Two Sakes and a Loaf of Challah with Artist Chloe Wise
The 25-year-old sculptor and visual artist insists she's not a hater, she's a hedonist.
Chloe Wise's fans refer to her as though she is a product. "Try her you'll like her I promise," one recently wrote under a post on Wise's Instagram. Some artists might find a plug written as if it's for a face wash disconcerting, but 25-year-old Wise, a sculptor and visual artist, is both a critic of consumerism and a gleeful participant in it; she's extravagant, with a laundry list of indulgences she can't live without, including decadent food and tanning so regularly she's convinced she'll be a raisin in her old age.
Her skill at both satirizing consumer desire and appealing to it has made her an internet sensation. In 2014, a photo of one of her sculptures briefly dominated fashion sites across the internet, posted by couture hunters lusting after what seemed to be a Chanel purse in the shape of an oversized bagel sandwich. Only the piece was neither bread nor bag, but one in a series of "bread bags" Wise had been sculpting out of oil-painted urethane since art school. It was a foolproof visual trick: The sculpture, with its dangling faux logo, was photographed hanging from the shoulder of the actress and model India Menuez, a friend of Wise's, who wore it with a Chanel ensemble to a Chanel party in Manhattan.
The publicizing of what was meant to be a private joke reified a convergence, in which Wise believes deeply, between the fashion and art worlds. Like the pygmy Louis Vuitton "baguette" bags that were all the rage during her bat mitzvah years, despite their inability to hold anything beyond "your Nokia and your lip gloss," as she put it to me recently, her bread bags are "basically dysfunctional," mere "ornamental status holders." Over dinner in February, she explained how the desire for one of her "bags" proved the absurdity of so many luxuries. "The back of them is unfinished," she began, building her case as a dad might against stilettos. "They go against the wall. They're flat. There's no way you can put anything in them. They're bulky. The oil paint was rubbing off on India's dress."
We ate at Shalom Japan, a hybrid Jewish-Japanese restaurant near Wise's apartment and studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A few days later, I tracked her move to a bigger studio, which she documented dutifully on Instagram to her 28,000 followers, with a hammy grin and a request for a high five. Everything about the setting felt apt for discussing the mixed blessing of sudden fame. Williamsburg, the butt of so many jokes about hipsters, can seem emotionally apace with the internet. When it comes to the neighborhood's eateries and boutiques, what's new is old in a matter of months. Then there was our restaurant's merging of disparate but enticing themes—very Wise-esque.
I was struck by how tailor-made Wise seemed for the vagaries of these environments. She is beautiful, a former model with the oval features and dark air of a Modigliani painting. That still exterior belied an interior churning with provocations. Like a stand-up comic deprived of a mic for a year, she seemed compelled to entertain nonstop. During dinner, she spoke at full tilt, dropping mid-sentence into generic Jewish and Canadian impressions (she's both) and internet-isms ("hashtagmoodSundaybrunchpancakes"). The word "hectic" comes to mind to describe her. In one early interview, with Oyster magazine, right after photos of that first bagel bag began to circulate, she ferried the question of what sort of artist she is with a characteristic mix of deprecation and expansiveness, conveying her spirit better than any pithy one-word descriptor might, replying: "Mixed-Media-Canadian-Jew-Brat-Comedy-Art? Weird-Shit? Cute-Shit? JewPop? IDFK 3."
I'm not a hater, I'm a hedonist. I love a lot of things. I eat so much, I love kisses, I love shopping, I love tanning. I'm a maximalist.
Resisting definition in the wake of a viral hit arguably enables fluidity in a circumscribed industry. Wise considers herself a rare hybrid among her web-savvy peers, who often can't or don't want to escape the ether, jaded about an offline art world ruled by "old white Swiss men," she said with a grin. Navigating both scenes is a challenge with "no precedent," she noted about the lack of art-world reference points. "There's nothing you can be like, Oh, that happened in the 80s. Nope, it did not actually."
She finds role models all over the place. As we spoke, she gave the impression of a dutiful student of art history—referencing schools of art and names both obscure and obvious—and a passionate student of pop culture. In her constellation of influences, Karl Marx, who proposed the theory of the "commodity fetish," shares space with Drake, whose upbringing she both relates to and finds in comic contrast with his expected image as a rapper ("He's a Jewish Canadian nerd. My parents would love if I dated him!"). Most of all, though, she hailed Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, the Adult Swim sketch series by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, whose deadpan approach to absurdism taught her that "confusion is key to the consumption of satirical or critical imagery." This insight is a thread through all of her hyper-real creations, from the bread bags to more recent work adorned with overdone symbols of bondage culture: for example, a urethane stack of pancakes ribbed with piercings, and a plate of fake bacon strips shaped like the Louis Vuitton logo, linked by chain to a leather wristband. The sculptures' verisimilitude confuses the senses, as does Wise's obvious obsession with them.
"I'm not a hater," she told me, as we ate challah. "I'm a hedonist. I love a lot of things. I eat so much, I love kisses, I love shopping, I love tanning. I'm a maximalist."
She bristles only at self-hating hedonists, and she said that the art world is in denial about its commercialism, feigning high-mindedness when, in fact, "being at an art fair is like being at a fucking mall." She cited a slide she shows students when she's invited to lecture: side-by-side images of an art fair and a mall kiosk. With me, she mimicked an art hawker at a fair making a pitch: "Do you know this artist's work? She's so hot. This person has it. This person has it. It would look great in your house." Buyers—whether of art, clothes, or cars—act in pursuit of a similar set of messages, she quipped: "I'm rich, I'm desirable, I'm sexy, I'm young, I have status."
Unsurprisingly, Wise is a born networker. Her social fluidity led to the confluence that first placed her faux Chanel at the epicenter of the real Chanel. Menuez, who facilitated that conjoining, has since figured in a series of oil paintings inspired by Édouard Manet's controversial meditation on nudity, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass). Wise's series—titled That's Something Else, My Sweet—picks up on Manet's question of who can be nude and where. In one painting, Menuez sprawls on a picnic blanket, her open legs revealing a patch of orange. Another work, an extension of the series, features Hari Nef, the model and Transparent actress, whom Wise also counts as a friend. Wareheim himself has become a pal, and his office a gallery for works by Wise. Since walking the red carpet together at the premiere for the Netflix show Master of None—on which Wareheim is a regular—the two have staged the sort of widespread confusion that drew her to admire him in the first place. By way of goofy courtship photos, the two are locked in an elaborate, are-they-or-aren't-they romance for Instagram followers, the details of which Wise prefers to keep mysterious (though people are trying to clarify them; search "Chloe Wise," and a top Google suggestion is to add "Eric Wareheim").
For her, oil painting is another indulgence. She likened the "visceral" joy of it to eating a grilled cheese sandwich, or finally sleeping with a crush. But she also cited fear over becoming "the bread-bag girl" as a driving force for productivity. In the year and a half since her splashy online moment, she has exhibited in nearly 20 shows, both group and solo, domestic and abroad, showing sculptures, videos, and paintings. Last fall in Miami, she appeared in Unrealism, her highest-profile exhibit yet. Curated by the legendary gallerists Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian, the show paired emerging artists alongside veterans like the painter John Currin.
Exposure can fend off doubts. "Now I believe in myself," she told me. "But there are moments when I'm like, I don't deserve this. How is this happening?" We were two sakes in when I posited to her that her work paints a world in which she's doomed. She considered this. A system predicated on short-term memory tires of its young stars. I wondered, for a moment, if I should have let the thought go unsaid, but Wise didn't seem fazed. I wasn't a match for her inner magpie, always finding the glimmer under the brush. "I'm not like, Oh my God, I want to live on a kibbutz," she answered. "There's something beautiful and glamorous and tragic about the perpetuating commercial cycle of the art world. The highs are so high, and the lows are so low."