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The Body Upholstered
Stephanie Liner's Orbs are a statement on femininity.
"I can't imagine making art without people," Stephanie Liner says. Liner is referring to the models who occupy her Orbs, huge, upholstered egg-shaped sculptures formed from plywood, with openings allowing viewers to peer in and discover a beautiful woman sitting inside. The woman is trapped. She rarely moves and if she does, it's in slow motion. She easily wears her top, but she must be stuffed into her skirt-it is sewn into the inside wall of the Orb.
"It can make people uncomfortable," Liner says, which is part of her goal. "I like to make people feel slightly off." Which is why the beautiful fabric, often Jacobean floral- or Colonial Williamsburg-inspired, on the outside of an Orb never quite matches the equally lovely upholstery inside.
Liner has always been interested in fabrics. Growing up in Hillsboro, NC, she was surrounded by the town's slowly declining furniture-making industry. She studied textiles and sculpture at North Carolina College of Design. But it was when Liner was living in Madison, WI, where she pursued her MFA at the University of Wisconsin, studying under Aristotle Georgiades and Gail Simpson, as well as Stephen Hilyard, Laurie Beth Clark and Tom Loeser, that she first began exploring upholstery. "After the Take a Piece series, I thought I should take the next step and learn upholstery," Liner says. "I began connecting the body with interiors." Taking a break from graduate school, she interned at the Straight Thread, an upholstery shop owned by Matthew Nafranowicz, as well as working at Virginia Lienhard's store, Gayfeather Fabrics. "There was a lot of tearing fabric off furniture," she says. "It helped me understand what was underneath."
A statement on femininity, Liner's Orbs address women's struggle for power in today's society-an underlying theme in her art. Her Orbs are an evolution of earlier work. Her Take a Piece series, 2005, placed models in satin and silk organza dresses, structured by metal bands. Using an adhesive, she built fabric cabinets lined with clear plastic into the dresses and filled each one with a piece of candy that viewers could reach in and take. "Gibbosity," a 2006 show, was Liner's first attempt to connect the body with upholstery and furniture. Upholstered objects were strapped on models, creating a sense of furniture as body extensions. "They made me think of baggage, but also plastic surgery," she says. Even the models' hair, styled by Jason Heussner, brings to mind the over-the-top coiffures of 18th- and 19th-century upper-class women-women whose job it was to look beautiful. "It's an exploration between domestic space, furniture and sexuality," Liner says. "We are bombarded by pop culture. There are certain expectations about what it means to be a female in today's society."
Liner premiered her Orbs in the group show "Vested Interest," at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in 2008. The collection, "Momentos of a Doomed Construct" (she purposely misspelled memento to illustrate the merging of a moment and a memory), was then shown as a solo exhibition at the Allen Priebe Gallery at the University of Wisconsin-Osh Kosh. The Orbs say that although sex is a gift, it is hollow; there is a power struggle. One Orb protrudes from each side of a wall in the center of the room. The back, an uncovered structure of plywood, represents the male, and the upholstered front is the female. "Some people see it as the woman pushing through barriers," Liner says. "I see it as the woman being stuck as she tries to get through."
The artist's work is deeply personal, stemming from her private experiences as a woman, yet she feels it speaks to cultural norms. "My goal is to reach a wider audience on the pressures of being female," Liner says. "I like to stick with what I know."