This originally appeared in Closed Fist Open Hand, a collection of thirty essays about Jeffry Mitchell’s work, edited by Dan Webb and Matthew Offenbacher, November 2012. More about this book can be found here.


by Matthew Offenbacher

Forty-nine ceramic pots sat cheek-to-jowl on a long shelf in Jeff’s 2009 exhibition at the James Harris Gallery. Many of them were simple wheel-thrown forms, incised with decorations, perforated with holes, sprouting chunky handles, basket-weave decorations, or elephant trunks. There were a few in the shape of arms striking defiant or religious gestures, and some shaped like bears which seemed like self-portraits. Everything was cloaked in a homey range of blue-green, brown, honey, and white glazes. In this embarrassment of riches one pot stuck out—this one, with its Bernini dolphins, its sweet-faced imperial eagle, its cookie-dough letters spelling SPQR. These letters stand for Senatus Populusque Quiritium Romanus, “The Senate and People of Rome”, which was the motto of the ancient Roman republic and a declaration that the ultimate source of its power was vested in its citizens.

Jeffry Mitchell: SPQR 1, lead-glazed earthenware, 2009.

What you can’t see in this photograph is the inside of the pot, where a lovingly sculpted life-size fist penetrates the bottom. The raised fist inside the pot can be read as a political symbol, as a community’s declaration of solidarity, strength, and defiance. The fist can also be read as a sexual gesture, as the fist of one person entering the body of another. These symbols—the motto of the republic, the fist raised in defiance, the fist penetrating the body for pleasure—are represented here in an explicit way. Though Jeff’s work often talks about sex and politics, it usually speaks in more coded language, with double-entendres, hidden scenes, and charming arrangement of flowers and rabbits. This pot was like an obscenity blurted out during the flirty banter of a cocktail party.

When Jeff sets up a symbolic system in his work—a genre, a set of religious symbols, or, in this case, a philosophy of governance—he often complicates it with representations of excretion, digestion, sensory activity (touching, looking, smelling), or sex. In SPQR 1, this complication takes the form of a link between consensual exchanges of power and pleasure between individuals, and the legitimacy of collective power arising from the people.

What can be shared? I love the urgency and inflection with which SPQR 1 asks this question. The politics of sexuality is usually focused on liberation, on fighting unjust laws and moral censure. Sexual acts become political acts because of who is involved, or what body parts are used. The brilliance of Jeff’s pot is that it also proposes the reverse, that political acts can be like sexual acts. People who practice fisting say it requires great amounts of trust, communication, and patience. While revolutionary change is often thought to require an application of aggressive force, Jeff’s power-fist/fisting-fist says think again.

Jeffry Mitchell: Vases & Flowers, Flowers & Vases, Installation view at James Harris Gallery, 2009.