My work de-canonizes and reframes the tropes of our expanded visual culture through a critical, kitsch, queer-washed lens. My interest is in the power of our visual literacy. Ricocheting through aesthetic politics, social ritual and diverse witch hunts, I consider our precarious positions within history and under capitalism. Understanding a reclamation and redistribution of history and culture as crucially important, kitsch is my means to bring a critical, unnerving set of questions to the most overwhelming predicaments which press us as subjects of the law.
Rachel Stern is a photographer whose work considers the intersection of beauty and power. She received her BFA in Photography and the History of Art and Visual Culture in 2011 from the Rhode Island School of Design, attended Skowhegan in 2014, and graduated from Columbia University in 2016 with an MFA in Visual Arts. Her work has been exhibited at Ortega Y Gasset Projects and Brandeis University among others and covered in Hyperallergic, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe.
Images courtesy the artist.
Interview questions developed by 2020 AIM Curatorial Intern Niu Niu Zhang.
The Carrot and The Stick
20 x 25 in.
Q&A with Rachel Stern
In your opinion, what role does art play in 2020 amidst the events of the past year?
I will quote Camus quoting Nietzsche, “So it is with the absurd: it is a question of breathing with it, of recognizing its lessons and recovering their flesh. In this regard the absurd joy par excellence is creation. “Art and nothing but art,” said Nietzsche; “we have art in order not to die of the truth.” 2020 is a good moment for the absurd.
What has been your most recent artistic concern?
I am always concerned with being earnest. Especially now when we all have such important things we want to say, such urgent pleas to lay at the feet of whatever audience we may access, I am concerned with the business of telling the truth as I know it, without being misleading, self-important, or condescending. I want to be sure that whatever I might say about the heartbreak and anger and overwhelm I am feeling, I am only saying how I feel. This is in hopes that someone else might find camaraderie in that emotion or perception. I’d prefer my work to be a document of how I have actually understood the world and existed in it, full of good intentions and inexcusable fallibility, rather than a defense of my own moral character or a propagandistic attempt at moral authority.
This Terrestrial Paradise (Installation view; Ortega y Gasset Projects, Brooklyn NY)
Photographic wallpaper and framed C-prints
Bread and Roses
20 x 28 in.
In your work, you embrace the use of kitsch and the so-called leftist aesthetics, yet the theatrical staging of the photos makes the subject quite appealing and aesthetically pleasing. How do you come into this idea of combining the “beauty and the beast”?
In her autobiography Living My Life, Emma Goldman describes her love of flowers, fine wine, opera. For her this is the very stuff of revolution—despite her (mostly male) comrades’ criticisms of its bourgeois implications. For Goldman, there is no revolution to fight if at the end of that struggle there is anything less than opera. This is the urgent concern of my work: the dispersal and ownership of beauty. When I make my photographs and installation I think about Kitsch. Kitsch, in its most basic form, is earnestness. Earnestness is closely wed to sorrow and so kitsch occupies a space of rabid desire driven from desperation and heartbreak. In my work this is an opportunity to urgently give our desires a physical form and to create images which introduce critical conversations in a seductive and pleasing form. My use of materials place this discourse within a socialist critique of the socioeconomic structures and in the spirit of ‘bread and roses’, demand immediate access to beauty. The intersection of beauty and power is so often associated with the dark forces of fascism and the deep inequities and manipulations of capitalism. My work engages with beauty as a tool of liberation and a necessary reminder of the fruits of labor and hard fought goals of revolution.
20 x 25 in.
As an art professor, what advice do you offer your students about the artist’s life?
I could fill a five hour a week, fourteen week course with the answer to that question but I will share instead two critical resources that I present on the first class of every course I teach. John Cage and Sister Corita Kent in their Rules for the Immaculate Heart College Art Department tell their students to, “do all of the work all of the time”, to “come or go to everything”, that “there is no win and no fail, only make”, and to always break rules well and make new ones. In E. E. Cummings’ A Poet’s Advice to Students he pits the idea of feeling against the notions of thinking or knowing or understanding. He says to express how you feel through your art is to be “nobody-but-yourself” and that the struggle to be “nobody-but-yourself” is “the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” He concludes, “And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world, unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.”