A chance meeting of like-minds at the NYC Freize Art Fair in 2012 was the moment of inspiration for an idea that resulted in an extraordinary exhibition which opened last week at the RISD Museum – ‘Arlene Shechet : Meissen Recast’.
The director of the RISD Museum and 2 of its curators ran into sculptor Arlene Shechet at the 2012 fair, and Arlene shared that she was currently the Artist-in-Residence at Meissen (the renown German porcelain manufacturer.) Director John W. Smith enthusiastically shared “We have the Monkey Band!”
Arlene responded “We have to talk!”
What is the Monkey Band?
“The Monkey Band” (ca.1753) is a highly coveted set of 24 small Meissen porcelains of a band of monkeys playing band instruments. It was given to the Museum in 1955 by Miss Lucy T. Aldrich (sister of the better known Abby Aldrich Rockefeller – one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art, and another important benefactor of the RISD Museum).
Enter Arlene Shechet.
Arlene Shechet (RISD MFA, Ceramics) is well known for her sculptures, working primarily with ceramics and other earthen materials. In 2012-2013 she was invited to spend extensive time at the Meissen factory as Artist-in-Residence. As a contemporary sculptor, Shechet has worked extensively with clay, creating a wide range of distinctive objects. acknowledging history while finding a personal vocabulary and means of expression.
Her unique opportunity to look behind the scenes at the Meissen factory allowed her to reconsider the traditional processes and the possibilities of reinvention. Using existing components and molds (many of which are 300 years old) in ways that had never considered, Shechet created sculptures that are arresting and robust – while still delicate and fragile, and are truly Meissen porcelain.
In her work Shechet freely combines parts of figurines, bowls, vases and dinnerware. She plays with surface finishes leaving some areas unglazed while painting and gilding elements that are typically unadorned.
In this exhibition, Shechet combined her experiences and experiments at Meissan with the RISD Museum’s porcelain collection in two galleries in the Museum: the traditional wood-paneled Porcelain Gallery, and a large space dedicated to contemporary art.
In the Porcelain Gallery Arlene cleared out everything but Meissan, rearranging and reconsidering the Museum’s porcelain collection by inserted some of her own work made during her residency into the closed cabinets, giving the classical pieces new life.
The contemporary space was painted entirely in black, spatially reimagined with 4 freestanding walls fitted with a variety of openings and cabinets allowing the visitor the opportunity to consider objects from multiple angles.
For the pieces in this exhibition Shechet worked with 4 dozen of the hundreds of historic plaster molds from the Meissen archives. She freely combined and recombined the molded parts cast from porcelain, assembling the castings using her own methodology, initially amusing and befuddling the Meissen workers. She cast the molds themselves, allowed ID numbers, seams and other elements that historically would have been erased to be fully expressed.
At the opening of the exhibition, Arlene shared a few thoughts about the work in this show.
“By highlighting the most functional elements of the chunky plaster molds with choice glazes or manipulated rococo patterns, 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.”
In my life long pursuit of design alchemy I have looked at millions upon millions of ‘things’ – assessing, reacting to, learning from, seeing them in a variety of contexts: museums, galleries, private collections, auctions, shops, flea markets, junk stores, in books, magazines, on eBay, on-line catalogs, and endless corners of the internet. I’ve considered the possible meanings and value, have looked at prices, estimates, sales results, and reams of data in the marketplace. Over a life time I have lived with thousands and thousands of different “items of interest”: furniture, textiles, decorative object, artwork, etc., yet porcelain never appeared on my radar. Porcelain was for me a category of small frilly and fragile items that our mothers and grandmothers had; were rarely used; and lived primarily inside glass cabinets.
Who knew porcelain could be so provocative?
[Arlene Shechet is represented by Sikkema Jenkins, if you would like to contact them to see more of her work.]