Narratives of Fantasy and Mayhem with Beth Katleman

Katleman’s subversive tableaux mix elements of the tragic and comic.
Katleman’s subversive tableaux mix elements of the tragic and comic.

In this digitally driven era, Brooklyn artist Beth Katleman takes her cues from delicate Sèvres porcelain, dreamy Toile de Jouy pastoral scenes and rococo flourishes—ratcheting up all notions of cutting-edge installation art. To create these unlikely tableaux, she casts 1950s squeaky toys and dismembered dolls in white porcelain, and then creates macabre vignettes frequently spiked with flashes of the comic.

“I wanted to create an immersive experience that engulfs the viewer and reveals scenes of both tragedy and comedy,” says Katleman. “Once the figures are fired in kilns, I stage them in what I call narratives layered with multiple meanings so there’s always an element of storytelling.”

Her fragile figurines perched on cloud-like forms literally cover entire walls—from San Francisco’s de Young Museum to London and Hong Kong, where Peter Marino commissioned the artist to create her idiosyncratic installations for Dior boutiques.

At first glance, her vignettes appear as enchanting fairy tales, but on closer examination, there’s a sinister element. A prime example is Folly, composed of more than 100 narratives—including a series of brides in gowns wading into a pond—spanning 18 feet. “They’re a bit Stepford Wife, but one is about to commit suicide or possibly swim,” says Katleman. Close by are rococo cherubs clasping daggers.

“Beth takes clay into an entire new realm while merging bas-relief, decorative object, diorama, sculpture and 18th-century wallpaper into compelling installation art,” says dealer Todd Merrill from his Downtown Manhattan gallery. “Her scenes explore the surreal as well as the subversive and at the same time are laced with fantasy and whimsy.”

Oddly enough, this ceramicist extraordinaire never set out to be an artist working in clay. After graduating from Stanford, she tackled an MBA at UCLA and took up painting at Cranbrook. “Then I was thunderstruck by the enormous potential of clay,” she says.

What’s next on her plate? “I’m tackling a mirror framed in my delicate porcelain figures for the Rhode Island School of Design,” says Katleman. Of course, her diabolical figurines will be front and center.