Artist Melissa Stern ’80 on Strange Girls as a State of Being

Artist Melissa Stern ’80 and her piece, ‘Wig Shop,’ that appears in her latest exhibition, Strange Girls, now at the Garvey|Simon Gallery in New York City through Nov. 11. “All the people in my work and in my head are triumphant,” she says.

In this Q&A, we speak to artist Melissa Stern ’80, whose latest exhibition, Strange Girls, is open at the Garvey Simon Gallery in New York City Oct. 11–Nov. 11. Stern double-majored in anthropology and studio art at Wesleyan, and earned her MFA in ceramics from SUNY New Paltz. In Strange Girls, Stern uses media such as assemblage, ceramics, painting, drawings, and collage to explore girlhood as a state of being and state of mind.

Q: You have been exhibiting your art since the ’80s, and Strange Girls is your ninth solo show in New York. How is this exhibition a continuation of your past work, and how is it a departure?

A: I think that an artists’ work is like handwriting, if you look hard enough you will always recognize who they are from the work. If you look at my work from college on, maybe younger, you would always know it’s mine. Obviously, it’s changed. Hopefully it’s gotten better, more skillful, more developed, richer, but it is always a continuation of what’s going on in my head, what my cares and concerns are.

My interest in storytelling and narratives, none of that has fundamentally changed. This show is called Strange Girls, but, as I say in my artist statement, boys can be strange. It’s a show about the feeling of being on the outside. It’s about feelings that both genders have of trying to fit into the expectations of your gender, and the expectations of society. It’s about feeling like an outsider. It’s certainly more female-oriented because I’m a girl. My memories are of all of those things that you grow up with when you’re female, both positive and negative. The show encompasses a lot of ideas that I’ve always been interested in—identity, storytelling, and memory. I’m really interested in the stories that people have to tell. And the fact that my work can elicit a response, whether it be a story or a memory, a smile or a knowing laugh from someone is wonderful. This desire for connection is pretty fundamental to why I make things.

I majored in anthropology at Wesleyan, and what I wrote about, and studied the most, is why people make things. I’m really fascinated by the power of objects and the evolution of people making things that transcend “use.” The power that these things we call “art” can have on somebody is profound. It’s about finding a commonality between us. If I’ve made something that has touched you deeply, then we are, if only for a moment—“connected.” That’s profound. The fact that somebody could feel so connected to something that I’ve made that they’d want to live with it, is amazing to me. Right? “I love what you’ve made, enough to spend money in order to live with it.” That’s incredible!

Q: “The power of objects” is definitely a theme in this show, all of the art is some form of collage. What is the conversation like between you and the objects? Is your art inspired by what you collect, or do you curate with the final product in mind?

A: It’s really a dance back and forth. Confession time, I’m a little bit of a hoarder. I’ve always loved weird objects and flea market finds. I have things that I’ve bought as a kid with my babysitting money that I just thought were neat, weird things, things that just spoke to me in some way.

I’ve also always been interested, in particular, in how women have been portrayed in old magazines and popular culture. A lot of the collage images of women I use are from Life magazines from the 1940s, from the World War II years. I have huge stacks of old magazines that I read (I actually read them), and as I go through the images, the optimistic, stylized, idealized, and completely unreal images of women, girls, and childhood have always spoken to me.

To answer your question about materials—I work in a lot of different 2-D and 3-D materials. Paper, wax, wood, metal, clay, fabric, drawing, and painting, I use them all and without prejudice—whatever works to express the feeling and create the object. I’m not married to any one material or technique. It’s more a question of, “What’s the best medium to express what I’m trying to say?” My job as an artist is to figure out how to translate the idea or image in my head into an object. That’s a really interesting process and my ability to work fluidly between a lot of different materials is critical to that process.

Q: Are there any objects that the show would fall apart without?

A: I don’t think I could mention any one thing. The show is just too big. I mean, there are 37 pieces in the show, and it doesn’t have a linchpin. It doesn’t hang on one drawing or one sculpture. What I did was try to curate a universe, and if you see the show in person, you’ll see and feel that. The sculptures and drawings are installed in such a way that all the pieces bounce off of each other and speak to one another. So, there is no single object that is more or less important. It’s a totality. Hopefully that is what you, the viewer, will respond to.

Q: Strange Girls has been open for two weeks now. What responses are you getting from gallerygoers?

A: My work tends to elicit a lot of response, which is part of what interests me. When I have the opportunity to actually be there, in the gallery, people always ask me, “What’s it all about? What does it mean?” And I usually ask people to tell me what they think. I really hate didactic artwork. I don’t make art that tells you how to think or feel. I strive for an open-ended quality that really allows the viewer to bring their own experience, their own story, their own world to bear on it. I’m interested in dialogue, rather than either monologue or delivering an artist polemic.

There’s one piece in the show called “Gaze,” which people are really intrigued by. It’s a genderless figure with no eyes, with its hands tied behind its back, staring into a mirror mounted at the bottom of the knothole in a log. The description makes the piece sound a little gruesome, but it isn’t. It also has a sweet and elegant air about it. Somebody thought it was about dementia. Somebody thought it was an expression of how women feel about how they look, how you’re really unable to control how the world sees you. Today, while at the gallery, I got this wild response; somebody was intently looking at the show and they suddenly burst into uproarious laughter while looking at one of my pieces. For me that’s not only a great, delightful, and valid response but it also gives me great joy.

I think this show tends to draw different things out in different people. I learn a lot about people depending on whether they think my work is funny, scary, or both. The work seeks to really walk the line between all of these feelings.

Q: I also had a very visceral reaction to “Gaze”: it made me think about gender and powerlessness. It also made me think, “Wow, this show is really in line with the times.” So I was surprised to find that the title piece of the exhibition is a painting from 2009. Do the pieces in this show feel like premonitions, or reactions, or something else?

A: That’s a really hard question. I work from a combination of my head and my gut. And part of it is just instinct. I’m not tremendously calculated. And the fact that I did a show this year called Strange Girls, when the world is so strange, really came from my gut rather than my head. It’s a time full of great anxiety, and certainly a lot of us feel like outsiders. It seemed like the right show at the right time. I wish I could be more profound. It’s really just a visceral, emotional response to how freaking weird it is right now.

But I don’t think my show is doom and gloom, and I don’t think it’s pessimistic. I think it’s funny and wry, and an acknowledgment of a lot of the ambivalences we all feel about being in relationships of whatever kind. All the people in my work and in my head are triumphant. A sculpture may have one foot, but goddammit, they’re going to smile and keep on going. One could see this show as darker than some of my previous work, I think, because it’s focused on gender issues. But I also see it as triumphant because we’re all strange girls, and nobody’s going to keep us down. Right?

Q: Right. As you’ve been exploring gender through your art, have you learned anything new about your own identity?

A: I think it’s been a very personal journey. I’ve come to a certain kind of liberation or enlightenment quite late in life that I think is also a realization of what we’re consciously and unconsciously imprinted with as we’re growing up in our society, in every society. Doesn’t matter where you are. What women should be, and what men should be, and what boys and girls should be. It may be slightly different, but every single person has that kernel inside of them of expectations of who they should be. And so, you know, I realized that choices I’ve made were certainly determined by the era that I was raised in. And you can’t escape that. You make peace with it, or you go and you evolve above it, but we’re all products of our parents. We’re all products of our time, and place, and age in the world.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more at peace with being a strange girl, and more at peace with being an outsider. My place in the art world is such that I never quite fit in, and my work never quite fits in. So, you know, I’m kind of the whole strange girl package. And I’m thrilled when people find that their strangeness and eccentricities are accepted and embraced and they feel empowered to be who they are. I mean, that’s what it’s all about, right? Being who you are, and being okay with that. And if you’re strange, more power to you. Just be happy.

For more on Stern’s work, see “Melissa Stern ’80: Off-Balance Art,” by Julie Burstein ’80, written in 2013 for Wesleyan.