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Death by Sugar: Saccharine Ceramics by Jacqueline Tse

The memento mori ceramic sculptures of Tucson-based artist Jacqueline Tse (2019 Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize Sculpture Award Finalist) both shock and delight. Like the scrumptious scent of fresh, warm pastries wafting outside from the doors of your favorite local bakery, the tantalizing details of her work draw you in. Swirling mounds of icing and a smattering of sprinkles, all methodically crafted in pure white porcelain. But then you notice the sin beneath the sugar. Amidst the stacks of cookies, cupcakes, and ice cream cones lie skulls, a subject that appears repeatedly throughout the artist’s oeuvre. They feature prominently in select sculptures and subtly in others as commentary on the consequences of gluttony and greed.

The fragility of this addiction, whether to sugar or to our commodified culture of excess, is emphasized by the delicate nature of porcelain itself. Furthermore, it plays into the artist’s hand in another delicious juxtaposition of pleasure and penance: the monochromatic tone mimics classic vanilla as perfectly as it does bone. But above all, Jacqueline Tse has dedicated herself to ceramics for its versatility, as evidenced by the variety of textures she achieves through her sculpting process. She combines a ceramicist’s hand-building and casting with a baker’s use of piping bags and fondant stamps to a hyper-realistic effect.

Her take on the universal dilemma of loving something you know isn’t good for you is both beautiful and bittersweet. Dessert with a side of death, anyone?

I use a variety of sculpting techniques such as hand building, carving, plaster mold making, slip casting, and slip piping.

Jacqueline-Tse-The-Kiss

Exclusive Interview with Jacqueline Tse

You were born in California and raised between the US and Hong Kong. Has living and growing up immersed in two different cultures had an effect on you as an artist? 

Most definitely! Living in both Eastern and Western cultures exposed me to various aesthetics and definitely impacted my personal tastes in food, art, and design.

After completing your BFA at New York University, you went on to have a decade-long career in fashion. Are there skills you learned in this industry that you utilize now in the arts? 

Working as a designer in a corporate setting in the fashion industry really prepared me to be the artist I am now. Being an artist is basically having your own business. Right out of school, I was definitely not prepared emotionally and financially to handle that, so I am glad that working as a designer helped me gain confidence and develop an entrepreneurial mindset. I also gained research and product development skills through developing accessories for various brands. Having these skills help immensely in the studio when I have an idea or inspiration, I am able to translate and execute that into my sculptures. Being able to multitask and manage projects really helps me with both day-to-day tasks and meeting my long-term goals by balancing my creative time and all the other administrative stuff I have to do.

When you initially returned to making art, what did you create? 

I really had no idea what I wanted to make. I knew I wanted to work with my hands and do something tactile. My first project was molding a vintage fetus skull medical model and turning it into wax candles. I carved and created a small collection of very intricately detailed skull candles. That led to me working in clay again. I joined community ceramic studios to refresh my knowledge of clay and watched a bunch of mold-making videos on YouTube and experimented a lot. I think it took two years of tinkering before I finally made something truly meaningful to me.

You primarily work in wax, metal, and clay. What do most enjoy about these mediums? 

I love how waxes are soft and hard at the same time, it is very satisfying to carve into wax. I can’t say I love working in metal, it’s definitely the most frustrating out of the three because I am not a great metalsmith. I usually carve in wax and I get it cast into metal so I don’t have to deal with soldering. But currently, I am the most focused on the clay medium. Because it is so versatile, I can hand build, slip cast, or extrude, which gives me flexibility when I am constructing my pieces. I combine all these techniques in my work.

I think it took two years of tinkering before I finally made something truly meaningful to me.

In your ceramic sculptures specifically, you’re able to achieve such intricate textures. What are some of the tools and techniques that you use? 

I use a variety of sculpting techniques such as hand building, carving, plaster mold making, slip casting, and slip piping. A lot of my components are molded so depending on the details I need to capture, I sometimes have to do multiple types of molds to get to the end result. For example, in order to capture the detail of a waffle cone, I make a silicone mold of the actual food item first, then I cast a plaster model of it and then make a plaster mold of it for slip casting. I also use a lot of baking tools like piping tips and piping bags, cookie cutters, and fondant stamps.

In your creative process, do you tend to work on several pieces simultaneously or focus on one at a time? How long does creating one of your ceramic sculptures usually take? 

I usually work on several pieces simultaneously because I work with various components when I am building a piece, and there is a lot of drying time in between so I like to bounce around. The timing depends on the piece, when I have a new idea it can take days or weeks for me to develop a mold. Once I have all the molds and components created, it takes an additional one to four weeks to assemble and finish a piece. 

 Jacqueline Tse sculpture

In your sculptures, viewers will find sweets juxtaposed with skulls. Can you talk about how these subjects convey the themes you explore in your artwork? 

My work is highly influenced by the anxieties of being human, particularly the dilemmas of contemporary life. It is an ongoing exploration of my fascination with the American society of excess and shameless consumerism, social media overstimulation, greed, and gluttony as a remedy for emotional disconnection, while still celebrating the beauty and flaws of these fragile human conditions.

In my current body of work titled “Death by Sugar,” intricate porcelain confections are created with an irresistibly perturbing charm, resulting in a surreal dimension beyond dreams where sugar and fetus skulls are remixed into a delicate, bittersweet pop narrative.

White is the color of death in Chinese culture, and this series of work is about the peace I have made towards my sugar addiction. The bare bone-like surfaces of the porcelain are meant to be evocative and peaceful at the same time. Hiding behind the enchanting sugar surface are subliminal messages against the overindulgent contemporary society, and how I fell victim to this disease. To bring awareness that our desire for consumption is an escape from ourselves and inner truths. These works are fueled by my personal love-hate relationship with sugar and in part by memento mori. It is an ode to my obsessive and indulgent nature, childhood nostalgia, love of pastry arts, frustration, and ultimately, acceptance of my sugar addiction.

I love that you’ve collaborated with fellow dessert sculptor Betsy Enzensberger on some incredible works together! How did this partnership come about? 

Betsy and I met through Instagram, and then met in person at the LA Art Show. I think Betsy was the one that came up with the idea to do the collaboration and I just thought it was fantastic! I really love the bright colors of her work and I have a soft spot for resin. Her multicolor palette really complements the textures in my all-white sculptures.

Tell us about “Happiness Is” at House of Novogratz, which was curated by Danielle Krysa, aka The Jealous Curator

House of Novogratz is a fabulous home decor shop on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, California by interior design masterminds Robert and Courtney Novogratz. The Novogratz collaborated with curator Danielle Krysa to turn the house into a contemporary art gallery. The show features 11 female artists working in various mediums that all celebrate the joys of life. It’s lovely to be part of a show that really uplifts the viewer with their specific perspectives.

These works are fueled by my personal love-hate relationship with sugar and in part by memento mori. It is an ode to my obsessive and indulgent nature, childhood nostalgia, love of pastry arts, frustration, and ultimately, acceptance of my sugar addiction.

What has been one of your most ambitious pieces to date?

I don’t think I’ve made such a piece yet, but I am about to tackle it for my upcoming show for Talon Gallery. Ok, now that I’ve made this public I will definitely have to stick to the challenge, but I will not give away any details at this point.

Can you give us any other hints as to what you’re working on for that exhibition? 

My last show with them was all white, this time I will be injecting a little bit of color :-) Well, just how much color is still unknown, but I hope everyone will be pleasantly surprised.

What is one thing you do every day in your studio? 

Dance, listen to a podcast, and pet my pup in between.

Jaqueline Tse Social Media Accounts

Website | Instagram | YouTube

About Author

Alicia Puig the curator and co-founder of PxP Contemporary, an arts writer, co-author of the book The Complete Smartist Guide, and a regular guest host of The Create! Podcast. She has worked in the arts for over a decade both in the US and abroad and currently resides in San José, Costa Rica.

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