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Voyeurism & Stories of Shadows with Artist Adrienne Elise Tarver

If you do one thing before you leave town for the holidays, it should be to go check out Adrienne Elise Tarver’s newest show, Stories of Shadows at Victori + Mo. With this exhibition, Adrienne Elise Tarver expands upon the narrative of Vera Otis, a character based off of a black and white portrait photo she found of a woman in a thrift store. Tarver named her character Vera derived from the Latin word veritas for truth as a reminder that nothing in presented narrative is true.


We caught up with Tarver to discuss her background, influences and voyeurism.


Art Zealous: Tell us about your background and how you came to be an artist?
Adrienne Elise Tarver: I grew up involved in all of the arts— through my teens I danced, played the flute, and made visual art—I was also very crafty, I sewed and built things. In high school, I won an award to attend a summer program at the Art Institute of Chicago which solidified my love of making art and my drive to become an artist. I didn’t really know it was possible or what it entailed until then. From there I received my BFA at Boston University, then after a couple of years went back to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for my MFA.


AZ: Coffee or tea?
AET: I’m a heavy green tea drinker and love all things green tea flavored. I love both coffee and tea but can’t handle the caffeine in coffee though I still have coffee ice cream and very occasionally sneak a decaf mocha.


AZ: Biggest influence in your life?
AET: My older brother was and still is a huge influence in my life. He passed away when I was in high school and many of the decisions I’ve made since then, especially in regards to pursuing art, come back to him. All of the cliches about realizing how precious life is, living life to the fullest, and doing what you love really resonate with me because of losing him.


Adrienne Elise Tarver, Eavesdropping 1, 2016 digital photograph of built miniature sizes are variable Courtesy of the artist and Victori + Mo


AZ: What object have you held onto forever that you can’t bring yourself to get rid of? 

AET: I’m very sentimental and like to keep mementos, so there are many. One of the most significant is a watch my brother gave me—it stopped working years ago despite attempts to get it fixed, yet I still have it.


AZ: Do you listen to music while you work? What’s on your playlist right now?

AET: I mostly listen to podcasts while making art (This American Life, RadioLab, 2 Dope Queens, Savage Lovecast, Snap Judgement, The Moth) and music while I run (either the Beyonce or Azalea Banks Pandora stations have good running tempos for me).


Adrienne Elise Tarver, Eavesdropping 5, 2016 digital photograph of built miniature sizes are variable Courtesy of the artist and Victori + Mo

AZ: How would you define voyeurism and what role does that term play your work?

AET: I would define voyeurism as a form of intrusion—it starts with looking in without your presence being known, but can become a lot more. To be a voyeur is a position of privilege and power, which is why I think I find it so interesting. Also, the idea that being a voyeur does not mean that you are immune to being viewed. Looking in on someone else makes you aware of your own vulnerability. It’s this fluid power dynamic that is unsettling and uncomfortable. Everyone has a moral and physical boundary—a point where they decide they are in fact intruding and usually look or walk away. This point varies for everyone. I like to pull at the desire to be a voyeur to see how far the audience will go.


AZ: Is there an artistic medium you’ve never tried before that you want to learn to use?
AET: I’ve been thinking lately about welding and metal casting—more relating to my hanging foliage paintings—I’m thinking through ideas of durability in public spaces.


AZ: What do you want viewers to take away from your upcoming show Stories of Shadows?What is the significance of jungle imagery in your work? 

AET: I want viewers to feel the intimacy of the space and question their right to look into this woman’s life. I look at voyeurism existing on a spectrum of intrusion—with looking into your neighbors window being one of the lesser transgressions. The tropical foliage exists on the other side of this spectrum, tapping into a more imperialistic form of voyeurism rooted in an assumption that what or who is within and beyond the dense tropical flora is ‘undiscovered’ and open to being claimed and consumed. I think a lot about artists like Henri Rousseau or Paul Gauguin who participated in fetishizing those landscapes and their inhabitants. I’m also fully aware of how I am susceptible I am to being seduced by the tropics—it’s more about raising questions than inducing guilt for this desire.


Adrienne Elise Tarver, Eavesdropping 8, 2016 digital photograph of built miniature sizes are variable Courtesy of the artist and Victori + Mo


AZ: Who is Vera Otis and what do you have in common with her? Did you consider other names for Vera?
AET: Vera Otis is a character created from an image of a woman in an old photograph. In reality, it doesn’t matter who she is, just that I don’t and will never know her real story. With us both being black women, she has served as a vessel or surrogate for me to ask larger questions or tell stories that relate to me and my experiences or the experiences of women in my life. Although I didn’t name her for a while,  there was really only one name that felt appropriate—Vera means true in Latin or real in Italian. I was always playing with what is true or real—something the audience (or I ) can never accurately assess as voyeurs. The power of the voyeur I spoke of before, is always based on fiction.


AZ: Favorite Brooklyn spot to grab a bite after a long day in the studio?
AET: My studio is two blocks from Four and Twenty Blackbirds which has a great Mint Green Tea Latte and great scones and biscuits. Also pie and other treats.


AZ: Dream location to show your work? 
AET: I fell in love with art at the Art Institute of Chicago. It would fulfill all of my childhood dreams to show there.


AZ: What’s next for you?
AET: I have a lot of ideas for Vera Otis. In the current work, she’s moving out of the house we’re looking into in “Eavesdropping.” I want to explore where she came from and where she is going next. I don’t have answers for that yet, but I have ideas for more work exploring these questions. In February, I’m excited to create a physically engaging installation of the tropical work at Victori+Mo.


Stories of Shadows is on view at Victori + Mo, 56 Bogart Street, Brooklyn, NY

December 8-December 18, 2016


top image // John Ma