The MIDDLE Pillar

Jamie Isenstein deals in dualities. Through various media, the New York-based artist explores her interest in life and death, truth and illusions, forces in oppositions. Within her art, Isenstein discovers and reveals kind of new development born within the inverse. “My work often does start with dualities but ultimately ends up breaking down opposing categories to create something new,” says Isenstein “For example, many of my sculptures are a combination of static, perhaps dead, objects and live, active ones, such as the sculptures that meld my own body with found objects or furniture.”

The works demands a shift in one’s perceptions “Another dichotomy I consider in my work is the relationship between illusion and truth, which is a classic concern in the study of art,” says Isenstein. “They seem like opposites, but both are subjective and that relates them – illusion is in the eye of the beholder, but so can be said about truth.”  

In previous work, Isenstein often placed herself in compositions. While her upcoming exhibit Head Space, featured at Crisp-Ellert Art Museum focuses on the body, Isenstein is not directly featured in the show’s estimated 18 to 20 pieces. “Although I am not using my body specifically in the CEAM show, the body is there, though represented by objects,” Isenstein explains. In this exhibit, “disguises, automatons,” even the viewer, replace the artist. “So many of the works in the show have objects that have a relationship to the body in some way – fans act as hands, books become eyes, wigs reference mortality and masks wear masks as if they, themselves want to be disguised.”

Works from Head Space include the sculptures Eye Books and Para Drama (both 2015), pieces that use books, gloves and oscillating fans to form “improvised automatons.” The photo series Masks Wearing Masks (2015), with their faces of Halloween masks hidden behind even more masks, leave the viewer unsettled and amused, here reinforcing Isenstein’s skills of toggling humor with menace.

“Often because I play with questions of mortality and create confusions of what is living and what is not, my work ends up having an uncanny and unsettling quality,” says Isenstein. “Work that talks about heavy subjects such as death or alienation from our bodies or our labor are easier for me to approach when I use humor. I guess I also have a black sense of humor that is revealed in my work – though usually unintentionally!”

Vanity Vanitas (2016-17) features three wigs made of either candles, a mirror or sand, each placed atop a mannequin bust, all referencing Baroque symbols of mortality. Other works include the new series of photos, Body of Mirrors, and sculptures, Gallery of Ice Cream. Both use curved mirrors to trigger ideas of distortions of the body.

Photography, sculpture, video and performance can be used to convey Isenstein’s thoughts. However, ideas guide her to pick a medium, rather than ideas springing from working with the medium. “I am more interested in getting ideas across than a specific medium so I chose the medium based on which one would best convey an idea,” says Isenstein.

Regardless of materials, Isenstein enjoys an estimable career. She’s been featured in 90-plus international solo and group exhibits, including last year’s solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum. Isenstein’s work has been chronicled in an array of media outlets, ranging from Artforum to The New Yorker.

In the last decade or so, terms like “repurposing” and “reappropriating” have been in play. “Mark making” has now topped the charts as a current art descriptor. Trends aren’t necessarily bad, but by their very nature their obsolescence is necessary – and certain. Jamie Isenstein’s work is certainly not trendy. It’s refreshingly void of any “updates” or an art page refresh. In focusing on the subtle and gross, opposite ends and in between, she creates inclusive work, not inscrutable barriers.

Dualities and deceptions can point to our commonalities. Whether Isenstein places herself directly in her work or not, as a material or story, she still discovers a panoramic view of her place in a larger composition

“I have often used myself physically and representationally in my artwork, though not always. And although I sometimes use myself in my work, I don’t consider the work self-reflective in a literal sense in that I don’t address direct personal experience,” says Isenstein. “Rather I use myself to consider how the self is reflected in society and culture and as a participant in the business of being human.”


The opening reception for Jamie Isenstein’s Head Space is held from 5-9 p.m. March 3; artist walkthrough at 4 p.m., Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, St. Augustine,; displays through April 15.