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 different series of work. The first I’ll discuss, ‘War Paint,’ uses Rococo imagery to make a point about 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. Commissioning a self-portrait was a disruption of a very gendered power dynamic in 18th-century France, and signaled an increase in women’s autonomy. Dwyer views the cultural shift as a reaction to “the muse/artist relationship.” It suggested a degree of creativity on behalf of the muse, and speaks to her 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.” She now sees Rococo interiors as a signal of transhistorical feminism– from the 18th-century lady of the court to the 21st century tourist– both crafting their own image.
The objects that compose ‘War Paint’ recreate a Rococo dressing room, the site of identity-construction. Every item– a comb, a fan, a hand-held mirror– contribute to the creation of this mask.
Yet each bears an uncanny element that makes it feel ever so slightly animate. Fingers with sharp nails protrude from a hair comb, an eye watches ominously from 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 19th century France, or by the glass ceiling in 2018.
These elements also illustrate the newfound control women had in 18th-century France over what was in vogue. Women were Rococo taste-makers, and there was a degree of autonomy and joy in this. “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’ bear the mark of the woman exerting her control over her own representation.
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 deal with 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 tough gently when we are in love. They are a far better representation of a woman than her breasts, which have been sexualized to the point that they reflect more about what men think about them than what women feel having them.
The use of pink in Pink Candelabra is multifold. Today it evokes femininity, but Dwyer notes that it was once worn by 18th-century kings. The color lends the sculpture both associations. Perhaps it is celebrating the balance of strength and softness we have within us.
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 like such, bending gracefully towards the candlestick cup. There are even arm-like structures distending from Pinky Promise Candlestick, using their embrace to support the weight of the candle. The arch in Rosary Candelabra is less bodily, but the overgrowth of clay balls wrapping tightly around the convergence point feels very anthropomorphic. There is something deeply human about two bodies clinging together, wrapping themselves up tightly in one another– and becoming one.
It is very interesting to view the work from both series integrated together in this exhibit. “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.
This is a very cathartic experience for the femme viewer, and perhaps an educational one for the cis male. Dwyer is very much influenced by Laura Mulvey’s writings on the male gaze and Jill Soloway’s responses to Mulvey on the female gaze. The artist is keen on providing “an alternate way of seeing; a way of looking/representing that gives everyone agency and makes everyone a subject.” To find yourself in a such a space, in which agency is universal, is an uncanny experience. The particularities of that experience will be unique to your identity and association with the colors, textures, and histories at play in Not For You, Bunny.
* * *
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!