Through the Gilded Looking Glass

Brendan Tang

May 19 - June 23, 2007

Ornament on Parole

A recent issue of the design magazine I.D. declares that “a revival of ornament is in full bloom and shows no sign of fading. [1] The issue is chock-full of examples of current design, art, and architecture that incorporate patterning, textures, filigree and embellishments. Not only is it now acceptable for serious design to include these elements, the writing in the magazine attributes qualities of warmth and soul to these inclusions of decoration, suggesting that there might be something vital or human about them. However, it seems that ornament is still bound by certain austere constraints: the so-called revival is apparently heralded by subtly perforated white lampshades, “feature” walls of damask wallpaper, and a muted hrew bow tied to the left of an end table. Perhaps ornament has not really been ‘decriminalized’ (as one article claims), but merely allowed out on parole. [2]

While Brendan Tang’s ceramic works belong to the realm of contemporary art rather than that of interior design, it is still productive to consider his works in light of the increasing attention and regard that ornament now commands. If ornament does indeed allow objects to “tell richer and more complex stories than ever before.”[3] then how do we make room for objects that break the curfew of subtly integrated home décor to shout their stories in frames of gold ormolu?[4]

Similar to anumer of other contemporary ceramic artists, Tang’s works incorporate reworked historical techniques, colours, patterns, and shapes. These familiar forms and motifs are combined with found objects, decals, sound, and plastic toys to create elaborate vignettes and installations. When historical elements are used within a contemporary practice, they not only reference their original histories and cultural milieus, but also respond to the aspects of contemporary culture with which they are paired. In this case, the multi-layered use of ornamental devices spans mediums and histories, and blurs the fine line between so-called good and bad taste.

Combinations of old and new, high and low, class and kitsch highlight changes in the ways that objects are perceived and valued when popular taste evolves to favour or dismiss a particular aesthetic. What was once considered bad taste can be re-appropriated and redeployed with humour and irony -making it accessible and acceptable once again. In the case of Tang’s work, it is the ornate embellishments and ornamental flourishes that provide a point of access: they can be seen as something silly or as something beautiful, and thus draw us in for a closer look. Upon closer inspection it is the gaudy accumulations and decorative aspects to Tang’s work that communicate content and narrative. Topics of globalization, international conflict, climate change, cultural identities, and consumer culture are embedded in their shiny surfaces and densely packed patterning.

Ceramic objects often incorporate decoration and surfacing that carries information about the cultures and times in which they were produced. However, more often than not, this use of ornament takes a secondary role to that of the object as a useful commodity. Decorative ceramics suffer a similar fate, often being assigned a role akin to wallpaper, leaving little room for considerations of the ways in which ceramic work can function as a vessel for ideas. Conversely, ornament can be used as an effective means to deliver content, and this strategy shifts focus away from traditional formal evaluations of ceramic objects. Works like Tang’s suggest that the particular decorative vocabularies of ceramic objects. Work like Tang’s suggests that the particular decorative vocabularies of ceramic tradition need not be relegated to the role of wallpaper, but can instead be forefronted as tools for communicating ideas, and in turn provoking thought and discussion.

In order for ornament to serve more than a passing trend or the latest design craze, it needs to find ways to assert its capacity for embodying meaning and challenging conventions. Tang’s work does just that: demonstrating the ways in which craft and ornament can speak eloquently about contemporary subject matter, and refusing to sit quietly in the background.

- Nicole Burisch

[1] Contents I.D. Magazine. Volume 54, Number 2. March/April 2007, p.9.

[2] The magazine contains several additional references to architect Alfred Loos {1} 1908 “Ornament and Crime.” The essay was a backlash against the decorative embellishments of the Art Nouveau movement and claimed that the “evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.” (Hughes, Robert. “Chapter 4: Trouble in Utopia.” Shock of the New, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1981. Accessed May 2007,

[3] Skov Holt, Steven and Mara Holt Skov. “Ornament Decriminalized. Decoration, once fallen from grace, returns in the guise of text, perforations, fractals and bling.” I.D. Magazine, Volume 54, Number 2. March/April 2007, pp. 45-46.

[4] Ormolu: (from French ormolu, signifying gold ground or pounded) is an 18th-century English term for applying finely ground, high-karat gold to an object in bronze. The French refer to this technique as bronze doré, which is used to this day though the item may be merely painted with a gold-tone paint. The principal use of ormolu was for the decorative mountings of furniture, clocks, lightning devices, and porcelain. (excerpted from, accessed May 2007)


Brendan Tang was born in Dublin Ireland of Tinifafian parents, and is naturalized citizen of Canada, He earned a Master of FineArts degree from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, a BFA from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and a Diploma in the Visual Fine Art from Malaspina University-College. He has exhibited in juried and invitational shows in Vancouver (BC), St.Louis (MO), Baltimore (MD), Fort Wayne (IN), and Philadelphia (PA), among others, and his work has been featured in Pottery Making Illustrated and Clay Times. His work engages with popular/contemporary culture and postmodern philosophy, employing humour, decorative opulence and craftsmanship as modes of communication. Never far away from his passion and compulsion, he has taught art in workshops and academic institutions, managed a ceramic supply store, and owned/operated a pottery business.

Nicole Burisch is an Alberta-based artist, writer, and cultural worker. A graduate of the Alberta College of Art and Design’s Ceramics programme, her recent research focuses on the intersections of contemporary art, craft, and activist practices. She has presented and published writing on this topic for several conferences and publications, including the upcoming anthology Utopic Impulses: Essays in Contemporary Ceramics. Burisch’s writing on contemporary craft and art has also been published by FFWD Weekly, TRUCK Gallery, spur magazine and Ceramics Art and Perception.