- The Garden of Art: Vic Cicansky, Sculptor
There is a telling moment in The Garden of Art in which Don Kerr describes at length how Vic Cicansky makes one of his ceramic sculptures from wet clay, a medium the artist describes as 'incredible stuff.' Kerr uses Cicansky's medium to deliver a message about his own compositional strategy: 'While it's wet, anything goes, everything is still open to change, like this manuscript at this moment.'
This conceit of random openness is largely sustained; Kerr's book is governed by a commitment to process, which sets aside conventional notions of criticism and biography for a compositional approach that is neither 'lineal' nor chronological. What the book does offer is a detailed description of what Vic Cicansky does and, more significantly, how he does it. As a result, The Garden of Art is heavy on description and anecdote, while it remains light on context and analysis. This is not art history, but the personal history of one artist.
The descriptions and stories are admittedly compelling. Cicansky's art, in both clay and bronze, is unapologetically representational; his fired and polychromed jars of preserves in their homey pantries and, in the last fifteen years, his masterful bonsai fruit trees cast in bronze are among the most recognizable and admired works to emerge from a rich tradition of image-making in Regina. Cicansky was one of an original group of artists - including Joe Fafard, David Thauberger, and Russ Yuristy - who rejected Greenbergian formalism in favour of a vernacular funkiness that took its lead from California clay artists like Robert Arneson and David Gilhooly. If Greenberg was Saskatoon's reigning monarch, then Arneson was Regina's clown prince. If Saskatoon was serious; Regina was saucy. It's clear enough which aesthetic Kerr, himself a long-time resident of 'The City of Bridges,' as Saskatoon is known, is most comfortable with; he sides with Cicansky and the Clay City Ramblers.
In his deliberate avoidance of jargon, Kerr has also avoided any critical observations about the work, and where it fits into the history of contemporary [End Page 402] art-making in Saskatchewan, in the rest of Canada, or in the larger world of international art. On the author's own admission, he has written 'a personal book based on observation and conversation.' The 'conversation' takes the form of often illuminating anecdotes from the artist about the connection between his upbringing in a Romanian immigrant family and the art he has made out of that experience in his thirty-five-year long career. The 'observation' results in a series of descriptive sections which list the material Cicansky uses (the colours, the number of coats, the inventory of shapes), as if what a piece of art is made from tells us how good it is as a made thing.
It is Kerr's refusal to engage in aesthetic judgment that will be most frustrating to readers who want something from art criticism that goes beyond story and description. I'm certainly not suggesting that he is incapable of making those determinations; an accomplished poet, dramatist, and editor, he is a properly respected figure in the Saskatchewan arts scene. But he chooses not to address the question of quality. There are occasional comments from the artist - a jar is 'too aggressive' and has to be 'tamed' - and they are tantalizing glimpses into a discriminating sensibility that could tell us what makes a sculpture successful, or what separates a good bronze Orchard Table from a less good one. But observations of this kind remain at the level of something glimpsed and not something fully realized.
My guess is that both Don Kerr and Vic Cicansky will find these reservations less a criticism of what's not in The Garden of Art than a description of what is in it, and that would be a fair reading. Cicansky has stated that one of his guiding principles is 'that the average person is able to understand and relate to the content of the work.' As he wants his work...