The bilingual Peter Powning A Retrospective/ Peter Powning Une rétrospective, from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, is a much-needed addition to the history and understanding of contemporary ceramics and sculpture in Canada. It is encouraging to see such major recognition for an artist, even in these difficult times.
Powning’s work does not fit easily into one artistic medium or category. He has created works in ceramics, glass, bronze, and paper for pottery and sculpture, both free standing and architectural. A major, multi-award winner, Powning has received among other honours, the 1991 Deichmann Award for Excellence in Craft, the 1993 Strathbutler Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the 2006 Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Crafts in Canada.
This hardcover book of 192 pages is a detailed and full-colour presentation of Powning’s life and work. It is extensive, as much biography as critique.
The book is edited by John Leroux, Manager of Collections and Exhibitions at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. He has organized insightful articles, helping the reader understand the scope and complexities of Powning’s varied artistic output and life. They dig deeply into the “who” of this multi-faceted artist as well as into the “what” and the “why”, much more so than the standard exhibition catalogue.
The articles’ authors include Rachel Gotlieb on Expanding Ceramic and Craft Practices in Canada; Peter Laroque on Exploration, Experimentation, Self-Sufficiency, and Technical Mastery in the 1970s and 1980s; John Grande on Art into Time; and Allen Bentley’s look at The Mythic Basis of Peter Powning’s Art. An afterword by Peter’s wife, Beth gives a seldom seen look at the man as artist and husband. The articles also have integrated colour illustrations that add clarity to their commentary without the reader having to flip back and forth through pages.
The articles, each with its own focus, share details that combine them into a well-structured whole.
Gotlieb brings her experience at the Gardiner Museum and Sheridan College to describe the context of the time of the Pownings’ coming to Canada: key influencing artists of the time, the Powning lifestyle choices, and an overview of Powning’s media and process explorations.
Larocque focuses more on the New Brunswick elements of Powning’s activist choices and career, including his family and studio set up, and his political and artistic networking to develop the visibility and quality of New Brunswick crafts.
Grande delves more into technical and aesthetic development, revealing Powning’s media choices and directions with particularly interesting analyses of specific works and Powning’s own reflections on the success and surprises of his explorations.
Bentley presents a more scholarly tone exploring the nature of myth and the links to Powning’s long-term interest in the subject.
But there is more. The book is blessed with an abundance of high-quality illustrations, all in full colour, of Powning’s works. The one hundred and fourteen plates, arranged chronologically from 1971 to 2019, give a sense of his shifts and explorations in media, scope and purpose. All are listed with title, date and media, a blessing for any researcher. At the very back is a more traditional catalogue-type listing of one hundred thirty-two coloured thumbnails of works. The scope of the collection, is impressive for one artist.
The book would be a meaningful addition to a library, be it of a collector, museum, art dealer, or school. It is also an excellent example of “what could be”, a possible norm for displaying and documenting ceramics and ceramists in Canada. One can dream.
Peter Powning A Retrospective/Une retrospective. Edited by John Leroux. Published by Goose Lane Editions. Pub. Date: November 17, 2020. $45.00 CDN. 192 pp. ISBN: 9781773101927 https://gooselane.com/products/peter-powning-english-french