In this Case: Ceramicist Howard Kottler

In Case 53B of the Luce Foundation Center sit four plates that first attracted my attention when I was a graduate student a few years ago. I was drawn to these by the figure of a boy, who looked very much like a famous painting, yet strangely manipulated. I also thought it odd that these plates were in the craft section, yet these white porcelain discs looked nothing like the plates I had been taught were craft while earning a degree in pottery.

As I looked more closely, I realized that the figure of the boy was indeed from a famous painting—it was Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy. On these four plates, the ceramicist Howard Kottler rearranged the figure in various ways, and gave each plate a clever name to match the position of the boy. In my favorite plate, Ambitious Resident from the Blue Boy Set, the boy is cut up and appears in sections across the windows of two carriages. Often, when I tell people he is cut up, it sounds gruesome and gory, but it's not. It's rather humorous. In one carriage window, his feet dangle, separate from the rest of his body, but seemingly fine. In the center of the first carriage, he peers out, his expression unchanged and he seems unconcerned with the fact that he's been spliced so neatly.

This sly, slightly dark, interpretation of a well-known painting opened up an entire world of ceramics and craft to me as a graduate student. Kottler especially loved turning the ceramics world on its ear with his work in decalcomania and porcelain blanks. He took mass-produced plates and combined them with specific decals that appropriated well-known images, like American Gothic and the U.S. Capitol, and made plates full of social commentary rather than a dinner feast.