In Kathy Acker’s novel Blood And Guts In High School, the protagonist Janey (Get it–Janey/Genet?) announces, “For 2000 years, you’ve had the nerve to tell women who we are. We use your words; we eat your food. Every way we get money has to be a crime. We are plagiarists, liars and criminals.”
Like Janey’s description of women as disrupting criminals, ceramic artist Jessica Stoller’s current exhibition Spoil at P.P.O.W. Gallery destroys the ideals of feminine beauty and subjugation by representing abject female sexuality and other disturbing and depraved imagery through the typically delicate and dainty (just like a proper woman) medium of porcelain.
Filled with cakes, swans, macaroons, flowers, figs and ice cream, as well as copious amounts of breasts, vaginas and submissive positions, Stoller’s porcelain provocations tread the line between the gorgeous and the grotesque. Defiling the medium of porcelain, which evokes a long history from Royal Doulton figurines to Rococo decadence to your grandmother’s drug-store purchased collectibles, Stoller’s sculptures at first and very quick glance may appear to follow in the legacy of these pretty, if trite, porcelains due in no small part to Stoller’s incredible mastery of her materials. However given a closer look, Stoller’s complex visual landscape comes into focus, featuring distorted and even surprisingly disgusting representations of women’s body parts such as piles of breasts under dripping ice cream cones in “Untitled (stack).”
Defiant in her destruction and destabilization of normalized notions of femininity, Stoller’s art is uncompromising, unwavering and unafraid, revealing perhaps some of the most wonderfully transgressive art I have seen in a long time.
Like my favorite performers Narcissister or even Kembra Pfahler, Stoller constructs a hyper-exaggerated version of femininity and female sexuality that enters into the realm of abjection, taking femininity to its utmost terrifying and threatening limits.
For example, Stoller’s “Untitled (lick)” depicts her employment of abjection in order to subvert views of feminine beauty and sexuality. In “Untitled (lick),” a woman wears a flowing pastel-colored gown as a naked, crouching woman licks the back of the standing woman’s dress. At once appearing like ice cream or some cutesy-colored shit, the scene appears hypersexual as well as downright nauseating.
In speaking about abjection and femininity, it is almost impossible not to bring in one of my favorite French feminist theorists, Julia Kristeva, and her study on abjection into conversation with Stoller’s art. In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Kristeva dives into the depths of abjection from spoiled food to vomit to naturally, the mother (this is still French feminism).
In her introduction to Powers of Horror, Kristeva states, “There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless , does not let itself be seduced” (1).
While Kristeva believes that desire is not seduced by abjection, I would certainly argue that Stoller’s sculptures do seduce viewers even with their use of abjection. Despite this difference in desired reactions, Stoller’s porcelains do unquestionably correspond to Kristeva’s assertions of the abject as outside “the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable.”
This connection can be seen in Spoil’s grand centerpiece installation “Still Life.” Appearing like an 18th century French banquet or perhaps more truthfully, like Marie Antoinette’s lavish, fevered and surreal sex dream if she had a thing for breasts (let them eat…), “Still Life” overflows with skulls, two-headed swans, nipple macaroons, disembodied hands with long, tacky acrylic nails and hidden breasts throughout the feast. Looking at “Still Life” through the lens of Kristeva’s definition of the abject, the sculptural installation exists completely outside the realm of possibility and yet, it troubles the viewer, destabilizing their relation to this typically feminine scene.
As Kristeva explains in Powers of Horror, “Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself” (1).
At once lured in and repulsed by Stoller’s porcelains, the viewer cannot help but stand stunned, haunted by the sculptures’ threatening of femininity. Stoller’s constructed femininity exists completely outside control and patriarchal power, overpowering the social norms women must contend with.
Speaking again of abjection, Kristeva notes, “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (4).
Describing Stoller’s art almost perfectly, Stoller’s sculptures disrupt the normative portrayal of femininity through its very own language, subverting it from the inside. Using both the visual language and historical weight of porcelain and lace in all its beauty to represent a grotesque and utterly feminine sexuality, Stoller throws femininity and the construction of womanhood into question.
In “Untitled (willendorf),” Stoller creates a stunning figure, complete with ribbons of fabric weaving together at the bottom of her dress. However, Stoller’s sculpture also has a torso entirely covered in breasts. Referencing the Venus of Willendorf as the height of female beauty and sexuality, Stoller’s own Willendorf is a terrifying, hyper-feminine nightmare, a composite of female body parts. Refusing to respect the rules of porcelain by creating delicate, desired figurines, Stoller transforms the mysterious feminine glamour of porcelain into an uncanny amalgamation of sexual organs.
Kristeva continues, “The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior…Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility. He who denies morality is not abject; there can be grandeur in amorality and even in crime that flaunts its disrespect for the law—rebellious, liberating, and suicidal crime. Abjection, on the other hand, is immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you” (4).
As art and criminality have often been understood to go hand-in-hand, Stoller’s sculptures undoubtedly fit into this legacy of disruption of social orders. In perhaps my favorite sculpture in Spoil, Stoller’s “Untitled (venus)” portrays the most disturbing version of Lena and the Swan I have ever seen. A fat woman lies on her back with her legs tied together with ribbon and a Leigh Bowery-esque mask over her face as swans surrounds her bed. Overtly sexual, submissive and scary, “Untitled (venus)” is at once seductive and horrifying, a premeditated crime against the viewers’ assumptions about porcelain and women.
Disassembling women’s place in society through a widely varied set of sources, references and materials, Stoller breaks the moral social and historical codes of art, porcelain, female sexuality and femininity–as the best women artists and creators should do.
Like Kristeva, like Acker, like me and many other women who want to transcend the strictures placed on women, Stoller is a plagiarist, a liar and a criminal. And we’re all so glad she is.