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Jessica Stoller Makes Porcelain Visions of the Rebellious Female Body

Known for their excessive ornamentation and lavish detail, Jessica Stoller’s hand-built porcelain sculptures are labor-intensive spectacles. Until recently, these works recalled the Rococo-era fantasies of Marie Antoinette, their sumptuous trappings of beauty and refinement giving way to lurid displays of abject consumption. In Untitled (still life), 2014, and Untitled (sugar still life), 2018, for example, amid the confectionary opulence of ceramic tower cakes, petit fours, puddings and macarons—all arranged on doilies and Sèvres-style service ware—are piles of squashed breasts, severed hands, fly-covered skulls and maggots. Everything is pastel-colored, and heaped together in a porcelain feast guaranteed to rot (or break) your teeth.

Stoller’s exquisitely modeled female figurines and busts from the same era similarly used sexual allusions to the female body and food, invoking a corporeal feminism marked by savage wit. Whether referencing Greek myths like Medusa and Leda and the Swan, or contemporary body modification and BDSM subculture, these works unleashed female desire from its patriarchal constraints and endemic shame. Double-chins, fat rolls, hairy chests, pimpled and sagging flesh, are as lovingly rendered as the fruits, flowers, snakes, pigs, ribbons, pearls and piercings that adorn and surround them.

In “Spread,” her second solo exhibition at P.P.O.W. Gallery this past winter, Stoller expanded her embrace of the female grotesque quite literally, as the title suggests. Addressing the sense that women often feel of taking up too much space, especially those who don’t conform to societal expectations of beauty or comportment, it rebels against such proscriptions. The show presented several years of ceramic sculpture, from large-scale table tableaux and female figurines to mirror-inspired wall works. The earliest still retain the Rococo stylings that Stoller is known for, but pared-down forms and a more graphic palette, alongside references to art history, suggest the artist is also spreading out to explore new, if adjacent themes. Stoller shares her thoughts on these new directions, as well as the pandemic’s influence on their evolution.

Jane Ursula Harris: “Spread” seems to have bridged an older body of work with newer ones. How do you think it expanded and departed from your last P.P.O.W. solo in 2014?

Jessica Stoller: The work in “Spread” reflects a number of ongoing themes carried over from “Spoil,” my previous solo: ornamentation, the female body, notions of the grotesque, ceramic history/art history, memento mori motifs, etc. Keep in mind the work has been developing over years and my process is slow—clay makes you contend. Major culture events, from the #metoo movement to the 2016 election, gave way to new content and impacted my ongoing research. I actively wanted to push myself and the forms I was creating. I felt I had exhausted my ideas around the feminization of sugar and the motifs I’d been employing in relationship to those ideas. I was ready to open things up by exploring new forms and surfaces. I also honed in on color, using it more unexpectedly, broadening my palette and painting techniques, playing more with gradients in china paint and glaze. Despite my love of pastels, I didn't want to get too comfortable with approaches I utilized in the past.

JUH: The tile works really stood out in the show, as they were unlike anything you’d previously done. What led to those?

JS: Yes, the tile and mirror forms were a big departure and allowed me to think more two-dimensionally and make work for the wall. I wanted to get at figuration/the body without needing to sculpt a figure and they opened up a lot for me. I made a fair share of uncommon test tiles, including zits, wrinkles and adipose tissue, to name a few—still perfecting my stretch marks, lol, they’re hard to capture! In “Spoil,” there was some cellulite and sag, but I wanted to dig deeper into these surfaces so I started looking at anatomical waxworks and mining my own body. I was ultimately interested in creating different textures of skin and playing with skin tones, both naturalistic and surreal.

JUH: Right, there’s some blue as well as brown-hued skin tones in the newer work. But, going back to your comment: “Clay makes you contend.” I love that, can you expand?

JS: Working with clay is so immediately satisfying that somehow you forget about all the frustrations that are bound to happen. I am always trying to gain finesse and control and that keeps me engaged: the challenge of it all—the redrawing, re-making, re-firing, etc. So, I “contend” by constantly problem solving, which also allows ideas to morph and gestate. Untitled/crawl (2019), with the pregnant female figure in reverse table pose, for instance, was initially an extension of my interest in anasyrma, or skirt lifting, (an ancient magical ritual where women expose their genitalia as a symbol of power), which Untitled/lift (2019) also explored. Over time, though, the work began to reflect the right’s success in restricting abortion in various states, and my fear that they’d over-turn Roe v. Wade.

JUH: Some of the related figures from that series also take on prominent biblical and mythical subjects in art history, referencing canonical works like Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes c. 1598-1599, and Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, 1622-1625. What drew you to these works, and how did you put your spin on them?

JS: Well, both deal with women and violence, but from opposite ends, so to speak. You might not be able to tell, but I was looking at Judith Beheading Holofernes when making Untitled/collect (2019). I was intrigued by the “crone” and “maiden” aspect of his piece. I see them as the same figure, the old woman being more resolute as perhaps her life experience has taught her how necessary this is, as she supports her younger self. I wanted to play with these tropes of power, age and the female body in a more uncanny way. I always think about all the paradoxes around the female body, how it is so exposed and objectified yet some images are still deemed “too much”—hairy armpits, exposed breasts, nipples. Breasts sell us anything and everything yet a woman breastfeeding in public makes people uncomfortable. So my work combines the two figures into one, contrasting a skeleton head with nubile flesh. She’s exposed, but also adorned by armor, her lower body becoming a kind of checkerboard blob. And she poses dramatically, lifting her own sagging breast, while concealing a decapitated head behind her back in a cloth covered basket.

For Untitled/ground (2019), I was inspired by Bernini’s famous marble sculpture, Apollo and Daphne, which illustrates the Greek myth of the same name. I find the artist’s masterful handling of the material so seductive but the subject matter very unsettling; a woman fleeing unwanted advances, made to feel like her body is not her own, then morphing into a laurel tree to save herself from rape. When I made my version, I wanted to retain Bernini’s magical sense of hybridity. The fingers are elongated into spindly brown branches like the original, but, unlike Bernini, I cover Daphne’s face with delicate brown and orange butterflies, suggesting a metamorphosis born of strength rather than terror. That’s also why she grounds and balances herself in a pilates move, as her hand-branches sprout leaves, or new life.

JUH: This merging of the female body and the plant world is also the subject of Bloom, 2019, which features two impossibly spread apart legs that appear to give birth to a sprawling still life of body parts, worms, Venus flytraps and flowers. There’s a mix of the violent and generative here as well. It seems to echo the dialectic of beauty and repulsion that you’ve long explored. Is that a fair assessment?

JS: Definitely. In Bloom, fecundity and decay exist in tandem through a dizzying spread of interconnected porcelain body parts, flowers, bugs and plants all arranged meticulously by color on a circular plinth. The piece links to the historical etymology of the word grotesque, which takes its roots from the Italian “grotto,” like the caves of Nero’s palace, which contained hybrid paintings of ornament, figuration and nature. For good or bad, female bodies have long been associated with the formless, hidden and earthly; with this in mind, I chose to echo these ideas in the formal display of the work. I used a lower circular plinth that can be viewed from above. The horizontal plane is often debased—the floor, the street, etc.—yet in my tableaux the female body oozes together with nature, change, life and death in resplendent complexity. The piece pushes against the notion that an ideal body is vertical, closed and static. In Naomi’s Schor’s 1987 book, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, she examines classical art’s relationship to the “detail”—whether bodily (blemishes and veins) or ornament—as something coded, disruptive, extraneous and “female”: a potential threat to a carefully constructed order.

JUH: This makes me think of Adolf Loos’s infamous text, Ornament and Crime (1931), which posits something similar, extending the negative correlation to culture and architecture alike. So you’re flaunting detail as a kind of rebellion in Bloom?

JS: Oh, I like that: detail as rebellion! When making the piece, I was thinking about Madame de Pompadour’s porcelain flower collections and I wanted to evoke the history of the flower in porcelain, but tie it to something more active. In Bloom I started by creating strange flowers, some real and some invented, and built it up from there. The piece maximizes detail in an anarchic way on purpose, forging a slippery in-between space for viewers to get caught up in these dialectics. I’m challenging the human insistence on trying constantly to control and dictate what our bodies can be and do, and subsequently our place in the world. We want to keep beauty and repulsion at an arm’s length, yet I see them as equal and intertwined impulses, and this tension is essential in my work. It connects back to my interest in the grotesque body as a space where hybridity, ornament and excess leak and bleed together. I also think that growing up Catholic has contributed to my affinity for linking beauty to body horror. I often think about the intense message that a crucifix contains—abject but pure—a strange kind of violent perfection. I wanted to create a work that was both familiar and alien, seductive but unsettling, connecting the female body to the world and to ceramics’ history.

JUH: What are you working on now?

JS: I have two works underway: a wall work and figurative object that both deal with nature, the body and time, and to our current COVID moment. In both works, the fragility and plasticity of the body are invoked. In one, I’m creating another small “mirror” piece that’s composed of four porcelain tiles painted to look like a pink-purple-blue bruise on white skin. They’re framed by hydrangea flowers that echo the bruise color, and similarly transmute from pink to purple and blue. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so much of what happens to our bodies is invisible both to ourselves and to others. The bruise is a unique window that connects exterior and the interior; it shows trauma and damage, as well as healing, and charts the process of both in real time through the deepening and changing of its color. I’ve paired the two to relate them in an unexpected way.

The figurative piece I’m working on is more complex and based on a Meissen clock that features two exuberant dancing figures—both with flesh bodies and skull heads—in a kind of dance macabre. The “clock”-like form the figures dance on is rendered in an “auricular” style that I have been drawn to; it’s a 17th-century Dutch style of ornamentation (named after the ear’s anatomy) composed of fluid shapes merging organic matter of all sorts (plant/human/animal) to create slippery and sinewy protuberances, folds and cavernous swags. It's totally bizarre and beautiful.

Looking back, I realize my aesthetic impulses have always aligned with the auricular style, as I love creating intricately elaborate corporeal forms. I think its power lies in the merging of ornamentation with concept. It asserts a point of view, blurring and breaking boundaries between the body, taste and control.

In our current moment, where everything is interconnected, one person’s actions or inaction (wearing or not wearing a mask, for example) can have a major impact on others, and vice versa. We are all extremely vulnerable, in a state of flux, and in that sense, porous. For me, the auricular style harkens back to an openness and fluidity that signals change and malleability, good and bad. When exploring these ideas, clay seems the ideal material as it is so entwined with time and movement, so responsive to touch, and so full of contradictions. It’s a perfect metaphor for the fragility, beauty and strangeness of our fleshy temporal state, at a time when contact and touch are forbidden.