Jessica Harrison, “Amanda” (2013), Found ceramic, epoxy resin putty, enamel paint (all images courtesy the artist and the Museum of Arts and Design)

Edinburgh-based artist Jessica Harrison transforms the collectible ceramic ladies that populate grandmothers’ china cabinets into spectacles of gore. These elegant abominations are now on view at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York as part of Body & Soul: New International Ceramics, the first of a series of exhibitions highlighting different materials to mark the museum’s fifth year at its Columbus Circle home. Body & Soul is centered on the human figure in contemporary ceramics, and as the exhibition text notes: “Through clay the figure becomes the catalyst for addressing the emotional impact of contemporary pressures that confront our society today.”

However, the found figures in Harrison’s work are mass-produced, the personal emotion of clay-work eschewed in favor of a machine process. Through Harrison’s alterations some of that emotion of the body returns, although in a very visceral way. And that’s meant quite literally: the collectible ladies cradle their spilled guts or present their extracted hearts while maintaining cheery visages.

Jessica Harrison, “Tiffany” and “Clare,” both (2013), Found ceramic, epoxy resin putty, enamel paint

There is quite a bit of blood and horror in Body & Soul, which was curated by Wendy Tarlow Kaplan and includes 25 international artists. Marc Alberghina has a figure pummeled with bloody human hearts, Kate MacDowell’s jumbled porcelain “Daphne” shows the Greek nymph cut down like a tree, Saverio Lucariello has severed heads in an earthenware dish filled to the brim with fruits and vegetables, and Mounir Fatmi has a whole team of ceramic skulls sporting hard hats. For an art form that has so traditionally been about dainty perfection, contemporary ceramics seem to be embracing the messy and macabre.

Jessica Harrison, “Karen” (2013), Found ceramic, epoxy resin putty, enamel paint

Harrison in particular has a rather unsettling take on this with her series of ghastly ladies, the ones on view in MAD just being her most recent. She’s also crafted “skin” furniture complete with real sprouting human hair (ideal decor for the salon of the uncanny valley), a miniature piano full of red tongues, and, um, used fly legs as fake eyelashes. In contrast to some of this prior work, her figurines in this show — with their severed heads dripping on their petticoats, wearing neck wounds like just another fine necklace — seem rather refined. But their slasher-movie carnage rips through the fiction of mass-produced sophistication. Although they still have their own kind of lurid kitsch, one that would probably play nice with a McFarlane action figure collection.

Jessica Harrison, “Emma” and “Tippy,” both (2013), Found ceramic, epoxy resin putty, enamel paint

Her work is similar to that of artists like Barnaby Barford, who remixes mass-produced ceramic figures into reflections of contemporary life, like a little street urchin from the 19th century chowing down on a Happy Meal, or Carole Epp, who rips apart collectibles to reveal seedy secrets. There’s a major sense of play in all this ceramic collectible carving, but also something revealing, especially in Harrison’s work, of reclaiming the real body of a bloody human being in the porcelain.

Jessica Harrison, “Andrea” (2013), Found ceramic, epoxy resin putty, enamel paint
Jessica Harrison, “Ethel” (2013), Found ceramic, epoxy resin putty, enamel paint
Jessica Harrison, “Isobel” (2013), Found ceramic, epoxy resin putty, enamel paint

Body & Soul: New International Ceramics continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Upper West Side) through March 2.  

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...

40 replies on “Bloody Bloody Boudoir Ladies: Turning Kitsch Ceramics Into Horror”

      1. Shary Boyle is also contemporary and a quick google search for Shary Boyle porcelain will show porcelain figures with amputated limbs and heads etc from just a few years back. So I think it is fair to call it derivative because it is not original – although I do believe its possible for two different people to come up with similar ideas in the same time period without seeing each other’s work, I feel that the world of porcelain is small enough that this artist would definitely have seen Shary Boyle’s work and has not done anything to differentiate this work from Shary’s work. It’s not a bad thing; I just think the artist has some expanding to do to have her own vision.

          1. The reality is, it all appears to be a direct appropriation of my sister Keri’s “Barbie/G.I.Joe Mutant” experiments of the 1970’s. Please give credit were credit is due. Thank you.

    1. I can’t believe we’re engaged in a discussion of who thought up grotesque porcelain first. Frankly Boyle’s work lacks the subtle elegance and restraint of Harrison. Harrison’s work more closely aligns to the twee nature of her source and says something far deeper about the exploitation of women and their own collusion in that exploitation. Boyle’s work is all Grand Guignol and baroque excess (not a bad thing). It’s message seems far less targeted. They are both communicating very different things in their work and they have very distinctive styles within the same general medium. Harrison is no more derivative of Boyle than Michelangelo was of Da Vinci.

      1. Blabbity blah. Are you typing while sipping a glass of red wine with a translucent garnet colour, gentle fruit musings on the mid pallet and finishes of charcoal and light tannins?

        1. Are you typing while slouched on a dirty sofa in front of Eastenders eating a stale kebab and vomiting special brew down your shirt?

      2. I’m wondering if these artists are able to produce a figurine. I know it’s the idea that counts, but they would probably end up looking like smurfs-which might be better.

  1. Penny Byrne is an Australian artist who also works with these porcelain figurines, although more political

      1. So it’s not okay to ask a simple question? Ah. Okay then. I’ll shut my mouth and sit quietly like a good little boy.

        The problem is, you took my question as accusation. it wasn’t.

        1. Sorry if it seemed like that, maybe I should have said more. I felt your comment could have been either way. On the internet and in life, I am surrounded by easily offended people who talk constantly about misogyny and leaned toward reading it as an accusatory tone.

          I, too, was only asking a question. I had wondered if someone would be horrified by the possibly misogynistic display (I wasn’t sure if you were), and thought your relevant comment would be an OK place to put it.

    1. “Ethel” seems to be enacting the final panel of the old social commentary comic about burlesque/stripping and the male gaze, though she is still clothed.

  2. Here’s one way I’m juxtaposing with found ceramic. From a line of lampshades I’m designing, of wiffle balls and zip ties. What a freaky collaboration we would be!

  3. This entire thread is dirivitive of the classy dump I took this morning. The level of class I bring to such a grotesque act by wiping myself with a pinky out technique can be summed up with one word…


  4. When it comes to art I’m naive and have no formal education or background. I just know what like or dislike. I think Harrison’s work is brilliant and thought provoking. Funny thing is that I’ve been doing similar work for 30+ years with ceramic statues of Jesus and Mary. I alter them with a Day of the Dead theme. Maybe someone will discover my artwork someday….LOL!!!!

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