Kathy King: The ceramics of satire, sexuality and feminism

by Minji Kim

To say that Kathy King’s largely narrative oeuvre tells stories is a gross understatement. King’s ceramic pieces brazenly shout their messages, which range from fiery commentary on gender to wistful farewells to youth. Using the ancient art of claymaking as a megaphone for her satire, King, who spoke at the Ceramics Studio Monday, aggressively challenges sexual norms and scrutinizes the idiosyncrasies associated with the contemporary woman. In a phrase: Puberty, sex, birth control, reproduction all carved with astonishing wit onto your dinner plate.

King is an incredibly prolific potter who has taught at more than 50 colleges, most recently at Georgia State University. She relocated to Harvard to take up the position of instructor and Ceramics Program Assistant. King speaks candidly and openly, and her conversational tone makes me feel like I’m in her kitchen sipping tea as she recounts how a doctor who tried to guess her breast size when she was 12 inspired her to make a jar mocking breast enlargement ointment.

Originally trained in printmaking and eventually excelling in it (though, she says she "had never put an image on anything before then"), King found her heart’s medium when she stumbled upon porcelain oddities at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. She began to follow after the contemporary avant-garde potters that she admired, like Matt Nolen who did "Glitter and Be Gay," a politicized parody on a classical 18th century vase.

Her works merge woodcuts and ceramics by way of her virtuosic use of sgraffito, a technique of glazing the surface of the clay with a slip and carving away the design afterwards to reveal the white underneath. The result is a 3-dimensional, politically charged version of adult comics, inspired by the ones she relishes as "accessible, honest works of art."

One of the biggest and my favorite of King’s large-scale furniture pieces was a bedroom installation in which she explores issues of feminine privacy. She included a huge "birth control bed" adorned with bold labels for tampons and birth control pills (complete with Satan condemning an egg "You are not wanted here"), a vanity table and various jars for condoms and pregnancy tests. And it’s not just for art’s sake; King apparently slept in the bed for seven years.

Following King’s works is like traveling through various stages of a woman’s life. There’s a series of liquor jars depicting levels of sobriety that might be of interest to college students, as well as a sarcastically menacing depiction of Sally Mae the student loan on one of her pieces. As she neared her 30s, King created "In Memoriam" series to bid farewell to youthful innocence and virginity, and eventually built a family of "To reproduce or not to reproduce" cradles, inspired by the new dilemmas her friends have encountered as they began to have children.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I’d actually want to rock my child to sleep in one of King’s graphic cradles—a purpose I don’t think that even she condones—but her works are cathartic, liberating, and flat-out hilarious. The relentless sarcasm and feminist Tim Burton style are exquisitely concentrated into an art not usually known as vessels for satire, and the juxtaposition is utterly refreshing.

As for now, King says it’s time to "be quiet" for a while and is attempting to tone down her pieces by using less text and working on a smaller scale. But just because she’s entered a phase of making butter holders doesn’t mean that she’s lost her feminist verve. She’s just waiting for her next explosive inspiration.

[Caption: Body Cradle, one of five cradles for Nursery of My Indecision, 2002, carved porcelain tile, wood fabric]

[Caption: You Are Soooo Gay, Boy Version, carved porcelain, glaze, China paint]