Burning in Water is pleased to announce representation of New York-based artist Melissa Stern. Working in sculpture, assemblage, painting, drawing, collage, and digital media, Stern’s faux naïf artworks address matters of philosophy, politics, history, gender, and memory.
Stern relates her artistic process to the work of a handyperson “cobbling together drawings and sculptures from elements found, borrowed, and imagined.” She views her sculptures as three-dimensional drawings, and her drawings as two-dimensional sculptures, stating, “I don’t understand why painters stop at the edge. I think you should just keep going.” The tableaux depicted in many of Stern’s paintings on wood extend beyond the front of the panel to the sides and back of the support- her figures, and the stories they tell, refuse to be boxed in.
Stern, a longtime collector of antique objects and ephemera, often incorporates vintage and found objects in her art. One work contains a small sculpture the artist acquired in India; another, collaged imagery from mid-century Life magazines. Stern has a large collection of vintage magazines in her studio, finding their idealized imagery of femininity and childhood useful in her collage practice. If her source materials are not old, the artist intentionally alters them to appear as if they are. Meg Shiffler, Galleries Director at the San Francisco Arts Commission, remarks, ““I think she likes to dirty up her work; it’s very cheeky the way she works the surfaces… she has an incredibly consistent voice, whether working in clay or drawing or collage work, a very signature look.”
Stern jointly possesses degrees in anthropology and studio art, and her works reflect the influence of non-Western and outsider art, as well as a prevailing interest in human memory and story-telling. Describing the figures in her works as “little people who live in my head,” the artist encourages the viewer to make a personal connection with the figures and scenes depicted therein. The viewer can relate Stern’s figures to herself or people she has met in her life, and these associations can bring up forgotten memories and experiences from her subconscious, creating a dialogue between viewer and subject.
Stern acknowledges that people read anger, disappointment and loneliness in her art, but she successfully bridges the line between dark and humorous. “People who look at my work quickly think it’s funny, people who look a bit longer think it’s really dark, and people who look a third time get that it’s funny and dark… Love is sometimes full of anger. Anger can be as a result of sadness, and so on.” Stern’s works, like humans, are a rich combination of emotions.
The visual juxtapositions in the show are gritty and funny, rewarding close looking. Many artists try to pull this off, but few actually succeed at being as funny as Stern.
“I think the biggest influence for me is my background in anthropology- what I studied was why people make things and that is at the core of everything I do. I’m really fascinated by how objects can have power. That I could make something that would move you so deeply that we had a connection is magic. So making this work is partially a desire to connect with people. To have you see the world through my eyes, if only for a minute, is transformative. It is about the power of objects and the power of the narratives and stories that objects can elicit. When you look at my work, perhaps there are certain pieces that trigger a memory or a story in your mind. I am super interested in memory, in childhood and what we carry around with us throughout our lives. I think writing and teaching about art also makes me look and think even more carefully about the words I choose when talking about my own work.”
-John Martin Tilley
“[My work is] very narrative, it’s very much about storytelling, but it doesn’t ever tell you—I hope—how to think. And what I like to do is set up the elements of a short story, and everybody who looks at it brings their own ending. So, you may ask me, ‘What’s that piece about?’ and I can tell you my story, but what’s more important to me is what you think—like, what story does this trigger in you?”
Dark yet comic, portraying strength yet vulnerability, Melissa Stern’s art negotiates the tensions inherent with each step we take—a willingness to fall down and a confidence that we’ll regain balance.
Melissa Stern (b. Philadelphia, PA) is an artist, critic, journalist, curator, and educator residing in New York City. Her multi-media installation exhibition, The Talking Cure, has been traveling to museums around the United States since 2012.
Recent solo exhibitions include Garvey Simon Gallery (New York, NY); The Kranzberg Center for Contemporary Art (St. Louis, MO); Station Independent Projects (New York, NY); The Weisman Art Museum (Minneapolis, MN); The University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa, AL); and Redux Contemporary Art Center (Charleston, SC).
Her works reside in the permanent collections of JP Morgan, The American Museum of Ceramic Art, News Corporation, The Arkansas Art Center, The Racine Art Museum, and The Kohler Corporation.
Stern serves as a contributing writer for Hyperallergic. Previously, she served as principal art critic for The New York Press. She is a past Board Director of The Children’s Museum of the Arts in NYC and Watershed Center in Maine. She was contributing curator of the Human Rights Film Festival from 2008 to 2015.
Stern’s art has been cited in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Hyperallergic, and New York Arts.