Click Mort's work centers on indiscreet modifications to existing porcelain figurines. Each piece is a unique consolidation of two or more previously unrelated figures, with extensive cutting, sculpting, sanding, and painting required to unify them into a new, seamless whole. The result is kitsch resurrected in a still vaguely familiar but somewhat less cozy form.
In conjunction with Mort latest exhibit at La Luz de Jesus Gallery, Lee Joseph visited the artist in his studio and asked a few questions. Here's what they had to say.
What inspired you to “re-mix” ceramic figures?
I can’t think of any direct inspirational influence, but the original motivation for making them was pretty much just boredom. I had a lot of time on my hands that coincided with the 99 Cent Store’s introduction of a Fine Art department (i.e.: crappy “Love Is … “ style figures, ceramic frogs playing banjos, etc.). They were pleasantly awful on their own merits, but when I saw some particularly unattractive plastic barnyard animals in the toy section that were roughly the same scale as the tot figurines, the gears started turning. Those first head-swaps were pretty crude: I’d just hack off both heads mid-neck with a jeweler’s saw, attach the non-native head with some sculpting resin, and paint over the seam. Voila … Angel-tot with a pig’s head (or angel-pig with a tot’s body, depending on how you look at things). After a few years of working with those crummy resin figures -- which, when complete, were usually just slipped back onto the shelves of the 99 Cent Store -- I kind of burnt out on them. My technique had developed to the point where the swaps were reasonably undetectable, but the available subject matter – tots, tots, and … tots — had gotten monotonous. At that point, I decided to try doing the same thing with porcelain figures, which offered a broader range of subject matter and much more interesting level of sculpt-quality to try and match.
Where do you find your materials? What is it in ceramic that beckons you to turn it into a Click Mort piece, and what do you look for both in the aesthetics and composition of a ceramic?
Almost all the figures and heads I work with are from Ebay. Early on, I wasted my time checking out yard sales and swap meets here in L.A., but even on the rare occasions I could find the sort of figures I work with, the prices were just ridiculous. People here seem to assume anything with a coating of grime or cigarette smoke is “vintage” and therefore quite valuable. It’s priced like they bought it from a tomb-raider rather than finding it in their grandma’s attic. Folks in the Midwest and South have a much more realistic view of what the figures are worth.
As for what I look for in a given piece, it’s beauty -- as hokey as that sounds -- or at least some element of charm and a pleasing geometry. Then the problem becomes integrating a new head on the figure without losing what I liked about it in the first place: any addition needs to add to rather than detract from the figure (or at least, that’s what I shoot for).
Tell us about the significance of the Who photograph hanging by your work area?
It’s a last-ditch source of inspiration. There are times when I get totally stymied on how to get a figure where I want it to go, and no amount of careful consideration produces a next step. At that point, I stare at that Who photo for a while and then follow the first impulse I have as to what should be be done on the piece. Whatever follows may or may not work out but at least it gets things moving again.
Can you shed a little light on the history of these store-bought figurines and the artists / companies that created them? You had mentioned a particular name as well...
The majority of the figures I use were produced by Japanese companies in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, when Japan was cranking out a slew of inexpensive table-top decorative figures. While I’ve used pieces from a bunch of studios, there are a few I’m really partial to. My favorite is an outfit named Lefton, who produced some really outstanding bird and rabbit figurines. Crown Royal also knocked out some great pieces, particularly the bird figures designed by J. Byron. It was rare for any of the designers / sculptors to get credit for their work, but Byron did and he deserved it. Not only are the bird figures beautifully done, but he often put them on or in front of these really wild looking plants that do not look native to Earth.
What is it about Norman Rockwell that appeals to you?
Rockwell is one of my favorite artists. The ceramic figures derived from his work, on the other hand, are almost uniformly awful. They’re stiff and corpselike and totally miss the vibrancy (and sometimes discreet mania) of Rockwell’s paintings, and if given a greenish-white skin tone could easily pass for zombies. The exception to this are some of the figures produced by the Rockwell Museum, which are pretty much the only ones I’ll touch these days.
Give us a rundown of your process?
There’s a pictorial of the process here that will spare the reader a tedious read and probably illustrate the process better than I could in words.