The thing about ceramics is that they’re just so smashable. You can hurl ceramics against the floor in celebration like the Greeks, shouting ‘Opa!’ in joyous abandon. Ceramics can split apart unceremoniously under the scalding water of a thousandth wash. Or, you can smash a ceramic with righteous indignation against the floor of your kitchen during a bitter domestic dispute. Elyse Pignolet’s new exhibition of ceramic work, You Should Smile More, now on view at Koplin Del Rio in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, is certainly smashable too, not that I’m recommending it. Especially because no amount of cathartic destruction will eradicate the deeply ingrained cultural and patriarchal ideas Pignolet is critiquing in her delicately wonky pieces. Another argument against smashing is that, like a lot of very ugly ideas in our culture, Pignolet’s ensconced these in some very lovely exteriors.
You Should Smile More is the type of show that sneaks up on you. At first glance, the viewer sees a gallery filled with traditional-looking blue and white patterned ceramics. Plates of different sizes are L-pinned to a deep blue painted rectangle on the gallery wall, and fantastically shaped tulipieres (vases with multiple fluted openings) of different sizes grace pedestals around the periphery of the room. On the whole, the first impression is staid. But a glance of longer than a few seconds reveals that these complicated vessels are just a little off. They are clearly hand built, and as such, each is slightly imperfect. Your eye is drawn to the slight asymmetry for just long enough to reveal the final gut punch. Each of the snaking blue patterns contains phrases, words or tropes, all of which will be familiar, particularly to the female viewer.
Like the exhibition title suggests, all of the undulating text glazed into Pignolet’s ceramics are pulled directly from things women are told, either in a quiet patronizing tone, or shouted on the street, or repeated by other women through common “wisdom.” In this show, we encounter a litany of labels ranging from the historical to the current. Hysterical, Bitchy, Cunty, Thick, Nice Tits, Backside for Days, and Fine As Fuck are all messages that curve around Pignolet’s plates. Some of these, certain folks might argue, are compliments. But female presenting people know all too well the threat of violence that lurks just under the surface of these “compliments.” It’s as thinly veneered as Pignolet’s glazes.
In some of the larger works, the artist is able to expand her arguments to more than just one-liners. One of the simpler vessels is adorned with words and phrases uttered in description of women by our president. Fat. Pig. Dog. Slob. Disgusting Animal. (Donald Trump on Women) presents the choice monikers offered by the man currently occupying the highest office of our country. The largest letters on this vessel are emblazoned on it’s base, and read “piece of ass,” the phrase Trump repeated at shock-jock Howard Stern’s bidding about his own beloved daughter.
The first-encountered and largest vessel in You Should Smile More is titled Trophy Wife. At three feet tall, Trophy Wife provides Pignolet with the most surface area to flesh out her complicated message. The work invokes perhaps predictable names like Ana Nicole Smith and Melania Trump, but also some surprising ones like Michelle Obama. What Pignolet is doing here is, in the biblical sense, allowing us to remove the plank from our own eye. Her works make the point that all women in the public are vulnerable to the same kinds of objectification. Whether they are idolized or scorned, as public figures, they are picked apart or held up without much further investigation into their individuality, let alone their humanity.
Pignolet’s subtly subversive message doesn’t offer solutions as much as it does catharsis. It’s helpful to see one’s own experiences mirrored in art. It makes you feel less crazy. As I walked to the train station after taking in You Should Smile More, an older man gaped at me while hitching up his pants to meet his beer belly. “Well, you’re cute,” he drawled. Somewhere in my mental gallery, I picked up a Pignolet plate and hurled it violently. In the real world, however, I just kept walking.