Paige Hirschey Lecture Review: Janine Antoni

Paige Hirschey
I’ve often heard it said that artist’s shouldn’t talk about their own work and I’ve seen enough artist lectures to know that this is generally good advice. Their ideas often get muddled and the original intention of their work can get lost. After all, an artist’s job is to present their ideas visually, not vocally. Janine Antoni, however, is the exception. Her concepts are so well developed and her discussion of them so eloquent, that hearing her talk about her work is as much a pleasure as viewing the work itself. At her lecture last month, she discussed her entire body of work from the first pieces she made out of grad school all the way up to her latest projects. It was amazing to see how she has progressed as an artist, not just through viewing her work but also by hearing her discuss it firsthand.
The artist has no one specialty in terms of medium, instead she chooses the medium that she feels would best convey her message for each individual piece. Her work has ranged from chocolate and soap busts of herself to a massive lead wrecking ball. This variety of materials and techniques ensures that every piece is a distinct and important addition to her body of work.Yet despite the disparity in her materials, her work has a voice that is undeniably her own. Her work all deals with the same sorts of themes; notably the body, femininity, and nurture.
Her first pieces like Gnaw and Loving Care have distinctly feminist undertones. Gnaw is half-performance, half-sculpture, consisting of two massive cubes of lard and chocolate which the artist gnawed at obsessively over the course of several weeks. She then took the chewed-up remains and molded the lard into “lipstick” and the chocolate into the shape of a box of chocolates. The process of gnawing at the cubes refers to the obsessive behavior of young women as a response to the intense pressures society puts on them, especially in terms of their weight. “Purging” the lard and chocolate are a reference to one such behavior while the lipstick and chocolate boxes that came of the gnawing, are tools used by women to beautify themselves and to quantify self worth, respectively. Loving Care on the other hand uses traditionally “feminine” activities (dying one’s hair and mopping) but in a way that’s powerful and assertive. She talked about the power she felt about being in control of the piece and pushing the viewer out of the room as she went farther and farther along. She was in total control of the space.
Another theme that consistently appears in her work is nurture, specifically maternal nurture. Even before she became a mother herself, pieces like Wean, 2038 and Cradle all focus on nurturing relationships. In Wean, one of her first pieces, she cast imprints of her breast, nipple, a group of artificial nipples, and their plastic casing into wet drywall. This piece explores a child’s separation from their mother as they are weaned off of breastfeeding and are instead taught to drink from a bottle, which is shaped to resemble a nipple. 2038 also focuses on breastfeeding. In this piece, a photograph, she is pictured lying in a trough with a cow drinking water near her breast. The placement of her arm and the cow’s head make it appear as if the cow is breast-feeding. One could read this as a playful sort of role reversal (a cow drinking the milk of a human) but the artist’s serene presence elicits comparisons to an image of the Madonna and Child. Cradle has a similarly appealing character. The piece consists of various tools for cradling, scooping and digging, embracing one another. For example a child’s spoon rests inside a larger spoon, which rests in a ladle and so on up to a construction tractor bucket. Although they are cold, inanimate objects, the act of cradling appeals on a universal level. Seeing these objects imitating an embrace is almost like seeing an embrace between a mother and child, as such, it taps into the viewers primal urge to touch and feel close to their fellow man.
Ms. Antoni’s playful energy, maternal warmth, and love for her craft combine to make a truly splendid, enigmatic body of work. Her lecture was a pleasant surprise, endearing without being saccharine and dignified without being arrogant. The artist is proud of her work (as she should be) but seemed charmingly humbled at the honors bestowed upon her. Although I had seen some work even interviews from the artist before during my studies, this lecture lent so much new insight that I have an entirely different (and much greater) opinion of her as an artist and a person.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: