By Tobey Crockett PhD
There is a paradox at work in many of Jean Wells’ seductive giant treats, confections whose mirrored surfaces reflect back our own images even as we gaze upon them. On the one hand these bright sugarplums profligately offer themselves to our delectation with their charming levity and winsome smiles while at the same time their hard, artificial materials deny us the toothsome pleasures of gustatory and tactile consumption. Furthermore, we ourselves are complicit in our own deprivation as we uphold our art audience agreement to look but not touch, even as these objects tempt us to break the rules. While it is certainly possible to simply enjoy Jean Wells’ sparkling artworks as beautiful and playful romps in a shiny candyland of fun and color, the discerning viewer will also be rewarded by the more thought provoking aspects of personal narrative, cultural context and feminist concerns which are located in these inspired sculptures, outsized players in the big game of ‘real art.’
Offering not only visual pleasures, but stimulating food for thought with her Pop-era icons of ice cream, soda and pin up queens, Jean Wells would seem to fit neatly into an art historical discourse that revolves around the loaded topic of consumerism, a conversation that includes such twentieth century stalwarts as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Jeff Koons, among others. But Jean Wells also invokes more rarefied antecedents, luminaries such as Nikki de Saint Phalle, Wayne Thiebaud, Hannah Wilke and Takashi Murakami. Like other postmodern artists working with a blend of pop culture iconography and autobiography, Jean Wells’ work is charming and nostalgic, yet packs a punch with its satisfying bite of underlying poignancy, offering an authentic and personal undercurrent that balances the sweetness. Thus demonstrating her deep attunement to the eternally dynamic tensions of the creative force, tensions that pull us between the realms of pleasure and pain, subject and object, surface and inner meaning, California sculptor Jean Wells is exploding onto the international art scene with a riot of color, scrumptious materials and a beguiling array of glittering objects, large and small.
Like the mythical two headed llama from Doctor Dolittle, this pushmi-pullyu quality in Jean Wells’ work is clearly expressed in her 2007 piece “Mixed Messages,” an illuminated traffic sign with glittering legs in golden stockings and ruby shoes that simultaneously directs the viewer to “walk, don’t walk.” Nearly as tall as a person, this work evokes the humor of an animated Monty Python-era mashup, modern technology comically hybridized into a visual spoonerism that demands the impossible. Clearly gendered by the presence of the shapely stockings and shoes, the viewer is uncertain whether to laugh or ponder the origin of this impossible command, for somewhere in this piece lurks the voice of an old fashioned yet sexy woman who can never be satisfied. It is just this kind of ambivalence which lays beneath the surface that makes Jean Wells’ work richly engaging and keeps us coming back for more.
Raised in the wholesome landscape of the evergreen Pacific Northwest, Jean Wells was born into a large artistic family with a strong traditional skill set grounded in such old world techniques such as fresco secco, realism and mosaics. At an early age the young artist apprenticed with her father, mosaic artist Thomas Wells, and learned the painstaking craft and iconography of classical Byzantine-style mosaics as he completed a large commission for the prestigious and architecturally celebrated St. Demetrios Greek Church in Seattle. Although Jean attended art school at a time when expressiveness and gesture were the ne plus ultra of the marketplace and the old canon of technique and representation was often rejected as hopelessly out of date, her family supplemented her practicum with their own studio exercises and lessons, making sure that Jean Wells had all the tools necessary to achieve her own creative vision.
Nurtured and encouraged by her creative family throughout her childhood and time as a young artist, Jean Wells continued to develop her playful imagination, her skills at drawing from life, her love of form, color, design and graphics and eventually created her own art-related company which allowed her the freedom to pursue her dreams. Like many artists, she relies upon her personal history, imagination and even her dream life to arrive at the ideas she will pursue as actual objects. Having worked for a number of years in paintings and ceramics, Jean Wells has recently rediscovered her love of mosaics and, perhaps unsurprisingly given her quasi-trickster nature, she prefers to turn the traditional uses of this medium on their head. Rather than deploying her skills in the more traditional format of a flat mural, the sculptor uses the material as a springboard for her unique explorations of three dimensional form. Similarly, she abjures the tyranny of the traditional square tile, the tessera, in favor of free form glass shapes which she cuts by hand.
Jean Wells is deeply inspired by her sumptuous materials, and works with an exquisite palette of beautifully colored glass that she has custom created for her sculptures. These unique glass creations provide her with an incredibly wide selection of tones, qualities of reflection and color gradations, allowing her to shade forms, variegate and layer colors with great precision and nuance. Jean Wells hand cuts the glass, and keeps a reserve of tiny scrap pieces that allow her to add details and touches of color that keep the surfaces lively and variable. Her use of hand tinted industrial grade grouts contributes to the coloration process and allows Jean Wells to either seamlessly lay in blocks of color, or to occasionally play with the contrast as she does when, for example, she uses blue grout with orange glass for a fish and its layers of scales.
But beyond the artist’s sheer intoxication with her materials, there are practical concerns as well. Preparing sketches, studies and maquettes for larger works, she begins the arduous process of determining which scale and substrate to use for her vision. Weight, stability and long term exposure to the elements are issues which must be managed as the artist determines the fabrication strategies of any one particular piece, especially for such larger outdoor works as the monumental “Lipsticks” (2009) or “Urban Fruit Tree” series (2008). Generally speaking, she prefers to make everything herself, with only a modicum of help from studio assistants. She may use found objects, such as telephones, antiques, appliances, or other household objects or she may carve large durable yet light weight structures in foam that allow her to play with a larger scale, as in such newer pieces as “Change of Heart,” the “Lipstick Series,” and “3D Glasses,” all from 2009. She also works with aluminum, and in the past has used metal, plaster and ceramics as well as found objects to create her sculptures.
With this new creative output in mosaic materials, Jean Wells has flung open the floodgates of her production, revealing a prolific flow of sculptures and objects that reflect not only her personal history but our collective social history as well. The artist’s autobiographical reminiscences of an earlier era echo deeply among her far flung audiences, many of whom share a love of comic book figures such as can be found in the Donald Duck tribute “Vintage Quackery” (2008) , the streamlined car forms of the red hot “Hot Rod” (2007), the American classics of “Hamburger with Fries” (2008) or the saucy hot dog of “Mustard Only” (2007). Perhaps more iconic for American audiences, another example of Jean Wells’ nostalgic celebration includes a working Princess telephone in the installation “Conversation Piece” (2007), a sparkling sprawl of mosaic objects in which the artist includes not only the phone, but also a mini legal pad and pencil with the message “Call” scrawled across the golden yellow paper. The specificity of details, from the lines on the paper, the green tape at the top of the pad, the writing, the metal cap on the pencil to even the metal bottom of the phone – all these demonstrate the careful ways in which Jean Wells uses observation from life, rather than mere pastiche, to craft her singular works. This real life observation is a signature feature of Jean Wells’ work, resulting in an authentic artistic gesture that rings true to viewers who recognize these experiences from their own lives.
Jean Wells is not alone in her celebration of the quotidian detail as food for the creative spirit. Examinations of domestic settings with ordinary, humble everyday objects quite frequently pepper the canon of great art; examples might include the domestic interiors of the Impressionists, including such painters as Cassatt, Renoir and Degas. Artists tend to use the objects which surround them to explore their craft and to experiment with line and form. Indeed repetition of just these sort of daily encounters with the material world inform the practice of most artists dating to at least the middle of the nineteenth century forward. Cezanne and Picasso’s still lifes, Duchamp’s readymades, and even Dali’s surrealist concoctions are drawn from observation and a subsequent aestheticization of everyday life.
Of course the Pop era saw a great revision of social norms and an embrace of popular culture, and the subsequent ambiguity of critique and celebration of consumerist values and objects by such artists as Warhol, Koons and many others leaves the status of today’s pop culture object partially unresolved. Before the edge of postmodern irony set in to a near vitiating level of detachment, and perhaps all too true to the advertising roots of much of this work, it is worth remembering that there was first and foremost a joy and pleasure in the ‘good life’ promised to a post-war world looking for relief. Are we happy to embrace the hamburger as a great icon and symbol of good times, or is it something more sinister in a world saturated in warnings about fast food, factory farms and mad cows? Can it be both? As F. Scott Fitzgerald comments, it is an intelligent mind that can hold two opposing thoughts simultaneously and yet have the courage to go forward. Thus it is the brave contemporary artist who continues to edge her way around the bittersweet puzzle that is the search for meaning within a hypermediated society in which little in the way of innocent or authentic pleasure seems left for ordinary mortals.
This difficult question of pleasure versus plastic values has been notably addressed by a number of the the masterful Pop artists of the 60’s including not only Warhol, but also Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and Kienholz, many of whom had backgrounds in advertising and other commercial arts. This commercial influence is carried forward by many artists today in a deliberate blurring of the distinctions between high and low art forms, the work of latecomer Takashi Murakami offering a noteworthy iteration of this theme. Painter Wayne Thiebaud was an early inspiration for many of the Pop artists, especially with his seminal paintings of food from the late 50’s and early 60’s. Thiebaud’s works of this period are almost invariably set in a flat shallow space of blank whiteness and deep shadows, much like the white seamless paper used in an advertisement backdrop.
A comparison between the food and pleasure-inspired works of Thiebaud and Jean Wells is fairly inescapable, both offering captivating yet inedible images and both wholeheartedly embracing the fun of it all with gusto. There is a shared touchstone in their mutual interest in diner offerings, such as place settings, burgers and hot dogs and the candyland tropes of ice cream cones, sundaes, cupcakes, gum ball machines and even lipsticks. Certainly there are differences as well, most obviously between the medium of painting and sculpture. While Thiebaud’s paintings are lush in their application of frosting- like build ups of paint, Jean Wells offers a smooth, cool surface that glistens and sparkles, recalling the neon and chrome glinting of the diner setting in which these treats would frequently be consumed. Jean Wells’ pieces that incorporate these motifs include her various ice cream sculptures such as the “Sundae” series (2007- 2008), which always features a smiling cherry, and perhaps even a hidden cow form as in the towering “Ice Cream Moosaic” pieces (2007). There is a comic subjectivity at play in Jean Wells’ pieces – cherries that might bite back, cows not fully separated from their products. Iconic yet poignant, both Thiebaud’s and Jean Wells’ bodies of work subtly suggest that there is a hidden agenda at work underneath the superficial seduction of surface, a nostalgia which is almost but not quite erased by the exuberant embrace of the plasticity of their materials in which both artists freely revel.
Another point of comparison between Jean Wells and the aforementioned Pop artists is an interest in a serialized taxonomy of images – multiple iterations of the same form done several ways. Jean Wells offers ice cream cones in multiple flavors, such as “Peppermint Chip” (2007) and “Mint Chip” (2007), and renders soda pops and beers in various brands, combinations and settings. She repeats food items, burgers, candy kisses, and pin up queens, and adds “comfort food” sculptures as a balance or perhaps even a kind of reward in alternation with her more autobiographical explorations of figures and objects. Her very process is itself an accumulation of gesture and placement, as she shapes and assembles thousands of tiny pieces of glass to create her sculptures. This strategy of serialization is characteristic not only of the male Pop artists but also of numerous women artists, many of whom use the strategy of repetition to build up large bodies of accumulated gesture. Artists such as Hannah Wilke, Hanne Darboven, Annette Messager and Susan Hiller, to name just a few, are artists whose concerns with artmaking reflect a self-aware posture as women in art, with strategies that include autobiography, serialization and often humorous yet biting social critique.
The late sculptor and performance artist Wilke not only made repeated ceramic vaginal forms in series for many years, for example the ceramic pinkness of “Sweet Sixteen” (1978) and the latex variations of the “Ponder-r-rosa” series (1975), but she also used pin up imagery to her own purpose as well, offering variations on the expected norms in order to introduce her own ideas about what could and should constitute female beauty. Examples include the early and comically brash “Super-t-Art” (1974) and the deeply moving later works in the “Intra Venus” series (1992-93). Although she was an undeniable feminist herself, Wilke was chastised by some feminists in the early 70’s for conflating pin up images with feminist art practices, a criticism which in turn led her to warn against “Fascist Feminism” in favor of allowing women to do what they pleased. Jean Wells’ sculptures of six foot tall models “Gertie,” “Mabel,” and “Pearl” (2007) may not be quite as radical as Wilke’s reinterpretations of the female, but nor do they exemplify the standard cheesecake of a Mel Ramos, or even the normative objectification still found in advertisement today. Wilke would undoubtedly recognize the course correcting vision of female identity that is at work in many of Jean Wells’ pieces.
Indeed, female figures and concerns appear quite frequently in Jean Wells’ creative output, with goddess forms in “The Sea Nymph Floating Pool Sculpture,” the bathing beauties of “Gertie,” “Mabel,” and “Pearl,” and the lipstick pieces, many of which are large and even motorized such as the fifteen foot “Lipstick” (2009). “The Sea Nymph” (2007) is the figurehead which appears on a larger water sculpture that does actually float and function as a little green sailboat, despite the weight of the mosaics fore and aft; it is a balancing act that works out just so and can accommodate a passenger as well. Hearkening back to Jean Wells’ youth and her indefatigably creative father who took a sea voyage around the world, this sea nymph seems to guide Jean Wells through the fluid psyche of her past and across the waters to her own creative Avalon. Loaded with numerous symbolic meanings, this weighty yet seaworthy craft also carries amusing and surprising echoes of Koons’ early bronze rubber raft, which similarly evoked weight and flotation though clearly without the ability to float. Koons’ raft was an early work in his oeuvre that ultimately led to the latest balloon pieces. One wonders where Jean Wells will go with her figures, especially since she is keen on growing ever more monumental.
Initially appearing at the San Diego Museum of Art November 2007, her largest works to date are the “Urban Fruit Trees” which rise up to seventeen feet tall and span a width of eleven feet wide with their branches adorned with Jean Wells’ signature candies, confections, burgers and pop. Much like her mentor and inspiration, the indomitable Nikki de Saint Phalle, Jean Wells is aiming to go very large with her various figures, installations and objects, and is rapidly coming to terms with various technical requirements of scaling her sculptures to even greater heights. Jean Wells’ family used to build snow versions of totem poles when she was a child in Seattle, and she now continues this vertical sculptural tradition but in mosaic, obviously a material with far greater endurance. “Totem Sky Mountain” is an ongoing work which Jean Wells believes will never be finished as she keeps adding to it and making changes over time, appropriate for an object that recounts her family history. Installations such as the “Lipsticks”, “Urban Fruit Trees” and “Phantom” (2007) all range from fifteen to twenty feet tall.
She also is drawn to the interactive possibilities of bridging the gap between artist and viewer by allowing for the functionality of various objects, such as the telephones and the telescoping action on the “Lipsticks,” a number of which she plans to assemble together into a larger installation. Her installation of an actual Good Humor ice cream truck from which she can serve audiences the very treats her sculptures promise is an extension of her practice, delivering pleasures and crossing the lines by breaking the barriers between high and low, artist and viewer, representation and subject, subject and object. This is as close as one can get to actually eating the art without chipping your teeth, that is by eating the ice cream that comes from the belly of the beast, the art truck from candyland. Other artists might add a hint of scariness here, shades of Hansel and Gretel, Baba Yaga, the Abominable Snowman or even the Merry Pranksters coming to mind, but Jean Wells is content to just let us have some fun without having to first punish us for our pleasures, and in a time where real life is scary enough, it is refreshing to have a moment of genuine innocence.