What Do We Discard? Specimen by Susan Low-Beer

Specimen by Susan Low-Beer. Riverbrink Art Museum. Image Courtesy of the artist.

September 10, 2022 – January 21, 2023

RiverBrink Art Museum

By Lera Kotsyuba

Susan Low-Beer’s ceramic sculptures are uncanny forms that play with the tension between anxiety and care. Travelling across Canada, the exhibition Specimen transforms in each iteration. At the RiverBrink Art Museum in Ontario from September 2022 to January 2023, Specimen, curated by Sheila McMath, shows Low-Beer’s ceramics meld into a quasi-domestic space. Their forms recall organs that drape over industrial forms that are a cold substitution for domestic objects of home, a bed, or a table. The discomfort apparent in rest denotes unease, and the forms, between frail organs and technological refuse, link to our anxieties about aging.

The title, Specimen, recalls a cabinet of curiosities of observation, not the clinical study of medical precision but as objects of fascination, inviting closer observation to make meaning. The exhibition embraces humour and the absurd through the familiar made strange. The uncanny nature of organic forms meeting industrial elements is displayed through the tubes and ovoid shapes to the draped ceramic forms to their rigid grid surface patterns and metal assemblage elements. The works invite closer inspection by pointedly asking the viewer to lean into their discomfort, embrace the absurd and disquieting forms, and contemplate age and decay in the Anthropocene in an era of mass waste.

Specimen by Susan Low-Beer. Riverbrink Art Museum. Image Courtesy of the artist.

Walking through the RiverBrink Museum of Art, the space itself seems caught between two worlds, that of a domestic space and a museum. Walking on polished floors in the Georgian-style building, you’re momentarily transported to a liminal space, a space outside of time. Coming upon the gallery space, the rectangular room is adorned with simple wood panelling and an assortment of small tables from different eras arranged throughout the room, the assemblage of draped and balanced ceramic objects adds to the uncanny feeling evoked by the space, both familiar and alien at the same time. The sculptures are ovoid and organ-like, with fibulae and tubes protruding from grid-patterned forms that are not quite organic, recalling metallics and plastics. The ceramic forms are glazed matte or with a high sheen, and the feeling of unease shifts to anxiety where you’re unsure if you’re standing in a medical refuse facility or an industrial scavenging ground. They may be interpreted as curiosities, their half-familiar forms inviting closer inspection. Without the framework of encased forms behind glass, the ceramics are still arranged for display, inviting the viewer’s gaze.

Glossa (2018) is a long ovoid ceramic shape with two tubes extended, searching for something, the form cradled on a stained pillow as if in a hospice. The object rests on a dresser, yet the uncanny organic form’s placement denotes care and the eerie notes of medical decay, a triage of care for an object past its prime. Although a closer look does not resolve the tension, the broken and deflated forms in the exhibition denote a fragility, a slow decay, whether technological or organic is a matter of perspective.

Susan Low-Beer. Ocellus. Image Courtesy of the artist.

Susan Low-Beer’s ceramics have shifted from figurative to abstract, the forms of Specimen are therefore able to convey anxieties that suffuse our age: from aging to climate disaster and mass waste, but not without a humorous touch. Ocellus (2018) is a ceramic ovoid with two protrusions, once the interior of something either organic or industrial. The dark glaze and purposeful patching elicit the understanding that an object’s lifetime of use has shaped the wear apparent on its surface. Balanced on a half-moon wood plinth with a do-it-yourself aesthetic of rough assembly, the sculpture sits on top of a polished dark wood table, in contrast with the cement blocks it rests on. The stacking of disparate objects adds humour to the display, easing the tension of clear meaning, encouraging the viewer to embrace the absurd. Low-Beer’s sympathetic gestures, of patching and the readymade plinths, are acts of care for the aged techno-organic form. Rather than a nihilistic bent, Low-Beer encourages humour as the connective thread of the world evoked by her work. There are no clear answers or solutions, but rather than seeking a resolute finality of meaning, she invites us to share a collective experience of uncertainty, and maybe even embrace it.

In Mammilla (2018), two ovoid ceramic forms are linked from within, recalling a symbiotic relationship. An act of care, their connection tube is draped over the other form as if in an embrace, while grey matter pools below. The grid-patterned surface and matte grey and blue glaze with overlaid clay seams gesture to the discard of industry, the plea for care of one form to another, and gestures to an organic tableau. The worn and aged surface once again recalls the age of the forms, their original use disguised by their removal from their original context, yet the ceramics show the maker’s hand in their patched forms, clay smoothed over long-mended wounds.

Susan Low-Beer. Mammilla. Image Courtesy of the artist.

Comb-Plate (2018), made of a ceramic ovoid with two protrusions placed on a woodblock, abstractly looks like an automaton that has fallen on the stairs. The absurdist humour contrasts with the disquiet of discard, whether organic or industrial remains unresolved. Wood and metal chairs, concrete slabs, and hollow wood trunks unsettle the observer, creating the tension between the plinth and artwork, to question where the work ends, and the display object begins. The exhibition offers no respite from the disquieting familiarity of objects, at once domestic and commercial, organic and industrial, clay and metal, art and curiosity, humour and absurdity are the common links.

Low-Beer’s ceramics are transformed in every iteration of the exhibition, domestic furniture unique to this iteration of the exhibition, the ovoid forms shifting the understanding of the gallery space they occupy. The tension between discard and decay and the apparent care of mending instills unease in the visitor. Rather than a finite meaning, can we learn to embrace uncertainty and humour as a form of connection? The exhibition prompts us to consider our relationship to objects and ourselves, to consider the ways and circumstances in which we extend care, and what we discard.

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