Fragile: Mangle With Care

Innocent porcelain figurines are suffering torture at the hands of artists and designers worldwide: losing heads, spilling entrails, left exposed while defecating or masturbating, and suffocating in vegetation, ribbons, rabbits, tassels, seashells, forks, spaghetti, or hair curlers. The victims are often arranged in tableaus bearing creepy titles like “Nobody fucking move” or “Struggling will only make it worse” or “It doesn’t matter who you know cos this is real life.”

The perpetrators, mostly studio ceramicists in their 20s and 30s, make limited editions either cast from antiques, poured in new molds based on kitschy precedents, or pieced together from smashed found objects. They follow in the footsteps of Pop and post-Pop fine artists who have sculpted expensive jokes about materialism, luxury, and mass production: think Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Jeff Koons’s faux inflatables, or Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait in Sèvres porcelain.

These like-minded contemporary ceramicists are scattered from Brazil, where Marco Paulo Rolla flays and disembowels ceramic courtesans, to Hungary, where László Fekete chops up and reassembles factory seconds from the 180-year-old Herend plant, his nation’s poshest porcelain maker. Both those designers’ work appeared along with harrowing parodies by 10 other artists from the U.S., U.K., and Denmark in a survey show last summer, “Domestic Deities” (the working title was “The Mutant Housewife”) at the ceramics-focused Garth Clark Gallery in New York City. Gallery co-owner Mark Del Vecchio says that the trend has been emerging for at least eight years. Photoshop-literate art-school grads love to contrast improbable body parts and contort figurines to mock sentimentality and consumerism, he explains, and when working in ceramics, “the generation born in the ’70s and forward has no fear of their work looking manufactured. They revel in that quality, instead of instantly rejecting anything that comes out of the kiln looking factory-made.”

The greatest geographical concentration of porcelain harassers is in England, where Barnaby Barford gives erections to Winnie the Pooh, Tony Hayward slaps hard hats on peasants, and Ruth Claxton blinds waistcoat-wearing gentlemen with hair clips. Barford, whose high-profile work has been exported for the past three years to David Gill’s booths at Design Miami, says he started tearing apart and collaging mostly Chinese-made junk “as a way to tell stories about people and about human nature.” Other Brits explain that they feel hostile toward their parents’ oppressive collections of middlebrow figurines. “I grew up in a very working-class environment, surrounded by these kinds of objects,” explains Stephen Johnson, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art, who upends resin, brass, and ceramic creatures in gravity-defying towers. He only uses found objects, he adds: “I could have easily cast from them, but I wanted to keep their eclectic history.”

At this year’s Maison&Objet fair in Paris, U.K. designers debuted perhaps the first mass-manufactured example of the trend: “Evolution of Love,” a three-part series by London-based Committee for Lladró Re-Cyclos, depicts a couple developing a flowery crust as they progress from first kiss to commitment. In the past two years, Lladró has asked progressive designers Bodo Sperlein and Jaime Hayón to update its collection with juxtapositions of vintage forms, but Committee’s is the most sarcastic approach yet to the Spanish company’s signature sappy lovers.

“We set out to break with the past without breaking the rules,” says Committee partner Harry Richardson. They also intended to avoid Barford-isms: “His work has a very sharp edge,” Richardson says, while theirs has only “a slight sinister edge. We had to respect this company we were working with and design something commercial.”

But when you tell any of the statuette manglers that you’ve seen similar pieces elsewhere, they understandably bristle and explain that, well, no one else revives 18th-century clay recipes or perforates their own porcelain lace or recycles hobbyists’ 1970s molds or hand-sculpts the saccharine or agonized facial expressions. “I feel I’m on my own trail. I started doing this before it was trendy,” Barford says. “And this isn’t about the figures or the fashion, anyway. It has inexhaustible possibilities for narrative. You wouldn’t ask painters if they felt they’d run through the possibilities of paint and canvas.”

Eve M. Kahn is a contributing editor at I.D.

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