Something is Something Else - an interview with Chloe Wise

Border Crossings

Chloe Wise is wise beyond her years. She has hit upon ways to exploit the culture of narcissism and the culture of consumption, and has made her art practice a world where Ashley Madison meets Madison Avenue, all produced in a way that leaves some­body's tongue in somebody else's cheek. It clev­erly mediates a space between self-awareness and self-indulgence. 

Wise came to the attention of the art and fash­ion worlds when her friend, the model and actress India Menuez, accessorized her Chanel outfit with one of Wise's bread bags, Bagel No. 5, to attend a dinner party in honour of Karl Lagerfeld. The bag was an oversized bagel sandwich made from oil painted urethane and it became an overnight sensation. Wise has produced other bread bags using the logos of Prada, Fendi, Coach, Dior and Louis Vuitton; her PBJLV is made from eight pieces of bread dolloped with various jams and peanut butter, and her Pancakes No. 5 bag combines 11 overlapping, syrup-slathered pancakes with the interlocking Cs of the Chanel logo. Designer bags have never appeared so sweet. 

Wise has also employed a high quotient of hu· mour in playing off her Jewish heritage. Sculptures like a Star of David made from strips of bacon and the Matzochism Cuff Set, which provides a safe way to stay kosher and be chained to Yahweh, may be visual one-liners but they are also irreverently funny. The operative word in the sculptures, and in all the work, Is play. Wisc and her crew of models, actors and glamouristas are clearly having fun in their video impersonations. The connections they make in Offer Ending Soon/ is a complete set of non-sequiturs; impeccably beautiful people lower their heads, look meaningfully and seductively into our eyes, and repeat menu items from The Cheesecake Factory. All style and no substance, it's as if the snake from the garden of advertising had slipped out of the foliage and left us with only its discarded skin. And what pretty skin it is. 

One of the places in which Wise gets to play tbe most is the sexual sandbox, although what goes on there Is more tease than tumult, more insinuation than insemination. Her food sculp­tures arc ;ill splash and splooge, with everything coated in sauces that drip indiscriminately onto their plinths. Certain fruits and vegetables get very messy, so a peach half, already suggestive, is rimmed with a white viscous substance. You have to remind yourself that everything that looks ed­ible in her sculptures is made from painted plastic. Wise's mimetic chops are sharp and convincingly deployed. In all her media, surfaces are seductive and suspect. "Something is" she cautions us in a mischievous equivocation, "something else."

She has said that every photo needs a phallic symbol. In a delicate drawing that could be a sclf­portrait, the breadwinner cradles a long baguette in her arms; it could be titled A Portrait of tlte Artist a11d Her Sex Toy. (It puts you in mind of Robert Mapplethorpe's iconic 1982 portrait of Louise Bourgeois, in which the then 80-year-old artist impishly tucks under her arm a 23-inch-long, latex­over-plaster cock-and-balls ensemble called Fillette). Wise takes pleasure in references to art history and contemporary art in her work; in 0, full of oils is my mind she re-genders Caravaggio's Boy with a Basket of fruit; she mise en abymes herself in a Magritte­like diminishing progression on the cover of her new book; her matzoh cuff-and-collar takes its k,-y from Meret Oppenheim; and the faux Eden in her video Feral and wide-eyed in the garden should give set decoration credits to Pierre et Gilles. 

All this undisguised poaching is part of the deal; art is no less available to being re-employed than fashion, celebrity or commodity. Everything ends up being grist for the satiric meta-mill. But Wise's sleight of hand is not slight. Her larger purpose is to inquire into the condition of misogyny and to use women, and the manner in which they are rep· resented, as both subject and object. She reasons that if you're going to criticize women for how they regard themselves, then she will obsessively pro­vide you with material evidence of that self-regard. Her description of her ''unlearned" self-portrait paintings is generally applicable to her work; they were "super self-involved and obsessive." Wise's achievement is to push that self-involvement outside of itself and into the desired and desiring worlds of art and fashion where its motivations and effects can more easily be scrutinized. 

Chloe Wise's "Horrible Sound As Well" was on exhibition at Division Gallery in Toronto from January 28 to March 4, 2017. She will show with Jeffrey Deitch at the 2017 Armory Show in New York in March and with Galerie Alminc Rech in Paris this September. 

The following interview was conducted by phone to the artist's Brooklyn studio on Friday, January 20, 2017. 

BORDER CROSStNCS: You paint and draw, you make sculptures, design installations and do videos. I gather inside your prac· tice there is no hierarchy. 

CHLOE WISE: My interdisciplinary approach to art-making means J see art as one big blurry mess of media, where each medium is inextricable from the next. Everything I do informs every other thing, so for me there is no hierarchy. I don't separate them in my mind. 

When you get an idea how do you determine what form it will take? 

I think in the form. I'm a literal person and a very represen­tational thinker. While they may have some abstract thought processes behind them, my ideas are always in a finished product. I know when I want to make a painting or when 1 think of a scene for a video, but at the same time there is a lot of overlap. As we speak I'm drawing a friend, but that friend is also in my video and she is holding food that looks like something I sculpted, so there's an ongoing relationship among my different art practices. 

Do you tend primarily to use friends-and occasionally family-as subjects for your paintings, drawings and videos? Usually it's people I'm pretty close with and occasionally, someone whom I think is very beautiful or interesting looking or funny or inspiring. That can be reason enough to incorporate them into my work. But for the most part it Is people in my circle. 

I'm interested in the series where you photog.rapb yourself posing in front of the self-portraits you have already painted. What gave you the idea for that particular body of paintings? I can trace the idea back to the summer I moved here. I had taken a lot of figurative painting courses in Canada and learned an academic way of working. When I moved to New York I had this weird feeling that there was something inconsequential to all that l had learned. It didn't feel as if it were a means to make a statement or express my feelings or the concepts I wanted to explore. Painting traditional portraits didn't correspond to what I was thinking about or going through. I wanted to unlearn that form of painting by doing anti-paintings. So I did the opposite of what I had been taught. I did these really fast paintings that were super self-involved and obsessive. The word that year was "selfie" and what was annoying was how much women, and their self-representation through the use of selfies, was being talked and written about. So the paintings are a satire of how people see me and how people see women who represent themselves. People tried to call me a selfie artist and I thought, Why? I do sculpture and traditional oil paintings of myself and other people. But I ended up doing a bunch of them because it was so much fun to unlearn painting. 

Do you still have the paintings? 

That was a difficult thing to figure out because I initially thought they should only exist in the photo that I took of myself after I had made the painting. It was a way of pushing this overtly narcissistic, over-the-top performance even further. So I took these photos and I made a zine and that was to be the finished piece. At that point I didn't have an art career but when that started to happen people wanted those paintings. My gallery sold a few of them and they were sold with the understanding that if I wanted to have an exhibition I would always be able to get them back. I also painted over some of them because I felt they weren't finished. So it was a weird, not really thought-through performative event. 

You have said that one of the things you want to do is to investigate what constitutes an act of narcissism. 

I was interested in it because of its connection to misogyny. Narcissism is a pejorative word that tends to be gendered. Women are supposed to be humble, shy, tame and domesticated, and narcissism is seen as this over-the-top pride that makes them untrustworthy. A lot of words carry a gendered stigma, so my work investigates the misogynistic parts of everyday life and how we talk about or perceive women. 

Your videos are populated with beautiful creatures of every gender and every sexual inclination. Part of it is because I am surrounded by people who don't adhere to a binary. My friends identify in whatever way they want. Casting the way I do is not a question of intention as much as representing what's around me. So I use classic, almost canonical ideas of normalized beauty, but on the other hand I like to provide inconsis­tencies, My video called Feral and wide-eyed in the garden has a cast of diverse people playing roles based on Adam and Eve. The characters are beautiful and understandable as Adam and Eve but the "natural" beauty is in quotation marks. It's an airbrushed, unnatural and fake garden. I'm interested in these dissonant realities. When we see beauty we want to be able to quantify, domesticate, understand and protect it, but we also want to violate it. I have always had a really bizarre relationship with beauty. 

Ashley is the woman who bas the wider gap between her two front teeth, as opposed to Hailey Benton Gates, who has a less wide gap. You seem to have a preference for women who have that space. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales the Wife of Bath, a libidinal creature who bas had five husbands, is "gap-toothed." In the medieval period that was a sign of extreme sexuality. 

I don't know why but that makes so much sense. 

There is also a pedigree for that sort of beauty because of Lauren Hutton, one of the early supermodels. 

I agree about its beauty and in a way it was rebellious because she could have had it 'fixed.' Maybe a way to explain it is it's a symmetry that is asymmetrical, the break in the face as a portrait painter. I love imperfections, like a cleft chin or a unibrow. I'm looking at Ashley's photograph now and she also has a cleft chin. 

You have talked about the role of humour in your work. In playing one of the Eves in your garden video. Hailey Gates has a speech about the "tyranny of flesh" and not being able to "quit these skin walls." Her performance is quite compelling and very funny. 

1 wrote these lines while I was on an airplane. They're about the inability to live forever and the fleetingness of youth, as well as a comment about what is truly natural and what is going to last. I loved Hailey's delivery. She's an existential Eve with this hunky Adam behind her and she's saying, "Wait, are we going to die? What's going on? We're going to age? Adam, what arc we going to do?"

How much directing do you do? 

I'm comfortable directing. I did spread myself thin on that video, though. I also wrote, helped style and edited it. I was directing about 10 people. I love the inconsistencies in that there are great moments and then moments when people are also stumbling in their acting. 

You also make a pop-in appearance. Is that a signature device for you? 

There's no reason for me not to. It's enjoyable and people seem to like it. Part of it is this constant thereness; it's like "I'm here; I'm back." My availability makes me a funny character that I can play Into anytime. 

I liked your performance in an early video called From Chloe, in Florida. Your adopted role as a lonesome, needful young woman has a certain poignancy about it. 

I was actually in Florida with my parents and my texting with Adam was a joke. It was autobio­graphical but I was also 'playing' myself. I do the same thing on my lnstagram every single day, where I perform an exaggerated, fictional version of myself that is partially believable. People in my demographic are fictionalizing their lives. We have always had the tools to put ourselves out there; it's just a question of what we choose to do with it. It seems like a natural exploration where we theatricalize, publicize and make important these mundane personal details. 

One of the intriguing things about your feral garden is that it frames real nature i.n the centre of faux nature, so you get to play with conceptions of both the natural and the invented garden. The latter looks like it comes out of Pierre et Gilles. 1 bad my Pierre et Gilles book with me and that was the exact reference. Part of it also involved a Magritte departure from the real into a multiple­dimensional way of having the frame within frames. All my work is a departure from the thing that I am referencing. It's like with simulacra and simulations; our whole world is a reference of a reference of a reference of a copy, lost so long ago that we don't even remember It anymore. We are so far away from nature and yet the word "natural" is thrown around constantly, especially in a time that is so health-conscious. When it comes to beauty women are encouraged to be natural and to use unnatural methods to achieve that state. Even our language instructs us to "act natural," or tells us "you're a natural." So the way we talk about nature, whether the human or the natural ki.nd, fascinates me. And art has the ability of presenting these multiple realities at once. We are talking about converging realms. I'm interested in people trapped in this natural garden and the thing that is unnatural, the nature that Is framed like the artwork, is the real nature as opposed to its replica. 

At one point Eve holds a halved pomegranate, a fruit that is a sexual emblem because of its fertile seeds. When you use food in your videos and sculpture, it always seems like a sexual prop. Yes. It is a commentary on how we sexualize and assign gender to inanimate objects, food and flowers. We do it because of patriarchy and art history and the Bible and all the different tools from which we have come to understand the things around us. Advertising plays a huge role in the way we perceive and choose food. Is it good or bad? These ideas of morality that are attached to food are also gendered. In the Garden of Eden the idea of sin comes up, so there are sinful desserts and decadence and guilty pleasures. Many of the ideas about what you should and shouldn't be doing are connected with food and with sex and those are things we're constantly facing in the media. In Offer Ending 5"on!, the video where everyone is dressed in beige. the cast is reciting items from The Cheesecake Factory menu. 

The artist who comes to mi.nd in addition to Pierre et Gilles is Ryan Trecartin. Your videos sometimes make me think of him. but he tends to go full-on exaggerated and you seem comparatively restrained. 

I grew up with Ryan and Tim and Eric as big influences. I love his work but mine is much more weirdly realistic. My life is actually q,,ite theatrical and my friends are quite exaggerated and our sense of humour is aptly represented in those videos. On the one hand it is pretty realistic and on the other it is pretty extra. In my life and work I like having people question whether or not I'm serious. The video is part of that as well. The idea is that it could pass for something else. I want that in an my work; so a sculpture could pass as an advertisement for something or a video could pass as a music or a fashion video. I love the idea of confusing somebody into thinking that something is something else. 

My assumption is you're not confused about what you want to say but you want the viewer not to know how to react. One of the sculptures that does that is Quit Playi11g Games with My Nips, 2013. When you put a nipple on a pizza as if it were another topping, it changes everything you thlnkaboutfood. How do you want me as a viewer to read that particular piece? There are a lot of different readings you can have and I wouldn't want to dictate what you're supposed to feel. But there is an abject nature to thinking about meat in connection with the body because we try not to think that we're eating nesh when we're eating meat. That's not a pro-vegetarian piece, although I was vegetarian for seven years, but I do have a sensitivity towards that reality. Part of it is that I make everyday things strange for my own enjoyment and I also think it is important to reconsider things that we have come to take as normal. So placing nipples on pepperoni pizza is a very easy, even obvious joke, but it makes you do a second take and rethink the associations you're making. I'm especiaUy interested in how food and fashion advertising tend to target us in a sexual temptation zone. 

You've done some memorable things with objects. I'm thinking about your designer purses made from bread or your Matzochism Cuff Set from 2015, a fur-lined matzoh collar and wrist number. When I see the latter I can't help but think of Meret Oppenheim's Object from 1936, her fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon. 

That's what it is based on. 

When you place your sculpted nipples on a plinth, the presentation owes something to Hannah Wilke's chewing gum vaginas. 

I hadn't thought of Wilke but it makes sense now that you mention it. Female genitalia have been used often in art, which has a lot to do with tomorrow's women's march. President Trump talks about female genitalia as this thing you can dominate and own, and coming to terms with the fact that men think this way has long been an issue for feminists. The question becomes, how can we forcefully and beautifully claim this imagery in a way that is our own? I don't make art about vaginas because it Is shocking; it's more like this is something women have and think about. There is a relationship with art history. to the way the body is presented, and with abjection. 

How much does it matter for me to know that you read queer theory and that Lauren Berlant is figuring in your mind as you're working? Is that an apparatus you have for art-making but not one that is critical to my understanding of what you're doing? I think art has a responsibility not to close off people who don't have a master's degree, and to not only be made for the consideration of other academics. Art has to become more accessible. it has to be appreciated on a mainstream level as weU as in an art historical context. I try to maintain that level of accessibility. At the same time, there is a richness to work that has literary or historical backing. But that's not what is important about the work. To me it's the reaction to the humour. 

You don't seem able to make a piece that doesn't have some element of humour, or that uses humour as the direct subject of the piece. Is the assumption that if you can ma.ke someone laugh, you already have them halfway on your side? 

I think satire and humour are ways we can deal with really dark things. Life is full of injustice and upsetting truths and horrific occurrences. So are we going to ignore it? No. Wallow in it and not move forward? Not that either. So laughing helps us deal with uncomfortable situations and reduces the physical anxiety caused by those situations. We don't laugh because it's a social construct; it's a physical thing we do. Laughter and satire and sarcasm are important tools to help us exist in a world with other people. Given what's going on right now. comedians have an important job to do. We have to talk it out and comedians do a better job at opening things up for conversation than art theorists. 

You make a Star of David from bacon, but Tom Sachs really pushes hard on the use of Jewish symbols and history in some of his art. I'm thinking about his concentration camp board game, or Zyklon B gift boxes using the colours and logos of Hermes, Chanel and Tiffany & Co. You seem to avoid that edge in your work. How do you know how far to go with the objects you make and the cultural values to which they refer? 

I really like Tom's work and that is an important question. It's one thing to do sometning funny and quite another to do something that activates something else. My work might be funny and easy to consume, but it becomes active the minute it actually involves the people it's meant to bring criticality to, or co the people I am criticizing. For example, the bread bags interact with people in the fashion community and with an accidental audience ooline because they're actually believable. A Jot of the people who saw those bread bags at first thought it was a designer object, or real bread, and when they found out it wasn't either they were obliged to consider how much authority brands, trademarks or logos had on them as consumers and believers in fashion, and how much their taste was governed by outside forces. We think we have free will. Well, do we? Our taste is determined by subliminal things and my work aims to start conversations out of that recognition. You're not going to have an advertisement for a car or a watch or a purse where someone is not attractive. That goes for food and youth and sex-for all the things that are desirable. My work operates within a framework of desire, so casting attractive people is the same thing as choosing pretty colours or nice foots. It's a tactic that brands use, so I'm criticizing brands by using their same methods. 

It's a tactic Jeff Koons has always employed. 

Yes, be is about beauty and desire, and using them to bis advantage. He makes art that meets the same standards as advertising and fashion. My work is very much in line with what he docs. 

One of your videos asks if there is such a thing as an authentic experience. It's an interesting question because in a postmodern world, in which everything is constructed, how do we determine what constitutes authenticity? Does it matter if there is something authentic? 

First of all, there is no such thing as an inauthentic experience because if we're the measure of all things, then we are the ones undergoing the experience. Our experience is still real, so from the beginning the notion of inauthentic experience tends to get diluted. The other thing is that authenticity is this weird notion that is difficult to pin down and quantify. A lot of human anxiety comes from ideas of authenticity, whether it's the way that we look at another person and judge them, a restaurant we want to eat at, a vacation spot, or an artist or a musician. When someone is seemingly inauthentic we have an anxiety about being around them, or if a place seems inauthentic we think it's the opposite of real space and we don't want it. People go to great lengths to come off as real but that's even more inauthentic to the person who is judging you. So it creates a cycle. Fashion brands and restaurants are places where I get a Jot of inspiration because they are very normal. I'm fascinated by the Olive Carden as the apogee of the inauthentic authentic. It calls itself an authentic Italian experience but there's nothing ltaHan about it. It's so consistently inauthentic but what makes it complicated is that it is so authentically Olive Carden. They love me; they sent me a gift card, a t-shirt and olive oil. 

You seem obsessed with making art. What drives you? 

It just feels good. I'm an overachiever. I'm drawing as we're speaking. My drive also comes from the fact that I love people, even the things I hate about certain people. I Jove their humour, what their faces look like, and what happens when you spend time with them. I'm really social so if I spend a whole day with someone all I want to do is explore their face on paper or canvas. l can go on forever about why I can't stop making art. 

What makes you decide on the colours you choose? Sometimes your palette looks Mannerist. 

The thing is I have really cheesy taste, and I like things that are classically beautiful. I mean blue sky, green grass, red lips and blonde hair are really cheesy things that have always been identified as beautiful but in our search for something more unique, we have given up on them. I haven't. The truth is, I like everything and I'm visually stimulated all the time. I'm fascinated by this whole idea of the initial, universal fake idea of beauty. 

Do you actually pose your models in the still-life settings? Eve.rything is in the photos. They arc gorgeous and one day I'll release a book of them. Right now I'm painting Ashley holding tomato sauce and wearing a beret, and I remember directing her and saying there is something very sad but sexy happening in the distance. So she looks all wistful and gorgeous and says, "Please can I have more pasta sauce?" In I remember Everything I've Ever Eaten, Harl Nef and I decided together what still-llfeelcments we were going to include. Hari is a trans model and activist and so it was important to include these forced symbols of femininity and fertility. 

Is all the food you include food you make? 

Yes, it's very realistically rendered, sculpted, and painted plastic. 

The overflow in the food sculptures is simultaneously attractive and repellant. 

Which is how I think a lot of beauty and sex and food is. There is this idea of something being alluring and tempting and desirable only until it is consumed, and then it becomes abject and disgusting and you want it to go away. That's the transient nature of youth and everything else. 

So it's all memento mori? 

Yes, exactly.