Want to see Darth Maul from Star Wars wearing over-the-knee boots? Or Dafne turning into a tree in form of a car freshener? Maybe the DreamWorks fisher in pyjamas? Then, delve into SJ Fuerst’s universe in Forest Fresh, her upcoming solo show at Lily Agius Gallery in Malta. From March 22 to April 19, walk through a “real fake forest”, as she herself puts it, an discover her mastery and playfulness between reality and make-believe. Pop culture, religion, sexism and art history all meet in the American painter’s works, and today, we discover some of the secrets behind them.
I’ve totally fallen in love with your art pieces. There are many clichés about inspiration and the way artists work, but I want to know what your working routine is like. What moment of the day do you find the most ideal/productive to create? Do you stick to a schedule or follow an off-duty path?
Thank you so much! I don’t have a set painting schedule but I’m definitely not an early morning person. I find afternoons and evenings are my favorite time to paint, but when I’m in the zone, I’ll stay up really late and paint through the night. That’s one of the things I love about being an artist, I’m free to follow whatever schedule feels right at the time.
Your artist’s portraits are really singular: a military-like robot in different scenes that could perfectly relate to your person – painting a canvas or standing next to your pieces. Do you see yourself as a robotic being? Why did you choose this idea to introduce yourself?
That really is me in there! It’s the Halo 3 Master Chief costume, I bought it for a painting back in 2013. A few months ago, I had to take some new artist portraits, so while we were setting up the studio and deciding what I should wear for the shots, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t these all be more interesting if I wore my Master Chief armor?’ It turns out absolutely everything is more entertaining when done wearing it! Even hanging the laundry looks like a funny deleted scene from a video game. I love those portraits because I’m very present in the photos, I’m just not visible. As an artist, I think that’s what I’m always trying to achieve
The floppy disks and childhood references (like Doraemon or Mickey Mouse) take us to ask you what your influences as a kid were.
My childhood definitely has a huge impact on my work, all my paintings can be traced back to things I experienced and enjoyed growing up. Halloween was lavishly celebrated, and my mom would make amazing costumes for my sister and me. And in the summer, we would have happy trips to the beach with inflatable toys. I loved Disney movies (we had the classic ‘90s collection of Disney VHS tapes in their puffy cases), and also old musicals, which probably accounts for the theatrical quality in my paintings and the fake scenery. Then, of course, Legos, Barbies, Care Bears, Rainbow Brite – I’m your quintessential late-1980s baby.
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SJ Fuerst, Jellyfish Yellow, 2019, Oil paint on 3.5in Floppy disk. Courtesy of the artist.
These floppy disks are your support to sketch your pieces before their execution, which is not a very common thing. What do they offer you?
I think painting on old floppy disks provides an interesting and definitive reason for making something so tiny. Most of my paintings are pretty large and can take around six to eight weeks to complete, so it’s refreshing to paint something small and quick. Bright colored floppy disks are also very visually appealing, so the end result becomes more than just a portrait study, it’s a way to celebrate a piece of pop culture from the not-too-distant past.
You grew up in Connecticut and studied in New York but you currently live in Malta. The big city lights and the Mediterranean breeze seem to have matched perfectly in your work, combining what’s apparently opposite in your paintings: classical art forms and pop culture coexist in harmony. How do you feel these two different surroundings/atmospheres complement each other in your work?
It certainly reflects how I like to work, which is taking inspiration from contemporary and pop culture but then retreating to the peace and relative solitude of my little island studio to paint. I think this also plays out in the paintings themselves with my use of a single figure. The topics in my paintings wouldn’t make sense without the context of contemporary society, but the figure is happily in her own space and only accompanied by inflatable animals.
More than thirty exhibitions are a big deal, congratulations! Now, you’re about to open Forest Fresh at Lily Agius gallery in Malta. Its name comes from one of the pieces you’ll exhibit, why did you choose it? Does it have a special importance?
Thank you! I’ve been dreaming of doing an immersive exhibition for a long time now, and I have a list of ideas for shows that incorporates the whole gallery space. The idea for creating a forest came from browsing in John Lewis right before Christmas. I was walking through their artificial Christmas tree section, and suddenly, the trees blocked out all the other decorations and busy shoppers, and I found myself alone in a forest in the middle of a London department store. It was an amazing feeling, and I immediately knew that’s how I wanted people to experience my paintings.
I’d recently finished Daphne After Apollo, so the ‘forest fresh’ scent on her Little Trees costume provided the perfect title for an exhibition set among trees. I also love the double meaning of fresh, as in new and different, but also slang for a little naughty. I think that beautifully captures what I try to do with all my work, even the ones that aren’t strictly forest themed.
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SJ Fuerst, Maul, 2013, Oil on canvas, 150x110cm. Courtesy the artist.
Daphne After Apollo is the canvas where we find that car freshener. Is this item a way to camouflage herself in the escape? Do you use your paintings to escape from reality in spite of looking so realistic?
There is definitely a strong element of escapism in my work. I’m a realistic painter and everything I paint really exists just as I show it, but I’m drawn to things that are a little strange and surreal. My paintings allow me to make my own mini worlds, filtering out everything I don’t want and only presenting what makes me happy and what I find interesting. Although in this piece, I wouldn’t say Daphne is trying to hide; my Daphne is feeling quite annoyed at being turned into a tree. That myth has always bothered me. Apollo was the one who was not behaving like a gentleman and wouldn’t respect ‘no’, and yet it was Daphne who was turned into the tree. Why wasn’t silly Apollo turned into the tree? But I like that it makes a funny painting and I love that costume, especially the placement of ‘forest fresh’.
The exhibition comes alive thanks to the walk-through installation and its artificial Christmas trees. It also includes birdsongs and pine scented air-fresheners, a duality if you consider constant references to mass-production and artificial aesthetic. Where do you want to guide the spectator to (feeling, deliberation)? Is this a critique somehow?
The forest installation isn’t a critique, just a reflection of our desire to recreate nature and enjoy ‘natural’ things in unnatural places. I want to guide visitors to a place that’s equally familiar and unfamiliar. I want to create that sensation of being indoors and outdoors at the same time and use this paradox to highlight the play between reality and make-believe in my paintings. The forest installation simulates the experience of being in a real forest, but it’s not a real forest, but it is a real fake forest. I think that’s a wonderful place to be.
Even though you’re (mainly) a painter, you’ve decided to present this exhibition in the form of an installation. How do you feel this will ‘improve’ or modify the public’s perception of your art/paintings, or the show in general?
I think the setting and our mental state really affect how we connect with art. It’s easy to slip into autopilot, and if you’re not in the right state of mind, you can distractedly pass through an art exhibition without really looking at any of the work. Immediately upon entering the gallery, I want visitors to feel like they’ve left reality and stepped into something new and fantastical.
My aim is to create that alert but serene feeling of being lost in the woods, and then let people find my paintings in this meditative and surreal setting. I see this installation similar to runway sets used by fashion designers for their shows. The focus of the show is on their clothes, but they want to make sure the audience fully experiences what they’ve created rather than just watching their designs pass by.
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SJ Fuerst, The David, 2019, Oil on canvas, 122x127cm. Courtesy the artist.
We’ve already seen Darth Maul from Star Wars wearing over-the-knee boots, the DreamWorks fisher in pyjamas, and a car-freshener who turns out to be a girl. What’s next? Should we get ready to see Hansel and Gretel have a meal at Five Guys? Maybe Snow White in a tanning bed? Any crazy ideas you are currently working on?
Those would make amazing paintings! I don’t want to give too much away but I have some new pieces lined up that I’m super excited to paint. The inspiration runs from penguins to piñatas, to Gigi Hadid and Picasso.
We felt a bit dazed trying to differentiate what’s reality and what’s fantasy in your work, but that hooked us for sure. Do you expect the viewer to feel somehow?
It’s impossible to predict how people will react to a painting – that really depends on each person’s unique experiences and tastes. I’ve had people giving me very different interpretations of the same piece, which is so interesting, and in my view, that’s what art is supposed to do. My focus is simply on trying to present a subject I’m drawn to in the most interesting way. Life is so fascinating because it’s full of playful things, serious things, beautiful things, and some dark things. I want my work to reflect this. When you find that balance, you can create something really captivating.
Your work includes many references to religion and sexism. Your The David (2019) piece places a feminine figure with Michelangelo’s David body as her bodysuit. Are you trying to make the viewer think about beauty standards nowadays? Showing the female body is still seen as a taboo (just think of the #freethenipple movement), while it’s ‘natural’ to see the masculine? Is there where you want to get?
I actually hadn’t seen the painting specifically in that light, but it really does work beautifully in the context of the #freethenipple movement. I saw it as a cheeky response to people who still object to accepting women equally in what they consider ‘male’ roles, and more broadly just the lingering (but hopefully dying out) gender inequality that’s been ingrained in society.
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SJ Fuerst, Little Oil Spill Mermaid, 2011, Oil on canvas, 117x122cm. Courtesy the artist.
Fashion seems to play an important role in your works. Where does this interest come from?
Fashion is so beautiful and fascinating, and I find fashion photography to be especially inspiring. I think that’s because of my desire to use figurative art to create these fantastical little worlds, and stylists and fashion photographers do that so well. My interest in fashion also can be traced back to childhood; my mom was a fashion illustrator.
To end up, let us know about what’s on the horizon. Upcoming cool projects?
Right now, my focus is on this exhibition, and then, I’m eager to get back to the studio and spend a few months just painting. The trouble with taking several weeks to complete a painting is that my ideas for new work pile up much faster than I can paint them!
The exhibition Forest Fresh, by SJ Fuerst, will inaugurate on March 22 and will be on view until April 19 at Lily Agius Gallery, 54 Cathedral Street, Sliema, Malta.
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SJ Fuerst, Great Date Ken, 2012, Oil on canvas, 76x122cm. Courtesy the artist.
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SJ Fuerst, Daphne Pink, 2019, Oil paint on 3.5in Floppy disk. Courtesy of the artist.
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SJ Fuerst, Daphne After Apollo, 2016, Oil on canvas, 96x137cm. Courtesy the artist.
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SJ Fuerst, Circe from Homer's Odyssey, 2017, Oil on canvas, 86x127cm. Courtesy the artist.
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SJ Fuerst, Godzilla, 2014, Oil on canvas, 91x137cm, Courtesy the artist.
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SJ Fuerst, Saraswati, 2013, Oil on canvas, 91x127cm. Courtesy the artist.
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SJ Fuerst, Astronaut Teal, 2019, Oil paint on 3.5in Floppy disk. Courtesy of the artist.
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SJ Fuerst, Dream Work, 2018, Oil on canvas, 117x137cm. Courtesy the artist.