Exhbition: Ian Johnston

Tangible Shadows: Intersections

January 20 to February 11, 2006

Invocations – Susan Andrews Grace

Taking it in its deepest sense, the shadow is the invisible saurian tail that man still drags behind him. Carefully amputated, it becomes the healing serpent of the mysteries.

C G Jung

Tangible Shadows: Intersection, ceramic sculpture by Ian Johnston, invokes shadow and is suggestive of amputation as it swallows connections to both. Its mysterious intersections leave us gaping at ‘the shock of the new’ in Johnston’s search for beauty.

Tangible Shadows: Intersection is the third generation of a body of work made over the last two years. The production work Ian Johnston makes with Stephanie Fischer is known for its meticulous quality and craft. The first piece in Johnston’s digression was a drape-molded tea cup bas relief (2003). It had no function other than its beauty.

The second generation, the figurative, bas relief works of Tangible Shadows was exhibited at the Langham Gallery, Kaslo B.C., in summer, 2005. The works of Tangible Shadows were raw porcelain, bisque fired body parts inspired by milagros, small silver or gold votive offerings in the shape of arms, legs and other body parts etc. Milagros are often attached to statues of saints or to the walls of certain Mexican churches as testimony to the miracle that was requested or granted. These pieces re-appear in Tangible Shadows: Intersection but with a grey, more ‘mature’ colour, still monochromatic.

The third generation began at Alfred University’s Summer School where Johnston worked with Johan Creten and Walter McConnell in July 2005. These were terra cotta drape moldings of bicycle seats and motorcycle tanks which led to carved styrofoam hips to intersections: freestanding clay sculptures. They have a terra sigillata glaze, used in ancient Greece and Rome. When he returned from New York he added some free-standing third generation pieces to the earlier generation of work in the Kaslo exhibition before it closed. It was at this point that the idea of intersection s became clear to Johnston and propelled him to Tangible Shadows: Intersection, an installation of works comprising all three generations.

The works might be described as deconstructive meditations. Deconstructivism, the branch of philosophy established by Jacques Derrida, who painstakingly worked to understand, and to resolve dialectics in the perennial questions of philosophy (truth, meaning, life and death) by using the language of the thing itself. Tangible Shadows: Intersection explores the truth of a human body by looking at the truth of a part of it, sometimes in relation to an object. The mind wants to reassemble the parts and is disturbed by the intersection of an arm with an automobile bumper, for example. In this way we participate in Johnston’s search for truth.

Ian Johnston is an architect and has been significantly influenced by Frank Gehry. They have both turned to the curvaceous and to installations of objects, rather than/as well as the construction of buildings. Johnston, like the sculptor Henry Moore in his later works, (another major influence), is modelling rather than carving sculptures as well as using the organic form, pierced, to contain a hollow void. Moore’s abstractions of the human figure were typically mother and child or reclining female. Johnston’s are more like the child, or the idea of child, and sometimes like an investigation of creation which focuses on the part to the confusion of the whole. Johnston deconstructs the truth of human and vehicular bodies as well as the surprisingly beautiful parts of truth as they join each other in ceramic abstraction.

These works are born to their wholeness through a dangerous process. Their blue-grey-green colour, the colour of undersea artifacts, gives the abstractions a serene presence and belies the turmoil of their beginnings. They were babied into existence through a complex and dangerous process of drying from a state of 85% wetness until bone dry. Johnston’s care of the forms before firing in the kiln takes one month of constant checking in a Damp Box. The dot between his name and the piece’s number pierces the clay and makes a tiny hole which allows it to breathe. The works bear names not unlike genetic tracery (e.g.22.hip-f, shoulder-f) which signify their heritage. They evoke the familiar and the unfamiliar. It’s not always easy to see where a body part ends and a vehicular part begins. The bumpers used in the formation of the work are present in the installation as progenitors, painted and hung on the wall along with their progeny. Some works required interventions which were sometimes unsuccessful. The dangers in drying, firing and glazing were considerable: only 15 of 30 original pieces survived.

Gabriele Koch, German/British ceramics artist says: “My interest lies in organic development, where one form contains the seed for the next one, where form is rooted in its own family tree.” Johnston concurs in the works of his third generation: the language of these meditations on the body and molecules of clay speak in an organic language generated by the works themselves.

Johnston works with porcelain because he likes white which shows the form to best advantage. The technical virtuosity of work in porcelain has been described as not unlike moulding detergent suds—a slippery vocabulary subsuming the orthogonal slab of architecture where all materials are in sheets or extrusions. In porcelain there is fluidity that responds to the hand’s persuasion. He enjoys the fact that the terra cotta pieces are fired with a low firing glaze and the porcelain with a high firing one: once again examining the truth of the thing with its own language and doing what is not usual practice.

Johnston’s ceramic invocations are investigations of what is wrought by earth and air and water and fire. The fact that they were draped and molded over human bodies and cultural detritus, and not unlike milagros , beseech miracles of perception, stands as a testament to creativity’s regeneration of idea and material. Tangible Shadows: Intersection uncovers new truth, beauty and blessing in its shadows.


Quote from Carl Gustav Jung from The Integration of the Personality. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1939)

Quote from Gabriele Koch is from “Gabriele Koch” by Tony Birks in Ceramics Monthly, December 2005

Ian Johnston is an architect turned sculptor based in Nelson, BC. Since the mid nineties he has been pursuing an interest in ceramic and more recently large-scale installations that often include ceramic. Johnston studied architecture at Algonquin College, and Carleton University in Ottawa and with the University of Toronto at Paris, France. Prior to opening his Nelson studio in 1996 he spent five years working at the Bauhaus Academy in post Berlin Wall East Germany. At the Bauhaus, together with two architects, he developed and facilitated a series of workshops around themes of urban renewal and public intervention in a tumultuous time of cultural transformation. His recent body of work Refuse Culture: Archaeology of Consumption examines our relationship with the environment in a series of installations using ceramic and mixed media appealing to multiple senses of the viewer.

Artist website

10 hip – f, platonic void, 2005, stoneware, terra sigilatta , 12” x 21” x 18”


10 hip – f, platonic void, Detail, 2005, stoneware, terra sigilatta , 12” x 21” x 18”


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