Over the past years, artist Leah Schrager has taken on a multitude of online personas that have included a naked therapist and an art escort. The artist turns herself into an art object through her relentless self-representation, continuously playing with the perception of the naked female body. Her newest and ongoing project is called ONA, Celebrity Project through which Schrager continues her investigation into the space and perceptions of the female and the politics she has to navigate through. Ona, an erotic model turned musician, shares her provocative selfies and music via Instagram and Snapchat, playing with the power of female sexuality and arousal.
Adriana Pauly: You use your own image in all of your works what made you decide on that?
Leah Schrager: I got to this point of frustration after a long history of working as a model for other photographers and photographing other models. The complications of agreements, ethics and power play that go into any arrangement made it basically impossible for me to freely use that material in my artwork. So I decided to start shooting myself to cut out the crap. With using my own image, I know that it’s just me–I’m not risking hurting a model’s or photographer’s feelings who doesn’t like my aesthetic. And since arriving at this point, I’ve found that it enables so much more than I could have imagined. As both the artist and model, I have a specific relationship to the works, and that play and experimentation is a unique journey. I talk about this practice as that of the Female Painter in my curatorial statement for BodyAnxiety.com.
AP: You have gotten some negative feedback from the art community, what have been some of the most outrageous and surprising reactions to your work?
LS: As other artists have also noted, if an artist is showing sexy photos of themselves, and particularly a photo that shows the ass, they are not respected, lose gallery representation and basically aren’t allowed to be an artist. I find this fascinating and outrageously hypocritical but very true to the art world today. Of course, male artists can use sexy women in their art and make money on it. In one read there is the question of origin and authorship of a woman’s body–yet I’ve seen both criticism of artists who appropriate sexy model images and any model who uses her own sexy image in her art. So the larger issue is that if it’s “sexy” or has potential arousal appeal or currency outside of the art market in the commercial market, then it’s a no-go. Perhaps it’s because then it’s easy to say what is art and what isn’t art. Right now, if it’s arousing it’s not art. But that’s critically lazy. There’s a richness to arousal-based work that is completely ignored because art and society are still sexually puritan. Given that the art market is a commercial market and that the art world is hoped to be a place for progressive thought, in not allowing female authored arousal-based work they are propagating misogyny and slut-shaming. I think it’s time for a female artist who uses her own image to be able to make as much as a male artist who uses other women’s images.
AP: Your work plays with attraction, seduction and lust. How do you deal with the male gaze and in what ways do you defy it?
LS: I welcome and love the male gaze. While seduction may be all over advertisements, more often than not models can’t have too much depth as they must have a cross-brand friendly presentation. In my work there is a lot of complication and depth, and I like welcoming people in and challenging them with these socially radical ideas. Perhaps more directly, in my visual works, the body is always masked and elusive while still utilizing various seduction techniques.
AP: Tell us about your music and how it fits into your other body of work.
LS: My EP is on the verge of launching. It is central to my celebrity-as-art project, which is my current online activity. The EP title is Sex Rock, and I call the genre “Bedroom Rock.” It is integrated with my Instagram. I post a lot of short videos of me dancing to the songs, photos of me censored with song lyrics, etc. Conversing with my fans via IG is very important to me, and a lot of my music is about that. As you can read in my recent article, “Why I’m A Naked Rockstar,” I have a very pro-arousal approach to my music.
AP: What made you decide to have most of your work based online instead of making physical objects?
LS: I like having an international audience and talking to people from all over the world. I found being limited to a geographical location for feedback to also be limiting to my knowledge and populist desire to connect to people from all over. I do also create physical objects, but they’re perhaps less well known. I’ve been doing photographs and digital paintings since 2009 and multimedia works since 2013.
AP: You just closed your show at Superchief Gallery. Do you have any shows or other projects coming up?
LS: I have a few projects coming up. I’ll be presenting Co-collecting with Lemonade Gallery soon. As I said, my EP will officially be released shortly, and I’m hard at work on my first album, which I hope to have out in the fall.