Melissa Stern – Walking the Line

Melissa Stern‘s artworks depict abstracted narratives with complex emotional layers,  projecting altogether an urgent psychological presence. The figures  in her drawings and sculptures inhabit an absurd universe which is  darkly funny  in a deeply felt way. Her imagery is precise, poetic,  and overall underscores  a close affinity with language – bringing to mind an artist who is both an acute observer and a witty commentator.  That said, it is Stern’s sensibility of raw and expressive forms that makes her not only an observant narrator but also  an empathetic participant in her own human comedy. The artist  shares with Art Spiel her modes of thinking, process of making, and some plans, including her solo show opening on Oct 11 at Garvey Simon Gallery.

Melissa Stern, Red Boots 30 x 8 x 10 inches, Clay, graphite, object, linoleum, 2016

AS: Can you shed some light on a few formative experiences in your development as an artist?

Melissa Stern: First and foremost, I am an only child, born during an era when everyone still seemed to have large families. I was left alone a lot growing up, became a voracious reader and developed a very active inner life.

My mother was a brilliant artist, totally self-taught. She never went to college but made a fine career for herself as a commercial artist in advertising. She painted at night at the Pa. Academy of Fine Arts in Phila. and longed to be able to make art fulltime.  We didn’t have a lot of money, so the spirit of making it ourselves- using paint fabric- whatever was on hand profoundly influenced me growing up. My mother made Halloween costumes from scratch that were a wonder of invention and craft. She constantly had projects going on around the house and frequently used me as an assistant.  Growing up in a creative household, yet one suffused with a sense of frustration affected me in deep ways. My father was an academic with a profound love of history and ideas. My parents were liberal first- generation Americans who read the news, argued about it and were deeply committed to political causes related to racial and religious freedom.

My parents refused to let me go to art school, which was a huge psychological trauma for me at the time. I took it as a sign that they didn’t think I was talented.  However, my father’s argument was, “If you want to be an artist, get smarter, learn about books, history, religion, and the world- whatever. Learn how to write. And learn about things to make your art better.”( I am paraphrasing). It took me a long time to understand that in hindsight he was 100 percent right.  He knew that there was something about me that  would welcome the intellectual nourishment of an academic education.

Melissa Stern, Guston’s Radio 6 x 24 x 4 inches, Clay, oil paint, radio, 2017

AS: You mentioned that your background in Anthropology informs your work. Looking closely at your work, I think I can see why but can you elaborate a bit on that?

Melissa Stern: My focus in Anthropology was the study of why people make things and the power of objects. Boom! Those simple ideas have influenced everything I do and continue to do as an artist. I am fascinated by the power of objects. This interest extends into the way in which art moves through the art “system” we inhabit. .  What social and market forces endow art with value in our world is very interesting and different than the things that convey power (and value) in other cultures. On a more personal level I am constantly amazed and delighted by art and objects that make me weak in the knees, that is, things that affect me (us) more than words can describe.

AS: I love the way you described your process: “I work like a handyman cobbling together drawings and sculptures from elements found, borrowed, and imagined.”  Can you tell me more about your process?

Melissa Stern: Well, having had limited art school experience, I’ve had to learn most of what I do on my own. I am in fact a self-taught artist. Never had learned a lot of the “rules” that they teach in art school. Never had any philosophical issues about doing and trying anything and everything.  I get an idea; I try and figure out how to make it. Sometimes I screw it up and have to take a different path. On that path I discover that my original idea really works better as something else, or maybe the original idea, combined with the process leads me to make a piece that I never anticipated. I start with simple ideas and what happens along the way to making it is the thrill of being an artist. I work pretty much from the gut and intuitively, trying to be open at all times to the possibilities of the process.

My work is emotional, psychological and narrative, but I am rarely paying attention to any of that while making it. I’m focused on figuring out who this figure is and what Universe they are in. I am telling a story, albeit somewhat abstracted, in every piece I make. The layers of feeling and psychological resonance happen in a very sub or unconscious way for me.

Melissa Stern, K.O. , 26 x 16 x 2.5 inches, Collage, oil stick, charcoal on wood, 2017

AS: Your imagery resonates with a strong sense of the absurd. What is your take on that and how important is for you to link this sensibility to our zeitgeist? Can you give me examples?

Melissa Stern: I feel a kinship with artists in all mediums who manage to walk the line between emotions. Work that makes you feel a flood of mixed emotions is what interests me most in art, in any medium.  Our lives are imbued with a sense of ambivalence. That is, the push and pull between emotions. I like work that challenges people to consider the question, “ I know how I’m supposed to feel about this, but how do I really feel?” I like artwork that elicits stories and opens the door to the mixed emotions that you have churning around in your brain.  My work is indeed often funny, but usually it’s a humor tinged with a bit of darkness.

My work doesn’t speak directly to our current political and social nightmare. What I make can be seen as political, and I acknowledge that aspect of it.  It a sneaky kind of political.  Obviously work about gender, childhood, memory, family all has room to be read as political.  But I find that people discover what resonates with them personally in the work, and that’s my ultimate goal. I see my work like a short story where the viewer provides the ending.  Everyone who sees it brings their own history and psychology to bear upon what they are seeing. To me that’s the magic of making things.  It’s that notion of “possibility” that interests me in both making the art and in the public response to it. The bond of connection that can happen between maker and viewer is what I seek when I look at art and when I make it. I want you to see what I feel.

Melissa Stern, All Clowns, mixed materials, 2009

AS: What can you tell me about your sculpture series “Ducks in a Row”?

Melissa Stern: ”Ducks in a Row” is the title of a group of sculpture fabricated during a finite time period.  I like words; I like phrases that have multiple meanings. I like the images that words conjure in the mind. The phrase “ducks in a row” infers orderliness amidst chaos. It’s hard to organize ducks, right? Ducks in a row conjures up a very visceral in my mind, an image that is both amusing and triumphant: order over a chaotic world.

Melissa Stern, Nine, 19 x 9.5 x 4.5 inches, Clay, paint, graphite, 2015

AS: And what is the genesis of “The Talking Cure”?

Melissa Stern: The Talking Cure is an interactive story-telling project. It consists of 12 of my sculptures; each assigned a collaborative writer, actor, and voice recording. The writer creates the imagined monologue in the mind of the sculpture, the actor voices it, and the viewer listens actively through their smart phone. It has been exhibited in museums in six cities where the public has written, drawn, danced, rapped, or otherwise performed their own stories.

The Talking Cure, whose name comes from Sigmund Freud, started from several points: 1) I had a solo show due in Seattle my dealer was totally up for my doing something out of the norm. 2) The question I most often heard when people look at my work is, “What’s is all about?” My stock answer became, “What do YOU think it’s about?” which is similar to the way psychotherapy works. I am genuinely more interested in the thoughts, memories and feelings that my work elicits than telling people what to think. 3) I was tired of the passive relationship between art and viewer. I wanted something that asked people to engage directly with the work.  4) I got the nutty idea that it would be an interesting experiment to ask people what they thought my sculptures were “thinking.” That led to my relationships with writers and connected with my interest in storytelling.

The Talking Cure is fundamentally about telling stories and giving the viewer the opportunity to tell their own stories. The amount of civic engagement that this show has generated has blown me away. Public programming in the six cities where it has been has drawn the public in to engage with the artwork in ways I never could have imagined. I am humbled by how the project has resonated with the public and what they have given back in return.

The Talking Cure installed in the Weisman Art Museum, 2016
Melissa Stern,Bird Wagon 15.5 x 24 x 6 inches, clay, paint, nails, objects, 2012

AS: You seem to be mixing media fluidly, still on your web you categorize your work as: Drawing, Sculpture, photography, and Assemblage. I have a twofold question: Is this division is out of necessity or do you actually see them as four separate forms of expression? And how do you see the relationship between them?

Melissa Stern: Years ago, when I started the website I was working more distinctly between drawing and sculpture. So those separations made perfect sense. When lightening struck and I realized that the drawing, sculpture, storytelling and love of materials could and should all be combined into the slightly archaic category of “assemblage” I then started filing work under that heading. Working across media necessitates some sort of ordering system. It would be really messy and confusing to say that everything is everything. I think that it’s helpful for people to have categories with which to navigate my web-site (and brain).  It also shows the evolution of the work in a loose chronological order.  All of my work is connected, but putting it in different niches is a way of ordering the chaos of the world. Clearly that’s a theme that runs through my work and life.

Melissa Stern, Go, 8 x 10 inches, etching on painted wood, oil paint, 2017

AS: What are you working on now?

Melissa Stern: I have a solo show opening on Oct 11 at Garvey Simon Gallery in Chelsea, NYC. I am working like mad getting ready for that and super excited about the depth and breadth of the new work.

AS: You are also a prolific writer. Do you think that writing about art informs your process as a visual artist – if so, in what ways?

Melissa Stern: In 2006 I was approached by the then owner of The New York Press who told me that he was sick of reading art writing by people who didn’t make art. He found the world of art reviewing boringly “elite” and asked me to be the art critic for his newspaper.  He wanted someone “in the trenches” to write about art. This was before the days of prolific blogging. When the paper was sold in 2013, a friend put me in touch with Hrag Vartanian who is the co-founder and Editor in Chief for Hyperallergic. It has been an honor to write for Hyperallergic for the past four years.

I think that being an artist has had influence on my work as a journalist, and visa versa. I have little patience for rhetoric or philosophic meanderings in art writing and criticism.  I try and write the way I talk and the way I make things- as directly and clearly as possible. At the same time having the opportunity to dive deep into the work of artists I deeply admire like Grayson Perry and Jim Shaw has definitely afforded me the chance to learn and think about their artistic visions in deeper ways than I would have if I was just looking at the work in a gallery. I always do a fair amount of research when I am writing a review or an article and I love that. Having to articulate in words what I think and feel is a wonderful way to clarify it in my own mind and internalize what matters to me as an artist.

AS: I have to admit that I have just discovered your blog, “Speaking in Tongues” as I was working on these prompts, and I find it fascinating – an admirable combo of breadth, depth, and visuals. What can you tell me about it?

Melissa Stern: Thanks for your kind words. The blog started as a place to post and archive my writing about art. It’s really nice to have a record of what I’ve done. I think that there must be close to 80 reviews and articles on the site. There is a section called “Rants” where I have posted a few more personal stories. I don’t post much about my personal life or trials and tribulations. I’m actually extremely private and frankly, when I’m not writing for publication I’d rather be in the studio than writing about myself. I love making things.  I love solving the engineering problems of working across media. I love making myself laugh and I even love the frustration of problems I can’t seem to solve. Writing is a great exercise of one part of my brain, but ultimately my heart lies in the studio.

Melissa Stern, Duck, Duck, Goose, 17.5 x 9 x 5 inches (each), clay, glaze, ink, 2015