In a cursory perusal of Chris Antemann’s porcelain works for Meissen Couture Art Collection, there is nothing that separates them greatly from what the house of Meissen customarily generates. Though the German manufactory’s wares include fountain pens, chairs, textiles and what you and I would commonly call lamps but are titled within their environs as “table lights,” it’s Meissen’s china and porcelain pieces that have established its name.
Even if that name isn’t recognizable, the work, and the multitudes of knock-offs it’s inspired, is firmly rooted within the collective unconscious. The statuettes are the most pervasive, starry-eyed ladies-in-waiting plucking lutes while a deer companion curls up at their feet; a lively goatherd scrambling up an apple tree to tempt a shy milkmaid waiting at the trunk; pug dogs dozing on velvet pillows, collar with real bells encircling their fluffy necks. Vases, clocks, candlesticks loaded with the same fanciful elaboration of acquiescent nymphs and gleeful peasants, festooned with gold piping, overblown peonies, fluttering butterflies, stacked high with embellishment after embellishment after embellishment. You might remember the like from your great-aunt’s house, where you sat rigidly still with your feet crossed and your hands in your lap, after almost sending one flying with an errant elbow to reach for a candy dish that turned out to be filled with those diabolical ribbons.
While Meissen produces new limited-edition art works every year, for the most part the latest releases are stylistically indistinguishable from the baubles and bric-a-brac of two or three hundred years ago. There’s a system to it, what could even be called a formula. And it’s what works for Meissen: One presumes the company has nailed down exactly what those who are willing to shell out the bucks are looking for, even if most of us can’t really fathom dedicating a shelf to a whole tiny orchestra of monkeys in formalwear.
But recently, Meissen has traveled very, very slightly away from this self-established standard to collaborate with internationally exhibited American sculptor Chris Antemann on a line called “Forbidden Fruit.” The line takes the staples of the Meissen oeuvre and spices them up with not-quite sex. They depict lovers, or would-be lovers, in standard Meissen surroundings, with considerably fewer garments. A selection is currently on display at the Frick Art and Historical Center.
These pieces are sassy, cheeky, maybe even a wee bit saucy, particularly if contextualized as the output of a 300-year-old porcelain titan. But they don’t cross a line into irreverence. They’re not even really bawdy, despite the freeing of the nipples; all of the seducers and seduced tempting each other with pomegranates in gazebos, or coyly ducking away from attempted smooches in swan boats, maintain propriety, and no one is really misbehaving.
In everything that Meissen produces there is a sense of opulent decadence, whether it be gowns so laden with embroidery, sequins and pearls that they threaten to collapse the wraithlike models slouching within their weight, or the latest annual holiday limited-edition figurine necessary to supplement your collection, a fragile, snowy-white roebuck meant to pose upon your tabletop, hooves frozen amidst the gravy boats and compote dishes. But even here, it’s not a decadence rich with pleasure or heady with indulgence of the senses. It’s the decadence of consumption, from the first accent of gold leaf to the last petal curling open on the tiniest blossoming rose. It’s all gaudily pretty in a stiff yet insubstantial way, like a wedding cake elaborate with buttercream roses and candied-sugar violets — nature made, to some, even more beautiful by eliminating nature’s inherent wildness.
Antemann’s work in following this conservative lead is formidable; the collaboration seems destined based upon her execution within their framework. Selected by appointment to create at MEISSEN artCAMPUS, the artist (who grew up near Johnstown) has proven herself a worthy inclusion in that rococo court. But reading the labels naming the works, or the catalog for the exhibition — previously on view at Portland Art Museum and Washington state’s Bellevue Arts Museum — you’ll see trademark and copyright symbols attached to each and every piece, and they don’t give ownership to Antemann. Given that what we’re looking at is pretty tame, yet tiptoeing around the possibility of something wilder, one can’t help but wonder which side is holding back. It’s more likely the corporation than the individual. It will be interesting to see what kind of work Antemann comes up with when there’s no boundaries to stay inside.