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Mariko McCrae’s The Life and Times of Abigail Tackle

Amy Gogarty

Ceramic artist Mariko Paterson McCrae is a story-teller, working tall tales into the most unusual dinnerware most of us will ever see. Her massive punchbowls, crystal-topped ice buckets and sinuous sauce boats are peppered with playful texts and images, which compete with lurid surfaces, gold-licked rims and barnacle-like excrescences that dot her inventive pots. McCrae follows in a long tradition of tales on pots dating back to the ancient Greeks, who painted scenes from Homer on wine kraters, or Renaissance Italians, who covered tin-glazed earthenware with designs based in classic myth. Grown-ups might remember Bunnykins on their breakfast bowls, yet few of us dined on dishes graced with the sort of exuberant flourishes we find on McCrae’s amazing pots.

These particular wares are presented as the work of Abigail Tackle, an excitable and obsessive spinster who dreams of going to sea despite being “land-locked” in the midst of prairie wheat fields. McCrae’s creation of alter-egos grants her license to construct outrageous objects with unusual properties. Several years ago in Denmark, she dreamed up Dana Florica (a clever pun on Royal Copenhagen’s Flora Danica), a bearded, cross-dressing china painter whose inspired creations defied all norms of propriety and taste. Abigail’s tale is inscribed on a large commercial platter and archived on the web, but one need not actually read it in order to enjoy these juicy creations. The nautical theme suffuses the work and creates a wholly convincing body of work.

McCrae is a student of ceramics history, and the fact that many of these pieces are alive with wit and eccentricity does not detract from the serious appreciation she has for period works. A series of delectable gravy and sauce boats echo traditional forms of Sèvres or Wedgwood. Tropic of Cancer features luscious coral and iron-red patterning, a cartouche decorated with a giant crab and delicate nautical globes dancing across the interior. The piece is tactile, organic and slightly repulsive–but, ultimately, irresistible. A more ominous set of sauce boats depict flying fish and a deadly nineteenth-century Japanese mermaid. Encircled with rope-like projections and flat black-stained patches, these creatures presage doleful events. Herro Sailors Gravy Boat depicts a hapless young man powerless to resist the lure of the treacherous sea nymph. “I’ll be okay. . .she was just so Beautiful,” he moans to a handsome rescuer, who appears more than ready to take advantage of his desolate state. Lobster Platter makes a nod to the 16th-century ceramic genius Bernard Palissy, sporting a faux-realist crustacean surrounded by an odd mixture of brain coral, squishy sponges and shiny barnacle bits.

Perhaps most impressive are her large containers including Sailor’s Swill Punch Bowl and several crystal-topped ice buckets. With these, McCrae (or should we say Tackle?) gives full vent to her imagination, creating complex scenes in which ships sail peacefully or sink precipitously upon colliding with icebergs. The ice buckets are so smartly fitted out with rich colour, riotous patterns and marvelous draftsmanship that it is only after some time that one notices the disaster. The black night sky of Ship Sinkers Ice Bucket contrasts sharply with the red and white ships, glassy icebergs and liverish-yellow glaze surrounding the image. Delicious and mock-tragic, the image strikes a delicate balance between melodrama and humour, giving the work a strong presence.

Conceptually, McCrae’s use of an alter ego is intriguing, and one senses with this restless and remarkably productive artist that such a device enables her to explore themes and imagery that would otherwise be difficult to incorporate into her ongoing work. This work is not polystylistic, an approach in which an artist deliberately mimics a wide range of formal styles as a means to question authenticity, nor does McCrae subjugate her own identity to a larger, more powerful persona. Instead, she remains firmly in control, and her creation takes more the form of a game of charades, a playful opportunity to elaborate or exaggerate a given set of conditions. In this sense, Abigail’s tale is an allegory about the power of the imagination to create reality and the importance of living one’s dreams fully.

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