The following is a metaphor, perhaps, that neither the ceramics artist Molly Hatch, nor Mary-Dailey Desmarais, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ chief curator, intended with their collaboration for the Parall(elles) exhibit.
But the effect of entering the museum and walking up the staircase of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion, with Hatch’s breathtaking introductory installation, Ducere, unfolding in view is literally one of “stepping up to the plate.”
It’s a baseball analogy, a bit boyish for an exhibition of milestones in women’s design, and a little too on-the-nose, maybe. Nevertheless.
Ducere, from the Latin meaning “to lead,” is composed of 198 perfectly round dinner plates arranged in triptych, each plate hand-painted to recreate the psychedelic Islamicizing pattern Christopher Dresser designed for his 1872 Minton factory Moon Flask.
“They’re not hand-thrown,” admits Hatch, “which I often do in my studio. But in a grid layout, the readymade plates don’t distract you. Your eye fills in the blanks around the plates. The gold is an additional firing so the reflective metallic surface is there to mimic that Cloisonne technique which usually has brass or gold between the enamel. And that is real gold that’s applied after the glaze firing which is largely what you’re seeing painted there — anywhere from three to five layers of material, glazed.”
Dresser’s porcelain flask, an important Victorian-period piece from the “granddaddy of Industrial Design,” as Hatch calls him, is one of the Museum’s most recent acquisitions under Mary-Dailey Desmarais’s curatorial direction. Desmarais commissioned Hatch to design Ducere using the Moon Flask as a touchstone. No other artist could be better suited for this reboot.
“It was not only interesting from the point of view of activating our collection,” explains Desmarais, “but also showing a contemporary artist working within the medium of ceramics, that is a traditional medium used for centuries, and doing something entirely new with it. To see how this contemporary woman artist is navigating ceramic practice — doing a completely new take on a work of art in our collection, and something visually captivating, and also historically profound — was really interesting to us.”
Hatch’s star has been steadily rising over the past decade. Her exquisite and epic-scale ceramics were the subject of a 2013 solo exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. Since, Hatch’s evermore astonishing earthenware designs have been commissioned for permanent installations at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, the Newark Museum of Art in Newark, New Jersey, and now, Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Hatch cleverly characterizes her work as “resetting the table,” but she can add another play on words with the baseball plate turn. For in sport as in life, the plate always means home.
“A plate is an entry point to see artwork in a way that we wouldn’t necessarily have permission to otherwise,” Hatch says. “Maybe it’s just enough to give people another minute to stay longer and say, ‘I understand that that’s a plate, and I understand that that’s a painting. How do you put those two worlds together?’ For me, that’s enough, even if it gives people a reason to stay another minute, or go home and take another look at their tableware and see it differently.”
First and foremost, Hatch’s work encourages audiences to reconsider our relationships with the transcendent world of capital ‘A’ art, the commercial sphere of industry, and the quotidian.
“Everyone has a relationship to a plate,” Hatch says. “They’re objects that we live with and eat with every day. They’re very basic and banal. But we have a relationship to the dishware that we live with and eat off of. My hope is that when you walk into a museum that has all the pretensions of the art world, all that baggage that comes with it, where you’re expected to know how to look at artwork, it gives people the opportunity who are not necessarily in the place of knowing how, or feel comfortable with that relationship to art.”
Although Hatch also unfailingly uses her work to stake a claim as a legitimate contemporary artist working in a medium more traditionally associated with craft. “It’s an opportunity, too, to elevate ceramics,” Hatch argues, “to be seen as a painting. It’s a long, old conversation in the craft and design world: we have a different relationship with how the art world views that material, and I think it’s still something that needs elevating, rethinking, recontextualizing.”
Hatch is the granddaughter of a prominent Massachusetts merchant family who amassed a collection of 18th and 19th century objets d’art, a collection that had a profound impact on Hatch’s childhood aesthetic sensibilities. “My relationship to art and the permission I was given to enter it as a profession was from family,” explains Hatch. “There was a lot of access to a family history of objects, and to a certain time period of collecting objects in the Boston area. My great grandparents would have been colleagues of Isabella Stewart Gardner, so they had a lot of the same interests in decorative arts and painting and things like that in Boston society. There was an interesting time period of objects that we lived with that represented that family history, and some of those things I was struggling to understand.”
Hatch’s father was a dairy farmer. It was her mother, a painter, who encouraged her art practice. “My father is a very practical person,” Hatch says. “My mom married him, I think, for so many reasons. But she fell in love with his political passion for organic farming. So I grew up with a creative mother, but she absolutely gave up her aspirations of being a painter, outside of her own personal studio practice, to marry my father and buy into this very big passion of his. And I think he didn’t really understand the art side of her, or that family history. So I think it was interesting that I chose that. Growing up on a farm and having a grandmother who was independently wealthy were two different, opposing things for me to grapple with.”
That oppositional sensibility is what guides Hatch’s choices in subject matter. A thread of subversive tradition runs through her oeuvre — from Worcester Imari, 2015, which reinterprets a pair of 18th century vases from the Frances and Emory Cocke Collection in the High Museum of Art; to Illume, 2016, which presents a dialogue on the nature of Chinoiserie; and now to Ducere, the Dresser-inspired installation.
“There’s a long history in ceramics of exporting and borrowing between cultures,” Hatch says. “Particularly in the West, we’re egregiously excited by other cultures and take what we want all the time. So for me, it’s a commentary about taking that apart and putting it back together. Owning it, but taking it apart and showing you a new way to look at it. In this particular case, there are so many different layers of excitement. I’m a female designer, an artist, working with history. Christopher Dresser was one of the most famous industrial designers at the turn of the century. And to have that opportunity to go back and say I’m looking at him through my female lens, and he’s looking at this pattern of a designer at a time when it was acceptable to appropriate imagery from another culture as he did, and create a new version of that for the British marketplace — for me, it’s an exciting place to dwell.”
Doubtless a problematic colonialist history comes attached to Dresser’s work. Although not every form of cultural appropriation is necessarily predatory.
Hatch recounts, “a lot of it started with Chinese ceramic exports and coming to understand that a lot of it was made specifically for the export market, and the imagery they were choosing was the imagery they thought the Europeans wanted. And the Europeans thought it was authentic Chinese imagery. And it was the first understanding that this is a real cultural fusion. This is a cross-cultural interpretation of each other in sometimes really comical ways and sometimes really beautiful ways.” For Hatch, cultures don’t just steal; they share, too.
“You have so many interpretations of each other that it becomes something we imbue with meaning,” she says. “Visual language is something we all can relate to because you don’t have to read it in the same way. It’s a visual thing that we all understand.”
The Museum of Fine Arts’ chief curator, Mary-Dailey Desmarais, specifically chose Hatch to tackle the task of deconstructing this particular past — and for this particular exhibition. “I think when we’re talking about the colonialist history of museums,” says Desmarais, “an artist like Molly Hatch is really interesting because she’s not denying history. She’s taking that history and doing something different and opening it up to new kinds of interpretation and new kinds of stories. And that’s what we really want to do here in the museum is not shy away from our past, but own up to it and open up the history by bringing new ways of seeing the works of art in our collection. Molly’s voice, Molly’s art, is an important part of that story.”
While Hatch’s practice gestures at complex narratives around fine art, craft, industry, and heritage, her work is deeply personal, too. “I really thought I wanted to be a painter,” Hatch recalls.
“And I thought I wanted to be a printmaker. And I thought I wanted to be a photographer. And I tried all those things. I loved painting, but I felt like I was making my mother’s paintings. I didn’t know how to be myself in that place. Ceramics resonated so much, and I think that’s partly because of my childhood on a farm. It’s taken me a long time to understand the metaphor of taking earth and painting on it and basically marrying my parents, physically, in my work. That’s something I’ve really come to understand lately. My dad understands that I’m making something functional and practical. Maybe it’s me making those plate paintings for my dad so that he can understand how to relate to the work, like, ‘Okay, you can still take it off the wall and eat from it.’”
Producing Ducere was a Herculean task that took nearly five months to complete. Nonetheless, Hatch still feels — like family, like home — that Dresser is a wellspring for creativity.
“The Moon Flask was such a rich place for me to hang out for a while,” Hatch recalls. “There’s some other work that needs to happen. I feel like there’s more there. Talk to me again in three years.”◼︎
Parall(elles): a history of women and design continues through May 28th at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.