Self Portrait in Blue (in collaboration with James Lyman)

RACHEL STERN’S BEAUTY

ART June 27, 2014

THE STUDIO PHOTOGRAPHY OF RHODE ISLAND-BASED ARTIST, RACHEL STERN, CAPTURES SCENARIOS REMINISCENT OF RENAISSANCE PORTRAITURE… BUT WITH NAKED DRAG QUEENS.642-832

CURATING HER STUDIO SPACES AND SUBJECTS ARE A PART OF HER PROCESS – PLAYING DRESS UP AND MAKE BELIEVE AS SHE CALLS IT – YET THE RESULT IS SOMETHING SURREAL, WHIMSICAL AND UNCONVENTIONALLY BEAUTIFUL. STERN’S ARTISTIC PURSUITS DEAL WITH BEAUTY OWNERSHIP, AND SHE PROUDLY PORTRAYS HER SUBJECTS IN THE GLITTER AND GLAMOUR THAT IS WELL DESERVED. 


_What themes do you tackle in your work and why?
When it gets down to it what I am looking at and trying to show is a pretty simple idea about beauty. Specifically I am interested in the ownership of beauty – how to take control of one’s life, body, or environment and coax it into whatever escapist fantasy has been wished upon it. I like the idea of the power of determination, of scraping together whatever trinkets of banality that surround you and asking them to be extraordinary.

Aquanette and the Bounty of the Sea

Aquanette and the Bounty of the Sea

_Breaking the gender norm seems to be another common theme in your work. Is this purposeful or a reflection of your subjects?
I think of gender play as an incidental occurrence in my work rather than a pointed theme. I am interested in the limitless and unabashed display of self. I am interested in the choice to actualize escapism and fantasy. I am interested in the power of blind belief in desire. In that regard the play with gender in my work exists because the definition of separate genders does not seem especially important to me. I began working with drag because of its deeply alluring power to realize a fantasy – to believe in its illusion. In this way the gender play is more of symbol of the power of actualization. That being said I am not unaware that gender comes up as a unifying concept. Something I have been thinking about a lot lately is how to expand the ways in which the work looks at masculinity and attempts to define a specific genre of manly beauty.

_What is your relationship with the beauty normative in our modern, western culture? What issues do you try to resolve in your own work?
I teach a class at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island called Fashionista. Its a program that was founded by two recent alumni of the school to help build self confidence through fashion. In this class I work with young artists to develop compelling visual content through the use of our bodies as models and designers. What is striking about the experience of working with the Fashionistas is the immense ownership they posses over their own beauty. Aesthetic projection of self is practiced across gender lines and between the practical and the fantastic. I have learned so much from working with this group of young people about how to define and approach beauty and its representations in culture. Admittedly I fawn over the likes of the Kardashians and Paris Hilton but they do not seem especially different than anyone else I might encounter in my daily real life in terms of their facial beauty. I don’t really understand abstract painting but someone once explained it to me as being an opportunity to feel something out with your eyes rather than just trusting their sight. I believe in abstract faces, if you give any face the proper attention it is exquisite!

The Young Prince (In collaboration with James Lyman)

The Young Prince (In collaboration with James Lyman)

_Although your studio work is surrealist in nature, it incorporates many conventions of classical art studio practice (i.e. Renaissance paintings, portraiture etc). For what purpose?
Knowing what people have done in the past is incredibly empowering. So many people are doing amazing things at every moment it is wild to think that any one particular action or style could stick in mind long enough to transfer from moment to history – to be remembered beyond the scope of a personal narrative. I like to pay attention to those cues – I trust the test of time to indicate value or gravity. I feel comfortable in tried and tested grounds. Participating in conventions of portraiture is exciting because it allows me to build upon a culturally developed visual literacy quickly queuing my viewer into specific tones based on a clear understanding of the meaning of a certain position, color, or object. I like participating in tradition – feeling like I get to add a little chunk to whatever linage I admire. I think often about the price rise that would incur with the presentation of a hand in the painting studios of the Renaissance. How luxurious that with my camera it takes no more effort to beautifully display two hands let alone one! I feel that it is important that I take advantage of these types of things. I have the power of the perspective of this moment, of knowing about great and awesome things that have happened and have been made in the past. I feel a great joy at being able to use that conflated multitude of knowledge as a tool box for the composition and content of my work.

_How do you invent the spaces that you photograph in the studio?
I think of the spaces I construct in my studio as curatorial cues for daily life – accessible dress up for any room! I use materials collected in the suburbs around Providence where I live; party and craft stores, home decorating chains, dollar and second hand stores, etc. From there its basically thumbtacks, guerrilla tape, and bubble gum. I collect tons of materials and arrange them using really simple set ups – just piled on thick. After shooting I make the rounds and return most of what I collected for the photograph. Saves on space and money and keeps the opulence of the images accessible. I like to play with the photo studio environment and allow the same materials to make multiple appearances in different contexts. The objects become little characters themselves and pop up here and there in the work. I am not a great craftsperson so I am always limited by my skill in terms of construction. My goal is always to mimic the painting or style or moment I am imaging exactly but I enter into the process knowing that if I give it my all I will none the less fail in accomplishing this goal. This I think is how the style of the sets is developed, the failure of my attempt is where my hand shows. The dressing of the sets is flat, like paper dolls, taking the same surfaces and just applying new temporary veneers.

Anaol as The Source

Anaol as The Source

_What are you working on currently?
I am currently at the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine working on a few new projects. I am really captivated by ornate relief panels in architecture so I have been making some photographic still lives focusing on those motifs.

_What historical figure would you want to have dinner with – what would be the main topic of conversation?
I think ideally I would be a fly on the wall while Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman talked. I am sure I could think of no better questions or topics than the ones they would present to one another.

_If you didn’t practice art, what would you be doing?
One of my professors my foundation year at RISD really pushed the idea that if there was anything else in the world we might be happy doing other than being artists we should pursue those avenues. I think this is really good advice. The amount of uncertainty, trial, and tribulation that comes with this career path is only to be endured by those who could chose no other destiny. I don’t think there is a thing in the world I could do aside from practice my art.

_What is your favorite place in the world?
I’ll give two answers here. My favorite place in the world overall is probably my bedroom. The Beach Boys said it best “There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to, in my room. In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears.” That being said I feel very connected to the big skies of Montana. As a New England girl I would visit my grandmother at her home in Bozeman and be astounded at how big the sky could be and how small I could feel. The landscape is so radically different from that which I see on a daily basis. I think its important for people to feel small now and then.

26_beardedidol

Bearded Idol (in collaboration with James Lyman)

_What upcoming projects, exhibitions do you have in the works?
I have a few projects coming up that I am excited about. I am going to be shooting a calendar for Art F City of nude artists in panda hats – should be funny and exciting! I am also doing a fun show at Drift Gallery in New Hampshire along side dresses designed by Project Runway’s Sandro Masameli. Mostly I am focusing on my time at Skowhegan and gearing up to start my MFA program in the fall!
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