You came to Wassaic as a resident in September of 2019, have stayed in residence since then, and now have an installation on the seventh floor of Maxon Mills, It felt like, which in a way is a culmination of your time in Wassaic. How have you changed over your time here?
I feel like Wassaic is really special because there's so much freedom. I came here right after an MFA program. It was a pretty traditional program, and I was encouraged to just do ceramics and have these really strong boundaries in my work. Wassaic provided an amazing space to recuperate from grad school, continue with my practice, and really flesh out, Which thoughts are my thoughts? Which thoughts are my professors thoughts? Which do I want to hold on to? What do I want to let go of? I’ve been giving myself space to work intuitively, combined with whatever I'm interested in learning about at the time.
And being here in this community has opened my eyes to how being an artist can be your job, in a way that I don't think I quite realized. In school, I think that people thought I was crazy or too ambitious, but now that I'm at Wassaic and close to the city, I'm like, Oh, everyone else is incredibly ambitious and has these dreams. It's so exciting. Now I feel like, if anything, there's more potential here.
How has that changed the work?
I hope it's becoming more authentic, especially with the work that I've been creating in the pandemic. A lot of my female contemporaries also work pretty intuitively, and that feels like a really new thing that is being celebrated. There’s space to be more transparent. So a lot of my work really responds to my lived experiences and feelings, but then also thinks about how those fit into different moments in history.
To root that in your installation at Wassaic: a lot of your work in the show centers around these Venuses that are inspired by the Venus of Willendorf. How did you get started working with that form?
These ancient Venuses were thought to be self-portraits of the artists that made them, so I think it's a really unique and interesting way to use them as this motif for female self-representation — in contrast to the canon of art history and contemporary advertising, where women are often used to sell something or promote something, or just for the pleasure of viewing.
How did you think about arranging the work in the installation?
I tried to divide up the room, but also have it flow together. The way that it made sense to think about it to me was having like three little moments. The mirror is a moment, the table and lamp is a moment, and then the Venus and boombox and small mirror is a moment.
How do the paintings fit into that?
The Wassaic show is actually the first time that I’ve exhibited paintings. I’ve always been drawing and painting to some degree, but in grad school I started doing it much more consistently. I found it to be a really soothing medium that I would do while the kilns were firing, so it was such a pivotal moment to have a curator say, “These are really strong paintings,” even without having a degree in painting.
I feel like essentially what I'm trying to do with my paintings is accentuate the narrative in the three-dimensional forms. Like, the Venuses are in the paintings, too. One day she's doing this, one day she's doing that.
But something I was trying to do in this body of work, and definitely something I want to do in the future, is to really focus on the individual piece to make sure it has its own narrative within a larger narrative. It's exciting to see an installation as one piece, but moving forward I like the idea of having less pieces that are larger. They're in conversation, but have their own individual narratives.
To talk about that in terms of one of the pieces in the show, Emily is the biggest Venus that you've done to date. How were you thinking of scale with that piece?
I definitely love the uncanny. I think there's something really interesting about there being a body that's relatable but not human size. That eeriness — something that throws you off-kilter a little bit — really reminds me of 2020. Anything that has a cognitive dissonance to it I find really intriguing, because it forces your mind to question and try and understand what's happening.
What was that like process-wise? Like, I imagine that putting together the larger Venuses is a way different project than the smaller Venuses.
I actually like them a lot more. I find them exciting and fun, whereas I feel a little burned out on the small ones.
Maybe because the larger ones are a little bit more of a challenge versus the smaller ones — I can make them in a day. It feels cool to have a finished piece at the end of the day, but for the larger ones I kind of become in a relationship with them. [Laughs.] I’m like, I have to go back, my baby's calling me. It only has a couple weeks that I can work on it. The clay can only stay moist for so long, even if you wrap it really well, and you can't keep adding to it if there's not enough moisture in it.
To broaden this out a bit — you mentioned cognitive dissonance a bit ago, but you’ve talked in the past about how you really like exploring this boundary between pleasure and denial in your work as well. Can you say more about that?
Yeah. For this body of work, I was thinking a lot about unpaid labor and, especially during the pandemic, all these additional roles that people are having to take on — particularly women — and that going unnoticed. So I’m celebrating these really mundane acts like stretching or even getting out of bed. Now it seems like there's a light at the end of the tunnel, but when I was working on that body of work, we were definitely in the thick of it.
But I was also thinking a lot about joy and pleasure, and what happens when that goes too far. Like, Rococo in the 18th century: I'm really fascinated with that style because it has such a duality to me. It was the height of decadence and pleasure — this very whimsical, very playful, really superfluous, incredibly secular response to the Baroque, which was created for the church — but at the end of the day, it could only be experienced by the elite, and only because everyone else was suffering. The French monarchy was just in extreme denial about what was happening to the people around them, and that ended in their downfall. I find an interesting parallel between the 18th century and now: it's all fun and games, but when fantasy is taken too far and you're removed from reality you can, you know, get beheaded. [Laughs.]
I just think about that on a much more mundane scale: about how important it is to have joy and experience pleasure in your life, but what happens when that's all-consuming, and everything you're thinking about? And it's very much a self-critique. I feel like I’m a really sensitive person. I’m always like, How much can I withstand, how much news can I read? It’s about finding this balance between being kind to yourself, but also facing reality.
How do you try to reorient that in your work, then? Like, how do you engage with the Rococo aesthetic without falling into the same traps as it?
I do want my work in general to be really celebratory of women and joy and pleasure, so that time period is a really good reference point for those feelings. Looking at it feels like having a crush. So I hope that my work does read as Rococo, but I do feel like it is really important to acknowledge the history. While I think everyone should experience joy and happiness, keeping one foot on the ground is important.
How do you see softness versus hardness? We’ve been talking about the pleasure versus denial boundary, but one of your vases is titled Stay Hard & Soft as well.
For the past few years, it's been such a common phrase, talking about women leaning in in the workforce and speaking up and having a voice. I guess recently I'm like, But what if people leaned out? What if people listened more? What if people were less aggressive? Not to say one is better than the other, but I'm interested in the duality. I think that everyone has multiple sides of their personality.
Speaking of softness, you’re actually working with lace as we’re speaking. How do you think about using lace in your practice? Particularly as something that starts soft and becomes hard in the process of you working with it, which is cool.
Ceramics is cool.
[Laughs.] That's the headline to this interview. “Ceramics is Cool: A Conversation with Jen Dwyer.”
I mean, I'm well aware of how biased I am, but ceramics is so interesting because there are so many different ways to approach it. Like, you can throw something, you can handle something, you can slip cast something, you can build it hollow, you can coil build it, you can build it solid and carve it out — and then you can also use lace. You dip it into slip — which is liquid clay — and then put it on your piece. Once it's fired, most of the organic material burns out and the lace turns into clay essentially. I love the texture and I think it's beautiful, but it’s also really interesting that it’s a relief or a cast of actual lace.
I also want to talk about the table that is upstairs, which is the first table you’ve made. How did you come to wanting to make a table?
I knew I wanted a glass table for the installation, and from there, I was like, Oh, wouldn't it be cool if it was my own sculpture? That's another thing I love about ceramics: it fuses the art and design worlds. The older I get, the more I feel confident in claiming that, rather than trying to say, No, fine art only. Because I think it's an unnecessary boundary. It just seems kind of irrelevant today, and it’s been an interesting conversation to have while doing the Museum of Art and Design Residency as well.
Can you tell me about the process behind making that particular Venus that's under that table? I like the texture in particular — it’s noticeably different than the other pieces.
It's glitter acrylic. I thought it was an interesting choice to use. I mean, glitter can be so controversial. Similar to the color pink, it can be really categorized as something that's very superfluous and not serious. But I also like it. Glitter brings me joy.
Say more about the color pink?
In the 18th century, pink was seen as a lighter form of red, so it was worn by kings and was seen as a really powerful color. But then today, it's a color we assign to young girls. It feels like it’s lost its power.
In general, I'm always interested in questioning these assumed hierarchies we have today — questioning tastemakers, the agency and power they have, the power that they assign to whatever is in vogue, and how that shifts over time. Taste can kind of be arbitrary, and I feel like that also makes the power that comes with it arbitrary as well.
I mean, that sort of brings us back to the Rococo conversation, given that it’s associated with this lavish lifestyle — this sort of money equalling taste kind of thing. How do you think about that in your work and talk back to it?
I think that it's the same to do with taste and value. Like, say in whatever fantasy world you got a teacup from the Palace of Versailles and a teacup from the dollar store: they’d probably be pretty similar. I feel similarly with brands: how something can be of high value just because it has a label on it. So I like taking those brands and reclaiming them in a way — where it's not about the body that's selling them, but it's for the body.
And I feel like only recently has the art world really paid attention to ceramicists. Today, it would be hard to argue that there is any hierarchy between painting and ceramics, but for so long there was. That’s a point in my work I'm interested in: how everything feels really fluid and blurry today. Whether it's, you know, fine art versus craft or art versus design, there's such a crossover and fluidity between all of them. So there is some level of wanting to really research the history of decorative arts and really question how taste is made, and who has had that agency to put painting on the highest tier of the art world for so long. Thinking back in history to things that were of high value but today are not in vogue and lost their power — I just find that fascinating.
How do you think about that reclaiming you mentioned more generally? We've sort of been talking around this the whole time — with the Venuses being a way to reclaim women's representation — and you’ve also, in the past, talked in the past about your work in terms of the female gaze, rather than the male gaze.
In grad school I really latched on to the queer theorist Jill Soloway, who thought about the female gaze as a way to give subjectivity to historically objectified bodies. And what I love about it is it creates a way of seeing a feeling. In the digital age, everything is online, we see everyone at a glance, we make so many snap judgments and assumptions and presumptions about people, but the end of the day, everyone has their own really messy and complicated narrative. So as far as reclaiming women's bodies goes, my intention is to just elaborate on their individual narratives. I wanted to create this feeling that they're there for themselves, rather than there for the viewer.
Jen Dwyer grew up in the Bay Area, California. Dwyer attended University of Washington in Seattle, WA, and received dual degrees in Ceramics and Environmental Science and her MFA and gender studies minor at University of Notre Dame. She has received a handful of residencies, fellowships and travel grants including the Pottery Center in Jingdezhen, China; Salem Art Works, in upstate New York; Trestle Gallery Residency program in Brooklyn; Wassaic Projects in New York, Kala Arts Center in Berkeley, and a research trip to the Palace of Versailles. Inspired by the Bay Area clay scene at a young age, Dwyer has worked with ceramics for over a decade and in the past four years, inspired by 18th century decorative arts and love of all things whimsical, she has begun painting vignettes for her ceramic sculptures.