1.20 / Review

The Urge

By Bruno Fazzolari July 27, 2010

Erik Scollon’s show, “The Urge,” fills Ping Pong Gallery with a cheerful array of Delftware tchotchkes decorated in characteristic blue glaze on white porcelain. With pieces set in arrangements of twos and threes on humble but well-made pine shelves, the show resembles an elegant sample sale. These are the sorts of versatile decorative objects one might encounter stacked to the gills in grandmotherly horror-vacui or as lively accents in a sober interior: figurines, bottles, vases...and sex toys. The work is decorated with a broad range of motifs and designs, including flowers, jewels, geometrics, silver luster “spangles,” photographs, and floral decals. Scollon is a fine potter, but his drawing and decoration are ultimately what pull the elements of this show together so well.

Previous to ”The Urge,” Scollon’s work queried and queered the conceptual edges of functional ceramic practice by operating in a sphere of social exchange and authenticity. A viewer was invited to take an object made by Scollon in exchange for documenting its use, ultimately resulting in the production of a certificate authenticating it as either an “art” object or a “useful” object. While some quirks enlivened the periphery of those endeavors, the results were generally academic. The certificates and critical formalities brought guilt and mortification into a scene that aimed for pleasure and freedom; it was a grim outcome of a puritanical critical apparatus that polices the pleasure of artists and viewers and that regards sensory exuberance as suspect and dangerous. In this paradigm, pleasure is rationalized and contained in intellectual and conceptual strictures through an artist’s self-policing. Happily, “The Urge” catches Scollon in the act of ditching the pleasure police, substantially extending and relaxing his practice beyond normalizing confines through a humorous and manic reshuffling of visual categories.

What make Scollon’s current show memorable are the visual and tactile pleasures that his lovely porcelain objects elicit in a viewer—and the agile way in which they represent bondage and fetish sexualities. Scollon treats BDSM with gentle humor and floral whimsy that contrast with the heavy-duty aesthetics of black leather bondage masks and softball-sized, porcelain ben-wah balls. He perverts this hybrid even further with a multivalent formal vocabulary, wherein a shape or form is inverted to imply something quite different.

No Parents and No Offspring, 2010; both porcelain with decals and luster, 4 x 3 in. Courtesy of Ping Pong Gallery, San Francisco.

The Slavery of Ornament, 2010; porcelain with cobalt and luster decoration, nylon rope, 8 x 7 x 4 in. Courtesy of Ping Pong Gallery, San Francisco.

No Offspring (2010) and No Parents (2010) each represents a bondage or “gimp” mask; in the former, the stitching of the mask is straightforward, but the latter is ornamented with flourishes in the vein of a Saul Steinberg old lady drawing. Both of these head sculptures are also inverted vessels, representative of the movement between the cute and the strange that occurs throughout the show. Freaky things are miniaturized, figures become figurines, and gimps come to look like silly alien dolls.

The figure of Rose Gimp (2010) appears clad only in underwear, his head a rounded, smooth nubbin stripped of any ornamental features such as a nose, mouth, or eyes. The surface of his head is decorated with delicate rose decals, the bright colors of which contrast with the restrained cobalt hue used in most of the work here. On the same shelf sits a cobalt “gimp hood,” which can be placed over his head so that his floral fancy becomes something hidden and internal. Alternately, the hood can be placed on either of the necks of And/Both Vase (2010), another piece that shares the shelf.

The invitation to interactive play extends the pleasure of this work into the sense of touch, enhancing the desire that these objects incite. It aligns with the plastic play of forms so that play itself is actualized throughout the show; play is what makes this work versatile, with both the sexual and functional implications of the word. But the show is by no means entirely figurative; some of the best works are the straight-ahead vessels. The Slavery of Ornament (2010) consists of a sober, undecorated porcelain bottle “ornamented” about its neck with a rope and gold-and-cobalt porcelain ball, suggestive of either a sex toy or a ball-and-chain. The piece could easily be offered for sale at Gump’s, its story concealed in plain sight.

While the works in “The Urge” can stand on their own, Scollon indicates in his statement that each object was made in response to Viennese architect Adolf Loos’ essay “Crime and Ornament” (1908). Loos writes, “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornaments from objects of daily use.”1 The essay reads as a Modernist cri de cœur, railing against the oppressively ornamented régime of the Viennese aesthetics of the time. In it, Loos links the urge to ornament objects and surfaces with criminality and degeneracy. Scollon takes this notion to a place that is neither china cabinet nor dungeon, but a degenerated hybrid of the two, somehow managing to leave both behind and create his own strange—and strangely pleasurable—thing.


"The Urge" is on view at Ping Pong Gallery in San Francisco through August 14, 2010.


1. "Ornament and Crime.” The Arts of Popular Culture in the Shadow of Adolf Loos, edited by Bernie Miller and Melony Ward, XYZ Books, 2002.

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