Signe Pierce is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress 52. In 2016, Oxygen's Very Real digital hub is featuring 52 of these outstanding women: that's one woman a week, for 52 weeks. Check out the series here!
Neon-lit motels, abandoned food courts, oil-slicked puddles, the Hollywood walk of fame, sleazy t-shirt shops on South Carolinian boardwalks: these are the haunts of contemporary artist, photographer, videographer, and performer Signe Pierce. Inspired by consumer products and mass media, Pierce is fighting against a visual culture of misogyny -- one pink and purple snapshot at a time. Garnering notable attention for her breakthrough viral video "American Reflexxx," Pierce is taking on art world chauvinism and looking to reclaim the beauty of girlishness.
Signe had been interested in the arts from an early age, describing herself to me as a "theater girl" in high school. But Pierce can recall the exact moment things changed for her, and led her towards a career in visual media: "One day I was looking in Vanity Fair, and I saw a spread that David LaChapelle did. There were a whole bunch of pop stars, it was really colorful and it was really cool," she remembers. "I got up from the couch and started researching his work on the computer like crazy. In that moment I really fell in love with art and how, with art, you have the ability to create different worlds. The thing I love about him in particular is that he fuses so much beauty with his color and his palette – but also it's very sexual, very thought-provoking. I started pushing myself to take pictures and creating worlds."
From there, Pierce had found herself more drawn to the miniature dreamscapes of music videos than long-form cinema, photography, or television. Soaking up the surreal fantasies of directors like Spike Jonze and the visionary imagery of Lady Gaga in "Bad Romance," Pierce began to create her own fantastical landscapes and still lifes. Her idiosyncratic and unapologetically feminine color palette has since become her signature.
Describing her aesthetic, Signe offered thoughtful commentary on her relationship to color, opulence, and femininity: "I have a lot of different characters and muses that live within me. My current fascination is this sort of dark glamour ... I moved to Los Angeles to really capture heaven and hell in the city of dreams," she says. "I'm into shooting things that to the naked eye are really unremarkable – like strip malls, parking lots, boring Americana. I like looking for beauty in banal and boring situations. I want my work to be beautiful and grotesque."
"I think the colors pink and purple are really interesting. Girls are taught: these are your colors, this is your aesthetic...Anything pink and purple is considered girly. There's a weird unspoken derogatory aspect to the word girly. My favorite colors are pink and purple because I was raised to love those colors. Society told me to love them. But in the world, those colors aren't anywhere unless they're applied to femininity or feminine products."
Signe's most well known piece, a collaboration with Alli Coates called "American Reflexxx," succinctly distills her aesthetic thesis into one powerful and unexpectedly violent statement. The viral video starts out as vaguely sexually provocative, but quickly takes a dark turn when, through the course of the performance, Pierce finds herself a victim of mob brutality. The short film has garnered over 3 million views on YouTube and Facebook.
"What [I was] interested in [was] taking the girl that you see on TV or in the media or in porn – this hypersexualized girl that exists to be a sexual object – what happens when you take that girl and you drop her into reality? What happens when you take that girl out of the screen and onto the street? When you see her on TV she never really has much of an identity. She's always nameless, she doesn't have much personality. That's where the mask comes in: she doesn't have a face, she doesn't have an identity."
"We didn't intend on anything in particular," she continued. "The main idea was to just walk down the street and we'd capture that. We agreed we weren’t going to speak. When I take the mask off the performance is over. That was our agreement, that was the 'rule' of the performance."
"It's crazy that this is what actually happens, this is how people actually treated me. It's really indicative of how a lot of women feel when they are walking down the street late at night – they feel like objects more than anything else. And how a lot of trans women feel, just in existing. They don't even have to be dressed up in a funny outfit or weird mask to feel dehumanized."
It shouldn't be surprising that Signe's work elicits a strong reaction. Although she generally finds her reception in the art world to be positive, she's occasionally baffled by some of her male fans. "I've had some guys ask me, 'Am I gay cause I like your work?' No! You're just a human being who likes things," she said.
But the male-dominated art world presents even more serious problems for an outspoken feminist. "There's this weird feeling in the art world where you can be making the strongest art in the room, but the gallery owner is still going to probably try and f*ck you. To objectify you. To turn you into more of a sex object than an artist."
"But if I wanted to go on social media and talk about this artist, or that critic, or this gallery owner, or this art dealer, who mansplained me or who tried to harass me -- then I run the risk of never getting work again. Or getting blacklisted for being too real. A lot of women feel that. We can't talk about the realities of being a female artist or being a female professional in general because we fear losing our jobs or any standing that we've worked really hard to get. That's something really frustrating, but it's something I'm going to keep fighting for."
Signe continues to pursue performances and photography, but lately she's been fulfilling her teenage dreams and working as a music video art director and production designer. Starting with a video for her friend Hot Sugar, Pierce has gone on to design an overtly lady-centric filmic experiment for Dorian Electra:
"I was told to take my aesthetic and do six different time periods: Greek goddesses, Dark Ages, Renaissance, Freud and the Victorian Era, the 60s, and then the future. It was a dream assignment: to create a hyper-saturated neon version of art history! Like, yes, I will do that, thank you very much."
Signe has gotten far by exploring her own fluorescent fever dreams, and now she's offering some advice to those looking to create their own stylized worlds: "Lead with your vision ... Allow yourself to experiment. Do not follow trends. I believe that an element of being an artist and being a creator is having a vision, and in order to have a vision you need to be able to have faith in what you find interesting."
"Let yourself get lost in your vision," she concluded.
Signe will have an installation and performance in Authority Figure on the weekend of May 20-22. Later this summer she will have a solo show at Stream Gallery in NYC that "will feature a long-form performance influenced by reality TV."
Featured image by Marina Fini.