You refer to your drawings as still lifes. Do you construct each image from real objects—photographs, flowers, fruit—and then draw it?
JS: I love setting up still lifes because it creates the possibility for unpredictability, which is so different from the actual drawing process I use to complete the works. All of the still lifes are set up in real life, comprised of fabrics, found objects, printed screen grabs, sometimes bits of tape… and then photographed. I live with many of the objects and printed photos for a while in my studio before I know how they will be used—and that’s why I love still life, because the objects and images really do dictate how they want to be used and have some control over the narrative. I set up many more still lifes than I use and take hundreds of photographs—this photographic process works like a sketchbook. I edit through the photographs, print out the more successful images, and then live with them on my wall for a while before the long drawing process ahead.
So the photographs are real as well? Did you take them?
JS: Yes, the photographs are printed screen grabs taken from a variety of sources, but most commonly from films that have been influential to me and that have some sort of queer resonance, as well as amateur or ’70s and ’80s studio pornography.
And what are the metallic leaves that appear in some of your pieces, such as Desire Despair Desire? Why did you opt to depict chintzy foil leaves instead of actual ones?
JS: I have been using a combination of fake and real flowers, fruit, and other plant material in my work for a while now. These items have a variety of purposes in my work. The florae can adorn or serve as a gift for a beloved icon, an improvised character, or sexual act. If this dedication seems hokey at times, it is intended to, as a reflection of my own process and motivations to preserve and reflect on these characters or moments. The false or real plants can also act as a sort of striptease device, an attempt to conceal and slowly reveal the identity of dancer/actor/character, the sexual act, or the coded content of the image. The artificial objects, the ones purchased at the dollar store, can become the most glamorous through the drawing process, because they usually take more time and have more visual surface interest and range or color than the ‘real’ plant materials. They aren’t necessarily silly or cheap to me. I like to reflect on their intended purpose, which is for decoration for celebration, an attempt to bring some sort of exoticism into everyday life, and then their lives end sadly in dust or disposal. Instead of “gaudy” I call them “fancy” or “sexy.” If a fresh tulip is a sweet or romantic gesture, a shiny plastic palm leaf can be a rhinestone-studded G-string.
Your depiction of bodies is often distorted—ripped pages of a magazine, for example, or a photo viewed through a glass jar. Why do you take this approach?
JS: I was formerly a portrait painter working in oils, and I was constantly aware of the eerie reality that I was capturing, containing, and freezing people as objects—it was impossible to preserve the actual true identity of my sitters without building on my own narrative and creating new or mythical identities. When I started working in still life drawings, I decided to take the objectification and preservation ideas to a more literal place, by trapping figures under glass and using the photos or figures as object-actors within the new “stages” of the still-life spaces.
You said in an interview once that you “queer” your still lifes “through incongruous juxtapositions of objects and identities, and by capturing, containing and making a commodity of portraits, nature, memory and behavior.” There’s a lot going on there—can you unpack it some?
JS: Yes… maybe I’m being intentionally vague? As a gay man, I’m very interested in the history of coding one’s identity as a way to seek out others who are also gay yet also maintain a level of safety in a less-than-accepting world. I’m playing with coded objects and imagery, camp icons, coded language in titles, obscure references—this ties back into the idea of strip tease that I’d mentioned before. I want to seduce the viewer and want them to get aroused by this motley collection of desired objects and personae but I’m afraid of revealing “it all” as a sort of means of self-preservation. I want these things to be desired by others, I want viewers to covet objects that may have been taboo, but I’m playing an odd game of wanting to preserve a kind of queer language while obscuring it enough where it can’t be fully interpreted by all viewers. I use realism and pretty colors to make the work appealing to a wider audience, which is kind of a trap. Some of the drawings stem from personal stories or anecdotes. Turning these codes, objects, and identities and stories into desirable, consumable art objects is both sexy and perverse to me. I’m trying to be careful and overt simultaneously.