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A Halifax pancheon, a large, metal tub, once holding milk in the dairies and kitchens of a bygone era, now rests upon tiles on a gallery floor. Worn with age the pancheon's rusted surface invites us to touch it, seemingly inviting us to share its history in an intimate way.
In Susan Ostling's exhibition, Art, Object and Domestic Sign, the Halifax pancheon is just one of many old domestic objects which accompanied the artist's ceramic sculptures. Stirring sentiments of nostalgia these domestic objects are used to allure her audience, as well as serving as moulds or patterns for her ceramic pieces. However, this invitation to experience the sentiments of nostalgia was immediately withdrawn.
Like the commodity sculpture of Haim Steinbach, which, after playing upon the consumer's instinct to touch a product, denies them the opportunity, Ostling invites the interaction of her audience, but immediately repels them by the cold white minimal grid of tiles upon which the objects are placed. The viewer is left in no doubt that what at first sight appear to be domestic objects are now situated in the domain of high art.
By denying the audience's impulse to touch, Ostling puts into question the way in which we interact with ceramics as a sensuous or tactile medium. The surfaces of her large unglazed vessels bear marks, as do the actual domestic objects, but they are large, bold geometric marks. They are self-consciously artistic signs, antithetical to the real marks of age which are ingrained upon the surface of the functional objects. These self-conscious, artificial art-marks repel the touch: one does not touch Art.
It is also significant that these objects and ceramic pieces are vessels. Beside the pancheon rests an open Billy, a kettle, a sieve and an oval shaped enamel pan. As vessels, they align with the traditional role, in our culture, of ceramics as a source of useful objects. But in this context these vessels, especially the ceramic versions, cannot be filled. The transition of domestic objects and their ceramic versions into the condition of high art has stripped them of all function.
This lack of functionality is emphasised by the size of Ostling 's ceramic translations of the domestic objects. They are much larger than the actual domestic objects and, as such, they go beyond the intimacy of the smaller object and take on the dimension of sculpture.
The conventional affinity of the domestic object with women must be mentioned, but so must the domination of art history by men. In effecting a transition from the status of domestic-useful item to sculptural object these items not only traverse the barrier between everyday life and art, but also the barrier between genders.
Ostling's ceramic pieces are austere and rarefied in the manner we expect from 'serious' art. In a review of the exhibition Sue Smith (Courier Mail, 1993) suggested that Ostling provided an alternative to the 'mindlessly decorative and functional ware currently occupying centre stage' in mainstream ceramics. Stripped down to a minimalistic aesthetic core, these ceramic pieces force the spectator to reach beyond the emotive qualities of surface texture and nostalgic associations. She also takes us beyond the traditional decorative and/or functional roles of ceramics and challenges not only the gendered connotations of the domestic object but those of the ceramic medium.