Jesse Small’s new sculptures are based on a collection of toys the artist has gathered over
the past eight years while traveling in rural China, and working in the porcelain city of Jingdezhen. He became fascinated by Chinese toy culture, particularly pirated, poorly made, elaborately packaged plastic robots. As the artist states: “the toys were purchased from dusty, impoverished street vendors. I consider their existence as highly indicative of the social conditions in modern China.” Small focuses on “super robots,” characters using a space shuttle for an arm, a tank for a leg, combining unrelated objects and body parts into an unlikely whole.
On his first sojourn in China, Small set up a ceramics studio in Jingdezhen. He travels between his California studio and China periodically to create his porcelain pieces, utilizing the deep historic resources of Jingdezhen and inspiration from Chinese culture. Some of his pieces are finished in China, but most are only started there, ultimately finished in Los Angeles. Each piece is a unique result of multi layered glazing methods, with dozens of firings on a single piece.
In “Heavy Toys,” Small utilizes the blue and white glazing technique developed in Jingdezhen around the 14th century, applying an age old tradition to what amount to contemporary cultural artifacts. Of the blue and white glazing, Small says: “using the blue and white porcelain to create these micro-memorials is not an experiment in kitsch. From a material and process standpoint, these are identical to 14th century Jingdezhen wares. This is an effort to preserve and make timeless the robot toys beyond what I
can offer with my plastic toy collection. As blue and white Jingdezhen wares spread broadly to the Western world carrying form and motifs far and wide, similarly these robots carry a message to the West.
Small says: “It’s amazing how important these cheap plastic toys can be to foster the child’s imagination within a harsh reality of stark poverty.”
The artist clusters the robots in groups of threes and fours, making reference to the warrior sculptures of ancient China. From five to seven inches in height, the robots transcend the issue of scale as they are abstracted with blue and white patterning. The groupings enhance the “Heavy Toys” dynamic as “super heroes.”
A logical outgrowth of the artist’s ceramic ghosts—based on the graphic shapes of Pacman lore—the robot toys comment on culture, change in civilization, permanence, impermanence, high-low culture and its manifestations, importance of pirated copies
in rural China, East-West cultural infection, and one long enduring tradition.
Jesse Small was born in 1974. He received a B.F.A. from the Kansas City Art Institute, Missouri and an M.F.A. from Alfred University, Alfred, New York.
The artist’s work has been included in exhibitions at The Albrecht-Kemper Museum
of Art, St. Joseph, Missouri; Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, Sedalia, Missouri;
Des Moines Art Center, Iowa; Portsmouth Museum of Art, New Hampshire; Ringling College of Art and Design, Sarasota, Florida; Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art, Alfred, New York; Urban Culture Project at La Esquina, Charlotte Street Foundation, Kansas City, Missouri; and abroad at Kuwait Art Foundation, Kuwait City; The Museum of Ceramics, Vallauris, France; The Bernardaud Foundation, Limoges, France; Today Art Museum, Beijing, China; Duolun MOMA, Shanghai, China.
His work is in the collections of Alfred University, Alfred, New York; Arkansas
Arts Museum, Little Rock; Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, Sedalia, Missouri; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri; Nerman Museum
of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, Kansas; The City of Leadwood, Kansas; Museum of Ceramics, Balouris, France.
He was a Lighten International Artists Exchange Program grant recipient, and took his residency at Experimental Sculpture Factory, Jingdezhen, China. He has received grants and awards from Charlotte Street Foundation, Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City Art Through Architecture, in partnership with Charlotte Street Foundation, Kansas City, Missouri.
The artist resides in Los Angeles.