For most contemporary art critics, the term “decorative” is pejorative, implying that a work, while perhaps pretty, lacks content and depth. The decorative arts, it is commonly assumed, have two features that are at odds with what we think of as fine art: decorative art is typically associated with function – glasses, plates, bowls, jars, carpets, clothes – and its purpose is to project a style or mood rather than to transmit meaning and incite dialogue. Fine art is meant to be contemplated and interpreted; decorative art is designed to be used and enjoyed.

Nonetheless, there is no sharp boundary between decorative and fine arts. This distinction is largely a modern invention in which art is regarded as something to be experienced, contemplated and appreciated from a neutral distance — never as something to be used for a specific purpose. But this was not always the case. The early Canadian artisans who embellished the churches and cathedrals of 17th century Québec with decorative stonework and stained glass windows did so with the intention of at once pleasing, instructing, inspiring, and occasionally frightening devout parishioners (see Architecture History: The French Colonial Regime). For literally thousands of years Aboriginal peoples fashioned everything from totem poles and shaman’s rattles to elaborately carved stone and ivory knives and harpoons that served ritual and practical purposes and carried with them both spiritual and historical meanings. In addition, the style and effects employed by contemporary painters, sculptors and photographers are often meant to make their works a pleasure to look at, and there is no reason to think a useful object cannot also be a bearer of meaning.

Contemporary Canadian artists and artisans continue to blur the lines between decorative and fine art. Painter David Bolduc’s lyrical abstractions pay explicit homage to various decorative traditions; Bolduc was an enthusiastic traveller, and in the course of his many journeys he absorbed the design traditions of China, Central Asia, India, and North Africa. In Knossos (1995), for instance, a bright blue flower shape with a swirl inside of it sits in the middle of the canvas against a blazing, deep red ground, orange star-shapes arching down on either side toward two strips of horizon that resemble stands of trees. We know from the painting’s title, which is after a Greek city on the island of Crete thought to be Europe’s oldest city, that the blue alludes to the blue Aegean, the red to the fierce Greek summer sun, but what makes the painting work is the push and pull between the cool blue and the rippling heat of the ground behind it.

Even content-driven artists such as photographer Edward Burtynsky make free use of decorative techniques and style. For instance, Burtynsky’s acclaimed, large-format photographs of man-made environmental calamities are themselves remarkable for their beauty. In Oil Spill #1 (2010), an aerial image of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he captures the oil creating long, striated patterns on the surface of the ocean. Similarly, in Colorado River Delta #2 (2011), shot from the air in Mexico where the Colorado River once spilled into the Pacific Ocean, the river splits into intricate plant-like forms against a desolate salt white, the river’s water an eerie, phosphorescent green.

Just as fine artists make free use of decorative effects, contemporary ceramists borrow from the fine arts. Robert Archambeau’s pots, influenced by Asian ceramic traditions, have a simple, elegant, almost archaic nobility — their surfaces washed with earth-tones and a hint of glassy blue and green — that far transcends their use. Archambeau’s pots point toward a way of thinking about life, a mode of living. Throughout his career, Victor Cicansky has systematically warped the line between traditional ceramics and sculpture, creating works that make use of replicas of the vegetables he grows in his garden in Regina. And Marilyn Levine, one of Canada’s most internationally celebrated ceramists, more or less forgoes function altogether, using traditional stoneware to fashion stunningly realistic facsimiles of ordinary objects: a handbag, a suitcase, a jacket hanging from a hook, an old pair of boots.

This exhibit explores selected decorative art and artists in Canada through biographies, photo galleries, features from Charles Bronfman’s Claridge Collection including an interview with curator Franklin Silverstone and articles by Gardiner Museum Executive Director Rachel Gotlieb.