“In Vermin, Miriam Griffin treats oft-maligned creatures with sensitivity and tenderness. Bats and snakes, and even swarming flies – creatures for whom the artist herself can offer few words of praise – are carved lovingly into porcelain and painted painstakingly in gold. Bats feature most prominently in the exhibition. Their ghoulish features are rendered faithfully in part, yet are just as often simplified, exaggerated, and embellished decadently. The resulting portraits magnify the creatures’ aura of supernatural mystery, and present them in light of a new mythology.”
“Vermin also shows a strong affinity for leopard print, a material which inherently begs questions of identity and representation, nature, power, colonialism, gender, class, and sexuality – subtle yet important themes that run through the body of work as a whole.”
– Miriam Griffin’s artist statement from Vermin, at The Clay Studio of Missoula
Miriam Griffin’s new work doesn’t take up much room, and seems perfectly suited to the corner of the Clay Studio of Missoula’s new Gallery. Griffin’s work is as painstaking as it is bold, and uses classic pottery tropes to interrogate our relationships with animals and objects.
While pinched pots are certainly popular at the moment, Griffin’s are so finely and delicately wrought that the pinch marks seem to accentuate her careful and exquisite surface decorations. On her Leopard Print Planters, the soft undulating of the form contributes to its nearly tactile softness, and when you pick up a Snake Print Cup, the ripples beneath the patterned incisions feel like the scaly belly of a snake beneath your thumb.
Griffin plays with texture without excess, opulence by subtraction. Her Bats on the wall are layers of porcelain, intentionally carved away and rubbed with oxides to reveal a myriad of textures left by Griffin’s tools, mostly commonly, a sewing needle for carving. Each piece begs for examination and touch, and doesn’t disappoint. Griffin’s vessels look lighter than they are, and each surface, be it snakeskin, leopard fur, or fly wings, yields as much for the hand as it does the eye.
Griffin complicates tropes of aesthetics and decoration in pottery, using the ubiquitous blue and white to question our cultural values of decoration, especially on pots. Why are we used to seeing swallows, but not bats? Butterflies, but not flies? Griffin’s attention and reverence for the aesthetics of these creatures transcends cultural boundaries, and invites beholders to share in the decorative possibility of what is often considered grotesque, mysterious, and dirty.
Similarly, Griffin’s work with leopard print turns a stereotype on its head. Leopard print has connotations of sexuality and representation that are almost always realized through textiles. Griffin further aestheticizes the leopard for its decorative potential on pots, while questioning the kinds of morals and value judgement we ascribe to animals.
Griffin’s work turns these sorts of cultural values on their heads, rendering flies in opulent gold, and leopard print in blue and white. Her work asks how and why certain animals are found sexual, decorative, and desirable, where others are relegated to the stuff of horror, disease, and decay. In complicating the term “vermin,” Griffin lends the power of pottery tropes, the luxury of gold, blue, and white, intricate design and carving, and even the popularity of the pinch pot, to reclaiming the possibility of beauty in bats and bugs.
Miriam Griffin grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and attended school at Bard College at Simon’s Rock (MA), and at The University of Montana in Missoula. She graduated from UM in 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art. Her August exhibition Vermin marks the end of three years at The Clay Studio of Missoula: first as a University of Montana summer resident in 2013, then as an intern, and finally as a long-term resident from 2014 to 2016.
All images taken by David Baumstark (see his photography here)