Alumna Profile

Jamie Isenstein ’98

Sit yourself down: Jamie Isenstein ’98 inhabits her art—literally.

The Lady Vanishes

By Robin Tovey ’97

Jamie Isenstein doesn’t hesitate to inhabit her art—literally. She’ll pose as an armchair or a headless lady and lie under a wolf in sheep’s clothing covered by a taxidermy bearskin for hours on end. In October, she returned to Reed in conjunction with the Cooley Gallery’s Museion exhibition to speak about this sleight of hand.

Resistant to being called a performance artist, she has been recognized for her inventive blending of media installation, performance, sculpture, and drawing. After watching her exhibitions, viewers might ask themselves, What is sculpture? or What is performance? And, she is delighted to use this opportunity to get us thinking about the immortality of art. Inspired by the “materials challenge” embraced by Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, Jamie thought that the ultimate combination of art and life would be lending her own limbs to the creations she conceives.

Whether she is becoming an arm chair or making art-historical gestures with her hand inside a gilded picture frame, Jamie would like us to consider: if a work of art is forever, is it composed of a human element that is by nature finite in its existence? To play with this question, and propose her own “ephemeral solution,” she has created a body of work (no pun intended) that is very much tied to her own lifespan. Though patrons have purchased the physical trappings of her art (the empty gilded frame, for example), Jamie’s personal presence is required to breathe life into it (yes, she is willing to perform the hand gestures at the patron’s home).  When she is not occupying her art pieces, she hangs a “will return” sign on them, tantalizing viewers with perpetual postponement.

Should this sound ponderous, rest assured that there is a genuine levity to Jamie's artistic expression. She recently participated in Art Basel 2011, staging an "anti-concert" in which she spent two weeks weaving a rug onto a harp, compromising its strings and thereby removing music (dampening sound) vs. making music (Watch a video on YouTube).

Though she was a studio art major, Jamie became intrigued with Northern Renaissance art and considers her own work to be “an update on many of the themes that were popular then, such as the Vanitas and Momento Mori.” For her senior thesis she crafted and presented a series of Tableaux Vivants (the French term for "living picture" describes a group of costumed actors posed in period detail) based on 18th-century caricatures of people engaged in grooming rituals, including “powdering their wigs, applying fake moles, administering enemas! All class critiques of the time.” To gild the lily, she recalls that she “frosted everything in cake frosting and powdered sugar.” 

If you're wondering how Jamie bides her time while in character, she readily admitted to scholarly diversions like listening to the entire audiobook of Moby Dick. While out of character, she lives in North Brooklyn, where “a lot of people maintain tiny flower gardens and put up Halloween decorations, but there is still that grit that makes the place cheap enough for artists to afford.” Jamie does sell her work through a few galleries, mainly Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York and Meyer Riegger in Germany, and she is currently preparing for a solo show in New York in the fall. “I consider making my art my day job though it’s so fun that it doesn't feel like a job,” she says.