Even if you aren’t familiar with her name, chances are you’ve encountered artist Signe Pierce’s work. Characterized by its use of stunningly saturated neon and lavish, unabashedly feminine color palettes, it’s beautifully provocative and mesmerizing work that’s hard to look away from—whether it be in the form of photography, video art, or performance art, it’s work that leaves you aching for a more colorful and aesthetically-pleasing world. After recently seeing (and adoring) the multimedia artist perform here in New York, I had so many questions I needed to ask her. Luckily, I had the opportunity to sit down with Pierce over coffee and chat about feminism, gender, artistic inspiration, and more. Check out our convo and be sure to visit her Instagram and Tumblr for updates on exhibits and performances.
Was there ever a point when you knew you were going to make art for a living?
My mom always tells me a story that when I was five or something, I came home from school and I guess the teacher that day had said “draw what you want to be when you grow up,” and I drew myself holding an artist canvas with a beret on my head…My mom very fondly recalls that and is like, “You always knew you were gonna be an artist!”
Then in middle school and high school, I had been dabbling in theater and had always loved music and culture. Pop culture, TV, just media in general—I was always immersed in that. Around the end of sophomore year, I took a photography course and immediately became obsessed with the concept of creating worlds and how the lens allows you to do that. I always shout-out David LaChapelle because he was my first really big influence. By the time junior year hit I was pretty much living in the dark room and then senior year hit and I was president of the art club and just OBSESSED with art. And then I went to art school, and on the first day they threw a statistic at us like, “Only five people in your graduating class will be successful artists.” Everyone was trembling but I was just like, “That’s fine, I’ll make it work.”
It’s been an up and down struggle, but I really feel like there’s no other option. There’s no other life for me.
You identify as a feminist, correct?
Oh yeah. I always have since I understood what the concept meant. Shout-out to Kathleen Hanna—she totally raised me. I got my first Bikini Kill album for Christmas my freshman year of high school and I listened to that album non-stop. I can still sing every word. Lately I’ve been labeled as and drawn into the cyberfeminist movement, and I definitely feel like that word is applicable to what I make.
But lately, I’ve increasingly been thinking about the binary aspects of the term “feminist” and how we can move past gendered terms in general. As we keep going deeper into a post-gender world, I wonder how the term [feminist] will evolve. I mean obviously my feminism includes all aspects of queer identity, it’s just the term “fem” that I’ve been questioning because of its gendered connotation. But anyway, yes, I am a feminist, totally.
What snags, if any, do you come across in modern day feminism? Where do you see room for improvement?
Somebody asked me yesterday how I identify in terms of sexuality and gender, and I said that I identify as a cis-gender, pansexual woman. He asked me what that meant, and I was like “pansexual just means that you can love anyone and nothing is limited by the constructs of gender. It’s not bisexual, it’s pansexual. It’s all-inclusive.” I’ve noticed though, that because I’m very “straight-looking” (very femme)…I don’t look “gay,” it’s difficult within a queer scene to feel like I’m taken seriously. Like, I shave my legs and play along with elements of patriarchal constructs like shaving, makeup, heels, etc. I’m interested in using femininity as device, in art and my life, often which I like to let bleed into each other. I just wish that within queer politics it didn’t feel so limited. To me, it’s contradictory that, within the lesbian scene, I was never taken seriously because of my presentation. I just think there’s something so special and unique about a woman’s inherent beauty and presentation. And I think men can be that, too. I think everyone should express their masculine and feminine sides in different ways. I personally love doing heavy lifting while wearing heels. I just wish that within a queer scene we could be more fluid about roles and such.
In what ways do you incorporate feminism into your art?
I refer to my aesthetic as aggressively feminine—and it is; I use pinks and purples and neons and lush beauty and roses and things that are more often associated with a feminine identity. These were all things that were thrust upon us when we were born: Girls wear pink and boys wear blue, girls play with dolls, boys play with machines, that kind of thing. And when you grow up, if you identify as a super girly girl who likes pink and is a princess then you’re demeaned and viewed as weaker and all of these things that we were taught to love when we were younger now make you less-than. So I’m interested in taking back some of that symbolism and those colors and all of these things that we were born into and putting them into a framework that is seizing. Seizing these symbols, making them powerful, kind of dominant and aggressive but kind of sexy, as well. There’s a seductive quality to my work and men and women like it. I receive these messages from men that are like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe how much I like your work. Am I gay for liking your work?” and I’m like, “No, you’re just socialized in a weird way like everyone else; let’s break that down.” It’s really weird the way our brains have been trained. So a lot of my politics come through in an aesthetic way.
There are definitely conceptual aspects too, depending on the piece. Especially in my performance art, I am using and heightening my presentation to play archetypes of femininity. Usually seductive archetypes like in “American Reflexxx” or this character I did a month ago, “Big Sister.” She’s a dominatrix and she’s definitely more in-your-face, but she’s still in this lush bedroom and she’s using her seduction to pull you in and once she has you, she’s asking you these questions like, “What’s your social security number? What’s your credit card number?” So she’s essentially hacking you. I like playing with the art of seduction and seeing what happens after that.
Your art is by far some of the most aesthetically-pleasing I have ever encountered. How did you settle on the mediums you’ve chosen to depict your art? What, aside from the gendered issues we discussed earlier, drew you to the pinks and the neons?
A lot of it is what I want to see. After living in New York for a while, I was feeling a little disenchanted with all the drab greys and the browns. So, I moved to LA like two years ago because I NEEDED color. I needed color, I needed palm trees, I needed plant life…So moving there helped me get my groove back and that’s when all of this work started coming out of me, amongst all of the neon, saturated Hollywood glamour. And now I’m back here [New York] because this is where my career is happening. But it’s cool because I caught my muse and now it’s here with me. But the West Coast is where the palette stemmed from.
If there was a genre of music you would use to describe your visual work, what would that sound like?
People keeping asking me if I like synth-wave and vapor-wave, and I do, I like that stuff. But I don’t listen to that hard ’80s, super throwback music. I listen to a lot of what I refer to as (laughs) “lush noir.” The music I listen to while I’m making my work usually has an electronic vibe and it’s a little moody. I love this band Essaie Pas, they’re from Canada. They make this sexy music that I just love—it runs the gamut. Some songs are intense, cool electronic music and some are the girl singing over the surf guitar. Kind of David Lynch-like or Tarantino sounding…Like a cinematic synthetic. I love music that sounds like it could soundtrack your life. Surf Noir is a term I use a lot too—like the Pulp Fiction soundtrack—it’s like a beach but at midnight; I love that.
As an artist, what would you say are some of your goals (short or long-term)?
In the long term, I would like to continue to infuse my life with my art. The more that my life can become my art is the dream. I think it already is like that to an extent, but it would be nice to find a way to live off that. That’s definitely like my life goal. I want to keep sharpening my visions—I have so many ideas and concepts inside of myself that I want to pull out as much as absolutely possible. As an artist, that’s like the plane ticket to your life. You check into your mind, go deep in your concepts and consciousness and allow yourself to soak into your own vision and that will give you the wings to take you to the heights of where you want your art to go.
Finally, do you have any advice for young people, specifically young girls, that would like to pursue art as a career?
To anybody, not just girls, who have ever said to themselves, “Is this ever gonna happen? I’m so sick of working at this café; I’m so sick of this 9 to 5,” I’d like to remind them that anything you’re putting your productive energy into has the potential to unlock valuable skills that you can apply to your craft. I worked at a café for three years in high school and it taught me to put love and care into everything I was making. I worked for a wedding photographer after college, color-correcting thousands of images every day for two years. That work felt so far removed from what I wanted my life to look like, but those hours spent analyzing color in wedding photography is what helped me sharpen my eye for color perception, which is now an invaluable aspect of my art. It’s so important to find jobs that are even a little bit related to what you’re working towards.
One of my mantras when I was struggling was “ignore the noise; hard work pays off.” 24/7 we have a constant stream of other people’s lives on our radar and it’s easy to get distracted and jealous, watching other people thrive and have their moment. It is so easy to fall into the scroll-hole. If you’re feeling disenchanted and nervous, put the goddamn phone down, go for a walk, clear your head, and ignore the noise. Work hard. Don’t party every night. Eventually if you really want it you have to go get it—it’s not just going to come to you. Tapping into your mind and your goals and really envisioning what you would like your life to look like, the practice of that visualization can help you actualize it.
Images courtesy of Signe Pierce
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