Walking through a gallery can be a strangely desolate experience. We wander around like guests at a cocktail party, desperate for some connection. More often than not, after saying the same smart things to the same five people, we leave burdened with more ideas and untouched. There are rooms full of art that engage the mind but can’t pierce through the skin of our own self-consciousness.
But to come across an object by artist Jana Sterbak is a different sort of encounter. Her three-dimensional pieces reveal the secret lives of a whole range of familiar materials—cast iron, chicken wire, muslin, meat. These objects have an immediate, visceral effect; at the same time, they are the embodiment of an intriguing and witty train of thought. They heat up, cool down, crackle with electricity, give off a bad smell and behave as if they actively resent being objects. They are droll and literal—the Flesh Dress is a simple frock sewn from 60 pounds of flank steak, a piece that turns the body inside out to better expose our mortality. The Seduction Couch, a suavely curved chaise made of perforated metal with a Van de Graaff generator at the foot of it, delivers a mild but distinct shock. Even when the image describes a violent sort of isolation—for instance, the caged woman figure in I Want You To Feel The Way I Do—the form hooks the senses and demands a connection. Sterbak makes it clear that even in the dead space between quarrelling lovers, or between a piece of art and the person who steps into its magnetic field, something is always happening. She makes this chemistry visible, and slightly perilous, in her work.
So begins our Spring 1989 cover story. To keep reading, view a PDF of the entire article.