Em Kettner’s porcelain sculptures are hardly precious, despite their diminutive scale and delicate materials. The cartoonish characters that populate her work instead offer a wryly humorous, irreverent, and at times sultry take on disability. “Sick Joke,” the title of her current exhibition (on view through December 10, 2022), is further evidence of her lighthearted approach. Presented in Chapter NY’s “side room,” the small show is split between two distinct but related bodies of new work: spindly porcelain and woven cloth figurines that assume positions of vulnerability, support, and intimacy; and a series of illustrated tiles that address how the sick and disabled are scrutinized and put on display. Drawing on personal experiences with muscular dystrophy, Kettner upends patronizing perceptions of disability and embraces the complexity and benefits of dependency.
The artist assembles her serpentine figurines using deftly woven cotton and silk garments to clothe and bind together separate or broken porcelain fragments. More than portraits of particular people, these works function as three-dimensional studies of actions and performances. All limbs, and no torsos, the figures just barely resemble human bodies, and they are as likely to feature extra heads and appendages as they are to be missing parts. Though the twisting forms appear wiry and malleable, they are fixed, suspended in moments of motion or respite. The gangly bodies rarely stand; instead, they sit, recline, and crawl, often finding support and stability in the steps and subtle dimples of their wooden bases. As the rippling body of The Straggler (all works 2022) climbs on hands and knees to the upper level of a stepped pedestal, it is steadied by impressions in the wood. The Golden Spokes (autumn wheelchair), a hybridized figure on two wheels, trails behind, at rest in two grooved tracks. The bed, as a site of rest, convalescence, and physical intimacy, has been one of Kettner’s central motifs. The Comedians’ Bed, included here, has arms for bedposts and a bedspread interwoven with tangled bodies. Like the wheelchair, it exemplifies the merging of bodies and their supportive apparatuses.
Kettner’s characters take more unambiguously human (and gendered) form in the series of tiles, which she has embedded into five wooden handrails installed low on the walls. Arranged serially, like the frames of a comic strip, the two-inch-square tiles portray vignettes in narrative arcs that conflate comedic and erotic performance with medical observation. The distinction between displaying oneself and being put on display is muddled. Across the four tiles of Handrail (The Cabaret), a solitary woman cloaked in a bedsheet performs on a circular stage and bares all to a gasping crowd of indistinguishable male doctors, whose surgical headlamps echo the shape of her hair bun. In Handrail (The House Call), two of the lecherous doctor-types, one clutching a clipboard in his gloved hands, watch over a sleeping woman. If we “read” the railings sequentially, the same woman is later, in Handrail (The Climb), made to crawl up a flight of stairs under close supervision. The women in Kettner’s images may or may not need assistance, medical or otherwise; they are nevertheless subjected to an audience of goggling eyes and pointing fingers.
The railings, which are made of sturdy and handsomely grained ash, provide a framework for the tiles, but they are also functional. Ostensibly, they give viewers an opportunity to shift their weight (and burden) to a more solid structure, here the gallery walls. Throughout the exhibition, Kettner makes us acutely aware of how she chose to present her sculptures. Arranging her works on low and tiered pedestals, she accommodates viewers of varying heights and eye levels. The ideal vantage point for many of these works might be that of someone in a wheelchair, like the hybrid body in The Golden Spokes. Kettner encourages everyone else to lean in or crouch down, to compromise their stability and stature by submitting themselves to this miniature world. Basically, “able-bodied” viewers are asked to adopt positions and perspectives of vulnerability, and to understand that the need for support is common to us all.