Supreme x Meissen: why artists are recapturing the “exquisite transgressiveness” of porcelain

As skatewear brand Supreme drops its latest collaboration, SLEEK takes a look at the difference between modern porcelain and the dusty menagerie on your grandmother’s shelf

March 2019

Porcelain figurines have gotten a bad rap, but recently things have been heating up in the kiln. Three hundred years ago, the medium was a high art form, lending itself to alchemy, obscenity and clever puns, but somewhere in the mid-20th century porcelain became tame, surviving as a shadow of its former glory in the shape of knick knacks and tchotchkes on the mantelpieces of octogenarians. Still, the story of its fall from grace has paved the way for a new generation to subvert the dated medium – Supreme is even getting in the game with its Meissen collaboration that launches today. To regain an edge, however, porcelain artists are going back to the basics.

At first glance, the work of contemporary potter, Barnaby Barford, looks sweet – consider of a figurine of a rosy-cheeked boy with a shocked expression – but upon closer inspection you see that he is standing on a pile of dirty magazines. For design critic Tanya Harrod, this is a prime example of the medium returning to its European roots of the 1700s when the process was brought to Germany from China.

“There are so many people who have been inspired by the great 18th century porcelain factories, which created whole imaginary worlds that were often disturbing and slightly sexual,” Harrod tells SLEEK. “Because porcelain was expensive, they were appealing to an elite culture that would appreciate exquisite transgressiveness. Young artists are playing with the memory of the great art form and the suburban safeness of the figurine.”

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After the war, watered-down porcelain reproductions flooded mantelpieces, cupboards and shelves as the medium became more affordable. This is the type of porcelin most of us are familiar with today: inoffensively decorative at best and garish clutter at its worst. But in its sanitised form, porcelain has once again gained value that artists can play with — sentimental value. Where 18th century artists played with the expensiveness of the material, today’s ceramicists are making jokes at the expense of your grandmother’s taste in kitsch design. Irene Nodril’s porcelain sculptures, for example, transform the tame Bambi sculptures into grotesque mutations, while Katsuyo Aoki twists flamboyant gothic curls into skulls finished with the spiked helmets of Kaiser Wilhelm’s army.

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