Sally Fuerst - Blow Ups and Dolls, Home House
You’d be forgiven for thinking you may have stumbled into a lady’s dressing-up boudoir when you discover the paintings of Sally Fuerst. Strong, confident women gaze out of each painting wearing an Indian sari, a seductive circus ringmaster outfit and a dress and hat mimicking the Star Wars robot C3PO. Fuerst’s work is playful and unexpected – classically trained in drawing and painting in New York, Florence and London this young American artist is turning paint and portraiture on its head. Often each subject is accompanied by an inflatable animal or toy that is painted with such meticulous detail and competent handling of paint that it is easy to mistake the paintings as photographs from afar, such is the skill of Fuerst’s hand.
The women in Fuerst’s pantheon become symbols of femininity and explore the female perspective, referencing classical portraiture but with a 21st century twist. Since the Fifteenth century portraiture became a cultural phenomenon, and was dominated by wealthy and powerful individuals wanting to document their accomplishments (including their female companions) and preserve them for posterity. Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and Joshua Reynolds frequently executed private commissions, often portraying the female sitter in the guise of a Greek goddess or a demure, pious subject. In the nineteenth century the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood heralded a return to works of intense colour and fastidious detail seen in the paintings of Italian art. These artists, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John William Waterhouse, were greatly influenced by Romanticism and frequently painted sensuous female models adopting the roles of literary, religious or classical figures. Fuerst cites painters such as Waterhouse and William Bouguereau as influences, and her work sees a return to the painterly traditions of the past. Each portrait is painstakingly painted in oils, with the layers of luminous oil pigment applied through a period of several months.
The painting Lady Luck is instantly recognisable as a tribute to Richard Avedon’s photograph Dovima with Elephants from 1955. She also mentions Annie Leibovitz and Tim Walker as influences and this ability to capture character and create a scene of fantasy and imagination is echoed in Fuerst’s work which is gaining attention amongst contemporary art aficionados. Each model is posed with the style and attitude of a fashion shoot, seeming to occupy a photographic studio background. The reference to fashion photography is deliberate and is also part of the creation of the work, as the artist reveals, “the idea for each painting starts with finding a toy or costume that I connect with, both visually and conceptually. Next I find a model whose look suits the idea I have for the painting. I’ll hold a photo-shoot with the model where I take hundreds of pictures, and I work from those to create the painting.” The artist deliberate chooses traditional frames to present the work in the vein of an old masterly painting. This combination of the technique of art historical painting and the composition and style of fashion photography posits Fuerst as a major talent in what has been a male dominated genre.
Within the context of Home House’s 240 year history, Fuerst’s portraiture feels fresh and engaging and the Georgian interiors create a relevant dialogue between the art of the past and present. Portraiture explores ideas of biography, diversity, fame and identity and Fuerst alludes to these concepts but pushes the subject and viewer into a realm of escapism, fantasy, play and humour. Describing herself as “a Pop artist who uses figurative painting as a form of expression”, Fuerst engages with the world around us and frequently cites contemporary cultural references, from films, music and fine art, to create vibrant, optimistic images of women that counteract the everyday stresses and strains of life. Fuerst allows both the subject and viewer to step outside the daily grind and immerse ourselves in a world of beauty, drama and wit. Each painting appears photo-realist but upon closer inspection the masterly handling of oil paint is visible – built up in a myriad of colours and brushstrokes this is an artist relishing in the painting process and creating images that have the impact of classical gravity juxtaposed with a Pop, kitsch sensibility.
Fuerst’s paintings implore the viewer to stop and look, the perfect antidote to the bombardment of transitional media images and the quick fix of social media. These paintings monumentalise the female figure and endow them with a strength and poise that they almost become icons to be revered. Fuerst’s practice alludes to the canon of female portraiture in the history of art, but rather than the female subject being objectified and painted for and through the male gaze, Fuerst’s subjects are confident and in control. Her focus on female subjects also seems to be an implicit tribute to the positive impact they have had on the artist’s own experience as she says “I have wonderful relationships with my mom, sister, and best friends. Perhaps feeling more comfortable with other women is another reason why they feature exclusively in my work”. With a life-size painting of Scarlett O’Hara freshly completed, the female protagonist in the film ‘Gone With The Wind’, this is an artist who celebrates and perpetuates the role of women in society, but with her characteristic tongue-in-cheek approach. And why should we give a damn? Because this twenty-seven year old is about to explode on the art scene. Let’s hope the inflatables hold out as this artist is one to watch.