January 30, 2014
Interview with Amy Bessone
Los Angeles-based artist Amy Bessone mines the cultural representation of female form in history, from Greco-Roman marble nudes and the odalisques of high modernism to contemporary thrift-store objects. Considering the rich art history of female figuration and the concept of the male gaze, Bessone meditates on the dichotomies of form and gender, high and low, still and moving. On view at Kunsthall Stavanger are a series of four screenprints and eleven ceramic fist sculptures. The works are visually playful, but also deal with objectification and the commodification of the female body throughout time. Amy took some time to give us some insight into her muses, relationship to feminism, and the importance of found objects in her artistic practice:
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you were introduced to art? For instance, I read recently that you grew up in New York but had an early interest in the masks and totems of the American Northwest.
I was born in the Bronx and raised in the suburbs of New York, so by virtue of location and enabling adults, I saw a fair amount of art as a kid, from across the board in terms of culture and period. My parents weren't from extremely cultured backgrounds, but it seemed taken for granted that art was something which should be respected, admired and sought out. Creativity was encouraged. My mother took me to the ballet and to see Alvin Ailey. My aunt took me along to her job in an architecture firm and we visited museums together. My Italian grandmother had reproductions of works by Raphael hanging in her living room and was constantly busy creating amazing things from bits of household detritus. My father seemed to have an affinity for Native American culture so we visited the old Museum of the American Indian in Harlem. The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians at the Museum of Natural History never failed to get my heart pounding. In retrospect, I would liken visiting that hall to a sacred experience. Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm at the Met had the same effect on me. From a young age I believed in the power of art.
After studying at Parsons Paris and De Ateliers in Amsterdam, and lived in Brussels, Belgium for eight years, you’re now based in Los Angeles. Have these geographical changes influenced your working process and thematic choices?
It's impossible to entirely tease out which influences are precisely responsible for what in an artist's work. In my case the work often dictated my life circumstances. Certainly I am sensitive to light and visual stimuli, and those are radically different in Brussels compared to Los Angeles, for example. People often see my work as straddling Europe and America, and I think that's true. As for subject matter, Hollywood during awards season is probably the most prolific place in the world in terms of pumping out images of the female body and discussion around it, so lots to draw from.
Most of your work deals in some way with the female form, drawing on present-day cultural representations as well as historical motifs. In recent press, your paintings have been compared to works by Matisse and Picasso and are said to have been influenced by everything from Roman sculptures to pop-media. Are these references subversively feminist, and do you see yourself as liberating them from their original contexts?
That wouldn't be a leading question, would it? I consider myself a feminist, therefore subversion is a goal, but as they say, "It's complicated". The paintings also reflect my deep love for great art of the past and a desire to engage with forces which may seem contrary to feminism.
Classical references and dime-store tschotskes and souvenirs comfortably coalesce in your artwork. How do you navigate between high and low culture or is that distinction no longer relevant in the 21st century?
Often the art I find most interesting draws fluidly from across the high-low hierarchy, yet it is important to make distinctions sometimes, to identify intentions and to hold space for elevated and elevating culture; otherwise we run the risk of falling into a morass of idiocy and consumerism.
At Kunsthall Stavanger, we’re showing a series of recent prints and hand-shaped pen holders. What was the impetus behind the hand sculptures? At first they make me think of cheap and clever objects from a thrift shop, but only later do I realize the clenched fists’ historical symbolism and relationship to struggle. Is this the literal definition of objectification; turning a body part into a use-object?
Found objects are my muses. There are a few of these objects with whom I've developed long and possibly pathological relationships, the fist is becoming one of these. Much of my work is about the relationships between bodies, objects and viewers. To depict is to objectify, and objectification is only amplified when body parts are severed and/or made utilitarian. When I first came across the original ceramic hand, on which these sculptures are based, it struck me as absurd, impractical and of mysterious purpose and origin. The African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raising their fists at the '68 Olympics leapt to mind, and I'd like to mention Smith later specified it was a "Human Rights Salute". I wondered if this white porcelain fist which has a hole, possibly for a single pen, was some sort of lame protest, and if so, by whom? A white woman? A writer? A draughtsman? As a privileged white woman, what do I have to protest about? Well, a lot actually. How images trickle down and through time and cultures is of long-standing interest to me. The clenched fist pre-dates the black power movement and has been appropriated and recycled many times since. Often what endures of a movement is not the ideology but the iconography and aesthetics. I want to make art which is accessible, and what is more universally understood than the human body?
Your past works have often been described as clever plays on fetishism and collectibility. While humorous, the prints on display here at Kunsthall Stavanger (created in 2013) seem to be more overtly feminist with messages such as “Resistance is” and “Don’t Truncate Me”. Do you see your work taking a more didactic turn?
It's good to hear you found them humorous. On some level those pieces are about the inability to be didactic, the impossibility of finding one's bearings and identifying a fixed position in a constantly shifting landscape. However as time goes on, I do feel a greater sense of urgency and desire to address injustices. Lately I've felt a degree of regression in the art world, perhaps the prints are a response on some level to that too. Going back to accessibility, silkscreens of course can function differently in the market than large oil paintings. Seriality, reproduction and shifts of scale are threads which run through my work, including the prints.
Do you have any upcoming projects or works in progress you’d like to share with us?
I've been working on some new larger scale ceramics which I'm excited about, and this year I'll be developing a new body of work to be shown at Praz-Delavallade, Paris in 2015.
Amy Bessone’s work will be on view at Kunsthall Stavanger from January 31 - April 27, 2014.