Artifact, 28 in. (71 cm) in height, terra cotta, slip, engobe, glaze, 2020.

Jessica Brandl is seized by certain anxieties, but then, she jokes, such is life as an artist. Her work arguably is about how to manage the flow of anxiety—opening the floodgate of personal tragedy, COVID-19 angst, and socially engaged practice (a form of anxiety) just enough to competently engage and deal with each issue without allowing it to be entirely overwhelming. 

Brandl completed her residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts last year just as the COVID-19 pandemic reached peak momentum. Like so many artists, her studio practice has been disrupted by the pandemic. Major transitions in the life of an artist are already fraught, complicated by the need to maintain a regular practice with the complexity of building or inhabiting new studio spaces and routines. Brandl has been peripatetic all her adult life. However, as her residency concluded, she decided to stay in Helena, Montana, recognizing that she was part of a community well known for being supportive of ceramic artists. Now, in a new studio, she is trying to find firm footing to begin her practice afresh.

1 Horseshoe Crab’s World, 13 in. (33 cm) in length, terra cotta, slip, engobe, glaze, 2014.

Deceptively Complex

Throughout the course of her career, Brandl has increasingly resisted making work that reflects her personal biography. Instead, she takes on broader social and political issues—a direction adopted, perhaps, from one of her stated mentors and longstanding friend, Richard Notkin, with whom she has collaborated. Much has been made of Brandl’s life story and personal history, but she, in a phone interview, indicates that she hopes the viewer will look past these details, look past assumptions about her gender and judgments regarding her physical appearance, and read the work as issue-based social and political statements. Competently fluent in art and ceramics history, she points to her desire for social agency in her work akin to how Funk artists rejected the empty nonobjectivity of Abstract Expressionism in favor of engaged content. Brandl’s connection to Funk, especially as a ceramic movement, has other corollaries. It is possible to see the influence of the Funk movement emerge in Brandl’s work as an expression of her desire for calculated ambiguity, random absurdity, and even casual vulgarity or a certain coarseness. 

2 Ruin, 22 in. (56 cm) in length, terra cotta, slip, engobe, glaze, 2017.

Brandl’s artwork is deceptively complex, but then so is she. She is not one who readily invites strangers into her world or one who necessarily invites conjecture about her artwork. She resists easy categorization and creates work that, to some degree, resists easy viewing. Foremost, her ceramics are narrative, though not always in a linear fashion. It’s not enough to just render; she believes her role as an artist is to edit and manipulate. She is a master draftsman who is wholly in her element assembling visual components to tell, or as the case may be, untell, a story. She is not being purposefully difficult or obtuse, however. She sees these complications as a means of turning things on their head. She describes what she does as providing “a voyeuristic sense of seeing things from the inside out.”  

3 Unravel, 23 in. (58 cm) in width, terra cotta, slip, engobe, glaze, 2015. 4 Pushing up daisies (goat skull flower brick), 13 in. (33 cm) in length, terra cotta, slip, engobe, glaze, 2018.

Strong Surface Narratives

Her pieces, which she places in categories of sculpture, vessel, and souvenir, readily defy those categorizations. Her sculptural works have implied function and occasionally reference household goods, while her vessels are sculptural, and her souvenirs are vessel-like. Her pieces are not quite functional and not quite sculptural, occupying an uneasy place in between. What unites them is strong surface imagery—drawn from her background as a painter—rendered over an irregular angular or undulating form. These irregularities of form (and her juxtapositions of imagery) are her way of introducing distortions and disjunctive spatial shifts to force new ways of seeing or understanding. 

5–7 Spilt Milk (alternate views), 14 in. (36 cm) in height, terra cotta, slip, engobe, glaze, 2019.

Brandl chooses loaded symbols—hot rods, flaming houses, skulls, smoldering cigarettes, crushed aluminum cans—emblems of rebellion, waste, and anger. Like memento mori, they are reminders of this fleeting existence, evidence of the wanton physicality or ugliness of life. Brandl repeats visual elements, such as the rope and the skull, in her work. She invites the viewer in with bright colors and well-rendered imagery, which she purposefully subverts as if worried that the piece will be judged too pretty or the narrative too sentimental. She intuitively works to obscure interpretation through brash glaze, taking advantage of drips, expressionistic brushstrokes, or glaze movement in the kiln, which flow over the surfaces like melting ice cream. 

8 Hopper-Pumper, 22 in. (56 cm) in length, terra cotta, slip, engobe, glaze, 2018.

Parts of Herself

Brandl’s relationship to objects is likewise complex. On the one hand, as someone who moves frequently, objects can be ballast, unwanted anchors. On the other hand, objects can populate and animate our lives. Brandl repeatedly describes herself as Midwestern and her upbringing as middle class, lenses that tend to frame perspectives, understandings, and relationships acutely. In a 2019 interview for the Tales of the Red Clay Rambler podcast, Brandl relates her father’s admonition to her that she treat things as she wishes to be treated, an event that has allowed her to imbue objects with personhood and to invest emotion and sentiment onto things. Brandl’s ceramic works operate as tableau—an arranged scene—occupied with animated objects that are, as she indicates, all “parts of herself.” 

9 Comet, 18 in. (46 cm) in height, stoneware, 2020. 10 Jessica Brandl working in her studio.

Works like Artifact (2020), are not just depictions of an accumulation of empty aluminum cans, per se, but a landscape of ruin—beverages, identities, and brands such as Pabst, Coca-Cola, and La Croix. Each has a connotation, a sphere of influence, a market audience, a certain personality. Seen collectively, the crumpled cans are trash—one of Brandl’s tongue-in-cheek anti-souvenirs—not a cherished token of remembrance of a significant person or event, but the cast-off detritus of something that happened, something not fit to be memorialized except as the mess that needs to be cleaned up. Remember, an artifact is an object with a cultural or historic interest. Brandl elevates the mundane or undesirable to the level of cultural capital. One of Brandl’s goals is to present the positive and negative sides of American culture or, as she indicates in her artist statement, to “expose historical and eccentric places engulfed in psychological scenarios—both sinister and sublime” along the “path to American-ness.”

11 Still, 32 in. (81 cm) in height, stoneware, 2020.

Several pieces, such as Ruin B (2021), are multifaceted, so that the narrative, or narratives, unfold as the viewer circumambulates the object. In this way, Brandl’s work can feel cinematic, with the story changing depending on where the viewer begins to look and which direction they take, played forward or reverse as it were. Often the imagery on one side of a vessel or sculpture is starkly different on the reverse, necessitating in-person viewing. The viewer receives a fragmented narrative, which can feel weirdly Lynchian or surreal. Brandl’s work suggests that the thin veneer of normalcy is a trope, a stereotype, a fallacy. People are complex accumulations of events, and there is no standard set of experiences.

Other works, such as Pushing Up Daisies (2021) or Rustic Snake Vase (2021), labeled souvenirs, are elaborate ways to present flowers, their easy beauty almost flip or ironic, but Brandl delights in the pun and juxtaposition of imagery—thriving life and delicate beauty contrasting a skull, a snake delicately hidden beneath the thicket of the floral arrangement. 

12 Rustic Snake Vase, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, stoneware, 2021

Looking at Brandl’s work calls to mind a certain phrase that music writer and editor Sheldon Pearce used in The New Yorker review of The Weather Station’s new album to describe Tamara Lindeman’s project as, “an ornate act of world-building.” Brandl too is a world builder. She brings the viewer into this world that she has constructed, unpeopled, strewn with the wreckage of domesticity, anything but tidy and uncomplicated. Brandl seems to, as she indicated, try to embrace all the messy bits of existence—the sadness, discomfort, happiness, and joy. The result is something familiar, but unusual. Recognizable, but unanticipated. That is the strength of Brandl’s project. She presents all the visual cues to which the viewers are accustomed, but their proximity to one another, their symbolic use, and their recontextualization is strange. Depiction (and subversion) give Brandl the power over events and objects from her past and this uncertain present, but also help her navigate her bright future. 

the author Brandon Reintjes is senior curator at the Missoula Art Museum. He writes about contemporary ceramics for Ceramics Monthly and Ceramics Art and Perception, and recently wrote about the postwar craft movement in Montana for The Journal of Modern Craft.

Topics: Ceramic Artists