Everything Is Not As It Seems


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Artist Statement

In Richard Wagner's 1849 essay "The Artwork of the Future," he presents the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk: the complete work of art. I have always loved this idea of being able to create something sensually encompassing, as Wagner attempted with his own work. The decorative arts, referred to in German as Kunsthandwerk, in some sense have always provided the possibility for the total work of art. The decorative arts are the arts of domestic space and they surround us completely: textiles, wall coverings, carpets, furniture, lighting, vessels of all kinds, and every other thing that covers a wall or ceiling or floor or that we use in everyday life. I like to think of my pieces as Gesamtkunsthandwerks, in which I attempt to combine multiples that reference traditionally decorative objects into sensually encompassing installations. In the decorative arts of the past, as well as contemporary installations, the viewer becomes a participant in, and actually enters in to the work of art. The Jane Hartsook Gallery at Greenwich House reads as a parlor space with its hardwood floors, marble fireplace, and tall windows. It provides a space to explore some of these ideas about the decorative arts, bridging the gap between public exhibition space and domestic space. For my exhibition, I have made a room-sized porcelain chandelier installation, alluding to the history of the space as a parlor and the decorative objects found there, but re-shaping these elements into a contemporary installation that references multiples, materiality, and the body.

- Jeanne Quinn, 2008


Richard Wagner-one inspiration behind Jeanne Quinn's most recent exhibition at Greenwich House Pottery's Jane Hartsook Gallery in New York City—presented, in 1849, his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk: that the song, poetry, drama, and architecture of a performance would be synthesized into a complete work of art. Wagner was a composer, writing about opera. He even built his own opera house in which to stage such works—a grandiose gesture that finds correlation in Quinn's desire to turn this tiny West Village gallery into a salon.

Drawing on the coziness of the space—its tall windows and hardwood floors, its marble fireplace and tree-lined views—Quinn's porcelain beads and electrified bulbs loop into functioning chandeliers that evoke tea and women, jewelry and domesticity—basically the artist's other chief inspiration: the decorative arts. "I think of my pieces as Gesamtkunsthandwerks," Quinn writes, combining Wagner's gesmtkunstwerk with the German word for the decorative arts, kunsthandwerk. Hoping to bridge "public exhibition space and domestic space" into a "sensually encompassing installation," Quinn created red backgrounds. Her crimson and white color scheme suggests both the romance of Victorian velvet or of theater curtains as well as the sensuality of bone and blood. The viewer sees necklaces of pearl and of spine, femurs floating and matte crystal hovering. Cursive lines coalesce around tumescent globes, and phallic antlers give off light. Sitting in a chair near the fireplace—where a guest of honor might be entertained or a composer enthralled—the viewer's sense of what is abstract and what is physical gets lost. Is the feeling celestial or corporeal? Is the aesthetic accessory or lofty? Push a garland and the chandelier dances, puppet-like. Shadows drift along the walls, and the final effect is theatrical.

Quinn, who teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder and maintains a studio in Brooklyn, New York, has been featured in books like Postmodern Ceramics and Sex Pots. Such titles remind us of the artist's complimentary curiosities: a touch of the intellect here and a touch of the sensual there. Her earlier work includes pots joined like bodies, the eroticism of which remains only in the round shapes she now uses in her installations: the dripping clouds, the curtains of bulbous curves, the elongated forms in this show. What has remained more prominent and perhaps more important in Quinn's work is her increasingly sophisticated symmetries. Her earlier dishes, for example, were mirrored like Rorschach blots, and while her vision has expanded beyond pots to include space and gravity and entire rooms, her first installations were still comprised of straightforward symmetries—large, Braille-like designs on walls—reminiscent of ornamental prints, or again, of Rorschach blots.

In this show, the symmetry has become playful and elusive. Explaining her title Everything Is Not As It Seems, Quinn says that the installation—at first chaotic, in that it defies the viewer's expectations that a chandelier possess radial symmetry—begins to present its patterns as the viewer walks into the room and takes, or does not take, a seat in the observer's central chair. "You come to the center," she says, "and realize the room is bilaterally symmetrical. The whole piece snaps into focus. Everything is not as it seems; you don't get symmetry where you expect it but then an underlying order is revealed." The viewer may notice four identical balls hovering a thrilling inch above the ground. Each ball is spaced in perfect quadrants, dropped down from threaded columns. A pattern of matte beads versus glazed balls might be discovered, then the gravity-defying, clustered disks repeat left and right. Indeed, the main pleasure in experiencing Everything Is Not As It Seems comes from these shifting patterns that tell us this is more than a chandelier.

Part of the pleasure in classical music also comes from identifying emerging symmetries, from anticipating leitmotifs and getting carried away by the sort of tonal invariances that Wagner helped pioneer. To think about these qualities is to understand how a chandelier, in its dancing droopiness and lights offered like a ballerina's hands, might be theatrical, and how clay, in its arabesques and swirls, might be musical, operatic. Quinn knows her Wagner as well as she knows her clay; as an undergraduate at Oberlin College, she studied baroque music; she apprenticed with a violin maker and earned her living crafting flutes. Ceramics and music are an unlikely pair. But lucky for us, an artist has come along to show us that not all unlikely pairs are what they seem.

- by Elizabeth Reichert, Ceramics Monthly, May 2009, p. 24.