By Nicholas Crombach
Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2022
For years, I have held onto and treasured an abalone shell, delighted by the shifting colours on its polished surface – vibrant blues, browns, blacks, and turquoises. It is just one of hundreds of objects, which, after they caught my eye, I stashed away for unknown future projects. When I recently became interested in the art of inlay, I remembered the shell and decided, with some hesitation, that it was time to give it a new life.
No one particular material, process or craft is the focus of my sculpture practice: I don't set boundaries on these. Instead, I often use materials and techniques for their associations and to add layers of meaning to my work. I'm constantly researching, gaining new skills, and learning about the behaviour of materials by completing multiple small tests before executing a piece.
My recent exploration of the art of inlay – a centuries-old, labour intensive and precise process that involves creating a decorative motif by placing pieces of a foreign material into the surface of another material – presented an interesting series of challenges, while also testing my patience.
In my sculpture practice I often engage with past styles and motifs from the fine and decorative arts. I disrupt these historical references through the addition of surprising materials, details and gestures. The sculpture, No Meat, Fats, Bones, is a contemporary take on the historic art of inlay. At first glance, it appears to be an exquisitely crafted antique cabinet, embellished with an ornate floral motif that’s typical of the motifs found on 18th and early 19th century European furnishings.
This reading is quickly disrupted though once the viewer realizes that there are no true functioning drawers and that the "cabinet" is actually a modern-day compost bin supported by an elegant set of slender furniture legs. The composter’s function as a container for decomposition is also now discarded. Instead of precious ebony, there is valueless polypropylene, juxtaposed with a rich variety of natural materials including my treasured abalone shell, mother of pearl and glowing hardwoods.
This project provided several new challenges, beginning with, creating a composition that would both mimic historic examples of inlay motifs and fit the front face of the plastic composter. Then, after setting out all my inlay materials in front of me, came the overwhelming process of planning which materials to use for each component of the image. This was especially difficult considering the optical effect of light on the iridescent shells which “flash on” and “flash off” depending on the angle light hits their surfaces. Finally, came the harrowing process of cutting the hundreds of tiny precise shapes out of the various inlay materials, and adhering them to the cavities routed into the front face of the compost bin.
In its reimagined form, the compost bin’s function is now a conceptual one, with its title taken from the text embossed on the lid of the compost bin, “No Meats Fats Bones.” The remaking of this composter builds on a visual language where I reconfigure, appropriate, and manipulate familiar materials and subjects in unexpected ways. The viewer is asked to piece together new meanings from the associations which arise.
Nicholas Crombach (BFA 2012) is an award-winning visual artist based in Kingston, Canada. Crombach’s work has been included in exhibitions nationally and internationally including solo exhibitions in Canada, Berlin and London, UK.