The Advocate: First of all, the elephant in the living room has a badge and a gun: why cops?
Jansson Stegner: I first became interested in painting cops while working at an art gallery in Chelsea. The mounted police used to stable their horses down there so I would always see them riding by. I was really attracted to their uniforms. They are tight, and sexy, but also radiate brute force. I like the contradictions that come out of that.
I think that I choose the subjects I do because of my ambivalent feelings about power. As someone who is politically liberal and works within the liberal art world, I like to choose subjects that don’t fit comfortably into the liberal universe. Cops are not typical liberal heroes. I get a perverse pleasure in idealizing and celebrating them because I feel like I’m not supposed to like them. I’m interested in these types of conflicted feelings.
Artists who use signature exaggeration of the human form in their work can sometimes fall into a kitschy margin (Botero, Keane). Yet others seem to transcend that (Giacometti, Schiele). You seem pretty fearless about the campy aspects of this work, would you speak to that?
I don’t have any problem with camp in moderation. I like the way camp can take things out of the ordinary and amp up the emotional response. But it has to be cut with sincerity otherwise it just becomes entertaining artifice.
You are a straight artist. Your depiction of gender seems really open. Your work definitely speaks to an LGBT audience. How do you come by such a cool viewpoint?
It’s funny, when people see my work for the first time, they often can’t tell by my name whether I’m male or female. So if they see paintings of women they assume I’m a woman. If they see paintings of men they assume I’m a gay man. I think this is due to the fluidity of gender they see in the work.
I like to blend symbols of power and beauty in order to see both those things in a new way. If a person sees power as masculine and beauty as feminine then there is a blending of gender as well. That’s probably part of what appeals to the LGBT audience.
Your work is hip and elegant, but it also makes us laugh a little. Is that OK? Does it make you smile too?
My paintings are not intended as jokes but if I see someone laugh out loud while looking at my work, I feel that the painting has succeeded in at least one way. Humor is an important part of my life and my work. Dix, Guston, Ensor, most of my favorite artists are funny in one way or another. It’s hard for me to imagine painting the figure today without a sense of humor.