In Conversation with Juz Kitson
Challenging traditional notions of materiality, Juz Kitson's delicate yet provocative work combines meticulous hand-sculpted porcelain with raw materials and animal forms, finding new meaning, shapes and life in inanimate matter. Previously splitting time between China and Australia, travel restrictions in the last 18 months have grounded Juz in her Milton-based home studio, forcing changes that have resulted in more intimate wall hangings and experimentation with new materials.
How do your two separate locations of Milton in NSW and Jingdezhen in China inform your practice?
Splitting my studio practice between Jingdezhen China for 9 years and Milton NSW for the last 3 years has certainly had an immense impact on my practice. It’s the polar opposite spaces that I find so invigorating. In Jingdezhen I immerse myself in the chaotic hustle and bustle that is life in a big dirty porcelain city that has been manufacturing porcelain for close to 2000 years. I work with and learn from local masters to develop new technical skills, experiment with new porcelain bodies, mould making techniques, glaze surfaces and firing techniques merely inaccessible to me in Australia. I work excessively while I’m there, night and day, producing plaster moulds, slip casting multiples and glaze firing on mass scale. These hundreds of components are naked raw pieces, they are without sentiment and attachment, until everything is shipped back to Australia and I then begin to construct, develop and refine the installations in a calm, quiet and meditative space giving inanimate material a spark of life in my studio in Milton.
Have you been able to work in China over the past 18 months? How has this changed your practice?
Unfortunately due to the pandemic I haven’t been able to access my studio in China though I have started importing the Jingdezhen porcelain to Australia, which is very exciting and has helped me to push forward working predominantly in my home studio in Milton. It has forced me to re-evaluate my ways of making, including building a studio, investing in a large gas kiln and equipment, and for the first time using Australian clay bodies which has been a welcome challenge. This time has certainly forced me to be resilient and find new ways of making. It’s had a huge impact on the work and will continue to do so, I think predominately the obvious change would be the reduction in scale and all-encompassing nature of my work, meaning suspended from the ceiling or cascading off the wall. The works I’ve been producing over the last 18months are smaller, more intimate and this is a reflection of the space in which they were made.
Can you take us through the process of creating one of your works?
There is an exact vision of the outcome to every installation, although with the nature of working with porcelain at such a scale, with all of the technicalities and potential of cracking and slumping, there is always a sense of parts of the works taking a direction previously unintended. This keeps the work fresh and visually stimulating during the process as I can become steeped in process and the labour intensive nature of the work.
I begin by working alongside a carpenter and joiner to design through CAD programs the interior structures that the porcelain and mixed medium is amassed to. These pod-like marine ply and treated pine structures become the foundation of what will hold the hundreds of kilos of weight, either suspended from a ceiling, wall mounted or freestanding with inbuilt plinth. Then the making begins, I make the majority of the objects by hand, rarely do I use tools, rolling out petals in the palm of my hand, twisting and pulling the clay with my fingers. Depending on the scale of exhibition I could spend up to three months solidly making objects only, then begin the slip casting of multiple pieces, then once fired I begin to combine the porcelain with other materials both organic and in-organic.
It’s quite a different way of working with porcelain than we’re accustomed to. How did you begin working with the material in this way? How much experimentation was involved and is still involved in new pieces?
The nature of the way I work is incredibly meticulous and painstakingly labour intensive. It’s with constant experimentation on a daily basis in the studio that keeps me engaged and pushing the boundaries of materiality. I’ve always wanted to challenge the traditional notions of a material steeped in history. Initially I was drawn to porcelain during art school for its aesthetic qualities and unforgiving nature. Pure stark frosty whites and its high plasticity body, for me it certainly is a chronic obsession with the material and even though I’ve been working with it for close to a decade I feel I have only just scratched the surface of what is possible. It is naturally the first medium I am drawn to in the initial making of a work, I generally see it as the foundation for which all other parts will be formed from and it will certainly continue to exist in my works. Though it is the contrast and juxtaposition between porcelain and other material relationships like glass, reclaimed animal pelts and raw timber that I find the most satisfying.
We have seen your works described as soft yet threatening, monstrous yet oddly beautiful - is the idea of contradiction something you like to explore?
Absolutely. It is something that certainly motivates my reasons for making. I have a fascination with the macabre, it’s a healthy fascination and curiosity. To find beauty in death and decay and simultaneously in life, birth and regeneration. There is a strong sense of environmental damage and human instincts for destruction and the underlying themes throughout my practice involve the abject nature of beauty and horror, desire and disgust, and it’s through the beauty of the materials, the fleshy bits and soft hues with the high gloss porcelain whites and charred dense blacks that contrast against the friction and dichotomy of the brutality in nature.
Most of the installations and sculptures I create are vast and ambitious mixes of artefact and viscera. It is the combination and ability to marry the elegant poise and grace of fine porcelain with the more grotesque elements of life and death - internal organs, intestines, sexual and reproductive parts of the human body and animal forms like husks, tusks and teeth that I find most interesting. Through the juxtaposition of certain objects - new meaning can be found. There is no death without life, impermanence without transience constantly morphing, evolving and changing. My process could be seen as a kind of ceramic alchemy or embalming process, giving inanimate material a spark of life and new shapes start to emerge.
“I make the majority of the objects by hand, rarely do I use tools, rolling out petals in the palm of my hand, twisting and pulling the clay with my fingers.”
Considering porcelain is a delicate material to work with, are there any precautions or particular methodologies that you go through to ensure no damage is caused in the process of making your artwork?
Porcelain is delicate yet robust. Nimble fingers and an agile body is a must when working with the material at large scale. It can be a delicate dance around a form to ensure it makes it safely from the studio to the kiln. Often the material has a mind of its own, it holds memory meaning that if a crack appears during the making stages and one tries to mend the crack; guaranteed it will split right open once fired to high temp 1300 degrees.
We have seen some of your inspiration images of Australian bush flowers and sea creatures - do you draw a lot of inspiration from nature? Where else do you draw inspiration from?
I’m certainly influenced directly by the surroundings I find myself in, it’s often immediate environments, both organic and inorganic, that I draw reference points from for my work. The Australian landscape has always informed my work and now more than ever. Recently I’ve been making a series of freestanding vessels that started evolving, slowly, painstakingly and meticulously, they started to take on a life of their own.. and I became the vehicle to guide these beings into fruition. Each vessel inspired directly by the landscape were I find myself now, coastal bush scapes and dense bushland along with conjuring memories of dense jungle scapes in Indonesia and China and the bountiful exotic strange fruits found there, medicinal mushrooms, densely forested lands or driftwood covered in goose barnacles washed ashore that creep into the surface and remind the audience of distant lands or otherworldly forms. These excrement shapes that form like molluscs on a rock or spawning mushrooms of exotic fruiting bodies implode on the surface of my work with vitality and it’s here I straddle with ideas of sacred objects, yet to be categorized and catalogued. Here these are almost hybrids of nature that exist on their own terms, with a raw surrealist nerve. These forms are ever present - ambiguous in their nature and buzz with pulsating life.
What will you be exploring next?
My practice is definitely a process of evolution and old works often inform the new. Apart from continuing on pushing the boundaries of materiality and extending my current interests, I yearn to explore new avenues working collaboratively with other practitioners in the field of architecture and design to create large scale mural facades and working alongside couture dress makers to create out of this world wearable art.