Ranging from highly prized Wedgwood vases and porcelain figurines to Hummel collectibles and kitschy souvenirs, the history of the decorative ceramic object is varied and complex, and includes both fine arts and hobby craft. In her latest body of work, Elissa Armstrong, an artist based in Lawrence, Kansas, comments on this complicated history by creating forms that occupy an aesthetic limbo, where traditional practices and conventional ideals in ceramics are both celebrated and subverted, and recognizable figures are transformed into hybrid, mysterious beings.
The public is invited to contemplate Armstrong’s creative manipulations of the decorative object at the artist’s first solo museum exhibition, Elissa Armstrong: Objects of Innocence and Experience, on view July 7–October 1, 2006 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition opens with a free, public reception 5:30–7:30 p.m., Friday, July 7, with an artist discussion 6:30–7:00 p.m. Museum admission and parking are free, and seating is first come, first served.
Armstrong is a visiting artist at the Kemper Museum.
Like the prose in Songs of Innocence and Experience, a collection of poetry by William Blake, the exhibition Objects of Innocence and Experience includes nearly ten works that exist in a state of duality reflecting childhood simplicity as well as adult experience. Using commercial hobby molds and found objects—sources that clash with the hand-cast individuality and authenticity of traditional ceramic works— Armstrong creates seemingly innocent animal figures reminiscent of Beatrix Potter. She then purposefully overwhelms and caricatures these figures with layers of thick, garish, colorful glazes, hand-molded appendages and an array of materials not associated with conventional ceramics, such as felt, glitter, and decals—decorations that give the figures a Baroque-like excessiveness and a grotesque glamour. The result is a collection of creatures who have morphed from their cute, kitschy idealizations into surreal beings that have escaped the prescribed conventio ns of the ceramic object to live in a modern world of perpetual transition. Looking at them evokes questions about their evolution: Are they becoming or unbecoming?
Armstrong’s more abstract sculptural forms also address this endless state of transition. Lacking recognizable forms and features, these non-traditional objects speak to the humble beginnings of one of her more defined, mythical creatures, or perhaps their final, mature end after being stripped of frivolous and unnecessary accessories over time.
“Occupying a place where reality and fantasy coexist, Armstrong’s works display a postmodern awareness of the past and a contemporary irreverence toward what are deemed to be the appropriate materials, techniques, and subjects for ceramic art,” Elizabeth Dunbar, curator at the Kemper Museum, writes in an accompanying essay. “The free-form abstraction of plaster, the gaudiness of glitter, and the sentimentality of childhood figurines all combine to push the boundaries of ceramics to their limits, and ultimately, transcend them.”
Objects of Innocence and Experience