by Lilianne Milgrom
Issue #3 | June 2015
Beth Katleman, Molly Hatch and Shari Mendelson each create highly distinctive bodies of work that have catapulted them into prominence in a very competitive playing field. These three artists, though fueled by singularly unique ideas, philosophies and process, share common ground not only in their varying relationships to clay, but also in their inspired connection to the past and their commitment to a labor-intensive artistic practice.
The artists are represented by Todd Merrill Studio Contemporary in New York City. All three came to Todd Merrill’s attention when he set out on a quest to discover artists that were defining design in the 21st century. He found them in the boundary-bending ‘grey area’ of fine art/design/craft/décor. “Katleman, Hatch, and Mendelson are of-the-moment,” says Merrill. “The work they each produce manages to be totally contemporary without sacrificing evidence of the maker’s hand.” Indeed, not only are these artists united in their hands-on approach to their work, but they have each redefined the artistry of bygone ages. They are stirred by the beauty, opulence and refinement present in art historical textiles, design, objets d’art and architecture and they have built upon these influences to create fresh, contemporary work.
At the start of her artistic journey, Beth Katleman was pulled in two different directions—design and fine art. Her current work is a perfect synthesis of the two. Upon closer inspection of her detailed installations, one finds clues to Katleman’s nuanced views regarding art and culture. Despite her unapologetic love for royal porcelain, she is nonetheless conflicted by the despotic nature of the very regimes that supported the creation of these ornaments. Likewise, she is fascinated by the darker side of American society while at the same time admiring its “almost Pollyannaish” optimism, progress and innovation. These dualities lend a tension to her disarming panoramas.
A WORD WITH BETH KATLEMAN
Your references and influences are drawn from a more genteel time. Although your work is very contemporary in its approach, it possesses the formal quality of a past aesthetic. What role does beauty play in your work compared to the narrative theater?
BK Beauty is very important to me. In the art world, beauty has been a code-word for femininity for a long time, and hence something to be avoided if you wish to be taken seriously. I think it has a lot to do with elitism, mistrust of the senses and privileging the intellectual over the physical.
You manage to pack a big punch using large numbers of very small, detailed and highly refined elements. Are these individual units always relegated to a role within the Big Picture or do they have a life and meaning of their own?
BK I choose trinkets that work as stand-ins for the classical or pastoral motifs you would find in a rococo paneled room or in toile wallpaper. For example, I found a reclining plastic bikini girl at a cake decorating shop. She was meant for a bachelor party cake, but I casted her in porcelain, and she became a Venus figure. Curly from the “Three Stooges” functions as a comedy tragedy mask, a souvenir pencil sharpener of Le Sacré Coeur becomes a garden folly, and so on. I am particularly drawn to dolls and souvenirs from the 1950’s, which convey a sense of American optimism.
The relatively recent sea change in the art world’s embrace of contemporary ceramic art as ‘legitimate’ fine art seems to correlate with the move away from functional and traditional pottery towards conceptual message-based work? Your thoughts?
BK I am continually mystified by what is anointed by the art world! That said, we’ve had a steady diet of minimal, conceptual art for 50 years or so, and it has become something of an orthodoxy. Maybe the embrace of ceramics reflects an urge to put the “visual” back in visual arts – one can only hope…
Your work is very time and labor intensive, contrary to the mass produced pieces you collect to be used as foundational components of your installations. Are you reclaiming the artist’s place in society? How do you envision the role of the artist ceramicist in the future?
BK I spend hours upon hours lovingly recreating a dime store trinket in porcelain, a material that suggests luxury and refinement. Then I take this precious throw-away and incorporate it into an opulent extravaganza that takes its visual cues from the time of Marie Antoinette. I think it has to do with my ambivalent relationship with consumption, status, and desire. At the same time, it represents a longing for beauty and a sense of wonder. When I walk into a Buen Retiro porcelain room, such as the one in Aranjuez, I can’t help but gasp. A current of hostility and barely contained mayhem exists beneath the surface of your work.
Is this in reference to the chaos that exists in the natural world, or the havoc that Man wreaks upon the Earth?
BK The narratives are deliberately ambiguous, but they have to do with domesticity and how beneath our polite veneers we all have a touch of perversity (some more than others!). Through advertising and social media, we present a very sanitized version of ourselves. Also, let’s face it—I work late at night casting smiling, miniature woodland creatures in porcelain. A dark sense of humor goes with the territory…
Would you address the pragmatic challenges of working with porcelain in large-scale, complex installations?
BK I get around that by working in a modular way. I am looking for a sense of lightness and space in my work. The wall and the wire elements enable me to achieve that lightness.