InTheMake_JamieVasta01

Jamie Vasta

Artist, Oakland // September 2012
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It’s been important to me to work with a material where I have to make up the rules and find my own way.

With glitter and glue and not much else, Jamie makes big paintings that depict dark and dramatic narratives. She says working with glitter is, “ more or less like it was in kindergarten— I lay down a line of glue (with a little craft-store paintbrush), sprinkle on a color of glitter, and blow off the excess.” Though the process might be somewhat reminiscent of childhood crafts, the outcome isn’t. Jamie’s work reveals a distinct command of her medium garnered from over a decade of experience; she understands how to technically manipulate its lustrous facets and depth and attempts to subvert and play with all the glitz and frivolity with unsettling content.

When we visited her East Oakland studio (a great big space in a building that was once mainly used for furniture storage) she was working on different bodies of work: one incorporates skulls, fruit, and flowers to experiment with still life arrangement and three-dimensionality, and the other is a series of full-length life size portraits of burlesque performers. I was captivated by the photos she had up on her wall of the burlesque dancers; all dressed-up and full of swagger, standing with high chins and arched backs like peacocks fanning their tails. Often, Jamie’s work pivots on complex female figures that challenge our notions of femininity, whether obviously stepping out from convention or more subtly pushing against expectation.

Because she always works from photographs, one of the first steps of Jamie’s process is setting up shoots with models (sometimes professionals, sometimes friends) in various poses and arrangements, and then making adjustments along the way. But well before the shoots she spends her time researching, gathering up reference material and imagery related to the subject matter she’s working with and then over time distills this acquired information down to key questions and ideas.

While chatting with Jamie I noticed she had a book of Angela Carter’s— which, for me, is a very telling detail. I spent a good portion of graduate school obsessing over her short stories, and a lot of Jamie’s work mirrors Carter’s fascination with violence and power, myth and fairy tales, and strong female protagonists. And just as Carter’s retelling of classic fairy tales questions preconceptions, so does Jamie’s work with glitter.

Jamie has got her technique down and it’s impressive, and I think her instinct to counter glitter’s kitsch and camp with her work’s explorations of mortality, gender roles, sexuality, and violence is smart and interesting. Certainly, glitter has become Jamie’s signature… but I do wonder how she will manage to continue to push her medium and maintain the tension she aims to create in her work. But Jamie readily acknowledges the potential for pitfalls while simultaneously staying steadfast, telling me “At some point the glitter might no longer be interesting, but so far I haven’t wanted to stop working with it.”

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter?
What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I work with glitter and glue on wooden panels. Glitter is at the heart of my practice. The principal theme of my work is the contradiction between the meanings that glitter carries with it on one hand and the physical experience of glitter on the other. Glitter carries connotations of childishness, girlishness, craft, kitsch. It’s frivolous, it’s tacky. But as a material I love it for its allure, it’s changeability, its flicker. I like to watch the way people behave when they look at my work- they move around it, they sway a little, it captures them for a moment. So there’s something almost predatory about the dazzle of glitter.

Glitter as a material drives my work; I ask myself: what are the stories that glitter tells? And my narratives come from there. Often, there’s elements of darkness and violence in these stories- I think the glitter needs a hard edge to butt up against, or else it would become like candy.


For over a decade you’ve been making figurative paintings with glitter— in terms of technique, what steps are involved?

I always work from photographs, so the first step for me is photographing the model and making adjustments to the photo until I have the image I want to work with. I’m pretty old fashioned- I sometimes use Photoshop, but most often I cut my photos up into paper dolls and rearrange figures and backgrounds, or swap out an arm from one shot and a face from another, with scissors and tape. I use an old overhead projector to blow up the drawings to the scale I need. Am I supposed to say that? I feel like for a long time using a projector was everybody’s dirty secret. Well, I map out my drawing on the panel and try to get the geometry down- once I move from the drawing to the glitter, I have to work flat on a table, and it’s harder to see problems from the drawing being off.

Working with the glitter is more or less like it was in kindergarten- I lay down a line of glue (with a little craft-store paintbrush), sprinkle on a color of glitter, and blow off the excess. I mostly build up my images like a mosaic- one color next to the other, or sometimes I’ll lay down a large area of glue and throw the glitter on in gradations, to get a washy effect. I try to get it right the first time- I can build up a layer or two of corrections, but after a while the texture builds up noticeably and disrupts the way the light works on the surface. If I have to make major changes at that point, I’ll have to sand down the whole area and start from scratch.

Given that glitter isn’t a conventional medium, you must have had to experiment and figure out a lot on your own— how have these steps evolved over the years?
I started playing around with glitter in 2000 as an undergraduate at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Those paintings weren’t very good and many of my professors at the time weren’t interested in talking about them— it took a while to find people who would have a dialogue about what I was trying to do. But it’s been important to me to work with a material where I have to make up the rules and find my own way. When I was a kid in art school, I felt so overwhelmed by the burden of history in oil paint- like what could I do that hadn’t already been done for hundreds of years? I figured I’d never be able to paint like Velasquez, so why not try to do something completely different, you know?

But I think I’ve been helped and hurt the most by my own stubbornness. I’m very persistent, and a bit of a plodder- I’ll keep working with the same technique, trying to push and refine what I can do with it, but the big leaps in my process have usually come after several years of people suggesting that I try something- exposing the wood panel, for instance, or mixing my own neutral tones.
Finally I give in and try it, and pow! It changes everything.

Glitter is rife with associations— it can imply kitsch, magic, or femininity. And certainly it’s more readily connected to craft making than art, and therefore might be considered lowbrow— how do you think your work plays with these associations?
I like to make the subject matter of my work push up against the connotations that glitter already carries, adding weight through the unexpected, through violence, or art historical references, or formal nuance. Glitter is crafty? Ok, here’s a baroque pieta. Glitter is feminine? Ok, here’s a glittery painting of a girl kicking your ass.

I want people to initially see the material and be captivated by it, but then the content comes forward and my hope is that the combination is jarring or unexpected, and therefore provocative and meaningful.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’m a big reader, but I don’t necessarily read things that have an immediate direct effect on my work. Things tend to percolate for a while. Right now I’m going back and forth between a history of Oakland by Ishmael Reed, an intense Alice Sebold book about a woman who murders her elderly mother, a homesteader epic by Wallage Stegner, and a nonfiction audiobook about the history of plastic. Netflix says that I like “visually striking dark movies with a strong female lead,” which I think is a pretty apt description of my work.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Having a space outside my home is essential to me. Partly, because my medium is so messy, and partly because I’m pretty easily distracted. Left to my own devices at home, I would probably make pickles and putter in the garden rather than get any painting done. I try to keep my space as free of distractions as I can- no Internet!

You recently finished up your Caravaggio project, in which you interpret his composition and narratives but bring a more modern sensibility (and glitter!) to the works. Can you tell us more about that process?
With the Caravaggio project I wanted to bring a personal take to San Francisco’s queer community. I worked collaboratively with the models (all of whom are my friends) to come up with concepts for the paintings. I took photos of the models in their apartments, discussed ideas, and worked from there. Each person brought something of their own to the project. The Caravaggio series very much falls in line with my interest in combining storytelling with portraiture.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
At the moment I’ve got two bodies of work going in my studio. One is an attempt to tie together work that is art historical, three-dimensional, and references still life arrangement. I’ve been thinking a lot about the still life Vanitas paintings of the Baroque period and Golden Age of Dutch Art, and the mortality and decay in the beautiful things of the world. I’ve been doing skulls and fruit and flowers both in paintings, and also experimenting with 3D, which is very new to me. It’s been fun to play with something new.

I’m also starting a series of full-length, life size portraits of burlesque performers, with poses based on royal portraiture, very elegant and powerful with lots of sequins and feathers in the costuming. I’m still in the middle of photo shoots for those, so it’s early days yet, but I’m really excited about them. Working with models who are professional performers has been great because they know their bodies well and really understand movement and angles.

How do you navigate the art world?
I guess I try to just be genuine and remember that the art world is all just people, and keep things cooperative rather than competitive. If there’s something I can do to help somebody out it’ll probably come back around to me in one way or another, especially since the Bay Area art scene is so small and interconnected. I feel like there’s a difficult balance between the part of being in the art world that involves hunkering down and making things, and the part that’s about getting out, getting inspired and doing the networking thing. I’ve been in hermit mode a little too much lately, but I’m making a resolution to get out more, go see things in person, reconnect with people.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
When I’m not in the studio, I’m a barista with Blue Bottle Coffee. I’ve worked as a barista for more than ten years, and I find it to be an important balance to my studio time, so I spend half my work days doing something introverted and slow, and the other half rushing around and talking to people all day. It keeps me from being too much in my own head, and it helps that they offer good health benefits.

Do you have a motto?
Not really. I have a table in my studio that I got as a hand-me-down in grad school. It has written in sharpie on one edge “less thinking more stinking”, which I think was the motto of its previous owner. I’ve added my own phrase: “get here earlier tomorrow”. As long as I have the discipline to keep getting here, hopefully earlier, I think the work will sustain me.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I’m making work right now for the December art fair season- my work will be going with the Patricia Sweetow Gallery to Miami Project, a new fair in the Wynwood district. Beyond that, I’m working towards a show at the Patricia Sweetow Gallery for fall 2013.

To see more or Jamie’s work:
Jamie’s represented by the Patricia Sweetow Gallery in San Francisco, so you can find her work on the gallery’s website:
www.patriciasweetowgallery.com
And also at:
www.jamievasta.com
If you’re in the Bay Area, she has a piece up at the Berkeley Art Museum through December 23rd, 2012 as part of the show At The Edge: Recent Acquisitions.

  • Dallas Robson

    I love your work Jamie. I work similarly with glitter tho my work uses buttons glass beads with images under the glass. Relate to the comment you made about “get here earlier tomorrow”. I don’t have the luxuary of my own studio and work on my kitchen counter and need to move the pieces if we have guests :) I live in Qld Australia and have been making art since 1982 obtaining my degree in Visual Art in 1993. You have sourced so many colours. Here glitter is just starting to be sourced in normal shops and so I buy when I see new tones. Your use of the colour charts remind me of ceramic charts for glazes which were all round me at Uni as i worked in the ceramic studio then. I also am interested in Carivagio’s work. Especially since a documentary from David Hockney where he suggests that Carivagio being a leading innovator of his day actually traced his drawings onto canvas using a mirror (why the figures are back to front he said). I have been also using tracings in my work and computer reduction to make the drawings small enough to fit under glass. I’m very glad that your work was selected to be shown via the internet. I was told about your work at a local art supply shop. The young guy wrote the web address onto my receipt for glitter!