The art of Melissa Stern is deceptive in its playful, childlike quality. She is best known for her highly imaginative (and frequently amusing) ceramic sculpture, usually involving the human figure. Most of her figures, whether sculptural or drawn, call to mind sophisticated illustrations for children’s stories. Stern readily acknowledges the connection many viewers will make between her sculptures and those in the best children’s books. However, she sees her work removed from specific narrative and functioning instead in terms of psychology and metaphor. As much as we would like a ceramic standing figure–feet nailed to the floor, arms holding aloft a branch upon which large birds perch–to introduce a fascinating if disturbing fable, there is no story to explain it. Or put another way, the figure itself, and the associations it produces is the key.
Certainly it is possible to discuss Stern’s art in formal and art historical terms, perhaps making connections with earlier modernist interests in retrieving the world of childhood as an alternative to adult regimentation and loss of creative imagination. This was a characteristic of the surrealist agenda, and it also is encountered in the work of Paul Klee and others whose work Stern’s figures may bring to mind. Such a romantic view of childhood, however, is not shared by Stern. In fact, her memories tend to fall on the darker side. Drawings such as School Lunch, Dance, Contagious, Bully, and Substitute Teacher all evoke stressful aspects of the primary school experience. Most of us will be reminded of events so painful at the time that we wished we could disappear, or at least move far away to another city or town to escape lives made miserable by unsympathetic, capricious teachers and hostile classmates. Melissa Stern remembers this and reminds us that the typical playground, for many of us, was a dangerous and unhappy place. Her response to it was sometimes nervous laughter at the oddness and darkness of the experience. It is this element of humor that children invariably understand; “they get it,” Stern points out.