Masculinity and its discontents come in layers and ooze across multiple forms in Genesis Belanger's work, from the addictive toxins found in cigarettes and industrially produced meat, to the double-speak of cellophane wrapped grocery store flowers and fruit-filled beauty advertisements.
Alice Bucknell (AB): Hotdogs and cigarettes and references to male sexual impotence abound in your work, so can we begin with your interest in the limp phallus?
Genesis Belanger (GB): The whole idea of penis envy is so funny to me; it’s painful and ridiculous and hilarious at the same time. I’m always trying to shake my art penis as much as I can—hence the hot dog and the cigarette. But I will take every opportunity to make a dick not just a dick—I want it to carry something else along with it.
I’m attracted to cigarettes because of their loaded history. The global cigarette industry was born in New York in the early 20th century, when a team of men got together and decided women should smoke. They made sure that happened by targeting the women’s suffrage movement, and branding their cigarettes as “torches of freedom” while also paying models to light up in public at the Macy’s Day Parade. This whole orchestration was backed by Philip Morris, a $70 billion dollar tobacco manufacturing company, and was essentially a bunch of men behind closed doors who are still cashing in majorly today.
Then there’s the paradoxical position the cigarette has in society, as something that is cool and liberating but will also kill you. The cigarette is an enduring sex symbol: the post-coital smoke, sometimes even without sex—there’s an entire sub-genre of fetish porn dedicated to women smoking, nothing else. All of these ideas overlay with Freudian theories that the cigarette is the women’s penis, which is so stupid and funny and ridiculous but it’s still a part of our culture, and
Similarly, I love how American the hot dog is—the all-American dick, with its miscellaneous, sketchy ingredients! The hot dog is super toxic and gross and fucked up, just like the cigarette. Shouldn’t these phallic symbols be more wholesome? Maybe I should start making sculptures with carrots…
AB: Speaking of phallic symbols, can you talk a bit about your finger-filled bouquet?
GB: I called the piece Double Standards, because I was thinking about how when a man cheats on a woman, one of the things he does as a shitty attempt at an apology is to give her flowers. In my work, fingers have become a weird limp phallus—and if you think about non-hetero sex, the fingers are basically performing the role of the penis. Plus fingers are such an articulated part of the body that they often can stand in for the whole.
All of my flower and vase works like Center Piece (2018) stem from my interests in the still life genre. It was the loneliest of all paintings, historically hung closest to the floor in the academy. I think of still lives as portraits of points in time—they become a record of what was happening and what our priorities were throughout human civilization. I first started to think of them that way as I was looking at British conversation pieces, which were painted during the Enlightenment, and were almost records of the global trade at that time.
AB: There’s this type of grotesque decadence to Dutch still lives of the Golden Age—all the rich and exotic fruits split open and waiting to be consumed, or abandoned and rotting, as a memento mori.
GB: Fruit also speaks to our fear of aging and obsession with youth. There is a seductive temporality to it—how the fruit always smells strongest right before it expires. So I wanted to make a vase that is hoarding all the fruits, grasping and embracing as many fruits as possible. Pieta (2018) is a desire to consume all that is the freshest, and what that can allude to…
I’m also interested in how fruit is used in advertising. You see fruit all the time in beauty advertisements that will place some glistening, ripe berries next to perfectly painted lips, and you’re like, what are they trying to say here? Obviously, this stems from a long history of sexualized metaphors men use to reduce women to qualities of ripeness and freshness. It’s interesting and hilarious and terrible, all at the same time.
AB: What about the rough/soft dynamic to your sculptures?
GB: Formally speaking, there’s something amazing about making a hard object look soft, and how that can become a metaphor as well. When I first started making these porcelain and stoneware works, I called them Bauhaus pop; I came from a background in fashion and then advertising, so producing very desirable, very slick work is part of the intrigue. I’m fascinated by how close these strange, supple sculptures can get to being just another domestic design object—and functional works like the pastel pink chaise lounge of Double Standard (2018) are literally on the knife’s edge of that challenge. If you just layer that on, frost it on top of everything else, it develops several layers of meaning. I love the idea of making these totally absurd objects out of a material that lasts forever. If there’s an archaeological dig at some point in the future, someone could stumble upon a hotdog inside a purse…
AB: Hotdog handbag transport—just another day in New York!
GB: If you think about the way that we draw conclusions from the pottery and shards of ceramics we collect, they must be so inaccurate! Archaeologists from the future will say, “In the 2000s, people carried around hot dogs. Remarkable! The size of the dog was a symbol of your status, as was whether the bread was whole wheat or gluten free…”