reactions has never been a problem for Slepian. The 38-year-old
ex-advertising executive ventured into the art world less than three
years ago and has already earned the respect of top curators and
seems to be using digital media to invent other forms of being,
alien life forms," said Kenneth Baker, longtime art critic for the
San Francisco Chronicle. "They're repulsive-looking things. But
they're not just grotesque - they're grotesquely funny."
work is unmistakable," said Baker. "I've never seen anything like
that imprint of originality that has catapulted Slepian from a 2002
graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute to a respected figure
on the verge of national renown: This June Slepian became one of
only seven artists in the nation selected for a residency at New
York's P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, one of the most venerated
modern art facility in America.
coordinator Rachel Zur explained that a jury of six reviewed Slepian's
work and found it highly compelling. Beyond that, however,
Zur said the art speaks for itself and that her museum routinely
refuses to offer comments on its artists' work.
P.S.1 has offered Slepian is
a rent-free studio in lower Manhattan . He has also been granted
a coveted spot in the gallery's art show this April, when New Yorkers
will get their first taste of his fanciful creatures.
at his Macintosh Thursday, in a Manhattan art studio whose walls
are void of art, Slepian was already hard at work at creating those
creatures. As a mist from the broken radiator blew past his minimalist
goatee, he clicked his mouse and gave a tour of his previous creations.
It was like perusing a freak show: There was theSpectator 2.0,
with its veiny testicular base; Digital Forms 1-5, which
look distinctly like they should be flushed; and Incommunicate,
which one critic called "a plucked chicken with an anus for a mouth."
a video clip, Slepian showed how the anus-mouth moans and how the
being's like-bodied friend moans back.
abound on what all this means.
think the sense of the work is to convey the eeriness of the world
we see today," said Doug Hall, who taught Slepian in four graduate
seminars at the San Francisco Art Institute. "These blobs have personality.
We recognize a bit of ourselves in them." In that sense, said Hall,
Slepian's work comments on the human body, making common genitals
appear bizarre, turning the growth of human hair into a repulsive
wife Stacey has a slightly different take.
think what he tries to do is make people question their preconceptions
- from what makes something cute to what makes something human,"
she said. "What is the smallest possible interaction that will elicit
(a loving reaction)." One of his pieces, she recalled, was "a fleshy
blob that looked like a tumor, but people reacted to it because
it made baby talk."
many artists who play coy when asked the meaning and inspiration
of their works, Slepian is quite philosophical about his art. He
has done a lot of thinking about where in the recesses of his mind
these beings were generated. Ultimately, he traces them back to
his childhood, growing up in Philadelphia.
artist's parents split up when he was six, sending Slepian shuttling
back and forth from the city, where his father lived, to the suburb
of Broomall, where his mother had moved. Slepian was an only child
until, at the age of 13, his mother adopted three children from
the Philippines .
early years of loneliness, he said, were a formative influence on
works like the human-sized phallus, theSpectator 2.0.
couldn't help but laugh to myself that I was creating a person to
talk to. It's a silly and facetious thing to say, but I think on
a deeper level, it's true," Slepian said. "I spent too much time
sitting around thinking about things, thinking about what it means
to communicate with people."
graduating from the Philadelphia High School for the Performing
Arts, Slepian was planning on communicating with the world through
music. The artist rocked hard, as a lead singer and guitarist in
a variety of bands he labeled "post-punk." Whatever they were, critics
and fans loved them: One of Slepian's bands was soon invited to
open for hard-rockers Bauhaus; Slepian himself was voted "Best-Dressed
Rock Star" by a local Philadelphia paper.
after rising to near-rock star heights, the artist's interest in
music began to fade. Slepian moved into TV production, landing a
directing job at the cable network Comedy Central. There he helped
craft shows like "Short Attention Span Theater," the popular strand
of stand-up comedy clips.
now jokes that the network paid him "a good bit of money" to count
backwards from five and yell "Action." The challenge was gone. Slepian
moved on to Farago Ad Agency, where he was supposed to do web design.
artist's wife, who also worked at the agency, said what Slepian
actually ended up doing was maid work and personal technical support.
"They had him cleaning lint out of people's keyboards and helping
people with email," she said. "He walked around with a lumpy, bald
head, looking mean."
last, when Slepian could do lint-removal no more, he fled to the
San Francisco Art Institute, where his visual talents began to bloom.
His fresh twists on common art exercises soon earned him the respect
of the experienced artistic staff.
pursues ambitious and humorous agendas in his work," said Professor
Hall. "What he does, he pulls the rug out from under your expectations.
He makes the human body look strange. And I'm for anyone who makes
the world strange."
a teacher, Hall said, he was intrigued by Slepian's seriousness.
The professor contrasted Slepian with other students who faked their
way through school, who got by as "posers." "With John," Hall said,
"I always felt I was interacting with a colleague, not a student."
work soon got accepted into a small art exhibit in San Francisco
put on by gallery owner Marcia Tanner. The Refusalon show resulted
in two big breaks for Slepian.
the exhibit was covered in depth by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Chronicle art critic Baker blasted the show as outdated and uninspired.
But he singled out one of Slepian's entries, "Incommunicate," for
its demonstration of "the creepiness of life as we already fear
to know it."
even more important for Slepian, Kimball of the San Jose gallery
noticed the 1.0 version of Slepian's spectating phallus and became
instantly intrigued. At that time the piece was on a flat-panel
screen on a long metal stand, much like an ATM machine.
talked to John and kind of challenged him," the museum director
said. "I wanted him to make the creature eight feet high by six
feet wide, enough to fill my window. I wanted him to move the piece
into the real world, where people in the dark walking down the street
could hear its groaning and heaving breathing." Eventually, through
a digital projector and an eight-foot-tall translucent sheet, Slepian's
phallus was moved into the front window of Kimball's gallery.
that point, it was only a matter of time before Slepian's art seized
significant public attention.
said she will never forget the day a mother walked past the museum
with her young daughter in hand when, suddenly, the daughter became
ensnared in the gaze of Slepian's plump penis.
daughter was walking by and said, 'Mommy, what's that?'" remembered
Kimball with a chuckle. "The mother said, 'It's a turnip. Now keep
distress hasn't been limited to prudish, overprotective mothers
- or to Slepian's theSpectator 2.0. Slepian's online art
also draws a stream of repulsed responses from a wide variety of
audiences. Most notably controversial of the pieces available on
Slepian's website, www.johnslep.net,
is a Web work called growth 1.0b. The piece is a fleshy,
pimple-tinged computer-generated square that pulses and grows hair
over six weeks, the usual period, Slepian explained, between human
haircuts. During that time viewers can check growth 1.0b
to see how its hair is coming in.
six weeks it is shaved. Then the pulsing, acne-affected skin begins
to grow digital hair anew.
pleased audience or no, Slepian sees making his signature fleshy,
pimple- and hair-sprouting blobs as his task in the coming months.
sure at one point I'll run out of blobs," said Slepian. But, he
said, he's not at that point yet. And he doesn't expect to be in
the foreseeable future.
he is hard at work at making yet another blob-like figure, essentially
a 3.0 version of his San Jose phallic figure for the P.S.1 show
in April. The new version would not only recognize your presence
and maintain eye contact. It would also talk to you, in gibberish,
once you talk to it.