The Playful Porcelain of Artist Beth Katleman

This article was originally published on Christie’s International Real Estate’s blog Luxury Defined. 


We all have to ask ourselves questions about our work, but very few of us have the opportunity to wonder, “Does the giant chicken want to play with Marie Antoinette?” For Beth Katleman such ponderings are frequent and important.


That chicken and the French queen, along with toys, tourist trinkets, aquarium decorations, and other apparently random objects may all be cast and recreated in porcelain, to appear in one of the large-scale artworks that Katleman describes as “3D porcelain wallpaper with a subversive edge.”



Illinois-born Katleman, a painter since childhood, was a latecomer to her medium. “Aside from Play-Doh, I never touched clay until I was in my late 20s,” she says.


“When I touched clay I felt the freedom to experiment”


It was during a visit to Barcelona that she saw a bench that Antoni Gaudí, the acclaimed Spanish architect, had covered in ceramic shards. Liking the look and feel of the surface, she enrolled in a tile-making class at Parsons School of Design in New York on her return to the United States.


Excited about the sculptural possibilities of the material, she swapped paint for porcelain. “With painting, I felt the weight of the entire history of painting on my back, but when I touched clay I felt the freedom to experiment.”

Today, Katleman’s works are inspired by the paneling, carvings, mirrors, and chandeliers of the 18th century—and of course Toile de Jouy wallpaper—as well as the low art of consumer culture. Folly, one of her best-known pieces, is a case in point: 48 3D vignettes float in front of a wall like clouds, with scenes of “peasants cavorting in bucolic landscapes in the shadows of classical ruins.” A smaller version of the work now takes pride of place in Christian Dior’s London flagship boutique.


Katleman’s creations take shape in her Brooklyn studio and can take up to 18 months to produce. “I think of all the objects there as a cast of characters,” says the artist. “Once I decide on a form I start to incorporate tchotchkes, figurines, animals, and the narrative begins to take shape…”
She is currently making chandeliers for London’s David Gill Gallery, as well as a porcelain room, complete with “Rococo mirrors, architectural ornaments, and overdoor sculptures all cast from my collection of flea market treasures” for the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum.
“All my work is immersive,” she says, “but this is the first time I will create an entire room, a jewel box that viewers enter.”