“Seeking Balance,” Peter Powning’s latest solo show at the Sandra Ainsley Gallery, is a significant body of work, highlighted by dramatic lighting against the distinctive industrial backdrop of Toronto’s Distillery District: stone and brick walls, polished concrete floors.
In “Seeking Balance” Powning combines disparate materials to create a complex totality. He primarily works with bronze, steel, glass and stone finished in rich textures and colours evoking a sense of antiquity. “His work is multi-leveled,” says visual artist Susan Edgerley, who shows glass sculpture with Ainsley, “and brings together many elements – each piece has so much information. The work is contemporary, but it feels as if it’s being pulled through history, which implies that it will endure. This show is cohesive. Threads link one piece to another, his visual vocabulary creates a sense of unity. The work is akin to a book, its narrative Powning’s evolution as an artist. Each series is like a chapter in his book.” Edgerley observes that “these forms could exist in nature, as easily as in this space, there is a sense that they have always existed and will continue to exist. When you look at these pieces you can feel the history, and see the flow of time, but they’re still very modern.”
That sense of history is recurrent in Powning’s overall body of work. There are sculptures based on the stela – an ancient upright tablet used to mark a significant place or event; a perfectly round torus; and the bronze branches that have become a motif in his work – natural history. In this show the branches emerge not only from ceramic sculptural vessels, but serve also as an organic matrix joining two house forms in the sculpture entitled “Metamorphosis.” “Peter is a tour de force,” says Toronto visual artist Irene Frolick. “He’s a master of materials but he’s not ashamed to have a very poetic look at the world – there’s no irony, no tongue in cheek, it’s just a very soft poetic look at the world around him. The humbleness and emotional quietness of ‘Metamorphosis’ is really beautiful.”
Powning says the process of making involves a series of creative experiments, a journey of discovery — about the piece, himself, the limits of materials and his skills. “I don’t come to a piece with a fully realized concept. The concept is the starting point not the finishing point.”
“Peter Powning is courageous,” says Susan Edgerley, “and he is true to his creative impulses. It’s very unusual. He can see beyond disappointment, beyond the limits of particular materials, stay open, and maintain a child-like sense of wonder. When he started the book series, it seemed to come out of the blue, but it makes sense when you think about language and its place in our society – to use that creative impulse, to bake them and make them fly and put them in water – the motion of that series is extraordinary. To stop and be aware and to use that awareness to develop another language is wonderful. When people work with material as opposed to ideas it’s so instinctual from the beginning, because you’re working with something from nature. Of course if you are aware in a more intellectual way, as he is, and have an intuitive sense of the world and nature those intuitive processes are very evident. His ability to easily shift from intimate to large scale sculpture is rare.”
Most of Powning’s large sculpture is designed for use both inside and outdoors, made to withstand the weather. He documents his sculpture in different seasons to emphasize its durability, and to show that exposure to wind, rain, and sleet only enhances the surfaces on these forms.
Powning started his studio practice in the rolling hills of Markhamville near Sussex, New Brunswick, in the early 70’s. His studio and foundry expanded in response to his need to overcome the challenges inherent in working with multiple materials in a rural area far from art foundries or other necessary services. He built much of the equipment he uses in his studio.
Early in his career he worked solely with clay, creating functional pieces and small sculptures, in order to make a living in a small rural community. The small sculpture eventually led to larger works in a wide range of materials. These days he’s as likely to use his kilns to slump glass or to bake water-soaked books as he is to fire ceramics. The book series completely captured the imagination of Irene Frolick. It started when Beth Powning loaned a book to a friend who decided to read it in the bath. When the book was returned, in a distinctive, decidedly bloated organic state, its new shape told a tale. Soon after, Powning dropped a book into an aquarium filled with water to see what would happen. After a month, when it started to go septic, he placed it in a hot kiln, thinking he could stabilize it in its bloated state. The result was stunning – a sculptural, ephemeral shape the colour of singed wood. One breath might collapse the whole structure. Powning’s photographic journey began. Since then, he’s photographed books in the ocean, and now has them flying through the air. These photographic works are magical, playful, daring.
“Seeking Balance” is one more marker on a long path for Powning, who in 2006 won the prestigious Saidye Bronfman Award (as of 2007 a Governor General’s Award). His work is widely published: included in Robin Hopper’s book, “Stayin’ Alive;” John Mathieson’s recent book on raku ceramics; and “GLASS ART: Urban Art 2003” by Richard Yelle. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Strathbutler Award, grants and awards of recognition from the New Brunswick Arts Board, and Canada Council for the Arts. He has been commissioned to produce two sculptures for Festival Tower, the new home of the Toronto International Film Festival, to be installed in 2010: “Fantasm,” a bronze and glass wall array backlit by a video wall, and “Split Rock,” a large stone and bronze sculpture for a rooftop meditation garden. He created “Light Spirals” at the Residences of College Park on Bay Street, and is currently in shows at the Harbourfront Centre, “The Importance of Being Banff,” the Burlington Art Centre, “East Coast Ceramics,” and The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, “Meaning and Metaphor: Highlights from the AGNS Contemporary Ceramic Collection.”
Unlike many visual artists, it’s hard to categorize Peter Powning. The Sandra Ainsley Gallery is primarily known as a glass gallery and although Powning employs glass in many of his works, “glass artist” is a label he resists. He prefers the freedom of expression and challenges inherent in the use of any material that serves his creative purposes. Peter Powning is a mature artist in full stride who consistently produces work that is at once sophisticated, imaginative, and deeply moving.
For more information on individual items, please go the the Search page and search by title or by gallery (Sandra Ainsley Gallery). There are several more pieces than represented in this gallery. Catalogue is available.