Jessica Stoller: Flesh, Feminism and the Sublime

Fleshy, fecund figures, delicate decay, and saccharine spoilage abound in Jessica Stoller‘s intricate, evocative porcelain works. Infusing sugar with vice, frosted breast cakes and BDSM scenes adorned with swans, Rococo gilding and ruffled gowns populate tableau where spiders and snails creep beneath to feast on the sweet excess. Each exquisite piece is tempered with satire, unleashing all the glorious distortions of the female body while reflecting the fears and desires that have been projected onto the female form for millennia.

Stoller’s recent solo show, “Spoil” at P.P.O.W. Gallery was received with a crescendo of praise from Artforum, BUST Magazine, The Huffington Post and basically anyone who had the pleasure of drinking in its decadent neoclassical glory. When Slutist laid eyes on the exhibition we just knew a feminist had to be behind the work, and it turns out we were right. Jessica generously let us slip into her sprawling Bushwick studio to discuss feminism, the female form, her process and her artistic proclivities.

Still Life 2013, porcelain, china paint, luster, mixed media, dimensions variable

What are your views on feminism?

I think feminism is an EXTREMELY important global and national issue and although we have accomplished so much in the US we are still passing laws like the Lilly Ledbetter Act in 2009 demanding equal pay to our male counterparts. Additionally, violence against women and restrictions on abortion/reproductive rights are very real problems facing American women let alone women of the world.

I also think the rest of the world is galvanizing around the understanding that male-dominated governments and religions that bar women and keep them subjugated and marginalized are cancerous institutions. Equality is imperative for a healthy and functional society.

Why the female form? 

You are not the first to ask and most likely will not be the last! It is what I am interested in, what I know, and what I contend/connect with. I also see so much potential and room for exploration and examination.

Untitled 2010, porcelain and china paint, 7 1/2 x 8 x 5 inches

You deal with bodily extremes: the thin Western ideal and the extremely voluptuous.

Yes the bodily extremes are really interesting to me, how we define certain ideals and how our perceptions morph over time. The body as a kind of ever-shifting project that we inundate with our cultural fears, desires and meanings. The newer work has more voluptuous and heavy set forms/figures and these shapes are very fulfilling to make in clay.

A lot of the figures have their eyes covered and their mouths open, how is that significant?

I like the metaphor of the masked/anonymous figure, it becomes easier to approach and empathize with as subject matter. The open mouth(s) can allude to many things, consumption, denied/ implied speech or lack there of, slightly parted lips that have a slightly sexual connotation is ubiquitous in most advertising.

Selfless/Selflesh 2012, porcelain, china paint, luster and mixed media, 27 x 17 x 27 inches

Much of your work seems like a commentary on white, upper middle class wealth and excess, particularly with the Rococo period imagery. All those insects crawling about feels like the decay of the 1%.

Yes definitely, that’s an interesting observation about the 1%. Sometimes I think it’s problematic to align myself too much with a European period (Rococo) but I like to juxtapose elements from that visual language with other seemingly unrelated imagery.

The bugs, decay, overindulgence is a way to pervert and break open that imagery but also to roll around with and play with the aspects I do find enticing. The bugs and insects also harken back to Flemish still life paintings that carried a heavy dose of symbolism and allegory. With that said, I don’t want to regurgitate one kind of style (period of art history) or have my work residing in one set place. I like the complexity of many images, high / low / organic / artificial / controlled / excessive. Not to mention including a plethora of ornamentation from more traditional porcelain flowers, to bows, spikes and chains all of which don’t necessarily fit in a traditional language of sculpture…

And those nails!

Yes! I think of the nails as some elaborate flourishing curve sprouting right from our fingertips, slightly gross of course – marrying a Rococo aesthetic with a Brooklyn nail salon.

I do find endless pleasure from visiting The Met and checking out the European Decorative Arts galleries, they are AMAZING! I especially love the Wrightman Galleries with the Sèvres porcelain, the craftsmanship is incomprehensible.

Untitled (lick) 2013, porcelain, china paint, luster, 8 1/2 x 9 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches

How has your work developed over the years?

I think over the years I have been able to better marry and intertwine my technical skills to support the content of the work. Both are important to me and I think in the newest work they function very well together without one aspect overshadowing the other. In the past, I think the content of the work was perhaps overpowering, but focusing on working strictly in porcelain has given me a good set of parameters to stay within.

Additionally, I got really interested in learning about the history of European porcelain and how the royal courts raced to create something to rival objects from Asia. There is a really great book called the Arcanum by Janet Gleeson which retells the dramatic true story of the European creation of porcelain and the alchemist, sculptor, colorist and king that all played integral parts. I really like the alchemistic-like process of materials transforming in the kiln, when you open the kiln it’s always a surprise. I also try to push myself to be inventive and create new forms and surfaces, like, “this time no breasts!” Stop relying on breasts [laughs].

Untitled (venus) 2013, porcelain, china paint, luster, 11 1/2 x 8 x 12 inches

Are you self-taught?

I have lots of art school under my belt, I studied at The College for Creative Studies in Detroit for my BFA and Cranbrook Academy of Art for my MFA – both in ceramics. Although my earlier work was more mixed media and less ceramic specific (no china painting or high fire). For my current work I piece together the ceramic fundamentals I have and read up/experiment to develop new techniques and surfaces. I still have technical issues to contend with and there is always so much more to learn and improve upon.

Can you walk us through your process?

The process shifts depending on the piece but for the smaller, singular works I sketch my idea(s) or photoshop images together – it depends on the piece. Sometimes I’ll take photos of myself in the pose I am aiming for and work from that as my reference. With the bigger multi-piece works I just start with certain objects (like the ornate hands) and then build around and in relation to those pieces, creating relationships between the objects until I am content with the mass/composition.

To make the actual pieces I use a porcelain clay body to start, carefully handbuilding the forms with slabs, coils, and additive techniques. Once I have the general form secured I will start creating the more detailed components: chains, flowers, bugs, frosting, fabric. Once the piece is completed I let it dry out very slowly and then bisque fire it in the kiln. The next step is glazing a piece, I for the most part spray a clear or white glaze to serve as a blank surface for china painting. After I glaze the work I begin the laborious process of china painting and building up the color on the work. China paint is an overglaze that behaves similarly to watercolor and is fired to a low temperature. To achieve depth/permanence of color each layer that is painted must be fired in the kiln. Often my works are painted 5 or more times with china paint. The last step if necessary would be a ceramic luster. Lusters are also overglazes and are fired to an even lower temperature, they come in a variety of metallic and pearlescent surfaces which adds another interesting surface to a piece.

Untitled (stack) 2013, porcelain and china paint, 12 x 7 1/2 x 9 inches

Was food always included in your work? How did that aspect develop?

Food is not necessarily an explicit part of my work but I have always been interested in ideas of consumption and the way we impart specific symbolism onto certain foods. The work I was making in graduate school had lots of sugar as I was interested in the constructed world of girlhood culture. I got into making cupcakes, candy, cakes etc out of clay and plaster. I also would play around with objects that were not food per say but alter them to be food-like, sex toys resembling suckers – I’m still doing something similar in my new work.

There’s a lot of humor in your pieces, something that’s not always present in feminist art.

Yes, true I never thought of it in that way! I think some of the pieces have intense imagery and in contrast its nice to make a work that is more playful and irreverent. I guess it is still surprising though when people think the work is funny, I think oftentimes artists don’t see the implicit humor in their work but humor is a great tool for pulling people in and disarming them.

Untitled (willendorf) 2011, porcelain and china paint, 9 x 9 x 8 inches

Who are some of your artistic influences?

Oh boy, there are so many great artists that have influenced me over the years! I have to say Ghada Amer’s work really knocked me out when I first saw it at the Pompidou. She did a residency at the Lower East Side Print shop and I was lucky enough to save my pennies and buy a silkscreened print of her’s with hand painting. I love how she incorporates the vernaculars of craft, painting, and feminism in her work – she’s a genius! In terms of video work/ photography I really was moved by Laurel Nakadate’s exhibition at PS1 “Only the Lonely,” back in 2011 – her work is so provocative, toeing a precarious line of objectifier/object, etc. I am also so thrilled to be working with P.P.O.W. as many of their artists are huge inspirations/ICONS!

Are there any feminist thinkers or figures that you read or are influential to you?

I always feel like I’m reading to catch up on the basics because I didn’t have a proper feminist theory class in school, thank goodness for the Brooklyn Public Library. I read a lot of blogs and listen to podcasts that cover culture and feminist issues. I love the Double X Gabfest podcast on Slate – they are great. I love Nicholas Kristof, (NYT Journalist and blogger) he gives much attention to issues of women’s rights around the world and has done a lot of important writing and work on the ground to boot.

Installation View

How have you felt about reception to your work and the “Spoil” show at P.P.O.W.?

I was/am SO pleased. It’s years of work and you have a lot vested in this month-long venture, not to mention it was my first solo show at the gallery. Therefore for this body of work to get so much press it is really gratifying to say the least. Also the gallery was telling me how they had a lot of visitors that were notably very into looking at the work, which was nice to hear since you can not be there. I think the conversations that came up around the work were really good, focusing on the grotesque and subverting ideals of the feminine body to name a few. Also it was HIGHLY enjoyable to see the different sites that wrote about the work, it seemed to span many audiences and communities which was great.

So no one read anything into your work that you felt was inaccurate?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion but, no, I can not think of something that struck me as grossly inaccurate. Sometimes I can tell people are a little uncomfortable by the work but I think that’s good, not everyone can like it and you don’t want it to be total palatable/unchallenging. It’s a catch 22 – of course you secretly want people to like it, but it’s good when it doesn’t make everyone smile and people have a strong reaction.

bust frosting_1
Untitled (frosted bust) 2012, porcelain, china paint and luster, 8 x 10 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches

What are you up to next?

I am just letting ideas percolate. I have started a new piece that is vessel like – similar to the piece with the multiple breasts from the exhibition, “Untitled (frill)”. I also have another idea in mind that builds upon the form of a epergne (ornate tiered centerpiece/serving tray) although I am thinking of a figure breastfeeding as the subject to be incorporated with the dishes – still working out that idea! I just made a series of test tiles with different skin textures to try and incorporate into new pieces: wrinkled skin, skin with acne/scars, and cellulite. Will see where it all goes!

Main Image: Untitled (dance macabre) 2013, porcelain, china paint, luster, 8 x 7 1/2 x 7 inches

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