For children of the ’90s, there was no more appealing dining experience than Rainforest Café, a cacophonous jungle-themed restaurant chain that served up kid-friendly lunch fare amid elephants, waterfalls, fish tanks, and simulated thunderstorms. The eatery now exists primarily as a foggy, distant memory, but artist Stephanie Temma Hier’s work offers up a similar escape to an all-encompassing surrealist universe where food, flora, and fauna exist on the same plane.
Clasped by Light, 2020. Oil on linen with glazed stoneware sculpture. 32 × 24 × 5 in / 86 × 61 × 13 cm.
Hier’s figurative paintings, which often depict fruit, vegetables, seafood, and other edibles, are enwrapped in ceramic frames that, more often than not, appear to be consuming the scenes that lay inside. Scrolling through the artist’s work on Instagram (how else to view art in 2021?) proposes endless rounds of chicken-or-egg exercises to determine what’s being laid out in front of you. For instance, in An Appraisal of Shadows, octopus tentacles envelop two pigeons feeding from an outstretched hand. In There’s Many More With Painted Lips, a boy drinks from a water fountain, framed by bunches of carrots. In Clasped by Light, cartoonish squirrels scurry across a glimmering portrait of a snail. At first glance, these images seem disparate, however, closer inspection begs the question: which came first?
An Appraisal of Shadows, 2020. Oil on linen with glazed stoneware sculpture. 14 × 14 × 15 in / 35.6 × 35.6 × 38.1 cm.
The multidisciplinary artist’s pieces start as curious, elaborately sculpted frames that she builds and glazes by hand. “I let the sculptural side of my work be really amorphous and intuitive,” she says, often working playful, everyday references such as sneakers and toothbrushes into the mix. She then searches for a scene to pair with the frame from her collection of found imagery. “I look for things that create an interesting synergy or tension,” she says. The artist’s source imagery, which often comes from the far corners of the Internet, is then interpreted by her rather formal painting style. “For me, that digital reference is really important, because so much of our lives exists online, yet my processes are so rooted in earthly elements.” In a sense, each piece is a collage of our inner and outer realms, two places that exist side by side, yet are often worlds apart.
“I like to leave it open-ended, but I compare [my work] to the feeling that’s evoked when you’re scrolling through the Internet and you see all these different things, one after another, that don’t relate to each other at all,” the artist says from her Brooklyn studio. “It’s that feeling of endless possibility.”
There’s Many More With Painted Lips, 2020. Oil on linen with glazed stoneware sculpture. 22 × 201/10 × 31/2 in / 56 × 51 × 9 cm.
Reflecting her background as a trained painter with a BFA from Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U) and a relatively recent self-trained ceramicist, Hier’s melding of techniques represents a tension within her own discipline. “I often like to say that I feel I’m married to painting and that ceramics is my mistress or something,” she says with a laugh. “Traditional painting can be a really dogmatic medium to work within. I like pushing back on that a little bit and forcing [it] to exist in this world of craft and kitsch.”
This dichotomy will be on display in at least two forthcoming solo shows, in April at Bradley Ertaskiran in Montreal, and then later this year at Nino Mier Gallery in Los Angeles. “I like to have an immersive experience where the viewer is totally pulled into this world,” she says. For anyone thinking back to fond memories of that kitschy rainforest restaurant, an immersive escape is just as appealing as it ever was.