Upon entering Simon Garvey to see Melissa Stern’s solo show Strange Girls, an exhibition featuring the artist’s evocative and dark-witted works, Melissa welcomes me with a big smile and warmth. Before chatting about her art practice we tour the exhibition together and talk about her works that include assemblage, ceramics, painting, drawings and collage. As an artist working across a wide range of mediums she explores the definition of girlhood as a state of being and state of mind reflecting upon subjects from oddity, gender to psychology.
Y.V: You are an artist, a curator, a writer and you have a background in anthropology while working in a variety of artistic areas. How do these creative outlets shape your practice and works?
MS: I think the biggest influence for me is my background in anthropology- what I studied was why people make things and that is at the core of everything I do. I’m really fascinated by how objects can have power. That I could make something that would move you so deeply that we had a connection is magic. So making this work, is partially a desire to connect with people. To have you see the world through my eyes, if only for a minute is transformative. It is about the power of objects and the power of the narratives and stories that objects can elicit. When you look at my work perhaps there are certain pieces that trigger a memory or a story in your mind. I am super interested in memory, in childhood and what we carry around with us throughout our lives. I think writing and teaching about art also makes me look and think even more carefully about the words I choose when talking about my own work.
Having the chance to dive deeply into other artists’ work has been really fantastic because when I write about other artists I usually do a lot of research. And from that research, I often learn far more about that artist than I would know as simply a casual viewer. For example, I reviewed a show of the British artist Grayson Perry who had a big show in Sydney, Australia; having the opportunity to try and understand another artist’s work in a very deep way has most definitely informed my own work. He is a very brave artist, and I admire that. It’s very fulfilling for my brain to think analytically about another artist’s work, but when I make art it is very much from the gut. I am not very strategic. I don’t usually have a goal in mind. I have an idea- sometimes it’s a silly idea- or a color or an object and what happens on that journey to making the artwork is what interests me.
YV: Your works invariably extend beyond the canvas. Why so..?
M.S: I’m not a painter; I’m a sculptor and painting is a mystery to me. I don’t understand why painters stop at the edge. I think you should just keep going. You guys stop when its getting fun! My works in this show are all on wooden panels not on canvas. I always paint around the wood, the sides, and sometimes I paint on the back. That is also partially why they do extend out from the panel and kind of start walking. I like the idea of my figures walking around the wall.
Y.V: Figures in this exhibition are childlike yet there is a certain darkness and depth to them. Does this exhibition differ from your previous ones?
M.S: I think there is a tension, a funny push and pull in my work with respect to the issue of “children.” In scale, many of my pieces are the size of children, however, in attitude and emotional depth they are more like small adults. I always make shows that have an overarching theme; my last show in New York was very much about the materials I worked with, and it was called “You’re Soaking In It.”
This current exhibition is about gender, boys and girls, and it has had great emotional resonance with people. There certainly is some reflection on current politics and the state that the world is in, and it is also very psychological. But those issues are among the many layers in the work. You, the viewer can read it on as many or as few levels as you wish. Again, it is about the feelings that we carry with us from childhood. No matter what society or culture you are raised in, you are raised with certain ideas about how to be. If you are a girl or a boy, no matter what you are carrying some of that throughout your life. If you notice, many of the figures could be male or female. In those pieces it’s more about a psychological state of being than specific gender roles. Some of them are obviously girls but again it’s really about everybody bringing their own story to the art.
YV: The exhibition is titled “Strange Girls” and in a previous article you stated how you made peace with being a strange girl. What makes us strange and how is it reflected in your works?
M.S: Well I think everybody is strange, let’s start out with that. Part of it is celebrating our uniqueness but in a more personal way. I am an only child; my parents were quite a bit older when they had me. I was left alone a lot, I was left with my own imagination, and I was a voracious reader. I think only children tend to be creative because you learn how to amuse yourself. I also was a little bit of an outsider, partially because everybody else I knew had brothers and sisters. I don’t want to sound too weird, but I grew up very much on my own and that gives free range to the imagination and to the development of a rich inner life. When I say strange I am really speaking to just human behavior writ large because boys are strange; everybody is strange.
The actual title came from an older series of pieces about circuses and sideshows. The more research I did the more I found that the most interesting people in these sideshows were women. The “Bearded Lady”, well we now know she probably had some hormone imbalance, and this was the only way she could survive in that era- by being a professional “freak.” Or you know, the woman with three legs or with “no heart,” all these crazy things. I made this very large collage called “Strange Girls” which was a whole little encyclopedia about the ways women could be weird, in funny ways. I used a lot of collage materials from old Life Magazines from the 1940’s. So one woman has tractor wheels for feet, another has scissor arms. It’s funny, but funny and a little dark at the same time. Much of work can be read that way- funny and a little dark.
YV: You seem to be interested in seeking for a bond of connection between you and the viewers. How do you create works that are open-ended rather than didactic?
MS: Great question. Personally I don’t respond to work that is overtly political and tells you how to think. The work by other artists that I respond to is nuanced and lets the viewer bring something to it. When I start a piece I don’t have a firm destination in sight. It’s often more of a “feeling” that I’m trying to express or my own memory and narrative. There is a piece in this exhibition called “First Date” which is about how incredibly awkward dating is and how awful first dates are. I draw on my own memories of dates and then muse about what’s going on in the world today and how weird it is to “date.” Out of that mish-mash of experiences and feelings and materials, the piece is born. “First Date” came about from finding the odd old “fisherman” figure. I thought “How weird would it be to go on a date with THAT guy…” and that funny bit of thought is what set me off. The rest happens during the making process
YV: Your works touch on your personal experiences, memories and concerns. What kind of emotions are you channeling through your art?
M.S: I would say a bit of everything. People who look at my work quickly think it’s funny, people who look a bit longer think its really dark, and people who look a third time get that its funny and dark. It speaks to something you asked me earlier; people are very ambivalent in relationships, in their relationships to the world. Love is sometimes full of anger. Anger can be as a result of sadness, and so on. It’s the push and pull of emotions that interests me. Everyone feels that push and pull and learning how to navigate it is something I think we all seek. My goal is to walk THAT line between things that are funny and well, not so funny. When a piece “works” I think it’s because I’ve somehow navigated that dance - with a toe in each world. And that I believe is what makes my work elicit memory and trigger stories. I love being in the gallery and talking to people, because so often people want to tell me a story that my work has pulled up from their memory. It’s an enormously powerful connection between art and people.
I understand that people see anger, disappointment and loneliness in my work, but there is also great humor. Life is a rich combination of all these feelings, right? To survive the bad, you’ve GOT to be able to see the humor, no matter how dark, in things.
YV: For your interactive project Talking Cure you brought together a group of creative people from writers to actors to create a monologue from your sculptures. Can you talk about this ongoing project and how you brought your creative team together?
M.S: I seem to know a great many writers. I probably know more writers than any other kind of artist. I wanted one writer from each corner of the field; I had a poet, a comic book writer, a screenwriter, a playwright and a rock and roll musician. I very purposely wanted someone whose native language was not English, so, thorough a friend I found a wonderful young Mexican writer who writes in Spanish. Each writer got to choose a piece, and it was first come first serve. First person who showed up was a friend, a filmmaker from LA, and she literally got on a plane and came to the studio to pick “her” piece. They were each tasked with writing a three-minute monologue that was approximately 300 words, which was not easy for some writers. I learned a lot about what editors have to go through. Then I took the written monologues and put out a casting call. I got twelve professional actors, and I let them choose which figure was going to be a male or a female, the figures were similar to what you see in this show- not particularly gendered. The actors were asked to summon up that character with little direction from me. As a result, some of the monologues looked one way on paper and they ended up sounding very different. It was an extraordinary project. That is part of the magic of collaboration!
It was a really interesting experience and I would love to do another big collaborative project,
The Talking Cure has been touring for almost seven years to museums around America. Wherever it goes it usually stays about six months in a given institution. There is an enormous amount of public programming that goes with that.
I am very interested in community engagement pulling the people in communities into the show in different ways. I tailor the programming for whatever good we can do wherever we are. Each institution has been tasked with finding a local community that they think would relate to the project. I have written a school curriculum, we have done projects with war veterans, people with PTSD, older people, addicts and teenagers and teachers.
I can’t say enough about how amazing it has been to work with different people around America, very humbling. I am deeply honored that something I created has resonated with so many people.
YV: Talented young poet Mike Rosen created emotionally powerful poems after seeing your works and he is reading them to public today. How did your collaboration with Mike start?
M.S: I have known Mike for a number of years. My son is a writer and I met Mike through my son. Mike has been quite a fixture on the slam poetry scene, and he is a very charismatic performer. Mike’s own work has a lot to do with emotion, family and relationships. It’s often about loss and love. And it seemed like a really neat collaboration. I have no idea what he is going to perform tonight. He was here by himself last week, alone with the work and written some pieces directly in response to what has resonated with him about the work.
My rule of thumb is I never censor an artist I collaborate with; with the exception of if it is in someway offensive. I’m tired of the passive relationship that art has with the public. When and wherever I have an exhibition I like to figure some sort of programming that we can do to make the room jump! I want to change how people respond and relate to artworks in galleries and museums. With this show, I‘ve also collaborated with a dancer/ choreographer and it was truly an extraordinary experience. I asked Louisa Pancoast, the dancer, to dance and respond to my work in any way she wanted. We devised it like a comic strip. Every day, for seven days, Louisa choreographed a 2-4 minute piece based on a combination of the attitude, the stance, the psychological vibe and/or the pose of several sculptures. They were filmed and put on Instagram and Facebook. Super fun.
The experience kind of mimicked the excitement of making the art -to see somebody responding in real time and creating another layer of art on top of mine. It’s something I would very much like to do again. I am not interested in monologue, I am interested in a dialogue and that’s what all of these engaged projects have lead to- dialogue between people, dialogue between the art and the public and finally… to this conversation.