AnnaLiisa Ariosa-Benston: What We Talk About When We Talk About Feminism and Art

This thoughtful MFA Fine Arts alum wants to be "unencumbered by language”

March 23, 2018 by Emma Drew
The girl is sitting down on a couch
a woman sitting down
AnnaLiisa Ariosa-Benston. Photo by Maria Sabina.

AnnaLiisa Ariosa-Benston (MFA 2016 Fine Arts) has a lot to say. This is apparent, on her one-of-kind jackets emblazoned with “RESIST” in furry, hand-sewn letters; at last month’s Let’s Talk: Women in the Creative Industries alumni panel; in the hour-plus, we spoke for this interview one afternoon. In her speech, as in her work, Benston is candid yet thoughtful, frank but deliberate. So it’s interesting that we get to a point in the conversation when the phrase “unencumbered by language” comes up. In this context it’s a lament over the mediating effect language can have on the understanding of an artwork, and on the labels applied to pieces and people alike.

Benston is a multidisciplinary artist and curator, reared on large-scale abstract painting (she holds a BFA from Pratt in Painting and came to SVA to work with David Row) and now thriving as a maker of wearable art objects, including jackets, backpacks, pins and jewelry, and interactive installations. Her practice, which lives mostly online and is called Famous On Mars, is fed by her feminism, as well as nostalgia for the 1990s, a deft copping of on-trend fashion aesthetics, and a deep-seated interest in means of social codification, through clothing, presentation, commerce, and indeed language.

“My installations are a concept of a concept store—they exist in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and inviting, using trendy, popular color palettes to invite you in a seemingly innocuous way,” Benston remarked, “but as you sort of look through them, try them on, read them—for lack of a better phrase, unpack the room—you will notice that every object holds significant meaning and has something to say politically, as a feminist or more humorously.” Some jackets (and etched-into knives) say what every freelance artist wishes they could, and some address issues of body ownership and autonomy, in support of sex workers and abortion rights.

Installations at recent Satellite Art Shows, for which Benston now serves as Partnership and Sponsorship Liaison, have included live tattooing, zine shops, wearables hung on neon hangers, and other participatory components. Everything is meant to be touched, worn, experienced, as part of a multi-sensory, collaborative, feminist event and space, she said. She’s busy, with a show in Oakland next month, one in LA in July, and a curation project in Tribeca in June. Below, Benston delineates some of her methods and her intentions, as both creator and curator, here direct and unimpeded.

feminism pin resting on a hand
Future = Feminism Pin by AnnaLiisa Ariosa-Benston. Courtesy of the artist.

On moving off the wall, away from painting: During SVA, I would be sitting there wearing my Famous On Mars stuff, keeping all of my wearable art objects and jewelry completely separate from my fine art practice, which was large-scale installation paintings directly on to the wall, lots of residue, drips. [One day] I’m sitting there in my installation and [Kate Morgan] is like, I'd rather look at you than look at your work. It was so hard, so hard—to go from this tradition of what fine art means and these simple categories—sculpture, painting, photography. The wearable art objects were fun, one-off things that I had been able to funnel an idea into and do quickly. I think so often we get so wrapped-up in time and effort equaling quality, over the path of least resistance and something that's fun or easy or seemingly innocuous being quality work that can say something and mean something. I think that was a pivotal moment for me to realize that.

[As a painter], for so long I went by A. Benston—all of undergrad I just felt uncomfortable with the idea of being associated with a female or feminine name because I wanted people to see my work unencumbered by my gender. So this was also the moment when I accepted the fact that I'm a female artist who makes work and then accepting that that's always going to be a thing and that being a woman is not something that's going to hold me back any more necessarily. For now, what has been most powerful for me has been being able to react to the political climate and the environment that I live in and the acceptance of the fact that I'm a female artist.

On making her wearable art objects: I try to keep as many materials on me as I can. Obviously, I'm always going to run out of something, but I like being able to have a certain amount of variations so that if I come up with something I can make something immediately. So I do a lot of heat transfer, hand manipulation, hand sewing. I don't hand sew every object that I have—I do a lot of manipulations and changes to things, but I'm not here to reinvent the jacket. Everything is treated like limited edition prints; everything's numbered, everything's kept track of. I don't consider myself a [fashion] designer; I haven't earned that moniker. I think I'm somebody who uses design as a medium, as an avenue to access the message I'm trying to say. I think of my jackets and backpacks as canvases and bases for something else that's trying to be said.

A stylish jacket!
Resist Jacket by AnnaLiisa Ariosa-Benston. Courtesy of the artist.

On what’s exciting about the field: I’m very grateful for the fact that while there are wearable art object artists, I think that we're all working in such different veins. We’re pushing; we're working in new technologies, we're working in old tech, we’re reimagining neon and what wearable art objects are meant to be. We’re reimagining social codification and why what we wear and say to the world is important.

On realizations about curating: People don't like to think of curators as artists, they like to think of them as managers or somebody who picks up, drops off, and hangs up work. It's so much more than that. Curators have such creative voices and challenges, and as I've done more and more, I've realized there's so much you can say with so little.

Experiential and time-based curation is a really cool way to work; I find that I love that pressure. I want to do more things like that because I think it's a really successful model for people to disrupt the everyday experience of fine art. It's very much in the spirit of living in Brooklyn, it's very much in the spirit of my generation living in Bushwick wanting to recapture perhaps a little bit of the ‘90s and the generations that came before us who had really amazing nightlife and trying to redefine our own through that lens of nostalgia for something we perhaps never had access to. Warehouse parties are part of Brooklyn culture; it's part of our culture. It's cool to be part of a gallery and that might be the most professional way to go, but there's something very freeing about part of something that isn't part of the greater economy that is fine art. That's something I actually have a strength for, organizing really large strange things.

Rain coat is hanged on the wall
Make it Rain Coat by AnnaLiisa Ariosa-Benston. Courtesy of the artist.

On all-women, etc. shows: At the end of the day wanting to say I'm doing only an all-women show, is to say I'm aware of the lack of female representation. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think that’s absolutely extended to the LGBT community, women of color, POC in general—and then also to the serious lack of non-binary and trans representation. I think it's a curator's job to make it a point to seek out these people who are underrepresented and represent then the way that they wish to be. We want more. We’re not saying a guy can't be a curator; we're just saying if a guy's a curator maybe don't only show your guy friends. Because we're keeping receipts, we're noticing.

On form following a practice of inclusivity: The oversized nature of my jackets has a lot to do with the fact that defining female or defining male as large or small is a major misnomer, it doesn't make any sense. There are larger people, and there are smaller people, and they have nothing to do with gender. If someone is like, I want to try on your jacket, I never want them to think it doesn't fit! There's only so far that I can go with the manufacturers that I have, but anytime someone loves something, and it doesn't fit them, I will make it, so it fits. I think that no one should ever feel that it's inaccessible. And that's what it's about, accessibility.

In a similar vein, I personally find it important to consider a sliding scale when you make your work, and to be thinking, if someone can't afford this version of it, I’m willing to go a little smaller or make a print or something like that. Art should be about accessibility, and the moment it's about anything other than that, then perhaps your work isn't about anybody but you. And that's okay, too, but that's not how I proscribe to work. If your audience is just you, maybe that's something you should think about as to why that is, why is that enough?

On being a feminist artist, and labeled as such: Being a woman artist in the art world is a political act no matter what you do. You don't get a choice, that's part of the problem, that is the problem, because you are seen as an outside from the get-go. There are people, like Dan Halm, taking their privilege and creating a platform for other people, taking their power and lifting up artists who don't necessarily have the opportunity to show in these spaces. There isn't equality yet, and we may never have it, but you gotta keep fighting, you just can't stop, you can’t stop trying, you can’t stop caring. Everyone gets tired, so take breaks, do self-care, but don't stop. That's crazy. Why did you start if you were just going to stop?

AnnaLiisa Ariosa-Benston's work can be seen next in the upcoming show "Smooth Muscles" which takes place in Oakland starting April 8.