Art & Design

Jen Dwyer Tackles Trumpian Escapism with Abstract Ceramics (and La Croix)

Art & Design

Jen Dwyer Tackles Trumpian Escapism with Abstract Ceramics (and La Croix)


We write about Trump a lot—I’ve probably said his name 20 times today alone. But is it political engagement that keeps me reporting on every new art show that seeks to mock him? Or is it me just trying to cope? These are the questions ceramicist Jen Dwyer asks in her new series, Blind Spot. A pastel set of abstract cacti and Willendorf Venuses modernized by extra-large iPhones and coconut La Croix, the series tackles millennial escapism through technology and food. With her porcelain figures, Dwyer examines her own familiar response to the current cultural climate—a never-ending desire to log on and tune out. The 29-year-old explores these feelings of apathy and denial through surrealist sculptures that channel our collective doubt. And did we mention that they’re really cute?

BULLETT caught up with the artist to talk Instagram and indulgence. View the exclusive series, above.

Tell me about your series. What inspired it?

Since November, I’ve really just been responding to current events—it’s been such a crazy time and I’ve been trying to find the overarching themes in my work. Denial is one, and escapism, for sure. So I’ve been reflecting on why this happens, politically, and in my own life. Things are really uncertain right now, so I started re-contextualizing ancient Venus sculptures on this desert island—creating a space that helped me feel like I could escape. I’m constantly using food and technology to check out. So that’s what I was trying to play with with—these figures holding cellphones and fruits—denial and decadence in the face of uncertainty.

How did you get into sculpture as a medium?

I find it really nice to have some boundaries—it can be a little overwhelming being an artist. But I try to stick with porcelain—it’s history is pretty interesting. In the 18th century, it moved from the east to the west, and at one point, it was more expensive than gold. But now, it’s this really common material.

I feel like ceramics have become so popular in the last year.

All of a sudden, ceramics are so cool—it’s like the art world just discovered them. It’s really funny, because I’ve been doing it for over a decade. But I think it can be a really subversive art form, similar to the use of porcelain. It’s considered this lowbrow medium—at least in contrast to painting or something like that. But I’m using it to talk about challenging issues, and I think it’s a really interesting juxtaposition, rather than just painting what I’m thinking about. I feel like I still have to prove why clay is art, and I like that.

There’s two parts to your series—the Venuses and the abstract cacti pieces. What do they represent?

I’m currently working on my MFA at Notre Dame, and so much of being in school is experimenting—I’m constantly going back and forth between wanting to be an abstract artist and a representational one. A lot of that is just not wanting to be boxed in.

Is that why you chose to portray the nude female form—your representational side was winning?

With this series, I was definitely thinking about the female gaze and the “Venus of Willendorf”—there’s very little information about it. All the other Venuses—they were all sculpted by men—men sculpting naked women. So it feels good to reclaim that agency by re-sculpting it as a female.

And you showed them as full-figured women, whereas men usually portray the female body in whatever way they find attractive.

I definitely love that my sculptures reflect a body positive image—that they challenge socially constructed standards of beauty. A lot of my work is like, ‘What’s normal? What can I resist?’ So I’m always trying to experiment.

Besides the juxtaposition between the women and the abstract shapes, there’s also this dichotomy between the figures and what they’re holding. You’re sculpting these traditional figures, but then they’re holding cell phones and La Croix.

A lot of my work is re-contextualizing. With this, I’m trying to re-contextualize ancient or classical female forms with contemporary semiotics that to me, are symbols of personal vices.

So the La Croix represents the way we disengage? That’s interesting. Especially because right now, it feels like people are more engaged than ever—they’re sharing political posts on their Instagram pages, getting in debates. But you’re saying Instagram is just a coping mechanism.

That’s definitely the millennial “Me Me Me” generation—we’re just totally consumed with ourselves and finding different ways to escape and indulge. That, paralleled with our current administration, is really interesting. It feels like everyone’s in denial—or at least, trying to cope. I spend so much time making art, but that’s also a way to disengage. And so is sharing it. It’s not like anyone could ignore the chaos of the last year. But I see myself, and everyone else, just trying to get away from it.

What do you want people to take away from your work?

Over the past year, I was just so upset about everything that was happening, and I got a lot of ‘your work is so aggressive’ from all of my male professors. But I was just trying to comprehend everything that was going on by examining myself and my behavior. I want this to be universal, even though it comes from my experience. Because I know everyone’s freaked out and wants to disappear, or hang out with some other-worldly creatures on a fantasy island. But we can’t, so we have to figure out some way to cope. And this was how I did.