Changing Skin: The Uncomfortable Territories of Juz Kitson
by Caitlin Eyre
Ceramic installation artist Juz Kitson combines the delicate elegance of fine porcelain with the brutal imagery of life and death to create installations that pulsate with the vigour and vitality of life. Her work transcends the traditional boundaries and structural forms of wheel thrown pottery, breaking new ground in the creation of highly ornate and meticulously crafted sculptural installations. Kitson’s work intends to simultaneously unsettle, seduce and repulse her viewers and to draw them into ‘uncomfortable territories’ using eerily Gothic imagery and themes.(1)
Kitson's large-scale installation Changing Skin (2013), merges most unlikely companions; beauty and monstrosity, life and death, fertility and decay, delicate and obscene. The result is enchantingly repulsive and disturbingly beautiful. Fragile strands of pastel-coloured porcelain beads cascade down the installation from the mass of bright jewel-encrusted skulls and clean white antlers. Glossy candy-coloured balls spill down the walls, the oddly textured forms appearing like mutated gumballs or fleshy growths against the smooth clean walls. Long tendrils of hair gush over the rounded bulbous forms like an intricate veil before pooling gently at the foot of the installation. While the porcelain forms are skilfully controlled and meticulously crafted, unruly elements such as the long tendrils of hair seem to speak of the raw and untamed quality of nature.
The installation is composed of an extensive collection of carefully selected bones, antlers, vertebrae, fur, hides, horse hair, wool and other found materials that have been dipped in porcelain, clay or wax. Petrified and preserved by these processes, the fragile bones are saved from the natural ravages of decay and instead resurrected into eternal life as objects of Gothic beauty. In this way, the very symbols and material victims of death, destruction and decay are rendered immortal and even reanimated by the artist through their inclusion in the installation. Kitson’s careful arrangement of these eclectic and exquisite forms allow previously inanimate and abandoned objects to be reanimated and gain a new and independent identity. Referring to her artistic processes as “a kind of ceramic alchemy... [that gives] inanimate materials a spark of life”, Kitson aims to breathe life into that which would otherwise be silent and still.(2)
Potent symbols of life, fertility and vitality are also featured prominently in the installation to counterbalance the opposing symbols of death, destruction and decay. Luscious floral forms suggestive of female genitalia poignantly suggest the nature of human sexuality, birth and new life. Coloured in pastel hues and featuring layers of soft, delicate petals, the open floral orifices are nonetheless rendered shocking and explicit by the fleshy, hairy quality of their forms. Bulbous candy-coloured breasts and phallic-shaped forms dangle from the walls, the budding sexual organs swollen with the raw and explicit potential for life. Some of the heavy buds are encased in simple knitted caps that soften their overtly sexual imagery, creating a wonderfully ambiguous atmosphere that dwells on the cusp of brutal raw sexuality and blossoming new life. Clusters of ornately crafted and anatomically correct porcelain vital organs, such as hearts and stomachs, suggest the underlying bodily functions of life and the corporal reality of human and animal existence.
Confronted by the exquisite and beastly nature of the installation, I am caught in a conflicting state of attraction and repulsion whereby my desire to intimately scrutinise is met with the equal desire to turn away in disgust. The use of desirable and undesirable tactile materials creates a unique disturbance in the instinct to physically engage with the work. While I am in some instances drawn to touch pleasant elements within the work (wool and porcelain) materials that usually provoke an element of disgust (bones, hide and hair) swiftly counter this desire.
The installation undoubtedly has intense gravitational pull, simultaneously generating attention and dismissal in the quest for deeper contemplation. Despite the intense push and pull of the work however, I am acutely aware that the installation seems to possess a consciousness of its own. The silent sculptures seem to stare back, creating a disquieting sense of unease and generating an atmosphere of almost sacred reverence and wonder. There is an underlying sense of unease and caution when approaching the installation, as though it actually embodies a living beast that could be awakened by a wrong movement or moment of carelessness. The work is static and yet strangely animated, suggestive of a great slumbering beast or benevolent alien creature. As the initial shock of the grotesque elements of the work recede, these unsettling feelings are transformed into those of curiosity and astonishment. Infinitely dwarfed by the immense scale and intense power of the work, I stand transfixed in awe and wonderment at the foot of this great pulsing shrine to life.
Juz Kitson’s mass installation almost literally pulses with the vibrant process of life. The very essence of existence, from conception and birth to death and decay, seems to drip and ooze from every surface of the installation. Intent on breathing life into the inanimate, Kitson is unapologetic in her daringly beautiful and grotesque ode to life and the nature of being.