NYC’s The Hole hosts ceramicist Roxanne Jackson’s latest exhibit Nature is a Whore: A Comedy & A Tragedy, an aptly titled show of dizzying and wild polarities. Opening today and on view until 23 October, the exhibition—crafted in the artist’s studio and home in Wassaic, New York, which we toured to learn more—feels immediately bizarre and fantastical, featuring chicken feet, decapitated heads, sea shells, cakes, blood and other unexpected sculptures, but the madness is not without meaning. As much as it is suffused with the seemingly incongruous, the show is equally replete with synchronicities and unity that make the show a layered, multivalent display of artistic prowess.
As its name may suggest, the exhibition is nothing if not dramatic, which the installation highlights well. Displayed in and around a sunken living room with deep blue carpeting throughout, the space strategically introduces the rest of the show. “It kind of sets the tone for a domestic space and or theater and theatrics,” Jackson tells us. Likewise, some of the works are domiciliary and traditional like candleholders and amphoras while others are absurdly spectacular sculptures. The duality subverts expectation of ceramics and setting, asking how domestic spaces may also be sites for performance.
This also sets the exhibition up for its many polarities, including beauty and horror; tragedy and comedy; absurdity and functionality; and real and unreal. By pairing these themes, Jackson uncovers new ties between them and, at times, locates their complementary relationships.
Jackson’s “Medusa” exemplifies this. “The very quick interpretation is that she is a monster. The truth behind it is that she’s a rape victim that was cursed by Athena because she was jealous of her beauty,” Jackson tells us. Reframing Medusa in shiny mystical glaze and with unicorn horns—a rendering that combines Jackson’s love for horror and science fiction—questions perceptions about who is really in the right and wrong.
The piece also ties mythology more directly to science fiction, as Jackson’s sculpture references John Carpenter’s The Thing. “The alien in [The Thing] is a shapeshifter and the blood has consciousness, so one drop of blood can move and it still has survival instincts. In the original story of Medusa, when Perseus was flying over the desert with her decapitated head, her blood, when it hit the sand, manifested into venomous snakes, so that blood also had consciousness.” Further drawing parallels between the film and the myth is the exploration of transformation. “When the alien is turning into the dog, that’s kind of acceptable. But when it’s in any stage in-between, that is horrifying,” she tells us. “The moment of transformation in between those stages is one thing that I think is particularly fascinating.”
I feel like ceramics are always revealing something
Following an intuitive approach to ceramics, rather than sketching or planning beforehand, the artist tells us, “I feel like ceramics are always revealing something. The process literally transforms in so many different stages. Clay is so malleable; it’s the perfect medium. I don’t know what the piece is going to look like, I’m just responding to the clay.”
Jackson crafted the pieces in the show in her studio at the basement of her home, perched atop a hill in picturesque town upstate. With the garage doors fully open, it’s an ironically serene birthplace for these monstrous and fantastical sculptures.
For the pieces in the show, Jackson fired them in her kilns four to nine times each after glazing, in order to achieve various textures and build up surfaces. In “Red Velvet Candleholder,” a bumpy tree stump was fired numerous times to give it a realistic look as well as make it strong enough to be the base for a red velvet chocolate cake, which holds up a large vase, which further balances a swan who comically houses a wiggly candle. The whole thing is secured by a rod that runs through the piece where Jackson has carved a hole in the middle.
Because her process is guided by intuition, sometimes mistakes happen, but then they become a part of the show. This was the case for her zebra centaur sculpture and snake lady. When crafting the head of the centaur, Jackson had cut its head off in order to more easily get the details of the face correct. When putting it back on, she found that it didn’t fit right. After storing the head in Tupperware and making a few more pieces, she decided to attach it to a snake she had made, another instance in which the medium reveals and transforms itself.
In this fantastical exhibition, the message is as much the medium as it is the mesmerizing works themselves. Jackson’s process encompasses the principles of the medium she employs, excavating the layers and linkages between various genres, worlds and iconography. In her studio and show, Jackson probes the depths of imagination and the unconscious, uniting the otherworldly with the unknown in new, unique ways.
Hero image courtesy of the Roxanne Jackson and The Hole