense optical experience for the viewer, full of color and shapes.
Titled Re-CLAIMed: WHITE GOLD (Objects from Helena, Montana Collections) the art work is intended to create a visual blast for the viewer and provide a contemporary counter-point to the obsessive collecting of August the Strong, the 17th Century King of Poland and Elector of Saxony.
I have made use some of my own ceramics collection (acquired over many years and currently gathering dust) as well as some of my own sculptural porcelain pieces. I have included porcelain objects purchased from Helena’s Good Samaritan and Helena Industries thrift stores. For the past year and a half, I have been a ‘regular’ at these thrift stores, filling a basket of porcelain cast offs from local donations each visit. It has been amazing to find these treasures and jewels that Helenans’ have so carefully collected over the years and reflect of the depth of travel and the cultural interests of the Helena community. Porcelain vessels and figurines from around the world have multiplied in my studio, now art making materials, waiting to become art installations.
In handling these reclaimed materials, first by washing and drying them and then attempting to integrate them, a deep respect for both the maker/manufacturer and the buyer/collector developed. I chose to leave them as whole as possible, working within the allocated spaces of the shelves and the architectural volume of the arch. I consider these pieces 3-diamensional collages, and have been working in the collage format since I was a child, first by cutting out and gluing magazine images, and more recently by firing ceramic decals, china paint and gold luster onto porcelain plates.
I have been using repurposed, reclaimed and recycled objects in both my outdoor and indoor installation projects for many years. I rationalize the use of recycled materials in my sculptural works as a way to pay homage to and respect for a specific geographical location and community. The concept has become a hallmark of my work, and this installation is indeed a continuum of this process.
I am most grateful to the Myrna Loy Center’s Grant to Artists Program, which provided the funding to contract local wood workers/craftsmen A.L. Swanson and Kevin Herrin from All Wood Design to build these substantial three-dimensional wooden frame arches with internal shelves, along with purchasing some of the collected porcelain, paint and gold leaf supplies.
The Holter Art Museum generously offered to debut this work. Creating these new pieces has evolved my installation concepts and continues my ongoing commitment to sustainable art practices.
Text (edited) courtesy of the artist. Photographs courtesy of Holter Museum of Art.
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