By: Hilarie M. Sheets
GENESIS BELANGER’S THEATRICAL life-size tableaux blur the boundaries of art and design. The artist creates stage sets with furniture she builds to evoke loosely a nostalgic mid-century mood. She then populates these scenes with everyday objects and foods that she crafts in ceramic, and strangely anthropomorphises with human body parts and attitudes. These vignettes – both humorous and unsettling – tap into our cultural psyche, suggesting stories of consumerism, addiction and gender dynamics.
Belanger’s unconventional and subversive use of ceramics has earned her increasing attention in the art world. Since her acclaimed breakout exhibition in 2017 at Mrs. gallery in New York, she has had solo gallery shows at Perrotin in New York and François Ghebaly in Los Angeles. This month, her first major museum exhibition opens at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Despite this recognition, she hasn’t necessarily won the love of other ceramicists.
“I don’t think the craft people want me as one of theirs,” says the 42-year-old, Brooklyn-based artist, good-naturedly, “But I don’t see any real separation between ceramics and sculpture. I love making things that don’t exactly fit into a category, or that show how thin – or maybe nonexistent – the categories are in the first place.”
Born in Massachusetts and raised by hippie parents, Belanger was influenced by the “weird art” her father made in their garage, but didn’t know it could be an actual job. “Growing up in rural New England, there were not many examples of professional artists,” she says. Belanger received her BFA in fashion from the School at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004 and worked for a year in the industry before realising she liked designing the booth for a fashion fair more than the clothes themselves.
That led to work in advertising as a prop stylist for campaigns – often selling ideas of female allure. Skilled with the choreography but ultimately disillusioned by the content, Belanger left the business after several years to get her MFA at Hunter College in Combined Media in 2012. “I wanted to be the mastermind of my world, for my own ends,” she says.
Belanger tried many different materials but never looked back after experimenting with clay, as she realised she could make anything that she could imagine in ceramic. Yet her work is strongly informed by her early design experience. Rather than working on a wheel or with a coiled system, she rolls out pigmented clay bodies into sheets and cuts them using patterns — much like she did as a fashion design student — and then hand-builds her objects. Their pop satiny finishes and clever assemblages also nod to her advertising work. “Making something seductive, simple and interesting — with all the right colour choices — are tricks considered when anyone makes an image for advertising,” she says. “I think about those things with everything I make.”
For ‘Holding Pattern’ in the window of the New Museum in New York last year, Belanger staged a Mad Men-style vintage waiting room. She used retro design to suggest a time of abundance and optimism but crafted a narrative of feminine purgatory. A reception desk was animated by busywork objects, such as candy and pills, that took on languid human attributes. A low-slung couch was flanked by lamps with lips pinched into smiles by extruding fingers, serving as a pedestal for a pocketbook from which a well-manicured hand extended. Belanger was driven to make the piece by the fact that suburban white women had been pivotal in electing President Trump in 2016, who promised to bring back a bygone America.
In her new show at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Through the Eye of a Needle, Belanger turns her social commentary to how we deal with grief culturally and use products to express condolences. In what could read as the aftermath of a wake, furniture upholstered in a monochromatic spectrum of grey is strewn with ceramic still lifes of flower bouquets with smiling mouths, casserole dishes and throwback pot-luck foods, and other clichéd gestures of support for the bereaved in our transactional society. The objects themselves feel like ghosts, with 30 feet of curtains slightly parted by disembodied hands beckoning you in, a perfectly mascaraed eye staring up at you from a cocktail glass, and a box of chocolates with compartments filled with bits of a face.
Belanger had completed 90 per cent of the work for the show when the coronavirus struck. “I had been building a show about loss and mourning and then we had a global pandemic,” she says, ruefully.
Belanger’s initial reference point for the show were images of grand houses closed for the season, with every piece of furniture covered with a slip-cloth made to fit. “It’s almost a perfect metaphor for the way a person is during the process of grieving, sort of seasonally closed,” says Belanger. She built wooden shapes suggesting mid-century furniture — an upright piano, a three-foot round poof, and a seven-foot-long pill-shaped table with a double-legged Herman Miller base — all slip-covered in grey, some with really exaggerated ruffles.
“It’s like a quick sketch of a piece of furniture, as if drawn from a dream,” says Belanger, who wants to give just enough information to place the viewer. She thinks of her ceramics as characters to be arranged on these set pieces. “All the things I make work together as in a play,” she says. “I’m interested in making spaces that are maybe a little bit uncomfortable, maybe fun, maybe both those things at once.”
Belanger’s now deep into making work for her next show, a send-up of white male privilege and absurd female clichés, called The Party’s Over, opening in November at Rodolphe Janssen in Brussels. Then she has solo shows early next year at Le Consortium in Dijon and Perrotin Tokyo.
“I’ve had to make things at such a crazy pace I feel like I’m a marathon runner,” says Belanger, of her demanding exhibition schedule. “I’m always making so the objects themselves have gotten technically better and better. I’m in really good ceramics shape."
Top image: Genesis Belanger, No More News, 2020. Stoneware, rubber cord. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin. Photo: Pauline Shapiro.