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