“The advertising worked”, says Chloe Wise, unaffected by the machinations of marketing. The Montreal-born, New York-based artist known for turning cream cheese bagels into haute couture fashion accessories and witty self-portraiture is talking about a case of Soylent open-source meal replacement, given to her by the company after she tweeted them following a tonsillectomy. “How did Soylent get some art world hilarity? It’s so mundane,” she says referring to artist Sean Raspet’s Soylent installation at Société’s gallery booth at Frieze New York earlier this year. “Bad example maybe. It tasted bad but I froze it into cubes and it kept me alive. So that’s nice.”
Speaking to Wise in anticipation of an artist book launching this autumn in New York, conversation with the artist spins and swerves through all manner of subjects in a tone that could only be described as easy, fast, sincere. There’s talk of a slideshow of images of Wise culled from Google Image Search given to her by her parents and a deeply analytical exposition on the power of advertising, embraced with beautiful contradiction. Wise’s critique is as strong as her sense of humour, the playfulness it carries makes the impact more light-hearted but the delivery never loses its weight. Rather than making the viewer uncomfortable she opts to make them laugh, and at the same time maybe a little bit confused because these funny things are also maybe a little bit sad: “Trends are banal, and marketing is everything, and consumers are gullible, and logos and shininess hold all the power.”
Her obsession with food imagery and advertising spans time periods, conflating its metaphorical use in classical European still lifes with the odd sexually-loaded language found in present-day food advertising. The results are paintings that reclaim feminine iconography and depictions, and intentionally overindulgent sculptures that look exactly like food. Made with urethane and ceramic, they are so carefully crafted and fanatically painted that one could never pick it out of a food line-up. Wise made headlines by duping the fashion world with ‘Bagel No. 5’ when actress and friend India Menuez wore the ‘purse’ to a formal invite-only Chanel event in 2014. Its straps and fixings resembled a Chanel handbag but the actual ‘bag’ looked exactly like a cream cheese bagel. That same year, she confronted the art world with Literally Me, a series of self-portraits of Wise painting herself made when the word ‘selfie’ was coined and widely used to criticize and police female self-representation.
Today, she continues to work with the same motifs. Ranging from video, painting, and sculpture the artist walks the line of critique facetiously with a focus on ‘the nude’, presenting a more classical aesthetic, however, completely on her terms.
You seem like a very straightforward person, in terms of your work. I think it’s difficult to do it well, especially with such mass appeal, as you’ve garnered. In your 2014 painting series, Literally Me, I felt that it was probably the best critique of the selfie in reference to self-portraiture in art history. Like your paintings reference a lot of classical painting but it sort of flips it on its head.
CW: Thanks ! The Literally Me series was something I did when the word ‘selfie’ was really being brought up a lot, to a point where it was almost carrying a negative connotation, or a gendered one. People were talking about women and self-representation in a way that felt as though it was carrying judgement, the policing of people’s bodies or faces.
Jerry Saltz wrote that ‘selfie’ was the word of the year, so it wasn’t meant as a critique of the selfie, as an action or genre, but rather as a critique or exploration of the fact that this thing was being critiqued at all; this thing or action that is inevitable. Especially with the front-facing camera and the increasing democratization of self-representation via a number of social media platforms. Self-portraiture is a genre that has been around for a very long time and artists have long had the ability to portray themselves as they wish to be perceived: the self-mythologizing artist, the self-mythologizing Instagram gal.
I suppose that’s what I meant, the gendering of the word. Maybe I should’ve said ‘a critique of self-portraiture in art history’, as it is male-dominated and the negative connotation selfie carries in relation to how women use it — which is how everyone uses it. That’s the point, like why was it even a thing?
CW: Exactly. Women being policed on their interactions with their own self-image; policed by men but also other women. That’s something that comes up in my work a lot, in my video work too, and in my recurrent use of my own image.
The inability people seem to have to cope with a woman being more than one thing, being multifaceted, being narcissistic and simultaneously intelligent, being a sexual being and also being talented. Of course, one woman or person can have all of these coexisting qualities, and negative ones. People can be a number of things but this fear or distrust of women who express comfort or pride in their self-image or sexuality has always been around, it’s not new. It just becomes really clear with the everyday internet usage and the language that comes up around that.
CW: There is misogyny in the language that surrounds female self-representation. I don’t want to get too much into that but it’s there. Anyway, I thought it was really funny to do an over-the-top seemingly narcissistic parade of self portraits and it was so much fun to do. I also wanted to unlearn academic painting by doing something gestural. Each of those paintings only took one day to make. [It was] very liberating.
I don’t think they are narcissistic at all, though.
CW: Seemingly... to a viewer who isn’t familiar with my work or sense of humor it seems crazy, which I like, and which it is. That’s a moment I love. I like to consider the viewer who stumbles upon something online.
Maybe, but the thing about it is that I don’t think it would be described that way if it was something a painter did a hundred years ago — a male painter.
CW: Right, yes, or a male painter now. We don’t gender men’s self-representation as much.
I think that’s why it’s so brilliant to me, and obvious. Though I definitely don’t think anyone could’ve come up with a series like that at that particular time, I feel like you really nailed it. There were all these other things happening critiquing this disparity but not quite as deftly as you, which makes me think of the paintings you’ve been doing recently. They also draw from classic western art history stylistically. Like the portraits with the fruits of your friends, some of them well-known. What is the motivation behind that, if any?
CW: Well, the sculptures I’ve been doing are, in a way, these deconstructed still lifes — which I can come back to — but I think the still life, or in French, nature mort (dead nature), is an interesting genre because, it too, carries gendered imagery. Obviously, so does the nude, the reclining nude, the portrait, the self-portrait. I’m really interested in and attracted to the imagery and semiotics of these recognizable painting types, and also I think it’s really funny to do a really time-consuming oil painting and be a 25-year old digital-native in 2016. I think it’s funny as an act. I also love painting.
In both my sculptures and my paintings are these images that indicate and evoke a lot of the same adjectives as the human body. Like flowers wilting can call to mind the mutability of youth, or a pomegranate or fig references fertility or sexuality. ‘Easy stuff, you know.
I like that, that basic gendered side-by-side comparison of the female body to food. Sticky, attractive, tempting, sinful. However you want to describe a dessert, you can also describe a tempting naked lady lying down and you can read into so many paintings in art history that way.
My sculptures do that too. They’re archival, as are paintings, so it’s this impossibility, something that can’t be forever like youth, sex, food, money, all the good stuff. It’s fleeting. It’s this cruel thing. You can’t have those really desirable things forever so you have perpetual want and that’s consumerism too.
Also, I use my friends because, wow, they’re so amazing.
I’ve never thought about the similarities between how women and food are described.
CW: Oh really? I think about it all the time. I’m really drawn to menus, commercials, and also advertisements in fashion. They’re strikingly similar. Sexuality is used to appeal to consumers for food, or Windex. ‘Doesn’t matter what, it’s the same language.
Yes, I’m drawn to advertising too, the language of it, but I’ve never looked at food advertising. I see it now clearly but I guess I just never had food in my head in relation to my own work.
CW: You’ll notice there are often little beads of water on a tomato slice, even in a McDonalds ad, or oozing cheese in a pizza commercial. The sticky thing indicates freshness. Shiny indicates desire, and female models are always shiny and glossy to indicate youth, luxury, sexiness.
That’s so weird but you’re right.
CW: I love that. It’s so simple. It works on us helpless impressionable consumers. We’re like, ‘Ooooh shiny. Okay, I want it’. Food is sort of a placeholder for something else. It could be cars, flowers, boots, cigarettes, or jewellery.
What are your thoughts on woman’s place within these interchangeable ‘goods’? Obviously there’s objectification, but you mentioned that it works on all of us, meaning women too… so I’m just wondering about how that plays into our relationship to our own bodies. I am speaking more in relation to food, maybe.
CW: I think I’m reading into it in a way that most people don’t. It’s not shocking or secretive but I don’t think most people feel personally attacked by food advertisements. Although you can probably find some pissed off people on reddit, men or women [laughs]. I think advertising works on ‘us’, whoever that is… society… consumers… it doesn’t appeal to everyone, and that’s why, in 2016, there is an increasing commodification of individuality. Commercials are now targeting people who identify as ‘different’ or special, because our generation isn’t really as interested in assimilating, we all are so individualistic. I’m generalizing but I cringe when I watch a commercial that is targeted at twenty-something-year-old quirky artists in Williamsburg [laughs].
CW: Hmm… wait, that doesn’t really answer your question. To go back, I don’t find it to be too problematic but I think in general the fashion industry, and food industry, and major consumer industries do use sexuality as a tool, and that definitely does shape our relationships to ourselves as sexual beings and consumers. I celebrate and criticize consumerism equally, I think. Its visual language is inextricable from western culture so I can’t hate on it. The fonts, voices, images, compositions, rhythm, all of it is part of our day-to-day. It’s fucked up but beautiful and it’s fine. It’s also not fine [laughs].
aqnb: Do you feel personally attacked by food advertisements? You mentioned it before.
CW: No [laughs], I feel inspired. I think I laugh sometimes when something is too tailored for me, as someone who fancies herself an individual, it’s cringeworthy. But I laugh with that, too. I think my favorite comedy all works with that; the advertisements or things that target us but aren’t overly offensive or anything, you just know some advertising exec’ was sitting in an office being like, ‘vegan art students will LOVE this cleaning product’, or ‘aspiring baristas with moustaches and quirky dogs will LOVE this wood grain phone case’.
But when that’s about food, it’s like, really? It’s food.**