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Diversity is the watchword for the Earthworks show now at Toronto's Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art. The exhibition of ceramic objects by 20 Canadian artists was organized by the museum for Expo 2000, held last winter in Hanover, Germany.

"This is quite deliberately a survey exhibition," says Susan Jeffries, the Gardiner's curator of contemporary ceramics. "We wanted to show the variety of approaches to clay, to put together a representative sample of diversity in clay."

The objects in Earthworks run the stylistic gamut from classical restraint (two gorgeous, authoritative bowls by Steve Heinemann and Laura Wee Lay Laq, the satisfyingly basic Tablewares of Sam Uhlick) through anthropologically charged objects such as Laurie Rolland's arresting Uterus Ship (a planked clay boat with a tiny duplicate clay boat nestled inside), technical tours de forcesuch as Karen Dahl's unbelievable trompe l'oeil Race and the low-comedy goofiness of Victor Cicansky's Ménage à trois. It's hard to remember -- despite the exhibition's raw, no-nonsense title -- that they're all made of clay.

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It is reasonable to suppose that one's sense of amazement at the sheer virtuosity of the craftsmanship demonstrated here is a function of what one knows about ceramics. My understanding of the discipline is rudimentary (I once tried to throw at pot at a Gardiner Museum workshop, and ended by throwing it against a wall). So for me, all this work looks impossible.

Take the aforementioned Race. The work is, according to the Winnipeg artist (whose ruminations are printed on the wall nearby), "a metaphor for life's daily struggles." What you see is -- you innocently suppose -- a length of wooden plank, upon which rests an overturned can with thick, white paint spilling out. A shiny new paintbrush, half coated in paint, rests against the fallen can. Hopping past the paint accident, oblivious, is a brace of spotted, yellow-green frogs, apparently mechanical (they have shiny metal keys in their sides).

Now here's the thing: The plank, the paint can, the spilled paint, the brush, the frogs and their shiny "metal" keys are all earthenware. The trouble is, it's a joke, no? -- metaphorical meanings notwithstanding. A ceramic one-liner. So astonishing is Dahl's technical wizardry, it's hard to get to the work's purported meaning. And so the piece has anticlimax built right into it.

It's the same with Ménage à trois by Regina's Cicansky, where a turnip, a red pepper and a warty cucumber snuggle together on a blue corduroy armchair. Sure, it must be difficult to make corduroy out of clay. But in the end, is it worth the effort? "The source of my art," Cicansky says, "is the garden of the mind, a rough and wild garden where ideas grow and hybridize in uncontrollable freedom." It's also a place, apparently, where earthenware cartoons flourish.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with wit and charm -- as long as they carry genuine insight along with them. Walter Ostrom's The Jealous Potter II, for example, shows an earthenware turtle gamely supporting a vase on its back: Art springs out of nature and is supported by it. Roger Aksadjuak of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, offers his breathtaking, all-white Spring Celebration, a big globe-like bowl where, around the edges, the people, newly awakened from winter, emerge from their torpor like snowy ghosts to embrace one another and peer off into the distance -- from which new life is coming. Richard Milette of Montreal is exhibiting a "damaged" vase. His Mondrian Hydra is a big, broken vessel, cracked, full of shards, with one handle knocked off. It's as though the severity of the Mondrian painting on the vessel's swelling belly has been too much for it to bear, and it has simply shattered under the burden. And been patched together again by the artist -- though not successfully. Talk about deconstruction. Milette's postmodern, pseudo-archeological vase is a brilliant ruin.

Like Milette, Calgary's Greg Payce pushes the boundaries of what earthenware will permit. "My current practice," Payce says, "explores the aesthetic and conceptual possibilities of pottery form and decoration as language" -- as his Spinning Figures superbly demonstrate. Payce's upright, vessel-like personages are cunningly, deftly banded with thin strips of coloured clay (" terra sigillata banding"). This lends them an implied dervish motion that, in its abstraction and generalizing of the act of being turned on the potter's wheel, bestows a whirling, dizzying, orbital existence upon the spinning figures. It ends up suggesting everything from the hectic art of being human to the unreachable strangeness of earthenware planets, spinning in the void.

If, in the end, curator Jeffries set out to showcase ceramic diversity, she has succeeded wonderfully. As long as you don't mind that her diversity encompasses the ridiculous as well as the sublime. Earthworks continues at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, 111 Queen's Park, Toronto, until March 25; 416-586-8080.

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