Sally Jane Fuerst’s works are not what they seem. If you glance at her paintings on the screen of your phone you might misread them as photographs, but take a closer look or – even better – see them in real-life and it’s clear that they’re beautifully and traditionally painted. A casual look might also trick you into thinking that they’re light-hearted images of attractive women with inflatable props, but they’re far more than that. Although Sally Jane herself encourages a playful interpretation of her work, look under the surface and you find a darker, deeper, scarier world. We talked to Sally Jane about her painting ‘Dental Dance’.
Lot 5: This is a very intriguing painting. Could you tell us a bit about where it came from?
Sally: The painting started with the inflatable chomping teeth. I found them on eBay and thought they were an amazing combination of adorable and creepy, reminding me of Giger’s Aliens. I also loved the double novelty aspect: how someone made a kitsch inflatable version of the already novel wind-up teeth.
Because the teeth are on the bizarre side I thought they needed to be paired with something very beautiful to soften the painting, which led me to ballet. The teeth are still creepy, but there’s a very tender interaction between the ballerina and the teeth which I love, a bit like she’s teaching her little baby teeth how to dance. That’s also why this painting is so much smaller than I usually work, the subject felt quiet and intimate – better suited for a small canvas that invites the viewer to come in close and peek at what’s going on.
Lot 5: You say there’s a very tender interaction here, and in the past you’ve described your paintings as being a ‘slightly twisted version of the familiar’. But if you think about what you depict, it’s often utterly terrifying (a Playboy Bunny with the head of Frank from Donnie Darko; Santa Claus creeping up on the Virgin Mary; here a woman with teeth for breasts dancing with disembodied teeth). Yet you’ve translated these petrifying ideas into images that are far less threatening, and are often described as ‘playful’. Does that say anything about you as an artist (or person), how you see the world or how you would like other people to see it?
Sally: My paintings are definitely a reflection of me as a person and an artist. I don’t really think those two can be separated. It’s safe to say I have a slightly twisted sense of humour, and I paint costumes and toys because that’s genuinely what I love. The world is full of amazing fun things (a lot of them you can inflate), but it would be too naive to present them purely light-heartedly. I think that would feel a bit flat. My work is about finding the right balances of playful and sinister, beautiful but bizarre. I see this as an accurate depiction of the world, but this is where for artists it becomes a grey area. We’re trying to capture the world in an interesting and new way, but probably end up only revealing who we are as people – this is why psychologists would write much more interesting artist statements than the artists themselves.
Lot5: The protagonists in your paintings are almost always women. When you do paint male characters, there’s always a twist: you’ve depicted the Duke of Cambridge as Ken to the Duchess’s Barbie; various male superheroes as cardboard cut-outs behind a flesh-and-blood Wonder Woman; a pint-size inflatable Bat Man next to a female Robin; King Kong almost entirely hidden behind Ann Darrow, only his fist visible. I’m wondering if your light-hearted style of representation doesn’t cover a more serious message?
Sally: Well I’m definitely for girl power! And I think this is always an undercurrent in my work, although not necessarily intentionally. When I’m designing a painting I’m not really thinking about feminism. My focus is on the props, pop culture references, colours, shapes, and mood of the final image. I think it is just my instinct to skew the painting in the woman’s favor. I find painting women more inspiring, and for me more relatable, probably because I’ve always had close relationships with the women in my life. With some paintings, like Cardboard League of America, it was a very conscious decision to make all the men cardboard, and that is the main point of that painting. However with others it just works out that the men are replaced by props. My paintings are quite minimal, I like to have just one figure in each painting and then imply the rest of the world with inanimate objects, so unfortunately for men they tend to be the inanimate objects. Even with Great Date Ken for instance, his date is a blow up doll and Ken is the live model. But Ken is actually a female model styled with the signature plastic Ken hair. Again, time to call in the psychologist! But how amazing is it you can buy a plastic Ken wig!