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Jen Dwyer Is Challenging Gender Stereotypes Through Rococo Ceramics
Meet the ceramist using sculpture to call the patriarchy into question
Feature 03 Apr 2020

In Dreamer’s Delight at New York’s SPRING/BREAK Art Show, ceramist Jen Dwyer presents the viewer with Rococo frivolity, fairy tales and girlhood in a bid to re-contextualise patriarchal views of gender, power and female archetypes. Her work appears soft and delicate on first inspection, all pastel pinks and baby blues, but look closer, you’ll find long fingernails and chains. This is classic ceramics but with a twist, and we’re kind of obsessed. So, we just had to speak to Jen about her influences, inspirations and her art world sheroes. 

1 JenD_portrait_0054 2

What got you interested in ceramics?

I grew up in the Bay Area so ceramics and other outsider art forms were part of the cultural landscape. It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that I realized that ceramics was a minor art form (although today that hierarchy doesn’t really exist). In high school I was pretty busy- I was a rower which took up most of my free time. In addition I had (have) a reading and a learning disability so I did have to spend quite a bit of time and energy in school. Towards the end of high school I found ceramics to be a really fluid and calming part of my life, and something that came pretty naturally to me unlike school. I also adored my ceramics high school teacher, she was so great and gave me a ton of freedom. I never wanted to do any of the projects in the beginning and she just let me do my own thing. She gave me so much control over my own work at a time when I felt like I didn’t have much of a say over what I really wanted to do. She was so special. 

Where do you get your inspirations? 

Hmm, it definitely comes from an amalgamation of places. I get ideas from things I’ve read, audio books, podcasts, shows, museums, friends and my own lived experiences. I also find that when I’m running or about to fall asleep an idea often comes to me- it’s always a pretty inconvenient time to write them down, so I just add them to a notes folder on my phone. 

2 Happy Object & Arm

Happy Object & Arm, Jen Dwyer

Your new show is a spin on fairy tales, can you tell me a little about it?

Yes, that is one significant element of my new show. I read Fairy Tales and Feminism and New Approaches this fall by Scholar KE Rowe and I was really inspired by the idea Rowe wrote about the subversive tone a fairytale can take on when authorship is altered. I was thinking about women retelling fairy tales, Rebecca Solnit’s Cinderella Liberator was certainly an influence. I also found Audrey Lorde and Sarah Ahmed’s writing to be really influential for this body of work. They both have written about the idea that if enough people have similar shared experiences you can begin to extract theory. So I was thinking about the idea of both rewriting and sharing stories in this work. 

Rowe writes that allegories can both perpetuate age old tropes, categories, control over people as well as create a platform for new authorship and subversive rewrites. Some of the fairytales she focused on in her book took place in the 17th c in France (also the time period of the Rococo Aesthetic) and were essentially used as stories to control younger women. But what I found intriguing is the authorship of fairytales and the potential that can arise when the author begins to imbue some of their own lived experiences into the tale.

I worked with the curator Lauren Hirshfield on this installation ‘Dreamers Delight’ that opens tomorrow! at the Spring/ Break Art Fair in Manhattan, NY. For this installation I was really interested in creating a sense of power that looks different than on might initially think. My goal was to recontextualized age old tales to support a feminist perspective, but also give women permission to hold space for themselves and others alike- I wanted to try to create a hopeful reality anchored by demystifying and deconstructing existing generalizations of folks – particularly women. And focus on the quiet power that can arise when people start to share and realize they’ve had similar lived experiences. 

Also just on an aesthetic note, I was trying to use symbols that reference these age old fairy tales but that also have a deeper subcurrent. I am really attracted to work that has some initial point of accessibility- and I can quickly feel grounded but that also has a deeper review and reward after further speculation. I hope this new body of work and installation will have that effect on my viewer (fingers crossed!)3Bathing Venus

Bathing Venus, Jen Dwyer

In a world that is ultra-modern, what drew you to Rococo art?

Ooo so many reasons. First I feel like the history of French Rococo Porcelain is so fascinating. It is really emblematic of desire and obsession, parts of the human condition I find very intriguing. Not to mention, the porcelain craze in Europe is really interesting, towards the end of the 16th century and through the 17th, Europe was completely obsessed with copying Asia’s crisp white porcelain style. A Polish King even went so far as to imprison a young alchemist in an attempt to mimic their exact kaolin recipe, which Asia had perfected. Also I feel like you could interpret the rococo aesthetic as an arguably feminist art form- Madame Pompadour influenced Louis XV to bring this superfluous whimsical style into the Palace of Versailles. And she was a big patron of the arts.

And personally, I love the feeling that I get when I look at Rococo Art. For me it really feels like having a crush- it’s such a light hearted, rather nonsensical, pastel, ivory white and gold, playful and completely secular style that has a similar sense of affect that I feel when I have a crush. 

I also think there are similar parallels that can be drawn between our current times and the inability to tell what is real and fake. The lifestyle that the French Monarchy created only existed because a very small portion of the population benefited while the rest suffered. That nobility was in such extreme denial about what was happening around, their lack of connection to reality ended in their demise. I do find that the seedy under the belly of this style could be used as a warning sign to not repeat the mistakes from the past.4Dear Narcissus Detail

Detail, Dear Narcissus, Jen Dwyer

Your work is very pro-women, can you comment a little on that? 

Sure, I think a lot of it stems out of wanting to create a space I feel comfortable in. I’ve always been pretty introverted and really sensitive so- I was interested in creating an environment that asks people to lean in, or speak more quietly, my hope is that it creates a sense of quiet power.

I also feel that the size, symbols and colors of my work has always been in reaction in a way to the California Clay Boys from the 60s/ 70s I grew up knowing about, such as Peter Voulkus, Robert Arneson and Ken Price. At this time it was a pretty machismo art form, not dissimilar from the hypermasculine style of abstract painting during that same time. So particular with my new work I have been thinking about how much space a piece needs to have to create a presence? As well as taste and how it creates color, can something be taken seriously if it’s pastel? Just a few questions that were running through my mind during the making of this work.  

(Also on a more personal level- even with all my cis, white & able- bodied privilege, I still have had plenty of my own self confidence issues, imposter syndrome being a big one, that I’ve had to over come and continue to work through. Other female artists have been such a huge support and inspiration in my growth as an artist, that community is really essential to my practice and growth as an artist.)

Just a Lick

Just A Lick, Jen Dwyer

What do you hope people will take away from your work?

I hope it makes them feel at ease, comfortable pushing boundaries, and joy 


What advice would you give to young women looking to make a career as an artist?

Follow your heart and get a therapist (also budget, exercise, be kind to others and yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and know your boundaries- also all things I am still getting better at 🙂

6Heart Balloon with a Soft Pressure Point

Heart Balloon with a Soft Pressure Point, Jen Dwyer

Who are your art world sheroes? 

Oh gosh so many, but this week Artemisia Gentileschi. Her ability to turn victim blaming into amazing art is so inspiring. Yayoi Kusama is one of my favorites forever. I loved that she just sent up her own guerrilla exhibition outside the 33rd Venice Biannually where she exhibited Narcissus Garden. And my friends (new and older), I feel like they all work so hard, are really talented, smart and generous- and many others


What are your hopes and plans for the future?

I’ve been pretty transient the past five years, doing residencies, grad school, traveling and I’m currently doing a fellowship at the Wassaic Projects in upstate New York. I’m looking forward to moving to NYC this summer and laying down roots. I do have long term dreams of having a large studio outside of a city to be able to make bigger sculptures and paintings but it’s been almost half a decade since I’ve lived in a city so I’m looking forward to being immersed in urban life again, meeting new people, going to new restaurants, museums and not having to travel so far to go to friends openings sounds nice, haha.


Text Lizzy Vartanian

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