Liquid and solid, wet and dry, heavy and weightless, funny and frightening–Linda Cordell’s ceramic sculptures occupy a shifting middle ground between each of these binaries. The ten works the artist selected for A Curious Nature offer slightly surreal pairings of porcelain animals, such as dogs, squirrels, and even a bear, with pieces of domestic furniture. Cordell’s demented animal figurines are strangely at home in the setting of the Wetherill Mansion, a former private residence. While I cannot imagine Samuel Wetherill, for whom the mansion was built, owning one of Cordell’s figurines, perhaps he enjoyed the porcelain animal figurines produced by the famous Meissen factory in Germany throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as this Bolognese terrier made around 1900. Cordell takes the long tradition of saccharine animal figurines and turns it inside out, exposing the messy reality of animal bodies and the distorting effects of domestication.
Animals have figured prominently in porcelain production since the early eighteenth century, when porcelain was first produced in Europe in Meissen under the patronage of the Elector Prince of Saxony, Augustus the Strong. Together with more functional items for food service, the Meissen factory produced countless figurines depicting bucolic shepherds and shepherdesses, as well as floppy-eared dogs and other domestic animals. The subject matter of “uncivilized” people and animals contrasted with the precious medium of porcelain, known at the time as “white gold,” and with the abundant wealth and sophistication of the figurines’ owners. These porcelain “noble savages” can be seen as expressions of contemporary Enlightenment philosophical debates about the nature of humankind–are humans naturally depraved, making us little better than animals, as Hobbes would have it, or are we fundamentally moral creatures? While the meaning of what it is to be human has long been expressed through contrast with animals, Cordell’s figurines go beyond this anthropocentrism to suggest the very real effects of this thinking on the bodies of animals themselves.
Cordell’s animals convey a sense of frustration and even rage at the confines of domesticity, and their bodies are distorted by violent resistance, disfiguring disease, or bodily disintegration. Cordell achieves these effects through the skilled manipulation of materials. Most clay–earthenware and stoneware–is heavy, while porcelain was developed to be finer and lighter, with more plasticity and translucency. Cordell embraces these qualities, creating gravity-defying details like the flying drool in “Slap Dog.”
Cordell also incorporates lightweight foam in some of her pieces, such as “Goat Drip.” Reddish colored resin pools on the table underneath the snarling animal, transmuted into bubbling foam as it moves through the wood to beneath the table. The brightly colored enamel strikes a discordant note against the muted white of the furniture and the pale green celadon glaze of the porcelain figures. The ensemble of resin, foam, and porcelain blurs the boundaries between liquid and solid, still subject to gravity and yet resisting it.
Although the porcelain is the main event, Cordell’s sculptures are multi-media, and the furniture pedestals on which the animals are positioned has been carefully selected and adapted. Unlike traditional frames or pedestals, which aim to be invisible and to focus attention on the work of art, Cordell’s pedestals often overwhelm the porcelain creatures poised atop them–or even caught within them. In one of her more recent works, “Culled Lamb,” the lamb has been positioned inside the shelves, the wood closing around its neck and trapping it. Cordell seems to be drawing attention to the disconnect between human and animal, domestic and wild through the dynamic between the porcelain figure and its pedestal.
For all their technical virtuosity, these are not easy works to look at. I feel at once drawn to and repulsed by Cordell’s animals, and they leave me with a lingering sense of discomfort, like being reminded of an inconvenient truth. And perhaps that’s the point.
For more on Cordell’s process and thoughts about her work, check out this video interview with Cordell at her South Philadelphia studio: