Jen Dwyer’s solo exhibition, Not For You, Bunny, is a tour de force of art-making, art history, and gender theory. I have seen Dwyer’s work before in group shows– notably at DEFINING FORM at the Untitled Space. In the context of other work it had strength and purpose, interacting with other mixed media pieces to form a progressive discussion about gender and objecthood. But in a space devoted solely to her work, Dwyer shines brilliantly. And that is because each ceramic is part of a larger story. Taken together, the works in Not For You, Bunny build spaces for the viewer to reflect on representation– both societally-imposed and self-created. Their narrative strength is a testament to the curatorial vision of Nathalie Levy and Stacie Lucas as well as Dwyer’s own artistic strength.
Not For You, Bunny is composed of two series of work. The first, ‘War Paint,’ utilizes Rococo imagery to comment on contemporary gender issues. “The Rococo period was one of the first times that women were commissioning their own self-portraits,” Dwyer says, “which I see as an act of agency.” During this period, women were restricted from the art academy and forbidden from painting nude models. They instead commissioned their own self-portraits, a practice that disrupted 18th-century power hierarchies and signaled an increase in female autonomy. Dwyer views this cultural shift as a reaction to “the muse/artist relationship” that connoted muses as female and passive, and artists as masculine and active. The commissioning of self-portraiture by aristocratic women points to the muse’s latent creativity and internal desire for freedom.
When Dwyer visited the Palace of Versailles on a research trip for this body of work, she was struck by the tendency of visitors to snap anachronistic selfies in front of ornate Rococo mirrors. This fusion of highbrow and lowbrow culture illuminated something interesting about womens’ struggle for bodily autonomy. “Our culture’s contemporary obsession with the female body… can be problematic,” Dwyer notes, “but viewed through the lens of art history… a selfie is an act of reclaiming one’s own gaze.” Much like the aristocratic women who once occupied Versailles, women today seek ownership over their bodies and the way they are perceived. The artist identifies the marks of transhistorical feminism in the very materiality of Rococo interiors; in the objects that bore witness to courtwomen attempting to craft their own image. She recreates these in ‘War Paint,’ an installation that recalls an eighteenth-century dressing room– the very site of identity-construction. Every item– a comb, a fan, a hand-held mirror– contribute to the creation of this mask.
Yet each object bears an uncanny quality that renders it ever so slightly animate. Fingers with sharp nails protrude from a dainty hair comb while an eye watches ominously from the apex of a fan and jagged spikes distend from a looking glass. These objects play a living, even conscious role, in the construction of identity.
“I’m interested in creating a fantastical, playful, Alice- in Wonderland-like utopia with a subtly threatening twist,” Dywer says. “I want my viewers to walk in and feel this warm sense of ease… but upon further investigation, there are quite a few objects of protection.” These animate elements– a watchful eye, a bending finger– imply that the woman crafting her identity is aware of the implications of her representation. She is not “a prop or an ornament,” whether she is trapped by the aristocratic system in eighteenth-century France, or by the glass ceiling in 2018.
These elements also illustrate the role played by eighteenth-century Frenchwomen in setting trends. “I love that so many (if not all) of the taste-makers were women in the Rococo era,” Dwyer says emphatically. “I really want to question how and why and by whom taste is made.” The ornamented objects in ‘War Paint’ point to women’s control over their own representation and the effect of this autonomy on French style.
Dwyer is adept at using humor and beauty to convey emotionally complex ideas. Writes curator Nathalie Levy, “There’s a cheeky sense of humor to all the Rococo ornamentation and curvaceous imagery, but there’s a raw, confessional nature to much of the subject matter.” Levy understands the layers in Dwyer’s work and has curated the exhibition, along with Stacie Lucas, to encourage viewers’ participation in the unraveling of these layers. Visitors can look into the mirrors in ‘War Paint’ and take their own selfies. They can ponder objects of self-representation under the warm glow of candlelight– a light that illuminates the uncanny elements of these objects, rendering them almost sinister. Levy and Lucas’ curation intensifies the emotional effect of Dwyer’s work by inviting the viewer to interact with every object and surface.
Not For You, Bunny also includes work from Dwyer’s series, ‘Blind Spot.’ These sculptures take a slightly darker tone, addressing issues of self-representation in response to objectification. The candelabras, urns, and crowns that compose this body of work are constructed from fingers and palms. The site of our actions, our hands are the truest expression of who we are. They wield punches when we are angry, shake when we are frightened, and touch gently when we are in love. They are a far better representation of a woman than her breasts, whose presence in historical media often privileges men’s lust over female phenomenology.
The use of pink in Pink Candelabra is multifold. Today it evokes femininity, but Dwyer notes that it was once worn by French kings. The color thus lends the sculpture associations of both femininity and masculinity– collapsing the binary that dichotomizes men and women.
Other sculptures in this series are constructed from undulating abstract shapes that evoke the arch of the spine or the reach of an arm. The double bases in Pinky Promise Candlestick and Rosary Candelabra converge this way, bending gracefully towards each other. Arm-like structures distend from Pinky Promise Candlestick, and their embrace supports the candle’s weight. The arch in Rosary Candelabra is less bodily, but the overgrowth of clay balls wrapping tightly around the convergence point feels anthropomorphic. There is something deeply human about two bodies clinging together, winding themselves around each other and becoming one.
It is fascinating to view ‘War Paint’ and ‘Blind Spot’ integrated in the same space. “In both of these bodies of work I aim to create a blurred headspace where notions of taste, beauty, and quality and gender are confused,” Dwyer explains, when asked about the exhibition’s larger narrative. But the artist creates much more than a headspace. Not For You, Bunny is a parallel universe in which history is told from the female perspective. This alternate narrative comes equipped with its own color palette and sense of materiality, as well as substitute methods for crafting and consuming the female body. Its complete conceptualization leaves no holes; to step into Not For You, Bunny is to accept this reality as true.
Dwyer is very much influenced by Laura Mulvey and Jill Soloway’s writings on the male gaze. Their works have inspired Dwyer to create “an alternate way of seeing; a way of looking/representing that gives everyone agency and makes everyone a subject.” And so, Not For You, Bunny can be read as a paradigm shift; an opening-up of spectatorial space that makes room for female agency. For many femme viewers, the exhibition may provide a cathartic experience; their efforts to self-identity respected and contextualized within the centuries-long female struggle for agency. For the cis male, Not For You, Bunny may serve a didactic role, informing him of this history in an immersive way.
Dwyer has created a portal to eighteenth-century France within the pink-lit walls of Lucas Lucas. Within this transhistorical space, agency is universal, and to step inside such a space is an uncanny experience. Somehow, in paying homage to the past, Dwyer provides a haven from the present.
* * *
You can catch Not For You, Bunny at Lucas Lucas Gallery through November 18. Stop by 57 Conselyea St. in Brooklyn, Wednesday-Sunday 12-7pm. To read more about Jen Dwyer, check out her website and instagram for a daily dose of ceramic treats. I’m also very excited to follow the curatorial work of Nathalie Levy and Stacie Lucas, whose take on contemporary femme artists is always insightful.
And as usual, drop me a line if you have any thoughts!
Until next time!