Dishing it up

Nov 9, 2005 at 12:00 am

Howard Kottler, self-described “decalcomaniac,” has been outed at Cranbrook. His decorated plates from the ’60s and ’70s have been sprung from shelves and china cabinets, so visitors can chuckle as they scan the riffs on gay life and other cultural puns on porcelain.

Kottler cuts, alters and pastes store-bought decals of clichéd images onto shiny white dinner plates. In his hands, the result often produces surprising juxtapositions in the style of Max Ernst and the surrealists. Ernst himself snipped from magazines and catalogs to create his bizarre, disquieting collage novels.

The deceptively simple process is the basis for the body of work in a tightly focused Cranbrook exhibition of a seminal period in Kottler’s career. This traveling show includes, among the numerous series on view, “American Gothicware,” “American Supperware,” “Leonardo Supperware,” “Madonna Ware” and “Homage to Gertrude [Stein],” also referred to as “Roseware.”

In “American Supperware” (1969) the generating decal is the American flag that Kottler deconstructs and applies to the mass-produced dinnerware in subversive forms: The flag may be limp (“Drip Dry”), unraveling (“Made in the USA”), strewn about in bits and pieces (“Kit”) or a simple outline bereft of its stars and stripes (“Hollow Dream”). The latter suggests both the disillusionment over the Vietnam War and America’s unfulfilled promise of equality for all, especially blacks and homosexuals.

Among the several variations in “American Gothicware,” (1971-72) based on Grant Wood’s iconic “American Gothic” painting, Kottler presents “Look Alikes,” in which he replaces the face of the woman with that of the farmer to create a same-sex couple of unassailable rectitude. In “Restless Sex,” he replaces the farmer’s visage with the woman’s to create a lesbian duo. He also transforms Wood’s original man and woman into an image titled “American Minstrels,” by limning their faces in whiteface.

In “Cats” (1970), where he decals the heads of a dog and cat onto the plate, he gives the dog the eyes of a cat. It seems one of this pair of felines must be in dog drag. The poodle-like dog, though, is fem — rather than the butch companion one might stereotypically expect.


Look Alikes: The Decal Plates of Howard Kottler runs through Jan. 8, 2006, at Cranbrook Art Museum, 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; 1-877-462-7262.

Dennis Alan Nawrocki is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]