Locked away in a cabinet at my grandmother’s house are her prized possession—her collection of picture perfect porcelain figurines of women in flowing gowns with flawless skin, perfect hair-do’s, poised in gentle ‘feminine’ poses. I’m pretty certain most people would find at least one such iconic sculpture in their homes, carefully dusted daily and displayed by their mother and/or grandmother. These adult collectible Barbie dolls invoke a certain kind of nostalgic old-school English feel of a bygone era of art and high society, but Scotland-based artist Jessica Harrison’s repurposed porcelain dolls are certainly not one you’d find in your mum’s display cabinet, and they definitely aren’t for everyone.
Blood, gore and tattoos — Harrison has refashioned the porcelain ideal of perfection, covering them in hand-painted, meticulous tattoos in her series of sculptures titled ‘Painted Ladies,’ transforming the blank-faced, calm effigies of perfect femininity into badass modern day women. With ‘Painted Ladies’ and its companion series ‘Broken,’ Harrison challenges conformity to societal gender roles, body image and beauty.
“Simplistically, you could say that traditional pieces are trying to appeal to some kind of ‘good taste’ middle-class Englishness. They kind of have this weird pointlessness to them — their poses, their expressions — the figures are just in some kind of bizarre moment of blissful, bland nothingness. With the Broken figures, I am trying to activate their poses, give them some meaning; and in Painted Ladies, the crudeness of the tattoo designs highlights the ridiculous outfits these poor ladies are forever subjected to,” said Harrison regarding her work in an interview with i-D.
What I find incredible about Harrison’s work is her taste for the bizarre and her intermingling of the macabre, resulting in jarring yet intriguing juxtapositions of the past and present, with critical commentary on traditional society in a unique and innovative manner.
Michael Stewart puts it quite aptly when he wrote, “Jessica Harrison’s sculptures are the Victorian freak show brought directly to your mantelpiece, to take centre stage in your cosy, comfortable and safe home to disconcert, disturb and distress,” and they manage to do just that. When asked by i-D about the possibly projecting violence in her work Harrison’s disagrees with the perceived barbarity and brutality of her work, commenting, “Each figurine has been carefully chosen based on their existing pose, where the re-worked ceramic makes the figure a participant in their own undoing. I like to think that these passive ladies have been given a more active role, more in line with how the male body is depicted, in both anatomical history and art history. I do consider them to be quite humorous though, and this is usually the reaction that they get, from children right up to older audiences (who more typically might have owned these kind of figurines originally).”
Scalped and skinned dolls with specks of blood, tattooed beauties and an oddly calm lady carrying her own entrails—Harrison’s figurines are as peculiar as they are comical in their whimsical visual contradictions. They’re highly unlikely to make it into my grandmother’s repository, but after looking at Harrison’s work, I may just start my own collection of these weirdly wonderful women.