Imagine a particularly sharp and engrossing New Yorker comic staring at you from between your fingers as you sip your coffee, and you might just experience the essence of Jessica Brandl’s award-winning ceramic works. Though delicately molded and painted, the crockery of the Harvard Ceramic Program’s 2014-2015 Artist in Residence is not your grandmother’s Limoges teacup set: ranging from coffee mugs to Thanksgiving turkey plates, the pieces boast compelling scenes set in the artist’s Midwest childhood home that poke, prod, and unsettle the viewer with their piquant historical allusions, terse humor, and sharp social commentaries. The genius of Brandl’s work, however, lies in its ability to convey the artist’s message in both its pragmatic physicality as a quotidian eating utensil and in the transcendent images it offers.
The plate most emblematic of Brandl’s style is “Manifest,” a small terra cotta charger coated in a white slip and vibrant underglazes. At first glance, the plate’s circular depression presents a television sitting in a cavernous, dilapidated room. If observed more closely however, the room’s peeling blue walls and decaying, patchy white ceiling become a dramatic horizon of sky and cloud—the sarcastically sublime backdrop for the covered wagons, farmers’ plows, and Native American travois of John Ghast’s 1872 painting “American Progress.” Brandl’s reframing of this classic illustration of manifest destiny in the confines of a decaying room is as unsettling as it is mesmerizing: the sheer technical prowess of fitting the illusion of infinite space into a room and then onto a 20-inch circular surface is breathtaking in and of itself. Just as engaging, however, is the gnawing question the work presents: what is the legacy of America’s spirit of expansion today?
But this only describes the most obvious facet of the piece. The rest is awarded to only the most curious of viewers, as it can only be discovered through a physical exploration of the piece. A slight lifting of the plate and peek into the hollow underneath reveals a whole other painted subject: the familiar image of the American bald eagle sprawled in full flight, carrying a banner that reads not the usual “E Pluribus Unum” but “Too dear for my possessing.” This lyrical fragment of a Shakespearean sonnet suggests a subtle solution to the question raised by the front of the plate: restraint. Some things are most beautiful left untouched. (The biggest irony would be, of course, the owner of the plate, who by tranquilly digging into a juicy steak might bring to the piece a more tangible dimension of American consumerism.)
Brandl’s concern for physical and moral decay is ultimately a personal one. Both of her parents are Nebraskans, but she spent the better part of her childhood in Texas, where her father became a successful businessman in the booming technology market. As her family moved to Nebraska in the 70s, however, Brandl found herself in the midst of a totally alien world. Neighbors were few and far between. Many of the houses around her had been abandoned. As a bored teenager, she would often vault through the windows and explore the vacant spaces. “It made me wonder, why is it that Texas is new and growing and Nebraska so empty and in decline?” she says. For Brandl, art became a way to make sense of the world she came from and record her personal experience of it. Part of her transformation included seeing the beauty in the decline around her. “There is something so precious in decaying layers of wallpaper—from the different layers that become exposed, you can read through time.” The derelict buildings that had initially alienated her became powerful recurrent subjects in her works. Besides “Manifest,” they include “Sinking Ship,” inspired by an abandoned chapel Brandl passed on the highway in Nebraska earlier this year. The piece consists of a large terra cotta plate on which is painted a lifeboat paddling away from a Titanic-like church assailed by ferocious waves. The scene becomes all the more poignant as one reads the words “God is with us” on the side of the listing church.
As multilayered as some pieces are, others prove that Brandl has also mastered the fine art of simplicity. In their small paintable surfaces, her mugs are the best canvases for wit and whimsical designs. One such mug features the word “mobile” scrawled on it, bearing a trailer on one side and a covered wagon on the other. Another has the word “nice” above an elegantly-groomed donkey. One of her most bestselling mugs, however, is “shit!”, which features a graveyard painted with playful strokes on one side and an open coffin on the other. What better reminder is there to go ahead and enjoy that daily morning coffee?