CoCA Project – The Dancing Bears

‘The Dancing Bears’ Kerry Jameson

From my childhood obsessions with the Jonathan Creek series, reading Patricia Cornwell and religiously watching Tim Burton movies, it seems I’ve always had a quiet fascination with the macabre. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that when deciding on a piece of work to write about from the Coca York ceramics collection, there was no question in my mind it would be one of Kerry Jameson’s creepy creations.

The one piece in particular I’ve chosen is ‘The Dancing Bears’, a 2010 work from her dark and disquieting series ‘Collect’ which also features a frenzied fox and a crying monkey. It’s a pair of standing bears, the tallest about 30 cm high holding a red concertina and with a rope tied around its neck (although hanging loose as if he has just broken free); the shorter one leaning on a gnarled walking stick. Both bears are covered in a mangy, matted, woollen texture which looks as though it would be rough to touch. They peer at you from terrifyingly animated glass eyes. Something about the fur reminded me of an old teddy I used to own, threadbare and worn from years of use. I expect the piece was made in the artist’s windowless west London studio although according to her website she currently she lives in Singapore, teaching at the school of arts there.

Jameson’s absence from social media and the lack of personal information on her website adds to her sculptures’ intrigue and mystery. However lack of information also means I don’t know exactly how the bears were made but I hazard to suppose they’re most likely hand built from earthenware. I’d like to know what kinds of supports she uses when building. Might there some kind of armature to begin with? Despite the sharp claws and gaping mouths I thought the smaller bear looked almost comical with his squat legs, too small to support the bulky body. His fur stops halfway down, below which is a sgraffito texture made with angry looking marks to give the impression of fur with what looks like black and red slip. This gives him the appearance of wearing a pair of high-waisted trousers (could this in fact be a caricature of Simon Cowell?!)
What I find most exciting and unique about Jameson’s work is that to her, the process of firing is just the beginning of a piece. Rather than despairing over unexpected cracks and things gone wrong she sees these ‘failures’ as opportunities to create something new so her sculptures become collages of fragments stuck together. To re-assemble them she uses a mixture of kaolin (china clay) and glue. The breadth of materials she incorporates into her work is astounding: seeds, buttons, stones, shells, glass eyes, feathers, canvas, hessian, jute (a course material derived from vegetable fibres), clay cement, lead glazes, oxides and acrylic to name a few. There’s an immediacy and spontaneity in the way she decorates without too much deliberation which gives the work life. It’s interesting to see so many sketches on her website. It seems drawing is an important part of her thinking process and there’s a fluidity and child-like nature to her large, expressive ink drawings which is reflected in her making and decorating.

Other pieces by her in the museum included a series of big pots illustrated with people being chainsawed and having their limbs pulled apart by wolves, in a slip-decorated technique that reminded me of red and black figure panting on Greek vases. There was also a series of six terracotta figures on horseback, swords brandished in the air and a curious headless statue holding six tiny kittens in each arm. Maybe I’m particularly drawn to the surrealism in her work and the humour this brings. There are definitely undertones of violence throughout much of it though. But then who doesn’t enjoy being unsettled once in a while? Why else would we watch horror films?
In Ceramic Review issue 267 (2014) Jack Tan draws parallels between Jameson’s work and a particular Dr Who episode ‘The empty child’ In which a boy in a gas mask haunts the streets of the London Blitz at night calling ‘Are you my mummy?’ He argues it’s this juxtaposition of familiarity or nostalgia (dressing the sculptures up in a ‘soft’ material skin like a teddy bear) with horror (distorting the figure and gluing on sharp teeth and piercing eyes) that gives the sculptures their power and appeal. In ‘A Time before Wolves’ (Ceramic Review 271, 2015) Andy Christian aptly refers to her work as ‘cuddly toys that bite’.

I was surprised to discover that Jameson first studied ceramics at Central St Martins before completing an MA at the Royal College of Art in 2009. Her work is so darkly unorthodox and peculiar, it’s easier to believe it sprung out of some grotesque nightmare than that it was the result of years of hard work and experimentation. Images from her degree show suggest an interest in myths and legends (Romulus and Remus), religious iconography, museum artefacts and themes of death and fear but with animal imagery throughout. A large proportion of her earlier works were dog sculptures in buff grogged clay, covered in an opaque white slip with colour on top.
Her work took a new turn in 2010 after she visited the exhibition ‘The Sacred made Real’ at the National Gallery in London, a collection of religious art from the Spanish golden age which included polychrome wooden sculptures. Artists like Gregorio Fernandez (1576-1636) wanted to achieve the same level of realism in sculpture as they could on canvas so they added details like glass eyes and human hair to their works. ‘The Dancing Bears’ have a definite visual reference to traditional salt-glazed stoneware bear jugs that were popular in England in the 18th century when bear baiting was still a legal sport. African fetish figures are another major influence– idols worshipped for their magical powers often with staring eyes, gaping mouths and decorated with nails and shells. Her choice of sombre and earthy colours reminds me of prehistoric and aboriginal art.

When first introduced to the ceramics course, we were each asked to choose from a selection of ladybird picture cards which most appealed or best described us. One of mine was the ladybird ‘Story of clowns’. Something about the fine line between the humorous and sinister had resonance with me. It must have too with Anthony Shaw who’s recently become an avid collector of Jameson’s work.

Ceramic Review 254 (2012) pg.30-36
Ceramic Review 267 (2014) pg.24-25
Ceramic Review 271 pg.36-42
Ceramics and Perception 60 (2005) pg.13-16
Ceramics and Perception 98 (2014) pg. 12-14