The renowned surrealist artist, Rene Magritte, painted in a suit; complete with cuff links, collar and tie. He did this because he reckoned that appearing to be at one with the establishment enabled the artist to subvert society from the inside, as the cuckoo in the nest. Magritte’s approach, like that of many of his contemporaries within the Dadaist and Surrealist movements, forms an inherent part of what the modern artist does as a matter of course. The balance of power has most definitely shifted since the 19th century when gaining state approval was essential to the success of all artists; consider the struggles of Courbet, Manet et al when faced with the Academy’s selection process, for example. Art which was not approved was simply not accepted for exhibition and therefore those artists whose work was considered too radical were ostracised and thus doomed to commercial failure. Consequently, mainstream art was determined by what was considered acceptable, typically that which complied with and reinforced societal norms.
Lily, 2013, mixed media, 16 x 17.5 x 14cm
Conversely, the contemporary artist’s role is to challenge; to question accepted wisdom and criticise established models. And the 20th century has thrown up many, many champions of the subversive; Warhol, Johns, Bacon, Hockney, Hirst and Emin being a few. Each of these artists has taken a familiar, comfortable, safe and cosy institution or ethnic icon and attacked, Magritte like, from within. Hence, the art of the comic book, product design, branding, the national flag, the home, the traditional portrait and even domestic furniture have all been used to assault the sensibilities of their audience. Indeed we expect no less from today’s practitioner; failure to confront, challenge or reform consigns the work of that artist to the cultural graveyard that is known as “entertainment” and condemns it as superficial.
This is the art of the anarchist and Jessica Harrison is of this ilk.
Harrison is obviously well aware of her role and her ability to challenge through her work and has chosen her base material wisely; the porcelain figure is iconic.
She uses the innocuous charm of this most middle class of all forms of object d’art, the porcelain figurine, to lull us into a false sense of calm before ambushing our expectations with unexpected, bloody and violent imagery. A former student of Edinburgh College of Art, Harrison uses her skills as a sculptor to consider the human body, in particular the relationship between the internal biological mechanics and the external appearance, with the skin forming not just the dividing line between the two but the canvas upon which she presents her unique view of the human condition.
Sophia, 2012, mixed media, 21cm x 17cm x 11cm
The porcelain figure is intended to evoke a certain level of expectation. We anticipate smooth lines, fabrics caught in full flow, flawless complexions; this is the art of the chocolate box rendered in three dimensions, the middle aged, middle class, middle England version of Barbie, a collectible doll for undiscerning adults, to be displayed and dusted, possessed, prized and collected; a stagnant, mute memorial to Bad Art.
Harrison repurposes these visual nonentities as contemporary gargoyles; imbuing what can only be described as bland figurines into menacing effigies who’s gore, guts and weeping internal organs assault us visually. Her audience expects pretty and perfect but gets gore and gouging.
Mairi, 2010, mixed media, 19cm x 13cm x 13cm
There are precedents within the history of art. Rembrandt, Goya and Otto Dix all used their work to explore the grislier aspects of human life; indeed the aforementioned Dadaist’s used their art principally to highlight the bloody carnage of the First World War and Harrison employs a similar strategy, albeit in a more subtle form.
With “Broken” and her companion series, “Painted Ladies” which depicts porcelain statuettes brandishing extensive body tattoos, Harrison appears to be exploring our preoccupation with body image.
Jessica Harrison, Painted Lady 3, 2013, Found ceramic, enamel paint, 21 x 13 x 13cm
In particular, she highlights the plight of women forced to conform to traditional perceptions of femininity and beauty. By superimposing and incorporating what we regard as traditionally masculine characteristics, namely tattoos and the physical manifestations of violence such as wounding and scarring, Harrison forces her audience to recognise their own conditioning in general while questioning the Victorian concept of the female form specifically, touching on attendant issues such as the manipulation of body shape through costume, gender roles, repression and conformity. This has a modern parallel. Today, we are surrounded by imagery which promotes a view of what we should consider beautiful, of what constitutes physical perfection. The Victorian preoccupation with elegance, grace and virtue has been replaced by our fixation on body shape and surgical enhancement. Harrison highlights these issues by comparing and contrasting our own society with that of the Victorian’s; outwardly unblemished, seamless and superficially attractive but internally flawed; built upon an inconsistent and frequently contradictory value system.
Amy Jane, 2010, mixed media, 19cm x 14cm x 14cm
Harrison’s work provides us with the perfect metaphor for two societies separated by a century but remarkably similar in terms of their capacity for hypocrisy; namely the Victorian era and our own; the veneer of civilisation covering up a fascination with the sordid, decedent and macabre. The Victorian’s created an environment that engendered Jack the Ripper, paraded John Merrick as “The Elephant Man” and turned a blind eye to widespread poverty and injustice. In the 21st century, we have reality television.
Rosamund, 2010, mixed media, 21cm x 12cm x 12cm
Jessica Harrison’s sculptures are the Victorian freak show brought directly to your mantelpiece, to take centre stage in your cosy, comfortable and safe home, to disconcert, disturb and distress.
Harrison’s work is intended to confront, question and challenge. With her series, “Broken” she does exactly that.
The IDI interview with Jessica Harrison; artist
Can you provide us with some information about your experience as a sculptor; where, when and how did you train for example?
I studied at Edinburgh College of Art and Edinburgh University, first completing an undergraduate Masters in Fine Art, which was a joint degree across ECA and the university combining the BA courses of both sculpture and History of Art. I then did a postgraduate masters in the sculpture department at ECA after which the opportunity arose to undertake a practice-based PhD at the University, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the ‘Stone’ project, led by Professor Jake Harvey and Joel Fisher. I was awarded my PhD in 2013.
Would you prefer to be referred to as an artist or sculptor – or by another title entirely?
I consider myself as an artist, not specifically a sculptor as I work in all sorts of different materials.
Who and what provided you with your earliest influences as a fledgling artist?
When I was little I wanted to be an animator, working with models and sculptures – I lived near to Liverpool and to the animation studios Cosgrove Hall where they made lots of the successful children’s animations from my youth, so my ambitions were to go and be involved in that. My mum is also an artist so there was always a studio in the house where I was allowed to go and mess around with materials and make whatever I wanted, which I realise now was a really special place to have.
Can you give us a rundown of the equipment you use on a regular basis?
The equipment I use most regularly ranges from a 10A scalpel to a 9 inch electric Hilti saw. I’m lucky to have a studio at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop where they have some fantastic workshops for those working from wood to metal to clay to stone, so I make use of most of these facilities. I am starting to work more and more in clay so I am considering my next investment to be a kiln….
Do you work in other media?
Yes – I love to work in stone – I have a couple of tonnes of Carrara marble waiting for me in the workshop at the moment.
What prompted you to begin work on the series, “Broken”?
The figurines present the image of a figure, a specifically female figure importantly, on mass, as an impossibly fair-skinned ‘perfectly’ proportioned ‘princess’, most of whom seemed to have been caught in a breeze wearing a particularly large-skirted dress. My original attraction to these objects was precisely because of this image they portray of the female body – my desire was to counter it and present its opposite within itself. This was quite simple to do, by breaking apart the hollow cast pieces and ‘revealing’ the interior, a standard formula in Western knowledge for making discoveries about the body. The female interior is a space still laced with taboo in a way that the male interior is not, and for me this gender bias of what is most often an invisible space in our everyday lives was a fascinating and important one to address.
This series has sparked a real interest in ceramics for me, as our tactile associations with the material, from modelling it directly with our hands right up to our impressions of fired porcelain and bone china as precious and fragile materials is a subject area I am itching to explore further.
How did you go about sourcing your materials?
All the pieces from the ‘Broken’ series are made using found ceramics, which have either been given to me or I have bought at charity shops or auctions.
How has the series been received overall?
Surprisingly well. I think these kinds of ceramic objects are familiar to a large proportion of the population, either as something desirable or as something horribly kitsch and unfashionable. Either way, the pieces subvert this familiarity in a simple, bodily way that seems to appeal to people of all ages.
Do you tend to work alone or do you have technical/administrative assistance available?
I work alone, partly because the nature of my work requires it and partly because I don’t earn the kind of money where I could hire any regular assistant. Sometimes it would be very useful to have an assistant, but I just make my husband help me on those occasions…
How do you work as an artist; do you work on a freelance basis or are you commissioned, for example?
Most of the time a gallery or a curator will get in touch with me and ask me to take part in an exhibition with specific work I have made, or with new work that they haven’t seen yet. Sometimes these are galleries which are not commercial and don’t sell the pieces, but sometimes the galleries can only exhibit the work if it is available for sale. I rarely undertake commissions any more as I am too busy in the studio making work for the next few exhibitions that I have lined up.
What are you currently working on?
I’m making work for an exhibition at Jupiter Artland this summer, a fantastic sculpture park and gallery that is just outside of Edinburgh. The exhibition will open at the end of July.
Is there a single issue or particular project that you’d really like to tackle?
I’m usually working on several different things all at once – if an issue interests me then I just get started looking into it, there’s no reason for me to put things off.
Artist’s Statement from Jessica Harrison:
The acquisition of knowledge in the West, particularly our knowledge about the body, has traditionally been about breaking through a shell to an inner core to reveal hidden, inner truths (Anzieu, 1989). The Broken sculptures question this formula, as in their rupture an unexpected and impossible interior is exposed. This particular interior is overtly female, a space still found to be laced with taboo in a way that the male interior is not. The gender bias of an interior, invisible space is one of the themes addressed in this body of work, as the Broken sculptures flaunt their specifically female interior unapologetically, for all to see.
Our tactile associations with porcelain, a material of which we have a clear and physical tactile impression without the necessity to touch, generate a tension in the Broken sculptures. Here, what should be hard is soft, what should be brittle is flexible, what should be fragile is fleshy, what should be precious is broken. These bodily expectations make ceramics an ideal medium with which to explore our tactile certainties of objects and the relationship between what is considered to be outside the body and what is believed to be inside.
Harrison’s practice ultimately seeks to move away from a binary distinction between inside and outside the body, between the visible and the hidden, working with various materials to explore the relationship between these apparently defined bodily spaces. Using the surface of the body as a model for both looking and thinking, she moves beyond a bi-directional inwards/outwards bodily framework to explore a mingling of skin and space, body and world.
As ready-made, mass-produced ceramics that have been found and re-worked by Harrison, the Broken sculptures exist alongside millions of their unbroken counterparts that reside on mantelpieces and in glass cabinets around the world. Counter to the idealistic and unrealistic way of living that the unbroken figurines illustrate, the Broken figurines describe a turning inside out of middle-class Englishness; a self-destructive ornamentation where object becomes organ, private becomes public, inside becomes outside.
You can access more examples of Jessica’s work on her website.
Jessica Harrison’s Broken exhibition will be shown at Jupiter Artland in Edinburgh from 31st July until 28th September.