I have been thinking lately of the place of the aberrant in art. Specifically, my research into artists’ books, which rest so anxiously in a space between art and literature. The intensity of this study, along with a reasonable dose of general social awkwardness, has led me to develop a habit of noticing instances of the uncomfortable in the everyday. Like the fastidious copies of drawings I used to make as a child, it is as though a translucent sheet of baking paper has been laid over my eyes, leaving the tracings of aberrance to rest upon everything I see.
Jess Kemister, a third year Printmedia and Drawing student, celebrates the beauty to be found in the uncomfortable. Whether energetically dancing or floating calm, the shapes of her ‘Under the Lens’ series dynamically catch the wandering eye. These prints are reminiscent of the bold textiles that characterised the ‘60s. They feature cells from the likes of bacterial vaginosis and chlamydia.
Jess explains her motivation in depicting the inner workings of the female body, confused by a lack of more open discussion. After all, her prints speak to what fundamentally makes us human: cells, bacteria, sex, belonging. In a world where the common cold is a loud complaint, in the age of the ‘man-flu’ and the extreme agony of a badly timed blemish, how can the likes of sexually transmitted diseases not have a voice? Like the empowering doctor who once spontaneously let Jess examine her own biology on the spot, the artist is granting access to the overlooked micro. She is making a visual call for attention, a visual call to action.
Speaking of action, how do people act upon learning the truth of the work? Most are engaged, a couple uncomfortable. All are surprised. Jess enjoys this sense of shock, though is conscious of the strange discord in getting pleasure from the big reveal, and yet wondering why it should even be a shocking choice of subject matter in the first place.
Nevertheless, the idea of finding inspiration in an internal beauty has stayed with me. While being shown around Jess’ workspace, I see two etching plates from a recent life-drawing class. The curved, feminine lines of the model are given texture by deep crosshatching. Jess comments that one of the plates feels ‘gorgeous’, running her fingers over the grooves. Looking from these plates over to the ‘Under the Lens’ prints, I see a broader exploration of the entire landscape of the female body – both interior and exterior. I can’t help but think of the female body and historical distinctions between nude and naked. The nude is proud, strong. The naked is shameful, in hiding. Here, the female life model is powerful, and yet cells that might foundationally contribute to her living are not. Jess is working to give the naked, the honest, and the aberrant, the attention it deserves. After all, the presence of such infections and bodily fluids (other prints feature enlarged urine and hair cell samples) is fundamentally organic. Why so illogically taboo, then? As the artist explains: one needs to own their body in every facet, to know their body in every facet.
Jess is currently working on a series of etchings that expand upon this idea of the bodily aberrant, now experimenting with prints contained within the circular form of a Petri dish. She plans to choose five bacteria and reflect their growth and transformation over time – a chronology. She shows me a couple of test prints, unpinning them from the wall.
That’s another thing I’ve noticed – as Jess talks about each of her works, she reaches out to touch them. She runs her fingers along the edge of the pages, or rests her palm across their corners, or fusses over smudges and dust. To me, this physical interaction, this subconscious movement, directly relates back to her artistic interest in bonds, connection, and awareness. Mirroring the organic development of her cells, Jess’ work is growing to new places. And it’s infectious.