Q&A: Jessica Gispert
By Katherine Sperber, guest contributor | Published January 7, 2016
Jessica Gispert is a visual artist from Miami, Florida, currently living and working in Düsseldorf, Germany. She received her M.F.A. at New York University Steinhardt and her work has been exhibited in Berlin, Miami, New York City, Paris, Rotterdam and Cologne. Her latest solo exhibition, Sense of Selfed, at the Dortmunder Kunstverein, examines modern culture's obsession with self-portraiture through a deeply art historical lens. Her work is distinctive for its intuitive and imaginative play with unexpected materials such as homemade crystals, bath salts, and stretchable fabric typically used for nightclub wear.
Katherine Sperber is a collection manager, consultant and writer currently working in New York City and the Washington D.C. area. After studying Art History and French literature at George Washington University and the Sorbonne, she began coursework in Visual Theory at New York University with a master's thesis on the invention of photographic self-portraiture. For four years she worked at an international auction house in collection management, working with the property of George Cukor, the Doheny family and Lauren Bacall, amongst others. She is currently a consultant for various artists' studios and recently cofounded Spleen, a literary collective.
Katherine Sperber: What initially attracted you to art? Was there a decisive moment when you declared yourself an artist?
Jessica Gispert: What initially attracted me to art was my father, both my parents really, and their love of art. My father developed an art collection in our home and was very interested in Cuban and Spanish painting. Art was not simply a fascination for him, but was something he was very passionate about. My introduction to making art was through photography. I remember my Dad gave me my first camera and my brother gave me my second camera, but now that I think about it more, the first art form I really explored was music. I remember being four years old when my Dad brought a Casio keyboard home. He put a record of Strauss' "The Blue Danube" on the stereo and I started mimicking it on the keyboard and really freaked out my older brother, so from there I started taking piano lessons. Music still remains a really inspiring medium for me and something I'd like to revisit through my art in some way. Looking back, I realize that growing up surrounded by art gave me an appreciation for visual culture at a very young age. From there, it felt very natural to fall into making art, first as a photographer in college and later on by making objects and installations.
KS: Your latest solo show takes the oldest sculpture in the art historical canon, the Venus of Willendorf, into the 21st century. Your show features a series of images showcasing her in full "selfie mode" if you will, reclining in the sands of Miami Beach. What inspired you to use her image in this way?
JG: The Venus of Willendorf is one of the foundational objects in art history, especially in the history of figurative objects. I've been using various celebrated images of Venus throughout my work this year, including the Venus of Callipyge. She was a headless figure in the Classic Greek tradition, and is the only rendition of a Venus that I’ve found to show off her buttocks. Roman sculptors depicted her with a head and show her looking back at her exposed back while pulling up her robe. Whoever initially made her was focusing their gaze on the posterior, which made me think about the provocative image of females throughout history as formulated by the male gaze. The Venus of Willendorf has a completely different history, obviously as she's an Upper Paleolithic figure and her body is more abstract and disproportionate. She is also faceless and therefore anonymous, with a big belly and big boobs. I kept wondering, "Who made her? Is she also an object created by and for the male gaze? Was she also made for male self-gratification? Was she a fertility object? What is her origin really?"
There are so many theories behind her and then I came across this very intriguing dissertation by LeRoy McDermott, that she was actually the first self-portrait, meaning that a woman made her. The theory goes that if you look at her from above, this is exactly what it looks like when a woman looks down at her body: you see breasts and a belly, no feet. The object's shape aligns itself with that first person perspective, and clearly could not be the result of studying a reflection like most later self-portraits. I remember reading this and being like "shit, she might be the first selfie!" if we were to place her into our generation. I felt an obligation to bring her into this modern context and decided to recreate the figure.
After googling her exact dimensions, I got a friend in Miami to make her utilizing his 3D printer. Then when I was back in Miami, I really wanted to play up the banality of this self-absorbed culture that exists so much there by photographing her on the beach the way a tourist would. Methods of self presentation, especially coming from the culture I grew up in, have always been an important artistic theme for me. It was also a return to photography for me, as I've been working with sculpture for quite a while now. Some shots of her are more abstract as I was trying to keep in mind how the original self-portraitist would have looked at herself. Other shots utilize the currently favored selfie perspective, where the camera is staged above and at an angle so the figure looks slimmer. Basically, I wanted to take this uber historical image of self-portraiture into a contemporary context.
KS: In the press release for your show, Oriane Durand, Director of Dortmunder Kunstverein, contextualizes your show by stating that self-portraiture is an ancient practice. Clearly this practice has evolved greatly over the past few years with the explosion of the selfie. From an artist's perspective, why do you think society is so fascinated with creating and consuming these images?
JG: Perhaps this has to do with our submittal as a society to consumerism, celebrity, and narcissism, as we easily praise and are praised through interactive sources like Facebook and Instagram. The instant gratification that comes with every symbolic “heart” or "like" is addictive and creates a visual culture where its participants are constantly seeking approval, leading to imitation and a desire to comply to particular aesthetic standards. I think when we discuss the role of women and self-portraiture at this moment, issues concerning power and sexuality come to the foreground. Awhile back I remember reading an essay by Kate Mason, Life's a Movie in Which She's the Star: Situating and Surveying the Camgirl, where she stated "In a time where many young women have become alienated from 1970s branded feminism, the Internet appears to be their purported savior; a realm of control and creative space which beckons invitingly." The selfie is a perceptive and powerful tool where the self submits to the world through images of their own creation.
KS: I have visited your studio and watched you make art for years now and there seems to be an improvisational quality to your work, specifically how you transform materials. How has this process evolved and where do you think it stems from?
JG: Intuition has always been a driving force in my work. Maybe a lot of artists operate intuitively, but I've also met a lot of skilled artists who plan every piece extremely carefully. For me intuition has been my guiding force because it's about movement and can be unpredictable, and I think there is a certain magic to that. For example, I've always enjoyed working with stretch fabric clothing articles because they're so malleable and can go beyond the boundaries of the human body. They're interesting materials, as initially fashion was supposed to costume the body and give it form, and these materials take the form of the body itself. The process of working with these materials is very intuitive and there's a random unpredictable element of not knowing to what capacity the material will stretch or change, nor what form it will eventually take. I think that this goes back to my interest in occultism and magic - the unknown aspects. It also reminds me of learning about photography in college. The excitement of being in a dark room and first watching an image suddenly appear in developer. So I like to cultivate an artistic practice that can be spontaneous and not always in my control. Obviously there are certain elements to my practice that require order and control, but there is a part of me that wants to keep things open so I can submit to whatever spirit comes through.
KS: As a Cuban American, how has living and working in Germany over the past two years informed your work?
JG: A great part of my work has always been about my identity having been in a state of cultural purgatory—being Cuban, though actually being born America. I was born in the U.S. to Cuban parents, and raised in Miami where Cuban culture is very present. Miami is a predominantly Latin-American city, where you could even check out of speaking English if you wanted to. So even though I was born in the U.S., my access to American culture mainly came through media, travel, and then later when I moved away to New York City. The Americans I met didn’t exactly consider me American, and the Cubans I met didn’t exactly consider me Cuban. And now, living in Europe, I fall into another blurry category, as a hybrid that doesn’t quite fit to the stereotypes most Europeans believe “Americans are like”. I’ve always been interested in exploring what it means to be from Miami, because being from Miami implies a sense of tourism, spring-break culture, and debauchery. Although those things are part of it, to me, it’s more about the fine line of where cultures composite into new entities.
All works © Jessica Gispert