What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

April 28, 2022

Em Kettner
The Understudies
Francois Ghebaly
April 2 - May 7, 2022

Em Kettner

In her first exhibition at Francois Ghebaly Gallery, (June-July 2021) the Richmond, California based Em Kettner created a series of small, figurative, ceramic and cloth sculptures that she spaciously installed on a large, low, wooden plinth in the center of the room. In addition to these unusual and fragile works, Kettner also embedded a series of two by two inch glazed porcelain tiles into awkward places — high and low — on the gallery walls that featured line drawings of cartoony figures that were haunting and enchanting simultaneously.

Kettner's subsequent exhibition, The Understudies, highlights her tiles. These pieces are still tiny, but now encased in much larger wooden frames asserting a greater presence on the walls. Together, they form a quasi-narrative that elucidates Kettner's phobias and pleasures. A number of the tiles depict doctors with large retro headlamps. Others feature intertwined lovers or snails that often appear on stages in front of an audience. For example, in Center Stage (Backlit Snail) (all works 2022) Kettner depicts a slow moving snail traveling under bright lights across a light yellow circus stage as an audience looks on. The snail is similarly presented on stage in Opening Act, though this time it is precariously placed beneath the foot of a disembodied leg. Kettner states in an interview with the gallery, "I think of the snail as a proxy for my own slow-moving body, and that slowness is simultaneously a choice, a burden, and an evolutionary advantage. There’s something silly and absurd about a crowd of people paying to watch a snail crawl across a stage, but I am earnestly insisting that we observe and value that pace of movement."

Many of the works are about scrutiny and observation by others, as in The Fates (Assembly Line), a tile that presents a row of doctors passing separated limbs from one to another, as well as Clinical Study or Operating Theater where two doctors with half shaded faces like twin theatre masks examine a lone snail or in another version, prod the snail's shell with an enlarged finger. In these pieces, Kettner also looks at the inner self and what appears under the facade, specifically in works like Early Morning, Second Thought and Two Guides. Here, a quirkily drawn hand separates a figure's face from the back of its head to reveal two smaller heads with ironic smiles. In numerous tiles like the delightful Balancing Act (Crawling on Quilts), lovers cavort, their intertwined bodies performing calisthenics and balancing acts on rugs in patterned rooms.

Kettner's doctors are usually males who appear to be examining female subjects, whereas the audiences in the theatre settings are comprised of both male and female voyeurs. The snails are gender-neutral and playfully drawn, sometimes in washy colors, but more often than not they appear as black lines against an off white background. The individual women could sign for Kettner and function as inquisitive self-portraits. Despite their small size, Kettner's porcelain tiles are powerful works. Though each tile displays an intimate vignette that tells its own story, they can be arranged in different configurations. The relationships between the parts build the whole. Ultimately these precious fragments create a narrative about performance and voyeurism asking who watches who, and what, and why?