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"Usually my work has some historic connection," Betty Woodman observes at her Toronto exhibition.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Matisse could be in the room with them.

In the soaring, top-floor exhibition space at Toronto's Gardiner Museum, above the permanent collection of delicate ceramics, Betty Woodman's huge, robust creations twist and curl. The colours leap out. Contrary to the very idea of fastidious ceramics, Woodman's works are effusive, a late-career hurrah by one of the most important ceramic artists working today.

The exhibit has the same effect as stepping into the Museum of Modern Art's groundbreaking 1992-1993 New York retrospective of Henri Matisse, which opened up into a huge space showing the large, exuberant cutouts he made at the end of his life.

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"I'm a great admirer of Matisse," says Woodman. "Usually my work has some historic connection. And I've done many pieces which look at modernist painting, looking at Matisse, looking at Bonnard, looking at Gauguin. You should be able to think of Matisse - but hopefully you don't stop there, you realize that it makes a reference, but it goes beyond."

Dressed in a red-checked, floor-length dress, the American artist, who was born in 1930 and has for years split her time between New York and Italy, is compact and unassuming. Her greeting is a gentle, if hesitant, smile. She's also, even after decades as a master of ceramic art, still sometimes at pains to find the right words to describe her work.

"I'm not looking at it in an ironic way, which is often how art is looked at by other artists," she says of her work. "I would say I'm not capable of that kind of irony. I don't aspire to it. I think there's admiration [in the work of Matisse and other modernists]"

For example, in the work of Matisse and his contemporaries "there's always a view through a window," she notes, so she's done many pieces based on the idea of the light and scenery beyond the window.

But as its name suggests, the most monumental work on show at the Gardiner, Ceramic Pictures of Korean Paintings, also takes inspiration from that country. The piece was originally installed at Missouri's Daum Museum of Contemporary Art in 2002 to fill an 18-metre-long wall. Its ceramic pieces are applied to huge painted canvases.

Since then, Woodman has continued doing large-scale work. Two years ago, she hung a nine-metre-tall permanent installation at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. And last summer, she created a six-metre-high piece for the American Academy in Rome, which protrudes from the wall another four metres or so.

When she started in the 1950s, Connecticut-born Woodman worked on a much smaller scale as a traditional potter, making ordinary cookware and dishes. But by the early 1980s, she had moved to New York with her husband, the painter George Woodman, and rose to prominence primarily through New York's Max Protetch Gallery by completely re-imagining pottery's uses and motifs.

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Now, she is known not only for deconstructing traditional ceramics - "Instead of putting the handle on the cup, I'll put the handle on the wall," she says - but for her versatility in colour. She's even played with form and colour as an artist-in-residence at the historic Sèvres porcelain factory near Paris, where she reinterpreted the techniques of French ceramics.

Woodman jokes that ceramics certainly isn't "video art" - its link to the past can hinder its larger recognition in the contemporary art world. But she insists that her reinterpretation of ceramics isn't about rejecting tradition, it's about building on it.

"It was not, 'One day I'm a potter, and the next day I'm an artist.' It was a gradual expansion. I realized that I didn't want to throw away all of that experience. So I looked for ways that I could still use my skills, my experience and my pleasure in pottery and yet move away from strict function [and traditional pottery] And I did that by changing scale, and by going to museums and thinking about the kinds of things clay had been used for."

Central to this process was rethinking the vessel. Woodman's deconstructed vases and huge wall hangings became metaphors for that core form of pottery, which in turn has always been a metaphor for the human figure - and a recurring symbol in the works of the modernists she has drawn from.

"It's there throughout the history of art, there's always a vessel. No matter where you look, there's a pitcher pouring water, there's a vase sitting there. Whether you are looking at Greek tombstones or looking at Roman painting, or looking at Matisse or looking at Bonnard, there's vases - vases of flowers," she says.

And with her Toronto exhibition, as Matisse did with his cutouts, she takes that essential form which has guided her career and renders it huge in celebration.

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Betty Woodman: Places, Spaces & Things continues at Toronto's Gardiner Museum until June 5.

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