Venus Altarpiece, 2014. Inkjet print. Triptych (outer panels 24 x 36," center panel 26 x 38”)
KRISTA LABELLA is a "multi-media artist who embraces the voluptuous, fat, female body." The photographic works from I Am Venus (2014-2018) make references to early 20th century pinup girls, as well as art historical works like Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque (1814), Manet’s Olympia (1863) and Venus of Willendorf (estimated 30,000 BCE). She combines a feminist defiance with the objectification of the female body in order to destabilize Western, white beauty standards. Krista received her BFA from Hartford Art School and her MFA from Pratt Institute. In 2018, Krista had her first solo show Fleshy Fruitat Random Access Gallery at Syracuse University. In August 2019, she was an Artist-in-Residence at 77Artin Rutland, Vermont, and her work was included in a digital gallery in the exhibition Be Seen: Portrait Photography Since Stonewall at The Wadsworth in Hartford, Connecticut. She has been featured on the Headlining Humans YouTube Channel for #whyicreate series. Krista lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Do you have a specific audience in mind? Do you think more about thin people, fat women or heterosexual men with porn-influenced expectations of women’s bodies?
Krista LaBella: When I began creating the photographs in I am Venus I didn’t have a specific audience in mind other than myself. I wanted to make something that was deeply personal to me but that I felt could speak to a broader female experience. It was less about targeting a specific audience and more about just disrupting the expected images of contemporary nude women that you normally see in advertisements, magazines, tv, porn and other media. At first, I started making photographs with props that were funny, trashy, bawdy, but these images never really came together. So I began dialing it back, creating simple compositions in my home, utilizing very few props and very little furniture. The only thing that really stuck were my stilettos. The use of the stilettos exuded femininity, power, sexuality and even violence. By keeping the sets simple and focusing on the colors and shapes of my body and the light, it made the work more about my body as a sculpture and about my gaze.
Judgement Venus (Green Couch Selfie), 2014. Inkjet print. 22 x 30”
OPP: Talk about the Venus as inspiration for these images.
KL: When I was making these photos, I saw them as a performance of the Venus. They embody the female nude over the course of human history. I see my body at a contemporary manifestation of the Venus of Willendorf which, arguably (or maybe not) is the first piece of art ever created by humans. And looking at pastel nudes by Degas, the Grand Odalisque by Ingres, Rubens’ nudes, modern Pin-Up models, and all the countless nude female figures in the history of art, influenced my work significantly. I felt like I often channeled these other paintings into my work. For example, after I did a shoot in my bedroom I realized that I made a photo that felt very much like Manet’s Olympia—so I embraced the photo as the contemporary Olympia.
It was only after I did my first shoot for I am Venus that I realized that the intended audience for the work is the straight male and the purpose of the work is to deflect the male gaze. I always describe the phenomenon of my gaze in these works as: “I both invite and reject the viewer’s gaze: I gaze back knowingly, self-assured. I am both the see-er and the seen.”
Venus Window Selfies. 2014. Inkjet prints. Diptych, 20 x 30” each panel.
OPP: I’m curious about your use of the term “selfie” as opposed to “self-portrait.” I see these as very different—but obviously connected—genres of photography. The “selfie” denotes an amateur endeavor that wouldn’t exist without smartphones, while the “self-portrait” has a much longer artistic lineage. Does this distinction matter to you?
KL: The distinction between the traditional “self-portrait” and the “selfie” is not important to me. I realize that the “I am Venus” self-portraits are not true to the idea of a selfie. However, I do take all of the images alone, of myself, with a shutter-release remote with the intent to share with an audience so it felt appropriate for the work as the contemporary self-portrait. I was already aligning my body within the art historical lineage of the nude and I needed to break away from that a bit- I needed to remind people that this is relevant to today, that this is a quick snapshot in a broader context and a small flash in a series of hundreds of digital images. Using the term “selfie” doesn’t diminish the work or make it amateur because the content is still there. But it does recognize that this was created in a time where self-portraiture has taken a leap into the hands of the masses.
Centerfold, 2012. mixed/ collage. 10.5 x 8 in (opens to 10.5 x 16 and 10.5 x 24)
OPP: What role does humor play in your work?
KL: I get this question a lot! I always speak about my work in a very serious way because it touches on a lot of current issues about body image, self acceptance, the expectations of the fat female body, and how we fit in society. But there is definitely humor in my work. Sometimes there’s an aloofness in my stare, sometimes I crush creamy doughnuts with my tits, sometimes I drape pearls all over my chest and title the photograph Pearl Necklace. There is need for some comic relief. These images are a representation of me, not only as the subject but also a reflection of my personality. I am serious and passionate about my work and the issues I make art about, but I like to laugh and I won’t apologize for my body. I like pushing people’s buttons and seeing how far I can take a tasteless sex joke in my work. It’s the layers of content, the seriousness and the jokes, and the art historical references that make the work interesting and not just another nude falling into the art timeline.
Pearl Necklace and Peach, 2018. Instant photography. 9 photos 3.5 x 4.25” each, mounted to 16 x 20."
OPP: How did I am Venus (2017) transition into Pearl Necklaces & Other Objects (2018)?
KL: Pearl Necklace and Other Objects started as a joke. I was at an artist residency in the summer of 2018 and started making more Venus images, but they weren’t interesting anymore. I had carried pounds and pounds of glitter—leftover from a project that never came to be—with me to this residency, so I dumped it all over my chest and took about 20 images of my glittery chest with my Lomo’Instant Wide camera. I started taking hundreds of photos every day during the residency after lunch when the light was the best in my studio. The Lomo’Instant is great because it’s like a Polaroid camera, and the images just shoot out instantly. It was exciting, fast-paced, performative and almost sculptural. I would find things to crush with my bulbous breasts—they are huge! I would use fruits with sexual meanings, like the peach, and cream-filled doughnuts. I would crush vaginal flowers, anything that had a sexual connotation was crushed or overtaken by my tits and photographed. I also would use items that represented femininity like pearl necklaces, vintage tea cups, lipstick, etc. It felt like the messier and weirder it was, the better the images came out. I had other artists in my studio constantly and whenever they asked me about these images, I would just tell them I was recreating traditional still-life paintings as sex scenes on my tits.
Cream Doughnut, 2018. Instant photography. 12 photos 3.5 x 4.25” each, mounted to 16 x 20."
OPP: Can you talk about the relationship of food and sex in this series? What does this work say about sexual objectification?
KL: Regarding the food specifically, I wanted to add food to my work for a long time. As a fat person, other people are obsessed with your eating habits and assume you must just eat trash constantly. Bringing food into the performance and the images made sense. It just took awhile to get there and make something interesting with it. I titled my first solo show Fleshy Fruit after I began this body of work. I see these images as a spiritual experience of excess, and of our insatiable appetite for food and sex. They reference food fetishism, porn, and cam culture. The viewer visually consumes, admires, and even worships the fleshy fruit that is Venus—me.
Untitled Venus (Red Couch Selfie), 2014. Digital photograph. Censored for Instagram 2018.
OPP: When I first saw your work on Instagram, I thought the cartoon “stickers” of cherries and peaches were part of the work, and I read it as a clever rebuke of censorship. Only later did I realize the fruits were an attempt to avoid being censored on Instagram. Can you talk about your experiences with censorship and sharing nude imagery on Instagram?
KL: Yes! The cherries and stickers on my work are my way of making the work “appropriate” for Instagram. This is an interesting question though because over time they do become part of the work. I choose the censor stickers to be funny and/ or reference the body part they are covering up. Once the images exists in the world as a censored image in this way, it begins to take on a new life as a new work (and comments on society’s idea of modesty and outdated views of the body and feminine values). I am not thrilled that I have to censor the work, but in order to use the platforms, I do it. I find that even in my text and hashtags to go along with my images, I am “too explicit” by Instagram standards. I am often shadow-banned (taken out of public search results) as punishment for using hashtags that are not approved (#pussy is not well-liked by Instagram).
Sliced Peach with Pearl Necklace (on a Silver Platter on a Rose Gold Sequined Wall), 2019.
OPP: What's going on in your studio right now? Are you pursuing any new directions at the moment?
KL: Right now I am really excited about what is happening in my studio! Pearl Necklace and Other Objects is evolving. I am introducing more materials and experimenting with the way these instant photographs are displayed. I have been collecting glittery and sequined fabrics in flesh tones and rose gold that I am beginning to cover the walls of my studio with. I have yards and yards of faux fur in shades of white, pink and black that I am excited to use in an installation in some way. I also have been collecting silver platters and placing sexy images of my tits on these platters instead of framing them. I am interested in pushing the tackiness and trashiness of the work to the max to see where it takes me.
To see more of Krista's work, please visit kristalabella.com.