Mary O’Malley refers to her work as Post-Modern Surrealism. Her phantasmagoric functional ware has roots not only in Surrealist poetic displacements that convert one kind of reality into another, but also in the work of the 16th-century potter Bernard Palissy. Her Bottom Feeders series is the consequence of a hard look at a number of issues; the romanticizing of nature, the way representations of nature can turn into kitsch, and the present ecological crisis. O’Malley takes into consideration the cultural boundaries between craft, fine art, and kitsch, aiming to confuse functionality with straight aesthetics and cultural commentary. Craft is extremely important to her—and while she knows it’s unlikely that anyone will actually put tea in one of her teapots, it’s important to her that the pot pours well, that the handle, spout, lid be well designed and conceptually integrated.
The Bottom Feeders series combines numerous sources of imagery; classically proportioned traditional tableware, seashore detritus and a variety of different species of sea creatures. Combined, these elements form an amalgam that resembles nothing less than a refined form of sea salvage. In their mannered and highly complex detailing, they call to mind objects that might be found in the long-submerged wreckage of a luxury ocean liner. Her cups, teapots, and other standard pieces of a high-end china service are encrusted with ceramic barnacles and various other species of slimy or clingy sea life. The bellies, rims, and handles of her vessels are often clutched by, clung to, or comprised of the bodies of octopuses, crabs, and starfish. The satiny white surfaces of the ware stand in sharp contrast to the spiky trompe l’oeil, densely packed sea wrack adhered to it. The porcelain looks as if it were being devoured by sea life; each piece seems to be the starting point of a reef, objects that might become embedded in coral and other forms of rigid and colonizing sea life.
2 Bottom Feeder Teacup and Saucer, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, wheel-thrown, handbuilt, slip-cast Standard 365 Porcelain, red iron oxide, Alfred White glaze, fired to cone 6, 22K-gold luster, 2014.
The work is built up around a series of oppositions the most basic of which is that between the artifice of social order and the forces of nature. Her work replicates the tableware of the special occasion—the kind of upscale, department store porcelain a bride might be given. Each porcelain cup, pitcher, teapot, and tureen has the gleam of objects saved for special occasions, each with its conventional mark of quality—the gold-covered rim. The banality of this kind of tableware, its omnipresence and tepid attractiveness, is confronted by an imitation of nature; the symbol of a force beyond control. It’s a humorous, surrealist confrontation; the objects obscuring the ware might, under different circumstance be sitting on top of it as a meal. This grafted layer of artificial sea-life makes each object useless, no one will drink anything from these cups, use any of these objects for anything other than decoration. At the same time, these objects are not truly decorative—they are nothing like the kitschy, nature-themed, heavily detailed Beleek-ware O’Malley grew up with. They’re also not beautiful—regardless of the cultural convention that images of nature are always essentially beautiful. O’Malley views nature as a force capable of engulfing culture, outliving it, resisting it. Her vision of nature is nothing like National Geographic Magazine’s rosy vision of the sea. Her imagery is fundamentally grotesque—full of an energy and dissonance that results from not romanticizing a subject matter traditionally made the object of romantic notions.
Another fundamental opposition in her work is the contrast between the messy, emotionally loaded imagery and the extreme skill of its fabrication. O’Malley is driven by the desire to produce objects that embody fine workmanship. As an undergraduate at the University of Arts and living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she was trained in traditional English and Japanese techniques. The functional sections of her vessels are thrown on the wheel using a porcelain body, which is glazed with Alfred White (cone 6) and the sea creatures are stained with red iron oxide. She uses 22-karat gold luster on the rims of the vessels. The sea life is all handbuilt—the sea sponges are dipped in slip and then fired out. The tentacles are formed using the technique for pulling handles. She sometimes incorporates bits of garbage into the underwater imagery—lighters, bottle caps, cinder blocks, cigarette butts, etc. O’Malley has not only encountered and surmounted tremendous technical difficulties with her materials, but also goes along with whatever breakage or warping that occurs during bisque and glaze firings.
O’Malley’s work uses the vocabulary of what she refers to as “traditional service ware.” These stereotypical forms serve as a vehicle for the Rococo aquatic-themed decoration. The result, as she says, is “two completely different aesthetics existing as one piece.” Her soup tureen is an extended, hysterical riff on nature versus culture. All the conventional parts of a tureen are replicated—straight-sided bowl, ladle, and fitted lid with a slot for the ladle. The vessel itself is even footed, albeit with four chunks resembling coral. The lid is covered from rim to rim with a full-sized lobster, a signifier of luxury foodstuff; it has a dramatic culinary presentation but isn’t especially appetizing. The lobster lies in a nest of coral, kelp, and barnacles all pigmented by O’Malley’s omnipresent oxide stains. The sides and bottom of the tureen are similarly decorated. The ladle is the humorous fulcrum for the piece—the spoon part resembles a fan-shaped scallop shell, it’s attached to two entwined tentacles whose elegant loops form the handle.
4 Bottom Feeder Soup Tureen, 23 in. (59 cm) in height, wheel-thrown, handbuilt Standard 365 Porcelain, red iron oxide, Alfred White glaze, fired to cone 6, 22K-gold luster, 2013. Private collection.
O’Malley welcomed the technical difficulties Bottom Feeders brought her. She says the “play between total control and inevitability has sustained my interest and attention because it mimics life in so many ways . . . I find this play between forces endlessly challenging, The dance that results from trying to find a balance between what we can control and what we cannot is where I believe true beauty resides.”
O’Malley completed her MFA at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA) Postgraduate Art and Design University. Her work was exhibited at American Craft Council shows in 2013 and 2014 as well as in a solo exhibition in 2015 at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Last year, she also participated in the 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show and had a residency at the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute in Jingdezhen, China. In 2017, she developed a public outreach project at the Tate Modern in London with Collective Matter (www.collectivematter.co.uk), which she formed along with two of her classmates at the RCA. The collective spoke about this experience at the 2018 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in March.
the author Kay Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.