Male Fear: Encounters with Roxanne Jackson’s Ceramic Monsters

bark at the moon (1)
Bark At The Moon. (View 1). Ceramic, glaze, underglaze decals, luster, hoop earrings; 19 x 16 x 10 inches. 2016.

By Chloe Hyman

A monster is a personified manifestation of societal fears. Some anxieties are primal, like a fear of death, while others are social, directed towards those whose distinctive appearance or behavior renders them dangerous. Sexual difference has long necessitated the creation of maternal monsters to legitimize a fear of the feminine. This anxiety motivates the policing of women’s bodies, in an effort to enforce a heterosexual gender binary. By transforming women and femmes into demons, patriarchy equates femininity with evil and masculinity with good; monstrous women keep men in power.

That is, until they don’t. Banshees and harpies that subvert monstrosity’s patriarchal parameters dispute the validity of gendered social divisions, threatening male dominance.

Such creatures abound in the oeuvre of Roxanne Jackson, a ceramicist who dissects the politics of monstrosity. In works like Bark at the Moon (2016) and Third Eye Fuck (2019), she oscillates between wish fulfillment and stereotype subversion, crafting figures that embody and disrupt tropes of feminine monstrousness.

The latter’s sexual title accentuates the comingling of fear and desire in monster tales. Film scholars Barbara Creed, Jeffrey Cohen, and Barry Keith Grant discuss how cinematic monsters attract and repulse men, fulfilling their submissive fantasies with the threat of the monstrous woman, and their dreams of domination when said threat is vanquished.[1]

This essay considers how the relationship between straight men and female monsters informs the same audience’s interpretation of Jackson’s work. Analyzing the interaction between an artwork and a particular viewer necessitates an understanding of art as a cultural product; although the artist’s intentions contribute to its significance, its many meanings are also a product of symbolic codes, dominant social ideology, and the viewer’s perspective.[2] By modeling the straight male’s encounter with subversive female monsters, this essay explores what Jackson’s work signifies to a powerful group—the descendants of the architects who constructed the myth of female monstrosity.

bark at the moon 2 (1)
Bark At The Moon. (View 2). Ceramic, glaze, underglaze decals, luster, hoop earrings; 19 x 16 x 10 inches. 2016.

The Archaic Mother

In The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, psychoanalyst Barbara Creed describes a number of monstrous cinematic archetypes. Her analysis provides a blueprint for an examination of fear, desire, and monstrosity in the bodies of monsters coded female. Creed’s description of the archetypal archaic mother elucidates how two of Jackson’s ceramic sculptures are implicitly gendered. Furthermore, it suggests that male viewers will respond to Bark at the Moon and Third Eye Fuck with repulsion, arousal, and fear.

The myth of the archaic mother centers parthenogenetic procreation—that is, female reproduction without a phallus. Mythological figures like Gaia (Greek), Coatlicue (Aztec), and the Spider Woman (Navajo) illustrate the historical lineage of self-reproducing mothers.[3] They appear today in cinema in the guise of monsters, like the titular figure in Alien whose eggs require neither phallus nor fertilization, but a human host. According to Creed, the archaic mother presents as “the voracious maw, the mysterious black hole that signifies female genitalia which threatens… to incorporate everything in its path.”[4]

At the center of Bark at the Moon sits such a mouth, its gaping lips emptying into nothingness. Ridged white tubes, caked in muck, wriggle around it like maggots. With their rounded ends, these tubes could be fallopian or phallic, an ambiguity that, paired with the mother’s vaginal maw, points to her self-reproduction. She also threatens to consume the viewer, who cannot escape her slimy hole. If the archaic mother faces him, he risks obliteration, but if she turns towards the gallery wall, then he must be inside her—an embryo-corpse.

The divine symbols ornamenting Third Eye Fuck invoke the archaic mother in a different context. Unblinking eyes adorn the deity’s cheekbones while cobalt spiders traverse her neck—a powerful allusion to her ancestor, the Spider Woman. Furthermore, the creature’s pearly-white face is bifurcated, revealing a fleshy, womb-like cave. The womb’s proximity to the creature’s mouth literalizes the narrative of the devouring mother. As Creed explains, “The archaic mother threatens to cannibalize, to take back, the life forms to which she once gave birth.”[5] Third Eye Fuck embodies this threat, collapsing the metaphor of the vaginal mouth into a single fleshy cavern, capable of consumption and ejection.

Due to their self-reproduction, Jackson’s creatures render the phallus superfluous. And because they layer vaginal and oral imagery, they threaten to consume man whole. According to Creed, this evisceration of man’s social status and bodily integrity appeals to “a masochistic desire for death, pleasure, and oblivion” that is common amongst men.[6] And yet, it is also repulsive and terrifying, which Creed attributes to abjection.

 

Abjection

The theory of abjection was introduced by the psychoanalyst and semiotician Julia Kristeva, who defined it as “that which evades borders and rules which define identity and maintain order.”[7] When matter passes the skin as it does during birth, people are reminded of their mortality and animal nature. Subsequently, the transgressive matter—in this case, blood and placenta—becomes abject, along with the tools that facilitated the transgression: the reproductive system. Men are more disturbed by abjection because they are less accustomed to the sight of blood than those with ovaries. Thus bleeding, birthing bodies become beacons of man’s inescapable death and epicenters of abjection.[8]

Historically, men in power have expressed their fear of abjection by demonizing the female body. Christian art abounds with womb-like depictions of hell and uteruses adorned with devil horns. Leviticus, for example, associates birthing bodies with decaying corpses, linking femaleness and death.[9] As Creed notes in her analysis of Alien, this trend continues in horror cinema. She describes crewmen entering a spaceship through a vaginal doorway and walking down narrow corridors (echoing fallopian tubes) to an egg-filled, womb-chamber.[10] This intra-uterine imagery roots the alien’s monstrosity in the abject female body.

A mass of tubes, holes, and flesh, Bark at the Moon and Third Eye Fuck exude abjection. Furthermore, each contains a passage through which organic matter can be imbibed or ejected. These vaginal/oral mouths repulse and terrify because they are abject reminders of human mortality.

3
Roxanne Jackson. Third Eye Fuck (View 3) Media: Ceramic, glaze, luster; 18 x 15 x 10 inches. 2019.

Subversion

While Bark at the Moon and Third Eye Fuck embody the archaic mother, they also subvert stereotypes of female monstrousness. Both are decadently glazed, their uterine linings shimmering like dew or diamonds rather than blood. Bark at the Moon is awash in lime, turquoise, and salmon pink, which almost obscures a floral motif that emerges from its crevices. This blue pattern, an allusion to Delft porcelain, features prominently on the pale skin of the deity that is Third Eye Fuck.

The ornamentation of monstrous bodies with bright, shimmering colors and courtly motifs subverts the binary between beauty and monstrosity.

The ornamentation of monstrous bodies with bright, shimmering colors and courtly motifs subverts the binary between beauty and monstrosity. Jackson’s sculptures occupy a liminal space between the two, where gender and morality also blur; Bark at the Moon is ambiguously gendered and Third Eye Fuck depicts a monster with an eye for Dutch design. The more viewers peer at each, the less frightening, and more intriguing, they become. To understand why this subversion elicits discomfort for male viewers, the theory of abjection proves useful.

Aesthetic codes, which are tied to gender and moral binaries, function like skin. Just as the epidermal layer protects man from blood and, therefore, the recognition of his mortality, social divisions protect members of the dominant group—men—from the knowledge that their superiority is unearned.

Media maintains these divisions by reinforcing the myth of female immorality. It also demonizes the defiance of heterosexual gender roles by giving female monsters traditionally masculine traits, like promiscuity or voracious appetite. Cinema is ripe with archaic mothers and other monsters who elicit fear in a controlled environment, for the sexual satisfaction of men whose dominance is never really at stake. It is expected that the banshee will be vanquished before the screen darkens, reasserting heterosexual gender roles.

But the fate of Jackson’s sculptures is not predestined. By deconstructing the notion that beauty equates goodness and gender clarity, while ugliness signifies immorality and gender ambiguity, the artist produces creatures of ambiguous moral character. Luminescent and bright, Bark at the Moon and Third Eye Fuck engage in an active dialogue with the male viewer. They threaten him, they tantalize him, and ultimately, they will dethrone him.

Editor’s Note: The beginning paragraph has been edited to use more inclusive language,  recognizing and clarifying that these cinematic tropes affect both cis and trans women and femmes.

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Notes

[1] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Theory: Reading Culture (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 7-17; Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), pp. 42.

[2] Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art (New York: New York University Press, 1984)

[3] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, 1993 (London and New York: Routledge, repr. 2007), pp. 104-112; Shohini Chaudhuri, Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 95; American Museum of Natural History, ‘The Spider Woman,’ AMNH

< https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/totems-to-turquoise/native-american-cosmology/the-spider-woman > [accessed 20 November 2019];

[4] Creed (1993), p. 116.

[5] Ibid. p. 83.

[6] Creed (1993), p. 170; 470-471.

[7] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Seuil: Paris, 1980) quoted in Creed (1993), p. 51.

[8] Creed (1993), pp. 190-193.

[9] Kristeva quoted in Creed (1993), p. 184; Margaret R. Miles, Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious meaning in the Christian West (Beacon Press: Boston, 1989), quoted in Creed, p. 170; Creed, p. 170.

[10] Creed (1993), pp. 83-85.

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