Stephanie DeArmond’s work combines ceramics tradition with the ironic humor of appropriated text and kitsch imagery. Employing a wide range of influences from architecture, pop culture and art history, DeArmond is at the helm of an alternative craft movement revitalizing non-traditional materials in the art world. With an audience enamored with her work that ranges from subscribers of Elle and Ready-Made magazines to the readers of the popular blog: Design*Sponge, DeArmond’s sculptural and functional ceramics are not easily defined by the art-school limitations of sculpture, vessel and design.
At first glance DeArmond’s crisp letterforms appear to be factory made, cast from a plaster mold. This is in a large part thanks to her pointed reference to the exquisitely ornate 18th century porcelain dinnerware of the French Sevres and Vincennes factories. The overt decorative surfaces of DeArmond’s work immediately evoke the preciousness of your grandmother’s china cabinet—stereotypically looked at and rarely used. Upon closer inspection, the decals that appeared to belong to a museum class object reveal themselves to be an odd mishmash of kitschy florals purchased on Ebay—no doubt scraps left over from a hobbyist collection. This is just one of several layers of the high/low contrast in DeArmond’s work. Capitalizing on our expectations, the decals create fields of negative space allowing the viewer to read the surprising messages hidden in the detailed script of the letterforms. Drawn to the work of artists like Margaret Killgallen, Jack Pierson and Jenny Holzer and their use of text, DeArmond takes advantage of our cultural familiarity with traditional porcelain by using it to humorously parade appropriated text from subcultures of song lyrics, street signs and supermarket tabloids. “Something interesting happens when craft interacts with other creative/pop-cultural forces. Like ‘beat-box’ plus ‘oil painting’ plus ‘pom-poms.’ I think about how and why different materials and cultural references get placed into this high/low hierarchy. I find a lot of humor playing with that juxtaposition. Like Clement Greenberg versus Snoop, not that one is better than the other. I don’t know where Greenberg fits into my work, but I do know where Snoop does.”
DeArmond came to ceramics as an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle. The strength of the ceramics area with its focus on sculpture and a strong visiting artist program gave her a good foundation in hand building. DeArmond made an influential move in 2001 to Minneapolis, Minnesota where she worked at Northern Clay Center. Her time there was focused on learning how to throw with porcelain, adding a new skill to her repetoire. She fell in love with porcelain mainly as a material with rebellious potential: “I was looking at a lot of work that was wood-fired or made with dark, earthy colors and for me the work read as very masculine. I wanted to do the opposite, to make super feminine pottery. Some of the [masculine] work [in Minnesota] is thrown loosely on the wheel and very expressive. I wanted simple forms--I wanted something plain. I wanted a clean look that could reference royal china or commercially made objects instead of granola-type chunky tableware. If I could put something subversive in my work I was interested in that--something that related to my experiences with urban life, something rebellious.” She began hand painting her cups with juxtapositions of text and image. “I thought text made the work more interesting than an image alone. I could show a different level of detail--a different line quality than the images I was making. I thought it made a nice visual contrast. It takes the image out of context and makes it more like a diagram or a drawing, it could be something else, more than just an image.”
It wasn’t until DeArmond attended graduate school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, that she began to think of the text as having potential as a three-dimensional form in its own right. “At some point everyone kept telling me to integrate form more with the surface decoration I was working with. I started cutting letterforms out of the middle of vessels, then experimenting with how a lid could reference a letterform, and several objects can form a sentence, like the classic diptych or triptych idea. Finally I dropped the vessel aspect of the work and made letterforms. I see these pieces as sculptural objects more than being about words or typography. I imagine them as vessels referencing historical ceramics, because of how they are made, as hand-built hollow objects.”
The large scale of DeArmond’s letterforms points to a direct lineage to commercial signage, one of her favorite sources for fonts. While in graduate school, the fonts became more decorative, sometimes obscuring the message hidden within. This requires the viewer to study the text as an object before understanding its content. “I like using really decorative text and subversively hiding a message within it--an unexpected message, another layer of meaning. I am thinking about abstracting type as form even more. I love how a typeface can reference a subculture, like you think of heavy metal or skinny jeans. It is great how type can go from having a really utilitarian use to something just poetic, straight poetry.”
Shortly after completing her M.F.A. in 2007, DeArmond’s work received a lot of press both online and in print. This visibility of her work led to at least one solo show and several exhibitions. “I like to think of my work in the context of our culture at large. So it was nice that I had exposure in these different venues [Elle, ReadyMade, New York Times among others]. It was a nice metaphor for looking at my work through the lens of popular culture outside of an academic context. It’s ironic that I’m interested in putting my work in a different context because it is so ceramic-y in nature. But I think its exciting when contemporary ceramic work shows up in mainstream media. It’s an opportunity for new dialog for both insiders and outsiders.”
In 2008, DeArmond moved to the Netherlands for two years while her husband completed his masters in graphic design. She found that the European approach to ceramics as a material was more interdisciplinary which resonated with DeArmond. “There was this different aesthetic there, ceramics is part of design. A lot of designers, like Hella Jongerius, work in ceramics but also design couches and other products. Ceramics is part of design— like interior design, product design. I like thinking about my work in the context of other creative fields. My influences are design, conceptual art and contemporary architecture.”
DeArmond and her family recently moved back to Minneapolis, Minnesota where she has set up a studio a few blocks from home. Settling back into American culture, DeArmond wonders how her time in Europe might affect her work. “Every time I move it changes my perspective. It changes the way I see things. You take a little bit of where you have lived with you. Environment changes your work and who you are as a person. It goes back to memory and idealizing the past. When I make my work I think about embodying joy or happiness. Drawing on happy memories is a natural source because [it makes] you want to keep going, you want to feel good.”
Like many of her contemporaries, DeArmond’s work is grounded in history and personal experience. Her poetic subversion of the hierarchies of ceramics places her in the middle of a clearly postmodern conversation about craft and its place in the art world. No doubt DeArmond will further establish her studio practice taking advantage of the glamour of porcelain and highlighting the idiosyncrasies of American subculture.