Shechet’s Shenanigans at the RISD Museum
Celebrated ceramist and RISD alumna Arlene Shechet MFA 78 CR plays with the classic tradition of high-end Meissen porcelain.
In this grouping in the museum’s Porcelain Gallery, Shechet literally turns the notion of fine Meissen porcelain on its head.
Award-winning ceramist and RISD alumna Arlene Shechet MFA 78 CR has long been known for her subversive sense of humor and for embracing contradiction in her work. In addition, she “expand[s] upon the ceramic vessel as a one-stop art medium that combines painting and sculpture while pushing her work in increasingly diverse directions,” according to New York Times art critic and RISD honorary degree recipient Roberta Smith.
Last week the artist’s playful new exhibition Arlene Shechet: Meissen Recast opened at the RISD Museum. Set in both the classical Porcelain Gallery and in the contemporary Upper Farago Gallery, the show juxtaposes the museum’s extensive collection of roughly 200 historic Meissen figurines and tableware against her own offbeat sculptures, created during a recent residency at the 300-year-old porcelain factory in Germany.
“I’ve always been interested in humor and combining new and old,” Shechet told reporters in advance of the show’s opening on Thursday. “I enjoy seeing my pieces in conversation with historical objects.”
During her residency, Shechet – whose work is included in the permanent collections at the Whitney Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, among others –worked alongside Meissen artisans to learn their techniques and soak up the company’s internal traditions. She made plaster reproductions of original factory molds, which she then assembled to produce a variety of cast, hand-painted porcelain forms that reveal much about her process. The resulting “molds of molds” merge the precious and luxurious with the industrial and mundane, both celebrating and subverting the language and craftsmanship of the world’s preeminent porcelain manufacturer.
In the ornate wooden cases of the museum’s Porcelain Gallery, Shechet shows themed groupings of her work juxtaposed with traditional Meissen pieces. Carefully placed mirrors reflect opulent crystal chandeliers and expose the backs and undersides of objects on display. Figures peek out from behind stacks of Meissen tableware. And the artist’s own partially glazed pieces stand in stark contrast to the painstakingly glazed and painted refinement of the factory originals, openly revealing every Meissen mold mark. Shechet shows that she has as much respect for the tableware—the “humble little saucers” —as she does for the intricate figurines, noting that “a cup is an amazing sculpture, incorporating all the language of sculpture.”
Upstairs in the Upper Farago Gallery, the balance of the exhibition shifts from mostly Meissen to mostly Shechet. Here visitors are treated to more of the sculptures she created in residence, working alongside Meissen’s current artisans and making use of original factory molds dating back to the 18th century. Her goal was not to faithfully reproduce the past but to make new, unexpected connections and create sculptures that draw attention to the imperfections in the original molds—the screws, the fingerprints, the seams.
“By highlighting the most functional elements of the chunky plaster molds with choice glazes or manipulated rococo patterns,��� Shechet says, “I’ve aimed to invert the traditional hierarchy of artist, artisan and lowly factory worker. I’ve taken industrial parts and transformed them into luxury objects.” With Hex Vase 50039, for example, she uses 24-karat gold to highlight the original serial number of the mold.
Although Shechet’s current work may seem less physically off-balance than her past pieces (which she has described as “unseemly . . . a bit of physical comedy”), Meissen Recast offers an abundance of psychological curveballs. In Laying Lion, a woman in blue and white crushed beneath a Meissen brick used in the production process lies in a pool of her own (blue and white) blood. Can Can is a simple white bowl—utilitarian except that a woman’s colorful feet and white petticoats protrude from its center.
Meissen Recast, which continues through July 6, is built around these little surprises and unexpected angles. “Sculpture,” says Shechet, “is all about seeing the whole object.”
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