The Delicate Monster: Recent Work by Jessica Stoller
Jane Ursula Harris
Jessica Stoller, Untitled (weave), 2015, porcelain, glaze, china paint, lustre, 12”x 6”x 7”
When the Earl of Shaftesbury denounced the Rococo in 1713 as “a revolting form exalting Sensation at the Expense of Reason,” he couldn’t have foreseen the subversive ends to which an artist such as Jessica Stoller would employ its feminine principles three hundred years later. As a contemporary artist working in porcelain for some time now, Stoller has deftly appropriated the rocaille style – a movement whose very name originated as a slur – with savage wit, wedding its delicate, decorative refinement to far more abject themes.
Illustration by Charles Eisen for The Devil of Pope-Fig Island by Jean de la Fontaine, Tales and Novels in Verse, vol. 2. London, 1896.
Charles-Nicolas Dodin (1734 – 1803)
Circa 1760, Paris, France
Of course, art history has long conflated the frivolity expressed in most Rococo period art with the era’s decadent aristocracy, and thus by extension, with the feeble and effeminate. Given our knowledge of what comes in its wake – the French Revolution, and its overthrow of the corrupt and pretentious in taste as in politics – this conflation makes a certain sense. That is, until one considers the ironic, inconvenient fact that women of the time were essential not only to the seminal development of salon culture, and its radical co-mingling of classes and newly emerging social “types” (dandies, intellects, ruffians, aesthetes), but also to the feminist and democratic causes fundamental to the Revolution’s success.
This isn’t to say that Stoller’s relationship to the Rococo tradition in her ceramic-based work is one of simple accord. As noted, she employs its fanciful and florid impulses to much more critical ends, calling into question both the inherent denigration of its so-called “effeminancy” as well as its imperialist values. Taste, then, and questions thereof, is paramount to her practice, which explains why so much of her feminist-inspired imagery deliberately contrasts odes to bodily excess with representations of female restraint. Fleshy cascades of body rolls, anuses that pucker like flowers, doorknocker earrings, chains and ties redolent of fetish play – all collide in her visually sumptuous work.
Take Untitled (weave), 2015, for example, which directly references a pot-pourri (“rotten pot”) vessel that once graced the chamber mantelpiece of Madame Pompadour herself, who first popularized the rotten pot-cum-perfume as luxury decor. The historical work is rife with its own abject allusions, which Stoller extracts with resonant aplomb, evoking the object’s original function to camouflage body odor, as well as its emblematic eighteenth-century chinoiserie design. In place of the original cartouche scene where three figures sit on a terrace playing a game of “Go,” Stoller creates a protruding heart-shaped ass. The creamy contours of the latter, framed by ribbons of pink lace, are a nod both to the original’s distinctive boat-shaped design, and its use of “China” pink, elements that would become part of the Sèvres Co.’s signature style.
Chinoiserie, a kind of proto-Orientalism in the early 1700’s, becomes in this work a skeuomorph of colonial pride, reflecting the French Empire’s (failed) bid to conquer the East at the time, and its commercial trade with China. Resurrected in the nineteenth-century as France established colonies in Morocco and Algeria, the preoccupation with the “oriental other” is invoked yet again in Stoller’s version: Instead of a white ribbon bespeckled in stars, her vessel is festooned with rattlesnakes that slither menacingly out of an upturned basket. One is reminded of exotic snake charmers, the myth of Medusa, fertility rites, hair as an ancient symbol of power, and other paradoxical embodiments of fear and desire.
Stoller, Untitled (spread), 2013, porcelain, glaze, china paint, 6”x 7.5”x 7”
Stoller, Untitled (venus), 2013, porcelain, glaze, china paint, lustre, 11.5” x 8” x 12”
A recent work, Untitled (gather), 2016, depicts three figures by a dormant tree, who lift their skirts to expose themselves, the flash of genitals not an invitation to leer, but a form of apotropaic magic, a warding off of evil. Recalling the Three Graces, as well as Dr. Charcot and his studies of female hysteria, the primary inspiration of Untitled (gather) is Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen’s eighteenth-century engraving titled The Devil Defeated, created for a 1762 edition of Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables. Stoller’s Untitled (gather), though, implies the devil in more metaphoric terms, perhaps embodied by the dead tree, the overflowing baskets of its harvest, or the viewer’s expectations. While popular at the time, the symbol of vaginal display as a means of supernatural protection goes back at least to the Greeks, and can be found in the Sheela na gigs – stylized carvings of women displaying exaggerated vulvas – that adorn medieval churches and castles (often referred to as architectural grotesques). In her twenty-first-century take, Stoller’s work suggests that we return to the specter of female sexuality, so long derailed by patriarchal fantasy, its primal power.
Female sexuality is a dominant theme throughout her impressive oeuvre as are references to history and myth, many of which, like Untitled (gather), get conflated in individual works, another being the wonderfully abject tableau, Untitled (venus), 2013. Blending allusions to the Venus of Willendorf, the myth of Leda and the Swan, and the work of Leigh Bowery, Stoller’s amalgamation underscores the legacy of the female body in art, from early goddess figurines and stories of rape as seduction, to the reclining nude, and notions of gender as masquerade. Its depiction of a full-figured female lying nude on a plinth draped in China pink cloth, legs provocatively tied together with black ribbon threaded through gold grommets sewn into her skin, conjures a strangely formidable scene. As if offering herself up as a sacrifice, her untied hands gesture upward, palms open and receiving. The figure’s head, covered in a black hive of ribbon, enhances this sense of ancient BDSM play, and rests against a classical Greek pillar adorned with two swans whose long necks, cut off from their bodies, formally echo the snake and abstract comma motifs that complete her incongruous yet potent display.
Stoller, Untitled (tar), 2014, porcelain, glaze, china paint, 9.5”x 8.5”x 6”
Stoller, Untited( gather), 2016, porcelain, glaze, 18” x 13”x 16”
Stoller, Untitled (epergne), 2014, porcelain, glaze, china paint, 9.5”x 7.5” x 7.5”
Stoller, Untitled (frosted bust), 2012, porcelain, glaze, china paint, lustre 10.5” x 8”x 6.5”
As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, with a mother and grandmother who worked downtown at the auction house, Stoller remembers one of her family’s most cherished objects, a Persian chandelier, and how starkly its preciousness contrasted with what she saw on city streets. The illicit appeal of the latter against the narrow tastes of the former set up a condition of extremes she exploited in student work as an undergraduate at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. There, she coated lip-stick stained cigarettes and cast-off tampons found on the street in ceramic using the same lost wax technique she does today. The narrative possibilities of such incongruous extremes, recalling the Surrealists, were also increasingly emboldened by a feminist discourse that challenged the rejection of the feminine and decorative as powerless and passive.
One could say Stoller finds instead in the devaluation of all things feminine an opportunity to pervert and destabilize related clichés. Perhaps that’s why sugar and food figure so prominently alongside decorative frills like lace, tassels, and doilies. Their allusive connections to the body, consumption, excess, and sex are further enhanced by the fact that elaborate table decor was originally made of sugar and food, a form of sculpture that preceded porcelain’s introduction to Europe. Everything from equestrian statues and military trophies to the still ubiquitous wedding cake were elaborately constructed to demonstrate the aristocratic host’s wealth, power, and social status, not to mention his exquisite taste. Arguably, much of the cosmetic artifice aligned with the Rococo emerges in part from this tradition, something Stoller pays homage to in her Untitled (still life), 2014, a tour de force of skill but vision. The dessert display includes many elements that evoke Stoller’s signature wit – a cake that sprouts tits, hands embellished with long fake nails; apples being devoured by snails – along with strings of pearls and butterflies that sharply contrast with the skulls and other momento mori signs of death and decay. Once again the sumptuous and the grotesque, the confectionary and the grave, merge in a tableau of over-the-top sensual excess.
Not surprisingly, the etymology of the word porcelain, with its odd mash-up of the grotesque and the diminutive, linking the Italian porcellana or cowrie shell to the Latin porcellus or young pig, has long intrigued the artist, as it is the perceived resemblance between the shell’s distinct opening and the vulva of pigs that connects the two. This sort of vulgar hybridity particularly animates her figurative sculpture, works like Untitled (frosted bust), 2012, Untitled (tar), 2014, and Untitled (epergne), 2014, which establish one of Stoller’s more disturbing motifs: the blindfold, variously invoked for its role in BDSM play, where it functions as a means of visual restraint as well as a tool for increased sexual pleasure. It might also be linked to the artist’s desire to complicate concepts of beauty inherent in Eurocentric ideals, and the way her work subtly infers the history of political subjugation out of which traditions like those related to the Rocaille developed, like the cultural aesthetics of eighteenth-century porcelain.
Stoller, Untitled (still life), 2014, porcelain, glaze, china paint, lustre, enamel, wire, wood, 63”x 60”x 26.5”
Untitled (together), 2012, for instance, presents two figures facing each other, each alternately covered head-to-toe in black and white. Their burka-like cloaks and stoic countenance invoke a ritual meeting of the minds, and a sense of something imposed, if simultaneously imposing about them. The excessive folds that enwrap them, ribbon-like, in swaths of fabric, like the draped hoods that blind them, appear to constrain and protect. Western feminists have frequently addressed the gender inequities of non-western, Islamic cultures with a degree of righteous condescension as if the right to mutilate one’s body in the name of beauty has no corollary in pressures to conform to patriarchal standards. Stoller alludes to this in one of her more recent works, Untitled (spread), 2014, which features an orchid adorned in lobster claws atop a pile of melting flesh, a blend of celebrated botanical and anatomical eccentricities that questions, she says, what it means to be a woman in the West where the freedom to have labia-plasty or breast enhancement is inversely connected to the practice of genital mutilation in other parts of the world, both simultaneously reflecting cultural notions of idealized sexuality. Her ongoing interest in juxtaposing bodily restraint with vulgar indulgence takes on new meaning in this context, and reminds us that what is depraved to one culture is desirable to another. Stoller’s dark vision of femininity brilliantly evokes this contingency through a medium inextricably linked to desire, secrecy, and commodification. In the end, her effort to playfully pervert traditional notions of taste and refinement exposes their artifice, leaving in their wake an uncanny version of the feminine as a most delicate monster. Beware.
Stoller, Untitled (together), 2012, porcelain, glaze, china paint, lustre, 10” x 8.5” x 6”