Rachel Stern (b. 1989, NYC) is a photographer whose work challenges conventions of beauty and promotes escapist, constructivist fantasy. Her work images a world that might be, built out of the world that is. It is a kitsch paradise, a queer-washed history, and an attempt at hope. She received her BFA in Photography and the History of Art and Visual Culture in 2011 from the Rhode Island School of Design, attended Skowhegan in 2014, and is recently graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in Visual Arts. Her work has been featured in BOMB, ArtFCity, Hyperallergic, and Matte Magazine.
Photographs 2012 – 2017 (ongoing)
In his 1884 novel, A Rebours, Joris-Karl Huysman dedicates an entire chapter to each obsession of his decadent antihero, Des Esseintes. We are introduced, for example, to his extensive libraries, comprehensive knowledge of scents, and specific tastes in the lighting of a Moreau painting. In one chapter, Huysman guides us through Des Esseintes’ collection of flowers, some artfully crafted of waxed paper and painted silks, and others organic living specimens so grotesque they appear impossibly fake. In another chapter a tortoise is procured and its shell encrusted in lacquer and gems so that it might crawl across the Persian carpets, activating their patterns under the lamp light. In the next chapter, the tortoise dies under the weight and wounds of its decorated body. No wonder this is the book that inspired Dorian Gray.
In my work, I create a limbo of unreserved opulence and overwhelming reality where most real things are fake and all fake things are real. I invite my audience to peer into the proscenium, encounter a facsimile wonderland, and begin to wittingly play along. The colliding roles of gender, kitsch, history, and the dramatic banal, leave questions of authenticity always hanging in the balance. Using photography, installation, performance, or video, I satisfy a dire need for my own new reality.
I employ a studied aesthetic grammar which references distinct and yet jumbled moments from histories of art and visual culture. Plucking icons from this nexus of cultural and visual timelines I create a space which discuss how these symbols operate while still holding their own apparent content. I place myself in the lineage of the studiolo and the curio cabinet. I am displaying the wonders of the world as ordered by my own sensibility, as influenced greatly by my moment, as a selfish claim to my own picturesque wish for historicity. Most often my work exists as a photograph: a cool, distancing device which allows the dramatic play to appear as if through a window. When not working in photography, I turn to the form of tableaux and the vantage of the proscenium. This feeling of peering and watching invokes nostalgia, melancholy, and longing—ideal ingredients for understanding the urgency of escapism. In her autobiography Living My Life, Emma Goldman writes about her great love of fresh flower, fine wine, opera. She explains how these things are the very stuff of revolution despite her (mostly male) comrades criticisms of their bourgeois social implications. For Goldman, there was no revolution to fight if at the end of that struggle there was anything less than opera. This is the urgency of my work – the dispersal and ownership of beauty.
Somewhere between life’s latent dramas and its pervasive and bewildering exoticism, I find the chance to take some small control over my own experience of beauty. I find myself making little tributes to the likes of Mrs. Dalloway, Salome, or Medea and I think about how we (women? artists? queer people?) have constructed beauty and power out of the circumstances that life provides. In this spirit, I make work that is constructivist, that champions the sublimity of earnestness. Kitsch, in its most basic form, is earnestness. Earnestness is closely wed to sorrow and so kitsch occupies a space of rabid desire driven from desperation and heartbreak. My work images a world that might be, built out of the world that is. It is a kitsch paradise, a queer-washed history, and an attempt at hope. In each photograph, installation, or video I am asking myself and my world to be something more, I am inviting those around me to peer in and through that lens perhaps see the infinite potential to curate one’s own dramas.
To view more of Rachel’s work please visit her website.