Stanya Kahn

In 2016 I started working in ceramics (again.) By again I mean I did it in high school and before that, like many did, as a child at a local community center. First I made porcelain animal figures and then started throwing on the wheel. The pieces pictured here were made during the pandemic, between 2020 and 2022. They were shown in the solo exhibition Forest for the Trees (2022 at Vielmetter Los Angeles), installed with stumps and rocks and paintings. I thought it would be nice to show them “up close” since you can’t touch the art in an art show and pick them up.

They’re all high-fire stoneware and porcelain.

One figure is a bronze snake, cast from a porcelain snake I made and brought to the foundary unfired to be cast.

In 2012 I started showing drawings and cartoons of snakes. Alongside joke drawings of worms, ants, clams, jellyfish, the snakes were part of a series in which “lowly” animals (e.g. the people) made wry jokes about their own impending death, inferring a certain blasé fatigue with power (the state, the wealthy.) Then I made elaborately decorated porcelain snakes, thinking about beauty in the wild and intricacies that would draw people in and literally down (getting low to view them.) When I made porcelain skulls of imagined beings, I was thinking of course about our own demise, by our own hands (humans), a way of saying “it was a good run but it’s done,” but I was also wondering what if there are other possibilities? What if there is a way we once were that’s been obscured by science and history? Like David Graeber and David Wengrow say in their incredible new book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (in which they show that in fact this is exactly the case, that recent developments in archaeology are changing the discourse allowing us to see that that actually we didn’t always enslave, imprison, dominate and bureaucratize to death): “We fall strangely mute in the face of any kind of evidence for humans doing something other than ‘rushing headlong for their chains’.” (Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything, 2021, p. 522.) It would have been easy to make human skulls. Making skulls almost like ours but mutated, opened things up for me, for us I hope.

It has felt auspicious in fact, reading this 700 page challenge to history as we’ve known it, while making very traditional vessels. I wanted to learn how to make ancient forms (I’m still learning and have by no means mastered it,) but wanted also to recontextualize the form as a way to foreground the idea of humans and our inventions and interventions. I wanted to call attention to our mark/impact. We figured out how to carry water from one location to another. In a vessel. Earth-shattering technology! Earth shattering.

You know the story from there. (Well, or you don’t, but Graeber and Wengrow have been very helpful in raising some crucial points about it.)

The vases and decanters I made are hand carved with images of skulls and animals that move through the air or the water (birds, sea creatures) symbolizing time and motion outside of our grasp.

—Stanya Kahn

All images courtesy of Stanya Kahn and Vielmetter Los Angeles.
Photographs by Robert Weidemeyer

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