Art

Nutty Configurations of Victorian Tchotchkes Highlight Contemporary Anxiety

In Amy Douglas’s show at Jack Hanley, Staffordshire figures become absurd reflections of our time.

Amy Douglas, “I Lost My Head” (2017) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

From wide-eyed dogs to rosy royals perched on horses, tiny figurines from Staffordshire, England, have sat on countless mantels since the 19th century. The glazed ceramics, which were especially hot to collect in the Victorian age, are recognizable for their simple folk style and typically saccharine depiction of everyday subjects and scenes of the time. In artist Amy Douglas’s hands, however, Staffordshire figures become fantastical tchotchkes that trade their usual decorum for absurdity, vulgarity, and outlandish fun.

Amy Douglas, “Prince of Wales” (2016)

A trained art restorer, Douglas takes broken Staffordshire ceramic figures and melds their fragments together, at times with her own additions, so they instead reflect our current events and 21st-century concerns. Dozens of these strange sights are now on view at Jack Hanley Gallery in Douglas’s solo show, which is cheekily titled The Unfortunate Souvenirs of Our Time.

Douglas refers to her work as “The Art of Salmagundi,” which draws its name from an old French and Middle English term that refers to a potpourri of miscellany. Although arising from fragments, her creations are all seamlessly made, as if sculpted from scratch.

The impressiveness of Douglas’s technical skill is outshone only by her imagination, which has cooked up rib-tickling tokens of a variety of today’s anxieties. A headless figure juggling its own head — along with that of a child’s and a cat’s — speaks to feelings of multitasking to the point of mental overload (particularly apt in the internet age); a hooded girl hounded by curious canines, titled “She Wanted to Run with the Pack,” conveys the afflictions women face in a male-dominated workplace. Most pointed is a comical portrait of today’s most infamous ruler who lives like royalty: “I Will Be Phenomenal To The Women” casts the 45th President of the United States as a cocksure potentate. The stiff-haired aristocrat with tiny hands has a mouth stuffed with a gilded apple, mimicking the apples placed in the mouths of roasted pigs, and is watched over by a cat and a dog that wears a pink pussy hat.

Amy Douglas, “I Will Be Phenomenal To The Women” (2017)
Installation view of The Unfortunate Souvenirs of Our Time at Jack Hanley Gallery

The majority of sculptures on view have less overt messages, but their wild jumble of configurations capture the topsy-turvy spirit of our times. There’s no limit to the ridiculousness of Douglas’s visions, which include a horse’s head sprouting out of another horse’s head and a woman whose face consists solely of three breasts. This completely ludicrous play on a centuries-old tradition offers us chaos and confusion — which feels incredibly pertinent right now, considering recent worldwide shifts in power, from Brexit to Trump’s tumultuous presidency to the trepidatious elections in France. Rather than protesting disorder, Douglas has embraced it, wittily transforming our concerns into cathartic sources of levity.

Douglas, in fact, draws inspiration directly from the anxieties of people around her. The titles of her works are all snippets of private conversations she’s overheard, and they succinctly capture feelings related to self-worth, dating, the state of the world, and much more. Although personal, they are widely understood and relatable, from “Feeling Apocalyptic” to “I’d Like to Kiss Ya but I Just Washed My Hair” to “It’s Because I Have a Tilted Uterus.” Uprooted from their sources and isolated like soundbites, the dialogue of our dire days becomes a little less serious. While Douglas’s kitschy creations make us giggle, they also invite us to pause and laugh at ourselves, too.

Amy Douglas, “Something Blew His Mind” (2017)
Amy Douglas, “Feeling Apocalyptic” (2017)
Amy Douglas, “Nose Job 2” (2015)
Amy Douglas, “Phony Pony” (2015)
Amy Douglas, “King Dick” (2015)
Amy Douglas, “You Can’t Breastfeed the World” (2017)
Installation view of The Unfortunate Souvenirs of Our Time at Jack Hanley Gallery
Installation view of The Unfortunate Souvenirs of Our Time at Jack Hanley Gallery

The Unfortunate Souvenirs of Our Time continues at Jack Hanley Gallery (327 Broome Street, Soho, Manhattan) through May 21.

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