Portrait artist Jansson Stegner combines the kitsch with the classical in his colossal portraits of imagined persons. He cites his art history tutorship in references to old masters like El Greco in his use of light and darkness to evoke drama, and Egon Schiele in his penchant for body distortion and intimate, often extremely sexually suggestive poses. The staged artifice of his work is well and truly indicative of this era; a time obsessed with the self and self-image as reflected in popular culture. We discuss the reception of his work as often controversial, and the reasons for his repetitious return to depicting swollen and elongated figures he injects into the formal picture plane.
I am also an art history graduate! You have been very vocal about how old masters inform your practice, but I was wondering if you believe that art history knowledge hinders your practice in any way?
I tend to think that knowledge of any kind doesn’t hinder an artist’s practice. You use the knowledge that is useful to you and ignore that that is not helpful. I have always felt that all the art knowledge that I have expands my abilities rather than limits it.
Your paintings represent fictitious individuals, where is it that you primarily glean inspiration for your portraits?
Often, I will use faces that I find on the internet. I pick ones that have some kind of immediate emotional resonance to me. The bodies I build from live models in my studio. Lately, I have been moving toward the practice of making my work more like a traditional portrait by using a single person as the source for the entire figure, rather than taking a face from one figure, the body from another, the hair from a third, etc. This simplifies things, obviously. I think I am getting better at transforming a single figure into the being I am trying create, and I need to search around less for bits and pieces to construct the figure from.
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Lumberjack, 2018
You expressed that your “Paintings are the opposite of portraits. They are not a reflection of reality, but a suggestion of what reality could be.” This reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s argument that life imitates art – what do you think of this theory?
It seems to me to be pretty clear. Life and art are in dialogue. They imitate and respond to each other all the time.
While the influence of old masters such as Egon Schiele and El Greco are immediately apparent in your work, many of your pieces also defy art-historical conventions in the representation of women in traditionally male roles (for example in sport or police service). What inspired you to portray women in that way? Was challenging gender roles your intention?
The subjects I choose to paint come from my own fascinations. I was watching women’s volleyball on TV back in 2008 or so and was struck by the athletes playing the game. Tall, powerful, fierce competitors. But also young and beautiful. The combination of these characteristics was fascinating and exciting to me and has been a part of my work since. I like seeing traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics blended in all of my figures, male or female. I can’t fully explain why that is, but I never have consciously planned to 'challenge gender roles' in my work.
What would you say in response to those who believe your work panders to the male gaze?
I would encourage them to look at it longer. I don’t think the distortions of form that I make in my female figures always makes them more appealing to men. If anything they may be more appealing to women who might like to see the female form depicted in a way that expresses her strength and power. My anecdotal experience is that I get more praise from women than men – more criticism too, though. So, who knows?
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Swordswoman, 2018
Why is it do you think that your paintings of women seem to get the most attention?
For one thing, I paint more of them. Also, I think that they easily fit into a lot of conversations about gender roles that are happening right now.
Pop culture references are rife in your work. Would you say that your paintings are caricature? And as caricature is entwined with political agenda, would you say that this goes for your work too?
My earliest interests in art were all from pop culture. Comic books, album covers and vintage cartoons from the '30s and '40s; especially the richly painted backgrounds in Disney movies and Tom and Jerry. The bright simple colours of advertising design and packaging also made a big impact on me. The older I get, the more I have realized how important these things were in shaping my aesthetic interests.
I don’t think of my work as caricature or as having a political agenda. But I have strong feelings on political issues and it makes sense that those feelings might seep into my work, but I rarely consciously include them.
Would you describe your works as feminist? It seems as though critics have taken somewhat polarising stances in relation to your portraits; some praising it for its subversion of gender roles and others condemning it for fetishisation.
I don’t tend to affix any political labels to my work. I want my work to be more complex than just propaganda. I do, however; consider myself a feminist. My parents raised me that way. I like strong women and am not scared of their power and that is reflected in my work.
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Archer, 2020
All your figures seem to have the same body, only differing in facial features/skin tone etc; why are elongated limbs, thick thighs and arms, aspects you’re drawn to?
The body type you’re referring to is an attempt to blend several different attributes into one form. Strength, grace, beauty, femininity and masculinity. It is a sort of ideal type to me.
Your figures are adorned in clothing so tight it appears to be part of their bodies. Could this be a nod to how capitalism causes individuals to become their profession?
No, it has more to do with the way I simplify forms and remove unnecessary details. Simplifying forms magnifies their sculptural and psychological impact for me.
Power structures seem to be a recurring theme in your work, why is it that you return to these themes?
Strength and power have been a fascination of mine for as long as I can remember. I read superhero comics as a kid and obsess over politics as an adult. I think it has to do with the desire to exert one’s will on the world and the frustration with the things that prevent one from doing that.
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Flower Shop, 2018
In your series of portraits of fictitious and highly sensual police officers, you address power structures. Considering this, I’d be interested to hear what you think about the international protests concerning police brutality towards Black people.
Minneapolis is the town I grew up in, and it was deeply sad to me to see that community torn apart by George Floyd’s murder. The protests are important and necessary. Hopefully, some meaningful change will come out of them.
My police officer paintings were intended to suggest an alternate vision of state power that wasn’t awash in violence and hyper-masculine energy. I wanted those paintings to reflect a subtler, perhaps feminine, idea of strength. That example seems less like an idle fantasy and more like a necessity these days.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I am working on two shows with the Nino Mier Gallery to take place in the next year. The first is a small show of modest-sized paintings of women and the second show will be bigger and of broader scope. Men and women in a wide array of environments and narratives.
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Kneeling Cop, 2015
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Fireplace, 2018
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Untitled, 2019
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The Locker Room, 2015