The current state of the world feels more daunting every day. My work serves as as refuge for me to make material evoke meaning and to create what I want to see in the world. The resulting sculptures span table- top sized vessels, busts and figures to elaborate multi- piece still life tableaus. I work with porcelain, mining the material’s historically weighted past and its long held associations with desire, taste, and consumption. In my sculptural works I juxtapose extremes, wedding the grotesque to the idealized world of femininity, gathering images and histories along vast cultural lines. The resulting works I create crack open preconceived tropes and allow room for defiance and play. To create my work I use myriad techniques; the clay is sculpted, draped, carved, woven and piped.
Interview with Jessica Stoller
Questions by Andreana Donahue
Can you share some important memories of your introduction to art or art-making? Are there other makers in your family?
I don’t have a romantic story about my introduction to art, yet the power of making and the appreciation of objects was instilled in me at an early age. Instead of capital A art, I have distinct memories of selecting patterns & floral fabric which my paternal grandmother and I made into a skirt, pant & vest set, (she was an excellent seamstress). My mother and maternal Grandmother worked at DuMouchelle’s (an auction house in Detroit) and they had an appreciation for antique & handmade objects, in essence, beautiful things. I started my focus on ceramics in high school; I had working artists as teachers who showed me this potential path and that was my gateway to becoming interested in art.
How did growing up in Detroit contribute to your desire to become an artist?
I didn’t grow up in Detroit proper, rather the Detroit suburbs, big difference. The suburbs did inform me on wanting to become an artist as I could hardly wait to move away from the monotony and conformity. I wanted to be in an environment where creative work, personal expression, diversity and culture were celebrated and essential.
You’re currently based in Brooklyn. What are your favorite places to visit in New York for source material or motivation?
Ah New York, there are countless places to go for source material and inspiration is everywhere. Very hard to choose but obviously if I had just one place to go for inspiration that would have to be the MET, there is something incredibly powerful about human civilizations need to create and give material meaning spanning centuries and continents.
Can you tell us about your current studio and typical daily routine?
I have a work/live space in Brooklyn with my talented husband, designer/artist/director, man-extraordinaire, Saiman Chow. We both are dedicated to our work and therefore having our home intertwined with our work space is ideal, if separate we would never see each other. I have a kiln, a spray booth and lots of houseplants. A typical day varies, but for the most part Saiman and I work all day/night with a steady stream of podcasts and coffee to accompany us.
Does drawing have a presence in the planning of your sculptures? Do you usually work from observation, reference imagery, or a combination of both?
Yes I do always start with a drawing or sketch and often use reference images and work from observation (ie… my own body). I have my own image library which consists of several binders of “reference images” where I have printed, catalogued and organized by group, for ex. “Fashion,” “ Body,” “Art History,” etc. these are helpful to have on hand when working and I prefer to have physical images .
You have a strong maximalist sensibility that incorporates various textures, patterns, and manipulations of clay—the use of piping bags, basket-weaving methods, china painting, and dipping fabric in porcelain slip, a technique used in Dresden lace figurines to achieve a delicate and realistic appearance. Can you talk about these decisions and your overall process?
Yes, I think I have a case of horror vacaui. . .
I am attracted to rich surface textures and I often contrast elements that are both seductive and repulsive/idealized and abject. I like to employ a strange sense of trompe l’oeil in my sculptural work, creating tension in what appears to be real and what is imagined.
The pieces are all hand-built using various methods (coiling, slab building, throwing ) and then I often do elaborate surface treatments, ( piping, carving, burn out firings, etc). Once the piece has dried very slowly it is then bisqued in the kiln. Following that I usually use a clear glaze on my work and then china paint the pieces multiple times (up to 10 +) to develop the colors. The china paints allow for a great deal of specificity, subtlety and detail which is not achievable with standard glazes.
What is your relationship with the element of risk and loss inherent in ceramic firing, especially considering the labor intensive, detail-oriented nature of your work?
I often think I have a masochist impulse for making what I make in clay. Despite all my strategies to build evenly, dry the piece slowly, etc, you hand it over to the kiln and relinquish control. All in all it’s just part of the process and always keeps you on your toes. Each new form I make presents new challenges and sometimes I get it right on the first time and sometimes I don’t. If I am really committed I will remake it again and again and again until I get it to work.
The decorative is often dismissed as frivolous, lacking content or value. In what ways do you address or subvert this perspective?
Right, I am interested in reframing the decorative as not merely periphery but central, not inert, but active. My sculptures are composed of detail that becomes the content of the work and the ornamentation is excessive and pushes boundaries on taste, acceptability and control.
You have an ongoing interest in pairing seductive imagery with the grotesque. How do you feel humor informs your work?
Yes I think humor can play an important role and I like for the works when presented together to have different tones of emotional impact, I want people to feel something when looking. Humor can engage and disarm in a unique way, it’s a great way to get a message across without being didactic.
Figures in your work are often obscured or constricted by shrouds, hoods, ribbons, or lacy ruffs. Can you talk about your affinity for these dramatic and ornamental garments?
I think the body becomes a charged space between culture, nature, religion, etc. The garments I use play different roles in different works, sometimes they protect, disguise, or restrict a figure. I employ these elements as they have multiple meanings and tie into humans intrinsic need to transmute the body.
Your sculptures reference extensive research on the history of porcelain, sugar, and numerous other subjects. Is there historical or narrative significance behind the specific flowers, insects, and birds you choose to depict?
Porcelain flowers originated in Japan and China in the 17th century, (largely used as ornament of vases or function ware). I like referencing this history of ornamentation and beauty and in some works the flowers and straight forward and sometimes they deviate to get at another end . The recurring insect motif is referencing vanitas paintings from the 16th/17th century. The fly has a duality in meaning, in my research I found that beauty marks that were often used in 18th century France were called “mouche,” which means fly in French. I like this duality between the macabre and seductive. Similarly with swans are tied to both seduction and violence in Greek myth.
Right now you’re making work for a solo exhibition at PPOW in January, which will be your largest to date. You mentioned there will be “butts, lots of flowers, zits, cellulite, suntans, and more”, as well as a revisiting of women from art history and historical female monsters. Can you elaborate on this current focus and how it might have shifted since Spoil?
I am still using porcelain as my primary media and continue to connect its coveted and desired status to that of the female body. With that said porcelain continues to be an ideal material to explore the female body in both a personal and symbolic framework. I have moved away from depictions of food and the newer work is more tied to the body, ornamentation, unfixed borders, and the natural world. Many of the newer works cite a dialogue with depictions of “females,”, ie. harpies, Judith’s & Medusa’s. Additionally I have migrated to the wall and made tile works composed of skin which is a new area of exploration I am excited about.
Do you feel there are aspects of your identity that are easily recognizable in your work?
Yes I think there are aspects of my identity which are recognizable in my work, maybe I don’t want to disclose all those bits, then you’ll know too much about me ;)
Can you share your perspective on craftsmanship, especially with regard to the decreasing presence of handmade objects and traditions in our current culture?
For me the issue isn’t about craftsmanship as I do think it is alive, but more about our own consumption of highly disposable objects. This train of thought makes me think of Glen Adamson’s new book Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects which I want to read.
Are you influenced by the legacy of feminist artists such as Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, or Hannah Wilke?Who are some other artists whose work you keep returning to?
Most certainly, feminist art has been central to my formation, thinking and evolution as an artist. I specifically appreciate Schapiro and Chicago as they sought to reconnect and validate modes of making that had been gendered “female”, ie Schapiro “femmages” and Chicago’s interest/ research in china painting. There are so many artists I revisit consistently but I would say Cindy Sherman’s, Kiki Smith’s & Alina Szapocznikow ‘s body of work continually draw me back.
You organize a crit group of female artists, as well as a book club. Can you talk about your motivation to initiate these gatherings and how it has been beneficial to your practice?
The crit group was actually started by my friend after grad school as a way for us to maintain a network and momentum once outside of school. The group has changed members but more or less has been meeting for the last 10 + years to discuss work. We now have a pretty dedicated group of artists and I have found this network invaluable.They are all brilliant and I feel very lucky to be part of a community that supports each other and comes together regularly to discuss each other’s work with continued rigor and insight.
What non-visual works of art—from literature, music, or film—are important to you? What are you currently reading?
Books. Currently I have Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine by Naomi Schor by my side and I have been reading from Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales before bed. For our book club we just read Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending, time-traveling tale, Orlando. I would have to say my favorite book and the author I am most excited about is Carmen Maria Machado and her beyond brilliant book of short stories Her Body and Other Parties, which somehow manages to be gothic, surreal, feminist, hilarious and heartbreaking all at once. . . read it!
What are some of the most inspiring exhibitions you’ve visited over the past year or so?
I just saw Dana Schutz’s show at Petzel and was blown away. It’s hard to look at other paintings after seeing her work. In fall/late 2018 there were a lot of amazing female artists solo shows that were powerful, Lisa Yuskavage, Simone Leigh, Petah Coyne, Kathy Butterly. . . also Ken Price at M. Marks was excellent as well. Earlier in 2018 I was moved by the contemporary Haitian Art show PÒTOPRENS at Pioneer Works and of course the Heavenly Bodies show at the Met was exceptional. My mom is coming to visit this weekend and we are both excited to see the Leonor Fini show, Theatre of Desire at the Museum of Sex.
Can you tell us about a few meaningful objects you live with? Do you maintain any collections?
I have one mug made by (Ingrid Bathe) that I drink out of religiously and is stained by too many cups of coffee to count. I also have an Eun Ha Paek,( a talented artist working in clay) sculpture of a coiffed poodle that sits next to our bed which I adore, along with many of my husband Saiman’s rich paintings which stem from his Chinese heritage. I would like to have more collections however my pocketbook does not allow for anything too excessive. I do have a collection of bugs, (mostly found outside/ always have an eye peeled*) and a decent collection of vintage brooches.
Over the years you’ve attended many artist residencies, including the Shigaraki Ceramic Culture Park in Japan, The Museum of Arts and Design, and Kohler Arts/Industry Program. How do you usually approach your time at residencies?
I think my approach to residencies has changed over time. At this point I am pretty selective about the residencies I do as my own studio setup is ideal. When I am applying to residencies I am looking for something that I can’t get in my usual context, whether that be materials, a unique environment ( different state/country), or tech support; I also look for residencies that make it worth the artists’ while to be there… ie. fellowships, stipends, etc. Often times residencies can be so expensive and you still have to keep paying your rent at home, take time off work, etc… making it stressful before you have even left.
What’s next for you? Do you have any other upcoming exhibitions, events, or news you’d like to share?
Working on new work for a show overseas and plugging away from my solo show…. Stay tuned!