SJ Fuerst’s art is wildly fun and cinematic. It interrupts established orders and seduces dulled senses, proving the artist’s ability to stretch the plausible into exciting new worlds. The technique and medium are calm and collected – oil paint on canvass – leaving room for the fresh, contemporary style to flourish. Harmony and beauty are present, emphasising the artist’s take on classical realism; they blend subtly with (sometimes dark) humour to create visual and narrative bubbles, bursting with colour and movement. Entertainment and disruption borrow from each other, in Fuerst’s clever fusions of fashion, pop culture, and art.
Figurative painting meets pop sensitivity and an endearing love for inflated animals and props, converging to tell strange and funny stories. Dialogue and narrativity are indeed core elements of the artist’s oeuvre; they demand response and seem to anticipate the joy they bring the viewer. Underlining the artist’s ludic settings is a serious commentary on contemporary cultures of consumption and mass-production.
The play of real and fake serves this weighty conversation and exposes current forms of engagement with objects we produce and stories we tell. Fuerst starts her paintings by finding a toy or inflatable object that triggers her creativity. The rest is built around this initial finding – an act (perhaps subliminal) of returning objects to a sort of pre-consumerism stage – to remind the viewer of the joy the object sparks, the qualities that led to it being mass produced in the first place. With meticulous technique and genuine care, the artist takes time and allows creative energy to go into placing the object at the forefront. In Fuerst’s paintings, objects don’t serve the whims of humanity, but manifest agency and intent; human bodies are restaged, with delicate, meaningful twists – to surprise, excite, and invert inherited narratives. Overall, by juggling contradictions and pushing the scenes to extremes, Fuerst establishes a misbehaving visual language, which handles the familiar in unexpected ways.
Elena Stanciu: Your art practice and technique are a blend of classical and contemporary – why is this crossover important to you?
SJF: I love figurative painting from the late 1800s, and that style of work is what made me want to be a painter, but it was pop and contemporary art that made me want to be an artist. I think it’s important to apply classical techniques to subjects that are unmistakably contemporary to avoid making art that is only looking backwards.
ES: You have an impressive educational background – what can you tell us about your years in school and their role in your development as an artist?
SJF: I was very lucky to have the opportunity to attend a big art college as well as small, classical ateliers. At the ateliers the tuition was focused exclusively on learning to draw and paint from life, and without this intensive training I would never have been able to develop my technical ability to the level that I aspired. However, at Pratt Institute I learned the importance of the concept within the work and how to develop my practice as a means of communication. Pratt Institute also gave me a fantastic introduction to other media, like printmaking and 4D design, which proved unexpectedly useful 10 years later when I began to make short videos to accompany my paintings.
ES: You are clearly very meticulous in your technique and dedicate a lot of energy to detail. Are there any constrictions or limitations you’ve encountered in this medium?
SJF: I love oil paint because it’s a very versatile and forgiving medium, but it does have its limits, especially when it comes to creating a sense of light. Paintings are just pigments on canvas, so black paint will never looks as dark as the absence of light in nature, and even the brightest white paint won’t glow like an actual light source. But there are a lot of tricks I’ve learned over the years to push the impression of light within a painting, like unifying the darks and adding bright, broken colour to the highlights.
ES: What does painting give you that photography cannot?
SJF: The way I paint is a long process. Every brushstroke is a decision, and they slowly build the painting until the final piece feels like it’s alive and breathing on its own. This is why I love painting as opposed to photography, it’s an organic and very personal process that produces something truly one-of-a-kind. My paintings represent the 6-8 weeks of my life that went into creating each piece, and everything that was going on while I was painting them.
ES: I noticed your work harbours contradiction, maybe as a meta-trope if not directly a subject matter: real vs. fake; organic vs. inflatable; recognisable vs. implausible; familiar vs. uncanny. Would you agree with this observation? Is there something about opposites that inspires you?
SJF: Absolutely! I’m always trying to balance opposites in my work. Without the play between contradictions a painting can feel empty and one-dimensional. I think of it a bit like characters in books and movies; if a character is pure good or pure evil, they become boring, the most interesting heroes are usually flawed and the best bad guys have something appealing about them. I try to bring that same tension into my paintings to produce an image that is really captivating.
ES: Can you elaborate on your process when starting a new piece – concept, planning, the story behind it? How much time do you usually spend to complete a painting? How much freedom of improvisation do you allow yourself along the way?
SJF: My creative process starts when I find a toy or costume that grabs my imagination, and then I spend some time figuring out the most interesting way to use that item in a painting. This part can take months (or sometimes years) as I want to use the object in a way that makes sense but isn’t obvious or expected. Once the idea for the painting has become fully formed, I buy the costume and props and organize a photoshoot with a model. I take hundreds of photos to paint from and work from these to compose the final image, designing the expression and pose to best convey the mood I want in the piece. Once I start painting it usually takes me about 6-8 weeks to complete the piece.
I spend a long time playing with an idea when I’m first designing a painting, and then I work with the model during the photoshoot to explore all the different directions that scene could go, so I do all my experimenting before I begin to actually paint. Once I start painting, I rarely change things, I don’t begin until I know just how I want the final piece to come out.
ES: I can’t help but getting a sense of disruption when encountered with the hyper-reality of your paintings; is this something you set out to do – surprise and disrupt expectations/ advance criticism?
SJF: I do want my paintings to have an element of surprise. I love pop art and its ability to connect with the viewer by using familiar elements, but I want to present the familiar in a new and unexpected way. My goal is to create paintings that entertain and instigate a dialogue with the viewer.
ES: Your work has been described as expressing a point of view on important current issues such as sexism or consumerism. How do you position yourself towards these issues as they are encountered within the art world itself?
SJF: I’m certainly not a fan of sexism. Unfortunately, it is still lingering in the art world, but I’m hopeful that will begin to change as we’re made more aware of the ongoing bias against female artists. This is what my painting “The David” is about, some people’s objection to valuing women in roles they believe only men should fill, and being an artist still appears to be one of them. On the other hand, I don’t have a negative position towards consumerism. I see my paintings as a celebration of the variety of things people have mass-produced, particularly the playful objects that are designed just to bring joy, like inflatable toys.
ES: The inflatable animal is a recurrent trope in your paintings – what attracts you to this figure?
SJF: I love animals, and I especially love the relationship between animals and people. From a practical point of view, it’s much easier to find and work with inflatable tigers and elephants than real ones, but I also think using inflatable animals makes the painting funny and more interesting. This goes back to my desire to balance contradictions and blur the line between reality and make-believe.
ES: I’m very interested in the idea of separating objects from their functions to serve humans; explore the agency of objects, rather than their subservience. I can identify a version of this tension in some of your paintings, and given that you love props and costumes, I’m curious to hear how you particularly use/think of objects when putting together the narratives in your paintings.
SJF: It’s in my nature to name and anthropomorphize inanimate objects, and this definitely carries through into my paintings. I think of the props as if they were alive; to me the inflatable tiger is a real tiger (his name is Gilbert). This is how I use the props in my paintings, as real friends to the figure. In the little worlds I create the inflatable toys are just as alive as the people and hold equal importance.
ES: What can you tell us about your upcoming exhibition at Lily Agius Gallery? What are some words you’d like the visitors to use when seeing your artworks?
SJF: I’m so excited for the upcoming exhibition! It’s called Forest Fresh, and I am actually making a forest inside the gallery that visitors will walk through when they enter. Before people even see my work, I want to take them out of reality and make them feel like they’ve stepped into one of my paintings. Hopefully visitors will walk away thinking the exhibition and paintings were fun, beautiful, and a little strange, although it’s impossible to guess how individuals will react. I’m happy with any word other than “Meh.”
Words: Elena Stanciu
Artworks: SJ Fuerst