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Indelicate Objects

Af Justin Novak
Across the centuries, a dominant stream in the evolution of the ceramic figurine has offered us limitless iterations of genteel behavioral models and idyllic flights of fancy. Characterized by lyrical gestures, aloof affectations, and clichéd allegories, these objects are often sedate and sanitized, almost narcotic in their effect. This numbingly idyllic strain of porcelain figuration has nonetheless been counterbalanced, from the start, by a more discordant undercurrent.

Another strand, woven throughout the history of the art form, trafficks in farcical, satirical, risqué and absurd subjects.  The mainstream production of figurines has always reflected an impressive range of the human imagination, celebrating the aberrant as well as the normative, and indulging in flagrant breaches of decorum. As an art form, the heyday of ceramic figuration may have passed, but in the medium of plastics, this latter tendency is alive and thriving. Contemporary collectibles in the form of "Designer Toys”, which are marketed for adults, and the sub-genres of "Urban Vinyl” and Figma, have harnessed erotic, cute and innocent formal vocabularies and married them to themes that are streetwise, anarchic and bleakly dystopian.

Contemporary subcultures of vinyl figurines employ transgressive, hybrid imagery in ways that can represent keen cultural critique on the one hand, or thoroughly regressive reptilian impulse on the other.  Just as often, the figures hover uneasily in the space between the two, as they purposefully disrupt the psyche without clearly positioning themselves as either gratuitous irreverence or sly social commentary. It is only natural that contemporary porcelain should resume its rightful place in this territory, as the grandmother of these provocative objects.  Despite their contrasting nature, today’s vinyl collectibles have more in common than meets the eye with porcelain figurines as they functioned in their own heyday. Porcelain, like contemporary high-end vinyl, was once a seductive new material, fetishized by collectors, whose production was perfected in the Far East. And each gave birth to a genre of allegorical figuration and a phenomenon that would take hold of imaginations worldwide.

Because the tradition is steeped in lyricism, nostalgia and sentimentality, the ceramic figurine has a special ability, whether intended or not, to disrupt and reorient the familiar. Contemporary vinyl toy collectibles may have assumed this role in many ways, and plastics may hold more currency as a medium, but the genealogy of miniature collectibles can be traced far back in time, long before the advent of modern synthetic materials. Whether it’s the gleefully frenzied irreverence of the "Singeries” produced by Meissen in the mid-eighteenth century, portraying monkeys dressed as court musicians, or the erotic figures produced in Tsarist Russia’s Guzhev Factory, the ceramic miniature has for centuries aimed to provoke, tantalize and titillate.  From this perspective, Louise Hindsgavl claims her place in a long lineage of European artists and artisans who were as dedicated to the craft of subversion as they were to the masterful handiwork itself.     Justin Novak Associate Professor of Visual Arts + Material Practice Emily Carr University of Art + Design Vancouver, Canada