Fake Fur: An Essay

As published in Playtime for the Peabody Essex Museum, January 2, 2018

Curator and writer Sarah Archer looks at the history, fads, and fetishization of stuffed toys and at where contemporary art has embraced them.

FakeFur_1.jpg

Stuffed animals beckon to us constantly: from retail kiosks, amusement park prize shelves, and toy stores, eventually finding their “forever homes” in countless childhood bedrooms around the world. They elicit deep sentimental attachment, and even love. Unlike pets, there is theoretically no limit to their lifespans. With us from the first moments of our lives through the scrapes and dramas of youth, they are witness to every secret embarrassment, comfort us through every lonely worry. One of the most famous narratives involving a stuffed toy, the story of The Velveteen Rabbit, is so poignant that it can move adults to tears. Cloaked in fake fur, stuffed animals carry real emotional heft, and occupy a singular place in the history of play. But we don’t usually live with them forever. Because stuffed toys are associated primarily with childhood, their presence in other walks of life—like contemporary art—jolts us with conflicting impressions of something very innocent paired with something much more grown-up. This may be because, like fairy tales, stuffed animals’ own history is surprisingly dark.

Unlike pets, there is theoretically no limit to the lifespans of stuffed animals.

Stuffed animals as we know them today emerged during the industrial revolution at a moment when our relationship with animals was shifting from one of rural necessity to urban and suburban pastime. Their lineage—particularly that of the Teddy Bear, named for President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, who hated his nickname—is rooted in the rugged cultural pastimes of the nineteenth century. The popularization of hunting, taxidermy, and the “fancies” (or hobby breeding and showing of cats, dogs, birds, and other animals), all came into prominence during this time period.

Hunting, particularly of big game, has long been a noble pursuit—perhaps as old as civilization itself. A Neo-Hittite basalt orthostat relief dating from the ninth century BC depicts a royal lion hunt, in which a ruler rides a horse-drawn chariot and subdues a lion while a bird of prey flies overhead. In the Islamic world, from Iran to India and throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, even as subsistence hunting remained an important source of food for ordinary people, the hunt was also a social sport for gentlemen and royalty. Hunters were furnished with fine specialized equipment, and hunting itself was understood as a way for gentlemen to keep their wits sharp during peacetime in preparation for war. Upper class landowners had exclusive rights to hunt on their estates. The term “fair game” referred to animals in territories that were were free to hunt by those of lower station. The word “game” itself, which initially referred to cards and board games in English, began to connote hunters’ prey in the early middle ages when the sport’s status as an elite pastime was solidified. This development was also the origin of dog breeding. Purebred hounds whose abilities in different kinds of hunts were valued, bred, prized, and painted both on their own and in family portraits in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Anthony van Dyck’s 1637 portrait The Five Eldest Children of Charles I, the future King Charles II gently pets an enormous, docile mastiff, while an eager spaniel gazes up at the siblings.

The word “game” itself, which initially referred to cards and board games, began to connote hunters’ prey when the sport’s status as an elite pastime was solidified.

Hunting was eventually democratized by colonialism. By the nineteenth century, European hunters of any class background could stalk game in overseas territories from Africa to Australia and South Asia, and bring back trophy animal heads or whole specimens to impress their peers back home. Theodore Roosevelt was an avid naturalist and conservationist whose passion for preserving the country’s wilderness was inspired in large part by his love of the hunt. Like a latter-day Mesopotamian ruler, Roosevelt reveled in the spectacle of the hunt, which was, as ever, strongly associated with the drama and pageantry of war. A sickly child who hailed from the highest social stratum in America, Roosevelt made hunting a metaphor for his bold political persona.

As recreational hunting became popular among an array of social classes in the nineteenth century, so too did the breeding and keeping of pets. And in a somewhat macabre sense, a third hobby dovetailed perfectly with the other two: taxidermy. By the seventeenth century in Britain, the keeping of non-working animals was a status symbol, like the gentleman’s hunt, and indeed the association between dogs and hunting gave purebred canines an extra layer of prestige at pets, regardless of their owner’s hunting habits. The 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the attendant fascination with categorization and taxonomy found its recreational match in the animal “fancies” that swept Great Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century. New wealth from industry and the colonies was upending the norms of Britain’s hereditary aristocracy, and an obsession with breeding, both scientifically and socially, was one result of the tumultuous change. Purebred pets had long lineages, proof of ancestry, were well-groomed and well-formed, and they fared well in competition.

In death as much as in life, rare animals were objects of fascination and admiration. London taxidermist Edwin Ward created the famed “Lion and Tiger Struggle” display, which—though it depicted a scene from the imagination, and not nature—enthralled visitors who saw it in Paris and at London’s Crystal Palace. Taxidermy’s “golden age” in Europe was the last quarter of the nineteenth century, accompanied by the vogue for indoor curiosities such as aquariums and terrariums. The beautifully preserved head of an exotic animal or rare stuffed bird was a sign of refinement, and like the worldly contents of a wunderkammer, displayed evidence of global travel, or at least access to rare goods.

Domestic animals have been moving steadily from the fringes of the wilderness closer into our living rooms.

Since pets conquered Europe and America, according to David Grimm, the author of Citizen Canine, domestic animals have been moving steadily from the fringes of the wilderness closer into our living rooms, and at last, into our beds. Where it was once common for dogs and cats to be kept outside, at least part of the time, today, pet owners (or “parents”) welcome pets into every corner of their homes, and provide them with specialty bedding along with toys and treats. Grimm attributes this shift in part to the movement away from widespread farming, which has enabled us to think of animals as a new kind of family member rather than a working creature. The rise of smaller families means that many adults have opted not to have children, and thus have plenty of resources, time, and affection to devote to pets.

Stuffed animals have a much different sort of cultural and emotional footprint today as compared with the moment of their origin. Though the earliest patented stuffed animal was based on the Beatrix Potter character Peter Rabbit, the stuffed animal who began the craze in earnest was the eponymous Teddy Bear. Stuffed toy bears were developed separately at the same moment by the American toymaker Morris Michtom and by the Steiff company in Germany in the early twentieth century. The American version was inspired by hunting anecdote about Theodore Roosevelt that was immortalized in a political cartoon. Faced with a bear that had been wounded by someone else in his hunting party, Roosevelt felt it was unsportsmanlike for him to shoot the animal himself, but asked that the bear be put out of its misery in any case. This gruesome encounter, of which political satirists made hay, yielded the first generation of Teddy bears. The Steiff model was introduced in 1903 at the Leipzig Toy Fair, and introduced to the American market by a buyer for George Borgfeldt & Co. in New York.

Stuffed animals are cozy sculptures or 3D cartoon characters invested with deep meaning that ordinary people can own.

Since their premiere, Teddy bears have given rise to generations of stuffed toys in all shapes and sizes, some robotic, like Petster and Zhu-Zhu Pets; some highly collectible, like Beanie Babies; some exotic and mythic, like unicorns. While hunting and taxidermy have grown less popular, pet ownership has boomed, and the retail landscape for pet accessories and costumes almost seems like an extension of the stuffed animal universe. Browsing toy store aisles populated by wide-eyed seals and plush bears, the gruesome tale of Roosevelt’s wish for another hunter to put a wounded bear out of its misery seems the furthest thing imaginable. Stuffed animals, unlike their taxidermied cousins, bear no real relationship to the biological world. They are, essentially, cozy sculptures or 3D cartoon characters invested with deep meaning that ordinary people can own and even obsessively collect. Yet the implied narratives of their long history—those of the sometimes-brutal control of nature, and the violence of hunting, paired with the obsessive care and grooming of animal fancies—can never be entirely ignored.

This may be why contemporary artists have begun to mine the rich, colorful landscape of stuffed animals for their aesthetic and narrative value. The late artist Mike Kelley made posthumous headlines when the Museum of Modern Art purchased his Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, a sculptural installation work comprised of hundreds of stuffed animals that have been formed into rainbow-colored, cloud-like shapes, suspended from the ceiling by wire. Throughout his career, Kelley mined the detritus of contemporary and recent Americana, and the profusion of stuffed animals—like cosmetics, electronics, clothes, and other inexpensive consumer goods—populated his artistic landscape. The performance artist and designer Nick Cave has created a series of wearable works called Soundsuits, made from dyed hair, sisal, feathers, sequins, and other materials that sparkle, sway, and make noise with the movement of the wearer. Inspired in part by Dogon costumes, carnivals, and by the masked balls of Renaissance and early modern Europe, the Soundsuits sometimes directly reference stuffed animals. Cave’s “Bunny Boy,” which graced the cover of ArtNews’ June 2012 issue, resembles a glamourous and possibly sinister version of the Easter Bunny, or a present-day iteration of “Harvey.”

Stuffed animals come from a bloodless world, where all the beguiling qualities of companion animals can be enjoyed without paying the price of life and death.

And the artist Agustina Woodgate has been creating rugs from the “skins” of second-hand toys, using them as though they were animal hides to create majestic carpets and wall hangings. Woodgate avoids using new toys, and chooses to work only with stuffed animals who had “lived.” This deliberate choice highlights what might be the most compelling aspects of a stuffed animal’s existence. The practice of hunting real animals, and of having pets, is punctuated with the moments of their lives and deaths. Stuffed animals, by contrast, outlive us. In industrialized nations, we are sheltered from the viscera of farm life (and death), much as we are from the realities of the births, illnesses and deaths of fellow humans, which more often occur in hospital settings rather than at home. The sight and smell of blood, even on an episode of a food and travel program on Netflix, is enough to spark horror and outcry. Stuffed animals come from a bloodless world, where all the beguiling qualities of companion animals—beauty, softness, cuteness, companionship—can be enjoyed without paying the price of confrontation with the real stuff of life and death. We do our best in the modern world to live this way, too: clean, free of germs, with minimal pain, and a studied indifference to the gruesome reality of being mortal. In Woodgate’s work, the technicolor stuffed animal “hides” are a stark reminder of the fact that we are more animal than they are. If the distilled, tender cuteness of contemporary stuffed animals is a metaphor for our desire to avoid pain and suffering in the physical world, the blend of humor and horror we experience at seeing their skins sewn together is telling: the control of nature does not make us immortal, and we are all fair game.


(Image credits: Doll Wall via Flickr. A 1902 political cartoon in The Washington Post spawned the teddy bear name via Wikicommons. Orthostat relief, about 9th century BC, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Anthomy van Dyck, Five Eldest Children of Charles I, via Wikicommons. The halls of the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace via Mashable. 1902 replica of an original Steiff teddy bear via the saleroom. Mike Kelley, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, 1991/1999, via Flickr. Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2010, via the New York Public Library. Agustina Woodgate, Royal, 2010, courtesy of Spinello Projects, Miami.)

Steampunk Meets Contemporary Luxury in Amuneal's Creations

Steampunk Meets Contemporary Luxury in Amuneal's Creations

Situated on a busy industrial corridor of Philadelphia’s Frankford neighborhood, Amuneal’s 60,000-square-foot fabrication space looks every bit an artisanal design mecca. Furniture and shelving are meticulously crafted from metal and wood every square inch of which has been treated by hand to achieve just the right surface texture and color. Finished pieces are packed with installation instructions and diagrams that are almost works of art in their own right.

Read More

Ceramic Excellence for Archie Bray

Ceramic Excellence for Archie Bray

This catalog from Archie Bray Foundation features writing on five different Bray fellows of contemporary ceramic arts. Each year the Bray invites a writer into their realm to survey their rich creative community, spend time with the artists, and create a body of writing guided by their experience. Their 2017 writer-in-residence is Sarah Archer.  All of the writing in this catalog was produced by Archer.

This year’s fellows include Ling Chun, Nicholas Danielson, En Iwamura, MyungJin Kim, and Noah Riedel.

Read More

Open-Source Activism

Open-Source Activism

Two social movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, organized labor and women’s suffrage, both emerged just as photography was coming into its own as a documentary form, and banners appear in many images of their marches and protests. They affect the way we see these events in the most literal sense, visually populating scenes of history with their words. Black-and-white images from the turn of the 20th century capture women in fine Edwardian dress and impressive hats, carrying the banners they made to champion the causes of votes for women. In one example from 1917 by the photographers Harris and Ewing in the collection of the Library of Congress, an unidentified young women in a fur collar holds a banner that reads: “RESISTANCE TO TYRANNY IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD.” Another image, circa 1910, shows a group of suffragettes holding umbrellas on which they’ve painted messages entreating observers to join them at a planned march in Washington, DC, “rain or shine.” It’s not difficult to imagine these pared-down expressions as tweets.

Read More

Inside Philadelphia’s New Museum of the American Revolution

Inside Philadelphia’s New Museum of the American Revolution

Philadelphia’s Old City is thick with American history. Within a short walking distance, visitors can see the Liberty Bell, stand inside Independence Hall and behold the ruins of the original President’s House, where George Washington and John Adams both lived in the 1790s. For good measure, there are always a few historic interpreters in 18th-century costume inviting tour groups to step lively over the cobblestones.

Read More

The Worst McMansion Sins, From Useless Pilasters to Hellish Transom Windows

If the current leader of the free world is, as Fran Lebowitz described him in an interview with Vanity Fair last October, “a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” then the houses Kate Wagner dissects in her blog McMansion Hell are a particular sort of middle-class person’s idea of great estates. There are turrets, balconies, grand foyers, wrought iron that isn’t actually wrought, crystal chandeliers that are probably made of glass, and spiral staircases galore. But inside and out, these houses look more like architectural Mad Libs than the products of a well-thought-through, cohesive design. 

Read More

A Western Cultural History of Pink, from Madame de Pompadour to Pussy Hats

A Western Cultural History of Pink, from Madame de Pompadour to Pussy Hats

Visitors to the official website of the Pussyhat Project are welcomed with an exclamation of color and joy from founders Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman: “We did it! We created a sea of pink!” And indeed they did. The Women’s March on Washington, D.C., and the 600 allied marches across the United States and the world, drew between 3.3 and 4.6 million protesters, making it one of the largest single-day demonstrations in the nation’s history. Suh and Zweiman launched the Pussyhat Project in advance of the march with the goal of having one million hats on hand, and their website includes PDF patterns for knit, sewn, and crocheted versions, which have collectively been downloaded more than 100,000 times. The resulting sea of cat hats caused a run on pink yarn across the country and quickly became a powerful visual shorthand for this particular swath of anti-Trump protest movements.

Read More

In the Studio: Stacey Lee Webber

As Published in Metalsmith, January, 2017

The massive Globe Dye Works complex in Northeastern Philadelphia smells of freshly ground coffee. Visitors are greeted by a gigantic antique scale and countless spools of thread in every imaginable hue, arranged just so. The building hums with activity as a network of small-batch entrepreneurs plan special event menus, frame artwork, and—evidently—roast coffee beans to perfection.

Two of these creative souls, the artist Stacey Lee Webber and her husband, sculptor Joe Leroux, along with a charming cat and surprisingly outgoing turtle, live here in a sunny apartment adjacent to their massive workspace, where Leroux’s large, playful sculptures and Webber’s delicate metalwork offer a delightful contrast in scale and spirit. Up front, a plastic deer peers from the array of materials and supplies from which Leroux’s works in progress for a major art fair are taking shape, and some past projects involving geodesic domes hang from the ceiling. At the other end of the space, Webber and her assistant are at work crafting jewelry and small sculptures from U.S. coins, small screws, and other pieces of vernacular metal. The finished products are anything but ordinary: a floral wreath comprised of different colored screws adorns one wall, and tiny silhouettes of Abraham Lincoln shine from a bracelet in progress on the bench.

 Stacey Lee Webber at work in her studio at Philadelphia's Globe Dye Works

Stacey Lee Webber at work in her studio at Philadelphia's Globe Dye Works

Webber draws inspiration from the history and culture of manufacturing in America, and the Globe Dye Works, with its seemingly endless array of gorgeous antique machines, is an ideal place for her and Leroux to work and live. Established in 1865 in the now-gritty neighborhood of Frankford, Globe was a major manufacturer of bleaches and dyes during Philadelphia's industrial heyday, producing skeins of wool and spools of thread for use in clothing and upholstery until 2005. The rebirth of the Globe Dye Works building as a space for artists and creative small business owners is a quintessential urban tale of adaptive reuse, but it’s also particularly emblematic of the ways in which Philadelphia’s economy has had to pivot in an effort to emerge from its post-industrial malaise. Though not a Philadelphia native (she’s from Indiana), Webber’s artist’s statement notes: “Through technique and design my work manipulates materials and employs forms that evoke pride in the American working class. My pieces are celebrations of American families and the blue-collar work ethic that binds the heart of the United States.”

Since graduate school, Webber has been fascinated by both the tools of her trade, jewelry and metalsmithing, and the tools of “the trades” in general, and has used her work to explore shifting ideas about the value of labor. Working towards her MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with professors Lisa Gralnick and Kim Kridler, Webber experimented with metal filigree techniques of the kind found in the developing world, where metal is expensive but labor is cheap. Filigree pieces tend to appear gaudy to a discerning eye, but their fabrication can be exquisite and inspired. In a sense, the workmanship itself is the precious item, not the metal. This project got Webber thinking about one of the most common “valuables” in the world: coins. In 2008, she created a lifesized claw hammer using pennies. From there, she embarked on a series called “Craftsmen,” in which she created tools as complex as circular saws, shovels, and tape measures using pre-1982 pennies, which are nearly 100 percent copper, and pre-1964 quarters and dimes, which are 90 percent silver. These haunting pieces offer multiple perspectives on value of craftsmanship simultaneously. Is the hard work of hammering, sawing, and sanding worth mere pennies today? What of Webber’s own formidable craftsmanship, evident in the carefully soldered and pierced coins? And what of that of the coins themselves, each one a tiny sculpture?

If the commentary on skilled labor is not immediately evident to everyone who encounters Webber’s sculptures, people tend to understand the jewelry almost immediately. Her work can be found in the gift shops of institutions including the Museum of Arts and Design, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, and the Fuller Craft Museum. Jewelry is the realm of the precious, and her elegant and witty use of coins elicits fascination and a lot of questions. Many people want to know whether altering U.S. currency is in fact legal, and indeed it is; it is illegal to deface currency for the purpose of counterfeiting, but no one would get very far attempting to buy a cup of coffee with one of Webber’s Abe M.I.A. Necklace—part of the “Abe Collection”—in which a cascade of shiny pierced pennies are linked to one another through the negative space where Abraham Lincoln’s silhouette used to be. Webber’s inventiveness with the humble penny also extends to the coin’s historic association with luck. For her “Hex Signs” series, of which several examples are on display in the studio, she fashioned small wall pieces inspired by the hexagonal designs of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art. Lincoln profiles perch delicately on pieces of copper wire, forming radial designs reminiscent of honeycombs and snowflakes.

In her atmospheric studio and in the substance of her work, Webber is steeped in history, yet the results of her creative endeavors are original and refreshing. In this busy workspace where quarters and pennies gleam from every work surface, the preciousness is in the ideas.

View the original article in Metalsmith

“Hands to Work, Hearts to God”: A Post-Election Craft Manifesto

“Hands to Work, Hearts to God”: A Post-Election Craft Manifesto

Reading the post-election commentary from my vintage-furnished stop in the Acela bubble this week, I have felt a kind of nausea and dread that I had not experienced since I nearly lost my stepfather, who worked in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001. He survived, but none of us has ever been the same. I knew then that I would devote my life and abilities to the community I love: people who make things, people who enrich others’ lives by teaching and mentoring, people who shine light on injustice through their artwork, who help us find connection with each other. I didn’t know then what shape this would take (or even which graduate school I would apply to), but I knew that the shortness of our time here made it imperative that I lead with my heart and gut, even when my brain tried to exert executive orders.

Read More

Maggie Sasso: Too Much Sea for Amateurs

The site-specific sculpture inspired by the Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse is the largest work
Maggie Sasso has ever made. It might also be the loneliest—for the lightkeepers, conditions were
tough, isolated, and could be very dangerous—but it is likely to encourage viewers to learn more
about the landmark. The lighthouse has long been an object of fascination: there was something about its distant glow that made land-dwelling folks curious and perhaps a little jealous. Once an active and necessary beacon in Lake Michigan’s Milwaukee Bay, later a mysterious, deteriorating Art Deco artifact, today it is an historic landmark about to embark on a new life as a “lakefront attraction.”

The Breakwater, constructed in 1926, was designed to protect sailors, but in doing so it isolated the people who inhabited it. This spectacle of a space that can be viewed by all but accessed by only a few, and the history of the lighthouse, resonate with the way that our public spaces are sometimes segregated, allowed to fall apart, and occasionally rescued and revived. Today’s world is vastly different from the world of 1926; we lead lives that are materially easier and more efficient. But we’re also increasingly separated from one another, in what Sasso describes as the “isolating architecture” of our living spaces, and in our consumption of culture and news, which has grown more tailored and atomized in the age of the Internet.

Sasso’s installation draws its narrative content from nine decades’ worth of communal memories. It combines a lighthouse constructed from steel and outdoor-grade fabric, a signaling buoy made from marine vinyl, and a cloth sailboat—an impossible object—that hangs in an adjacent room. Specific moments from the lighthouse’s history are captured in textiles. Audio and special effects convey the experience of a fierce storm, the lighthouse and buoy mutually signaling as though they were two brave souls attempting to keep track of one another during the tumult.

As an artist creating a major work for an exhibition, Sasso hasn’t time to kill, which makes it all the more compelling that she fabricates the work on her own small home sewing machine: “I like to push the craftsmanship so far that it’s made better than an industrially manufactured object.” In a recent work, “Haul Away Home,” she invented sea-themed merit badges that appeared professionally made, their embroidery was so exact. Yet their perfection was a result of hand-skill, not machine work.

Sasso’s fascination with flags, maps, and the material world of sailing has led to an unexpected fusion of her craft-intensive art school training in metalsmithing and woodworking with a sphere of activity not generally associated with craft in the popular imagination. Yet craft is everywhere in this world—from the construction of ships and sails, to scrimshaw, flags, and sailor’s knots—much of it labor-intensive and bespoke, the result of skilled handwork, elaborate precisely because sailors often have time to kill. The maritime milieu has what Sasso calls a “flexible aesthetic.” It can be funny or serious, decorative or plain, and embodies a wild variety of associations: excitement, discovery, and victory, as well as tragedy, sorrow, and loss.

Artist Statement

The personal narratives in my work function as allegories, collapsing the space between artifact, theatrical set, and artwork, and relying on humble textiles to tell powerful stories. Frequently the cloth plays a comedic role, using its soft edges and abject insubstantiality to reshape and humanize serious subject matter. Too Much Sea for Amateurs investigates longing, loneliness, dependability, and the certainty of death: universal realities of maritime life. It presents the lighthouse, a visible yet inaccessible Milwaukee landmark, as a symbol for the dysfunction of a contemporary urban life that prizes self-containment over camaraderie, isolation over obligation, and comfort over valor. By rendering a chaotic moment at sea in fabric, I make this re-imagined scenario, with the Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse as its central character, tactile and penetrable, inviting us to simultaneously explore the past and consider our collective future.

About the Artist

Maggie Sasso has had solo exhibitions in Madison, Milwaukee, Portland, Oregon and Lexington, Kentucky, and her work has been included in many group shows throughout the United States and Canada. She received her MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her BFA from Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky where she was born and raised. She was a visiting artist and instructor at the Oregon College of Art and Craft and currently teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.

Collaborators: Ben Jones, robotics and engineering; Laura Meine, historical research; Fred Bell, model; Claudine Nuetzel, photographer.

Download the PDF.

 Marooned, 2016

Marooned, 2016

 At 68 He Retains the Vim of a Man of 30, 2016

At 68 He Retains the Vim of a Man of 30, 2016

 Boon (sketch), 2016

Boon (sketch), 2016

Maker to Market: Ruth Asawa Reappraised

 Maker to Market: Ruth Asawa Reappraised

When Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) (Figures 1 and 2) died in August, 2013, the obituaries that appeared in newspapers and magazines across the US characterized her life’s work with a diverse array of descriptors. In the pages of the New York Times, she was an “artist who wove wire.”1 In the Los Angeles Times, a “California sculptor.”2 In an article appearing in the SFGate, she was “overlooked.”3 And according to Art+Auction, she had enjoyed a “late, meteoric rise from obscurity.”4 Reading the story of Asawa’s career from these headlines alone, one might suppose that she was an under-recognized artist using a traditionally feminine technique to create objects from humble material, and that by some fluke, she had been bestowed with a late-life spike in recognition, even celebrity. However, evidence of a flourishing career in the 1950s, which included commissions, solo exhibitions in New York, and an acquisition by the Whitney Museum of American Art, appears to contradict the notion that Asawa toiled for decades in anonymity.

Read More

The New Ten's Two-Body Problem

The New Ten's Two-Body Problem

Five years from now, on the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.S., an American woman of distinction will appear on the ten-dollar bill, with Alexander Hamilton retained somewhere on the note. This decision, announced last week by Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, has been met with considerable puzzlement from those who wonder why we would demote Hamilton, the founder of our financial system, instead of Andrew Jackson, who was the architect of the Trail of Tears, an opponent of central banking, and the target of the grassroots campaign to get a woman on the twenty-dollar bill, led by the group Women on 20s. As Vauhini Vara recently wrote, some asked, too, why the first woman to appear on paper currency in the United States should have to do so alongside a male chaperone, and they wondered whether the Treasury would, after holding public consultations this summer, honor Harriet Tubman, the choice of those who voted in an online poll conducted by Women on 20s. The current debate over American currency resonates with the complicated history of how and why women have been represented on money, a history that provides insight into the ways women have wielded and represented authority through the ages.

Read More

‘Back to the Future’ 30 Years Later, or Riding in Cars with Millennials

‘Back to the Future’ 30 Years Later, or Riding in Cars with Millennials

One of the greatest pleasures of teaching design history to college students — apart from watching their reactions as I play excerpts from grouchy interviewswith the legendary Braun designer Dieter Rams in class — is time travel. Not the actual temporal kind, but the generational kind, where you realize that you’re the only person in the room who remembers the 1980s, and everyone else in the room is really curious about that.

Read More

The Prehistory of the Peeps Diorama

The Prehistory of the Peeps Diorama

In 2014, Matthew McFeeley and his friends Mary Clare Peate and Alex Baker created an intricate historical diorama depicting the 1963 March on Washington. Evoking the color palette of the photographs that document the real event, the diorama was painted in black, white, and shades of gray. Marchers are shown holding tiny, hand-painted signs that read “we demand voting rights now!” and “we march for jobs for all now!” At the center of the action, the figure of Martin Luther King, Jr., stands at a podium, poised to give his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. At the bottom of the steps leading up to the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd of spectators is dotted with what appears to be an ocean of regularly shaped bunny ears. Though painted gray, each character in this scene is a marshmallow Peep. This diorama, “I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. Addresses the Peeple” won the 2014 Washington Post Peeps Diorama Contest, chosen by the Post staff from a field of over seven hundred competitors.

Read More

The International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery, 1890 – 1961

The International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery, 1890 – 1961

In February 1961, Carol Hogben, assistant keeper in the circulation department at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), was hard at work preparing for the opening of a major jewelry exhibition. Hogben had thought of a novel way to present innovative jewelry to the museum-going public, inviting contemporary artists working in an array of disciplines to create works in wax for the show, which would then be fabricated by British goldsmiths. These would be presented alongside more traditional, virtuoso pieces by the likes of Georg Jensen and Fabergé.

Read More

4 in 3-D

4 in 3-D

Just a few years ago, terms such as “digital fabrication,” “3-D printing,” and “CAD” began appearing in the news, piquing readers’ interest with visions of Jetsons-style consumer gadgets. Auto enthusiasts began fabricating obscure discontinued car parts with the help of the MakerBot, while Americans concerned about gun control sounded the alarm about the advent of something the writers of the second amendment could never have predicted: 3-D-printed firearms. If computer-aided design (CAD) and 3-D printing haven’t quite transformed the average household into a hotbed of automated convenience, they certainly have altered the studio landscape for artists and designers all over the world. We are witnessing the emergence of a new set of aesthetics and new ways of working for makers engaged with nearly every material. Because these technologies allow designers to scan and manipulate objects, to “copy, paste, and edit” in three dimensions, two major categories have emerged as the source material of choice: historical decorative arts and the human body.

Read More

Cracking Open the Seductive History of Porcelain

Cracking Open the Seductive History of Porcelain

Of his extensive collection of ceramics, Oscar Wilde once remarked: “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.” What Wilde felt he was increasingly failing to “live up to” was probably the sort of bourgeois respectability that is often symbolized by a set of good porcelain — something, he was surely aware, to which even a spectacularly talented gay man in Victorian Britain could never hope to aspire. It is a sign that Wilde was onto something that most people only deploy “the good china” a few times a year, on major holidays; the rest of the time, we keep it neatly tucked away so that it won’t get broken. When we move, each piece must be individually protected in bubble wrap. It’s exhausting.

Read More

An American in Meissen

Forbidden Fruit: A Collection of Antemann Dreams

Portland Art Museum, 2014

An historic porcelain factory in the hills of Saxony has its very own collection, invisible to the eye, but richer and more precious than the finished products of its kilns. Though there are rooms here filled with thousands of plaster moulds and centuries worth of subtle variations on a single form from the manufactory’s line of tableware and figurines, the collection that makes the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory irreplaceable comprises the memories, expertise, and skills of the people who work here. Passed down, mastered, and refined in an unbroken chain through political upheaval and social change, the knowledge that permeates this place is more priceless than any object, and more fragile than porcelain itself.

Since 2011, American artist Chris Antemann has been navigating her way through this collection, working in the studios of the MEISSEN artCAMPUS® at the legendary Manufactory in Germany’s easternmost state. Meissen’s oeuvre is in certain ways frozen in time, and, paradoxically, it is precisely this continuous dialogue with the past that has kept it vibrant to the present day. It is not just the finished objects that Antemann has been studying as she interprets MEISSEN®’s repertoire of designs and techniques through the prism of her own sculptural work. Rather, it is the chance to collaborate with the people who make the objects – an interaction that has transformed both her and them – and that have given Antemann such rich inspiration for her new work. 

The term “porcelain figurine” conjures the images of two distinct settings, seemingly very much at odds with one another: a glass case in the 18th century galleries of an encyclopedic museum, and the meticulously dusted mantelpiece in a lower-middle class living room. Both displays are redolent with sentimental feeling, a sweetness that seems almost willfully out of step with reality. Both feature the permanent, joyous expressions of tiny porcelain characters, evidently tickled by something they’ve seen or heard, sporting a devil-may-care cheerfulness that defies explanation. There’s a complex story in how these distantly related figurines – the older generation with a royal pedigree, and the younger set, a staple of mail order – came to symbolize such different social worlds in the settings they inhabit. As objects, they are not so different, really. As collectibles, their divergent paths in life show us what happens when a rare and precious substance is conquered by mass-production and globalization. 

Thanks to its proliferation as the stuff of inexpensive souvenirs (to say nothing of modern plumbing fixtures), it cannot be read as a pure luxury good in the 21st century. Yet it continues to signify refinement, both physically and culturally: Rococo period rooms in museums across Europe and North America make clear that this thin, white ceramic and its elaborate polychrome decoration were the place settings of la dolce vita, while hardier souls, we are led to assume, made do with rougher, simpler pottery, and eschewed luxuries like sugar, chocolate, and exotic fruits. Antemann’s sculptures are modern stories of desire. They seem inspired by the unfulfilled passions that the original Meissen figurines only hint at, and the pleasure-seeking world we are invited to imagine by the music, fashion, and painting of the Rococo period. 

Antemann, whose childhood introduction to porcelain included ancestral Hummel figures and was of a decidedly American bent, now finds herself at the epicenter of European porcelain’s origin story. Her sculptural work wraps its arms around all the ambiguity and tension that porcelain carries with it. MEISSEN®’s claim to ceramic fame is that it was the birthplace of European porcelain in 1708, that is, the first place in the Western world where porcelain’s key ingredient, kaolin, was first discovered used successfully to make porcelain outside of China. Like most luxury producers in 18th century Europe, it was the pet manufactory of a powerful ruler, in this case the voracious collector Augustus II of Saxony-Poland, known as Augustus the Strong (1670-1733). Augustus suffered (happily) from what he described as “maladie de porcelaine,” or porcelain sickness, going to great lengths to acquire porcelain from China and Japan, ultimately amassing over 20,000 objects. 

In the early 1730s, the aesthetic of Meissen porcelain® began to evolve: once the Manufactory met the initial challenge of replicating Asian ceramics with great verisimilitude, Augustus shifted his focus away from acquiring exotic porcelain from overseas and developed an interest in the creation of original ceramics unique to his realm. MEISSEN®’s director at the time, Count Heinrich von Brühl, brought a volume of botanical drawings by botanist Johann Wilhelm Weinmann into the manufactory, and these images formed the inspiration for a European style of floral decoration that characterizes MEISSEN® to this day.

The last word in fashion for men and women of the nobility and haute bourgeoisie could be seen in the elegant waistcoats and crinolines of the characters emerging from MEISSEN®’s studios. The settings in which these figurines were first enjoyed were rooted in theater. Famed head modeler Joachim Kaendler (1706–1775) created porcelain figures inspired by characters from the familiar Commedia dell’arte, sporting costumes that identified them, and designed to act as permanent versions of the elaborate sugar sculptures that had graced courtly banquet tables for decades. The objects were elite, refined, very expensive, and a little sexy. The figurines evolved to become a kind of performance art, centuries before such a thing was even conceivable, as they simultaneously reflected and were a part of the ritual of courtly dining. Sandwiched chronologically between the sober Baroque and Neoclassical styles, the Rococo was an expression of wit, pleasure, and playfulness. The interior decoration of Rococo rooms was designed as a total work of art, in concert with clothing and objects.

Antemann’s fascination with MEISSEN® lies in precisely the sweet spot (quite literally) where decorative arts take on the narrative power of sculpture precisely because they are decorative, and thus woven into the fabric of social ritual. Where the figures of Kaendler’s day would flirt and tease, Antemann’s sculptures have taken the subtext of desire and forbidden attraction to a bolder place. Since 2006, she had been creating sculptures in porcelain that were inspired by MEISSEN®, but had an expressive and even provocative content. Figures gaze at one another not with coy shyness, but with clear desire. Men and women frolic in pairs, or more, dining at opulent tables heavy with fruit and sweets, and hide from one another in wooded glades or behind 18th century furniture. Her 2013 work “Love Temple Forbidden Fruit” depicts an outdoor banquet in a lush, classical temple, inspired by the “Temple of Honour” in Dresden.

In a wonderful confluence of 18th and 21st century technologies, MEISSEN® CEO Dr. Christian Kurtzke chanced to discover Antemann through a Google search for porcelain figurines. Immediately cognizant of the wit and talent he was looking at, he contacted Antemann about the possibility of a collaboration, and the rest is a new chapter in MEISSEN®’s history. The artCAMPUS® where Antemann works is relatively new, but the long history of MEISSEN®’s artists interpreting and reinventing its repertoire of themes and forms dates back to a move towards a more Neoclassical style in the latter part of the 18th century. The Manufactory’s museum contains Arts and Crafts, Vienne Werkstatt, and Art Deco works from the first decades of the 20th century, rather incongruous socialist-themed works from the GDR period (1949-1990), and tableware and figures inspired by cultures from around the globe, from Europe and Asia to the United States. Artists and designers visited MEISSEN® and worked there on a temporary basis, including some European design legends like Henry Van de Velde and Peter Strang.

Learning the language and the culture as she creates works that are inspired by, but not copies of, MEISSEN®’s historic porcelain figures, Antemann has had the rare privilege of working with MEISSEN®s artists, or “colleagues,” as they are known here. Like many American artists who work in ceramics and have a taste for European decorative arts, Antemann arrived at MEISSEN® dazzled by the presence of so many important figures in the history of ceramics and the array of historic objects both in the MEISSEN® “depot” and in the Porzellansammlung in Dresden. Room after room in the studios here house expert makers whose specialties are highly refined. There are modelers and there are plaster mold experts. There are china painters, and these are distinguished by specialties, such as figure painters, flower painters, or “Watteau painters” with expertise in depicting rococo scenes. There are gilders, and there are colleagues who paint large-scale tiles, making grand versions of tiny painted scenes found on historic pieces. Their desks are set with their paints, supplies, single-hair brushes and turpentine, alongside children’s drawings from home, photos of loved ones, radios and efficient set-ups for making tea. In the years that she has been at MEISSEN®, Antemann has forged lifetime bonds with some of the modelers and painters, who have collaborated with her, incorporating both the historic motifs and the hand-memory of the Manufactory into her sculptures.

MEISSEN®’s story is told anew through the pieces Antemann has created since she has been here, with particular emphasis on the culture of dining. She is inspired by the entire context that produced the famous figurines, not just their forms and styles, or the early modern alchemical wizardry that made their creation possible. Nothing like these works has ever been produced at MEISSEN® before, but with the enthusiastic response of collectors and admirers from around the world, it seems that Antemann’s signature way of interpreting the Manufactory’s rich history has struck a nerve with a new audience. The costumes and styles of the Kaendler era can cause contemporary viewers to feel distant from the content of the sculptural works, and the popularity of MEISSEN® with older collectors of the porcelain tableware can leave younger buyers feeling a bit out of step if they inherit a set. Antemann’s work shows contemporary audiences that the aesthetics of MEISSEN® are not actually frozen in time, but have for centuries been the backdrop for an evolving story. We may see luxury, desire, and passion differently today, but they existed then as they do now. Antemann’s fascination with MEISSEN®’s history, ironically, has freed its rococo spirit to do in today’s world what it has always done best: seduce.