Jackie Sleper
Press Reviews

Edward Rubin about "SHADOW OF LIFE"
Jackie Sleper in NY ARTS online Magazine (November - December 2008)
The Sacred and Divine by Edward Rubin

It's easy to think of mankind and nature when coming face to face with the work of artist Jackie Sleper, who is based in Utrecht, the Netherlands. For in every work of art that she creates, be it a painting, a photograph, or one of her intricate jewel-like sculptures, no matter what the subject matter is, landscape or portrait, sectarian or religious, there is something sacred and divine emanating from her work that captures both the transitory nature of beauty and the fragility of life. No doubt this magic-like melding of the earthly and the spiritual, which forms the basis of the artist's philosophy, as well as informs her artistic output, stems in large part from her earlier education in agriculture and horticulture, even before enrolling at the Utrecht Academy for Visual Arts, where she studied painting and photography. It was at the academy, as a young lady, living and working on a farm, while pursuing her agricultural degree, that the artist was exposed to the life and death cycles of plants, animals, and the earth that supports them, on a daily basis. What better way to prepare oneself to be an artist.

Though Sleper likes to say that she was "born an artist," it wasn't until she was seven or eight years old when her aunt gave her a book on Frida Kahlo that she was fully awakened to her life's calling. "I knew right then and there, and I thank Frida for this, that making art, which I was already doing much to the disapproval of my parents, was how I was going to spend the rest my life." For the past 25 years, first locally, then countrywide, and now internationally, Sleper, who has also studied her craft in Spain, Ireland, and Czechoslovakia, has been building a reputation of some import. She was invited to participate in the Biennale Austria in 2006, and OPEN10 International Sculptures and Installations Exhibition in 2007, which is held annually in Lido, Venice. In the same year she participated in the Florence Biennale, where an international jury awarded her first prize for her sculpture and painting installations, Modestia and Dulce Y Amargo.

Sleper has been gifted with boundless energy. Every minute of her waking life, both day and night, she can be found tending to the needs of her large family, creating her art, and planning her next ten moves, sometimes doing all three at once. Being interested in world cultures and how people live their daily lives, all of which she appears to digest effortlessly during her travels, lately she has been focusing her attention on exhibiting abroad. At the Florence Biennale in 2005, the Mexico-based curator Matty Roca, also a biennale juror, was so impressed with Sleper's soul-catching Chinese paintings and sculptures, which developed out of the artist's trips to China, that she invited Sleper to visit her in Mexico. The resultant affair—the artist's love of Mexico and its people—sent Sleper back home, where she spent a year channeling the soul of the Mexican people into 25 paintings and sculptures. It also led to a Roca-curated eight-museum exhibition that is currently traveling in Mexico through May 2009.

Sleper has been fascinated by Mexico ever since her early bonding with Kahlo. "Till this day whenever I look into Kahlo's face I get goose bumps," she said. "Seeing her eyes is like looking into my own. As an art student I wrote many stories and made many sketches and drawings about Mexico in my journal. Having my work travel to Mexico now, something that I never even dreamed of is like a prophecy fulfilled, one that brings me full circle. Growing up, I read every book about Frida that I could get my hands on. I related to Kahlo's loneliness. I felt that we both shared a great love of humanity. Sure her work is very personal…all those self-portraits. But she was able to turn the personal into the universal, so that we all could share the pain and joy of living. This is my goal as an artist. When people see my work, I want them to feel alive, to feel good, and to be wondrously happy in the knowing that despite how hard and painful life can be that there is great joy to be had. This is why I titled my exhibition Dulce Y Amargo, which means bittersweet in English."

While Sleper's traveling exhibition pays tribute to the Mexican people and their culture with her use of bright colors, dramatic symbolism, and mythological images taken from the history of Mexico, many of which used by Kahlo, it also can be looked at as an homage to Kahlo. In fact, Sleper, more so in her paintings than in her sculpture, actually appears to be conjuring up the bittersweet Kahlo. In Oda A Frida Kahlo, a beautifully rendered painted photograph which the artist specifically created as a tribute to the great artist, we see two soulfully wide-eyed girls, representing happy and sad, the two parts of Kahlo's soul, wearing colorfully embroidered dresses similar to the type that that Kahlo liked to wear. Adding more Kahlo to the picture, Sleper has placed painted flowers on top of the girls' heads, and a monkey and a parrot, images that Kahlo liked to use in her own work. In El Corazón, another painted photograph, a young woman is seen standing beside her skeletonized dead mother. She is holding a bouquet of silver roses, which for the artist indicates the young woman's receptivity to the wisdom that her mother has passed down to her.

Unlike Kahlo, whose most famous works, roughly one third of her life's output, were self-portraits, Sleper, rarely, if ever, uses her own self-portrait as a platform. Instead, she focuses on painting and sculpting the human figure, sometimes using friends and family to pose. At the same time, the subject matter that the artist chooses to both visit, re-present, and thus pass on to future generations tells us a lot about the inner workings of her own soul—the customs and history, both ancient and contemporary, as well as the underlying beliefs that both inform and drive the daily passions of the Mexican people. If you ask her how a particular work was born, she will say in her charming Dutch English accent, "It's a strange thing and it's hard to explain, but ideas just come to me. I am always busy working with the connections between the earth and universe. Basically I communicate with everything, the earth, nature, people, animals, cars…everything, even the 'higher being.' I see myself as an intermediary, a middle woman. It is as if there is some sort of channel that is opened, and it goes on and on and on. I feel more what I am going to do than I think it."

While, outwardly Sleper's paintings and her one-of-a-kind sculptures, which the artist likes to refer to as objects, are readily accessible on many levels, the simplest of levels being what you see is what you get. Every art work that she produces, being a naturally ebullient storyteller herself, comes with its own history. The majority of her work subjectwise, whether contemporary or historical, appears to be based, is it is in this exhibition, on the artist's love of mankind, her respect for life, the environment, and mankind's need for freedom. Love and the respect for a life fully lived is the subject of her portraits of Arturo García Bustos and his wife Rina Lazo, two of Kahlo's and Diego Rivera's artist friends, that she met in Mexico. Here both sitters, with a friendly smile playing across their face, are looking at the artist and by extension us. It is obvious that they are posing for history. In the background of Bustos's portrait are fish, in Lazo's are cornfields, both symbolizing life. Further fleshing out the story, to the right of Bustos, who was also the Kahlo's pupil, Sleper added the great artist's face to indicate their relationship.

In Danza Y Música Sleper's four-canvas paean to Mexican music and dance we see two performers, a singer and a dancer, dressed in traditional garb. Here the artist brilliantly catches the fiery passions of each artist, seemingly in mid-performance, as they sing and dance the soul of the Mexican people. In Religión, a particularly stunning work, impressed by the variety tombstones in the local cemetery, many of which combined the religious images of Catholicism and the old Mexican culture, the artist gives us, in truly moving shades of pink with flowers that decorate the sky, a very much alive city of the dead. InModestia, an elegantly painted light blue horse is seen standing in an Arcadian field of clover. With its head and tail held high, the horse is celebrating its freedom and independence. Across the right side of the canvas, written in her own hand, not unlike the Mexican retablos that thank God, the Virgin Mary and the Saints for a miracle bestowed upon them during life's trials are the artist's poetic reflections on the fragility of life.

While Sleper's paintings are not without a sublime beauty of their own, it is her intricately crafted, world-filled magical-like porcelain and fired clay creations that have been attracting the attention of critics, collectors and audiences alike. It is here that her imagination, from Byzantine to Rococo to the Surreal, runs wild. It is also here that Sleper spends countless hours searching for the necessary materials both manufactured and hand crafted by artisans that she seamlessly incorporates into her final vision. "A lot of materials that I use, for example the roses, lemons, scorpions, are produced to my specifications in Italy by a good friend of mine. He is a 'professore' in ceramics and his students, using molds and templates that I create, execute my designs. I also find many wonderful things in flea markets and jewelry stores. The good thing about this way of working is that each piece is different and therefore unique, and that to me is very important as I do not like mass production. That is why I never produce a work twice. Only once I made a 'mass product' 25 lamps for the Kruisheren Hotel in Maastricht in Holland, but I am not a supporter of this. I am an artist not a designer".

As every artist knows, crating and shipping costs are astronomical and they seem to rising with the price of oil. Add the logistics of shipping an entire exhibition to another country and once it gets there transporting the work to different museums around the country, can be a nightmare. The possibility of breakage, theft, and the dealing with customs, city and museums officials along the way, has produced many a sleepless night for both Sleper and Roca. More so in Sleper's case as her porcelain and clay objects are extremely fragile. "So far we have been blessed," Sleper says, "Every museum that I have shown in so far, and there have been three, have gone out of their way to make sure that my work is not only handled with care, but beautifully displayed. I have to thank Matty for this as she has a very strong hand in making sure that all goes right for me." It also helps that Sleper's work is shipped in specially constructed "state of the art" crates. If not for these crates her work would arrive in pieces. To get the full jolt of what fragility means in Sleper's case, think Faberge Egg. There is the solid shell of egg itself, the main body of Sleper's constructed objects, and the intricately designed outside and inside of the egg, which is delicately decorated, as it is in many of the artist's sculptures, with glass, porcelain, jewels and precious metals.

Fertilidad a traditional looking Mayan statue that the artist made out of clay, is a good example, not only of fragility but how the artist builds her work. At first glance Fertilidad appears to be the least fragile sculpture on view. But on further examination, which Sleper's intricately constructed works demand, we see a man carrying a porcelain doll from the 1920s. Sprouting out of the top of his head are hundreds of tiny colorful animals that the artist bought from a ceramist during her first visit to Mexico. The doll that he is holding is standing on a spray of turquoise gems. On top of the doll's head is an amethyst on which a little butterfly has alighted. Dulce Y Amargo, two pyramids of lemons, one crowned with a young man, the other a woman, is the artist's ode to the Mexican people. One of the stars of the 2007 Florence Biennale, the installation speaks of the bitter and sweet duality of life. The lemons represent the oppression and poverty the Mexican people have long suffered, while the porcelain bird and flower covered man and woman rising from this temple of lemons symbolizes the eternal hope for a better future.

In Devoción the artist returns, in a somewhat humorous vein, to the Catholic religion. Here we see a near-kitsch, angel the type sold in curio and tourist shops, in the midst of prayer. Around his head, the artist at her doctoring best has placed a rosary of garnets. On the angel's back instead of wings, some twenty pregnant flamingos are about to take flight. "The majority of Mexicans are Catholic," Sleper says, "and being very devout they also have a large family, which is why I put a baby in the stomach of each Flamingo." The simplest and most humorous piece in this exhibition, dedicated to Roca and the Mexican people is Rocatizada. Here the artist takes red, green and yellow hand painted ceramic peppers and attaches them to wheels which she bought from a furniture factory that was going out of business. The peppers represent fire and passion, while the wheels, which point in every which way, symbolize the ability to quickly move in every direction, a perfect description of the exhibition's energetic curator.

While the last few years have been especially good to the Sleper with exhibition after exhibition after exhibition, as her future plans indicate, the extremely hard working artist, who says she never wanted to be anything but an artist ― though jokingly she says that being a movie star has crossed her mind ― is not about to slow down. With offers coming in to visit Australia and India, where she would study the culture as she did in China and Mexico, and possible museum exhibitions in Chile and Venezuela, success in her near future is all but assured. "I love working. It actually energizes me. It makes me a stronger person. I love. I learn. I grow. I share. This is what being a mother, a wife, and artist is all about." Still, the very practical Sleper, always the optimist, does have her dreams. Topping her wish list is finding the perfect gallery to represent her worldwide. Topping the top of her wish list she would like to see her work exhibited at the Venice Biennale. "I'd love to represent my country at the Venice Biennale. And why not! Just look around you. Miracles are happening all over the place".