OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Rain Harris

Porcelain, luster, rhinestones, pearls
12" x 12" x 7.5"

RAIN HARRIS examines our assumptions around "good" and "bad" taste in relation to class, geography and time period. Her ornate, decadent porcelain sculptures and her expansive installations, all of which teeter precariously on the imagined boundary between “high” and “low” art, reference Victorian, Americana and Baroque aesthetics. Rain received her BFA in Ceramics from Rhode Island School of Design and her MFA from Ohio State University. In 2012, she was an artist-in-residence at The Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, China, and will exhibit work made there in a two-person show with her husband, fellow ceramicist Paul Donnelly in October 2013. Rain lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You have worked in a variety of media, including wood, fabric and Plexiglass, but your most common medium is porcelain. When did you first start working with this material?

Rain Harris: I made my first major body of work in ceramics at camp when I was seven. It was a series of bowls that could double as paperweights—or quite possibly lethal weapons. But in all seriousness, I started art school with the intention of becoming a jeweler, not a ceramicist. I needed to take an elective course. At the time, ceramics was one of the only things available. Truthfully, I did not see clay as a long-term option as it seemed too “crafty” and “messy.” My initial interest in jewelry and fine metals still seeps into my work, but clay immediately made sense to my practice. I often approach it with an eye toward diminutive grandeur and extreme preciousness, regardless of the scale I am working at.

Initially I worked in stoneware, but as my conceptual ideas evolved, my material choices needed to change. When I started to develop work that was influenced by court dinnerware and the decorative arts, porcelain was the obvious choice because of its smooth surface, white color and historical associations.
Americana (detail)
cnc routed wood paneling, plexiglass, paint
50' x 11' x 7.5'

OPP: What do you love about working in clay? 

RH: I love the malleability of ceramics, and I frequently call clay "the chameleon of art materials." Because it can be manipulated by hand or cast into molds, its appearance can change everytime. It can mimic gold or silver. It can be shiny, matte or almost plastic-like. Visually, it can appear either hard and rigid or soft and fluid. The results can be amazingly varied.

OPP: Is there anything you hate about clay?

RH: I have a love-hate relationship with ceramics in general. I currently work with molds so I have the ability to easily make multiples. This allows me to make larger, more complex structures, and it also gives me the freedom to be less precious with my work. But the big problem with ceramics is its fragility during firings. Shipping and transporting are also an issue. My loss rate can be really frustrating at times.   

OPP: In your statement, you say: "I ask if an ugly object can be in ‘good taste?’ Also, can a beautiful object also be a tasteless object?" I see this in the gaudiness of your sculptures. That they are gaudy is undeniable, and gaudiness is culturally associated with bad taste. And yet, I find the sculptures, without a doubt, beautiful. But part of the beauty lies in how smart they are. Do you see the objects you make as beautiful or ugly?

Porcelain, luster, plexiglas, rhinestones
12" x 9" x 13.5"

RH: Arguably, beauty is not a quality inherent in objects. It only exists in the mind and eye of the beholder. Taste is also a learned behavior. That aside, I would categorize almost everything I have made as simultaneously beautiful and ugly. Each attribute is reinforced and amplified by its polar opposite. In my poison bottle series, the inherent gaudiness of the bottles is more pronounced than in other bodies of work. Normally my work has a restrained gaudiness. I use vintage floral decals to decorate the surface of the sculptures. Unlike most people in the contemporary art world, I do not consider decorative or pretty to be bad words. How those qualities are used determines their validity. 

OPP: I’m glad you brought up the idea that decorative is sometimes considered a bad word. It should NOT be a disparaging term, but is often used to dismiss work. I actually think decorativeness as a concept is much more complex than most people believe. It is often associated with superficiality, but I'd like to emphasize that superficiality is about the surface, and the surface is the first point of impact. I think it is often the viewer who doesn't penetrate the surface when work has a decorative quality. It's not the decorativeness of a piece that keeps viewers from going deeper; it's the viewer's assumptions about what decorativeness means that halts appreciation for the work. What's your take on the concept of decorativeness?

RH: I have always believed that decoration can be used as a narrative device. Repetitive symbols, archetypes and color choices can tell a visual story rather than being simply picturesque. Layout and composition, scale, color and process can be something visceral and emotional, something that has a greater meaning. Ultimately, pattern is larger than life; even when it is small, it has the ability to expand infinitely.

My work is heavily layered with visual information. I stack and arrange patterns and forms so it becomes difficult to determine where the pattern begins and ends. Is the design the form or the space behind it? This process is a balancing act. I push the decoration to the point where it is just about to collapse under the visual weight of its own embellishment. By doing this I am able to keep a sense of order, largely because I am responding to the patterns inherent in the structure of the work. I practice restraint in excess: In each piece, I challenge myself to stop just short of “too much.”

Synthetic Blossom
slip-cast porcelain and decals

OPP: Artificial Phylum is an ongoing series of porcelain sculptures inspired by images of weeds and wild flowers. The sculptures themselves, however, are hard, shiny and decorated in kitschy decals and colors—specifically, Tangerine makes me think of two chairs I grew up with. Can you talk about this tension between the organic and the manufactured?

RH: The forms in Artificial Phylum are largely developed by the loss of information. I start by photographing plants and rendering them as computer-aided drawings. Instead of making these forms precise like the original plant forms, I simplify and let the visual information dissolve around the edges. Technology aids the abstraction. I cut my originals out of pink foam on a CNC router with a chunky drill bit, further reducing the visual information.

In earlier projects, I created designs that were visually dense. But in Artificial Phylum, flatness became incredibly important because it allowed the colors and patterns to become more aggressive. It allowed me to create work that was minimally excessive. Reduction allowed me to create stylistic cadences that suggested familiarity without resorting to mimicry. By distancing myself from the original object, I was able to create hybrids that were an amalgamation of organic qualities and manmade design.  

I have always had an odd relationship with color. I am fascinated with color combinations that are inherently ugly—not the kind of ugly found in a lavender Wal-Mart polyester teddy bear sweater. That is revolting. I am more drawn to the unpleasant hues of a dirty, 1970s harvest gold kitchen. I use colors that are almost nice but just aren’t pretty. These shades could masquerade as designer colors, but they are just too something—too dirty, too sallow, too jarring, too wrong, but almost right. I don’t necessarily gravitate to specific colors, but I am simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by certain combinations. I like red, but it is much better when paired with a shocking orange. I am fine with pale mossy dirty green, but it is so much “nicer” when paired with a sickly yellow-brown and maybe a splash of metallic gold.
Slip-cast porcelain and decals
12.5 inches in height

OPP: In the summer of 2011, you did an artist residency at The Pottery Workshop in  Jingdezhen, China, known as the Porcelain Capital. Tell us about your time there.

RH: My husband Paul Donnelly and I worked there for a month. There was a huge learning curve because the porcelain in Jingdezhen handles itself much differently than what we were used to. It’s a beautiful, crazy-super-white porcelain that is fired at a very, very high temperature. I currently fire to cone 6 at around 2200℉, and most people in the United States only fire as high as cone 10. In Jingdezhen they fire to about cone 13, so it is substantially higher.

The forms I designed were variously sized flat wall pieces that ended up slumping in the kiln because the prototypes should have been designed differently to compensate for the heat and the way the clay moves in the kiln. Unfortunately, I did not realize this until almost the end of the residency when everything was fired. I was playing around with these flat wall forms that had inlays of a glow in the dark glaze. When viewed in normal light, they are very subtle as the white surface has darker white inlaid patterns. When the lights are off, the patterns in the surface of the pieces glow in the dark.

Paul and I are going back this summer if we get funding. Now that we understand how to compensate for the material differences, we can accomplish more. We have a two-person show scheduled for October 2013 with Red Star Studios, a ceramics collective in Kansas City. The exhibition will either be at the current space they share with Belger Arts Center or in their immanent new location. It will revolve around the work we made in Jingdezhen, and Paul and I will both be showing our individual work as well as some collaborative pieces. Right now I am working on a gridded piece that will be similar to a piece Paul made in 2008. He is making the cups, and I am decorating them with transfers I made in Jingdezhen. The piece will be large and will blur the line between art, furniture, design and display. 

To see more of Rain's work, please visit rainharris.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).