Who are these women pouting in surrender to the giggly, snake-like foxes that have invaded their heads to become Medusa-like millinery? Or these other two, squinting askance as a pair of ghastly bird-like creatures nuzzle their necks. This is truly the stuff of nightmares. The kind of thing that might go well with a snifter of absinthe and a composition by Béla Bartók, or Nine Inch Nails.
These are the uneasy muses of Miss Van, the French-born street-artist-turned-fine-art-painter who has spent the last 30 years or so amid an evolving stream of these woman, watching them grow from innocent yet alluring, chubby doll babies into case-hardened warrior babes even a band of fur-bearing fox-snakes couldn’t faze.
Miss Van’s latest work will be on display through Sept. 24 at Harman Projects, 210 Rivington St. The 19 works, mostly but not all oil on canvas, were completed since 2021 and reflect a maturing both in Miss Van’s work and in her choice of imagery. This, she said in an exclusive interview with UP Magazine, is only natural.
“I’m growing up with my paintings, it’s just very natural. They have grown up with me.”
“I’m growing up with my paintings, it’s just very natural. They have grown up with me,” she said, seated in the Harman Projects gallery hours before her show’s eagerly awaited opening. Her work, she said, reveals her emotions without limits
“I’m just painting feelings basically and emotions and I’m looking for a connection on how to translate the emotion of a feeling that I have.”
“I don’t limit myself to subjects that are real. It’s real for me and I give life to these women. They have souls, they have personalities. They have flaws, they are less than perfect. I’m just painting feelings and emotions basically and I’m looking for a connection on how to translate the emotion of a feeling that I have,” Miss Van said.
Though her subjects clearly come from her very active imagination, they also are drawn from her experience and a variety of references she has amassed over a lifetime. “I do have references, colors, composition, plans, the hair, the other elements. But I try not to look at my references too much. More and more it just comes from my imagination,” she said.
The women in her work do bear a passing resemblance to the artist, though she says their physical appearance is more a function of the emotional release. “They’re not supposed to be me, but it’s me because of my sensitivity as an artist. This is the only thing I can do, painting what is close to me,” she said.
She bridled slightly when it was suggested that her news works are kinda dark and nightmarish. “I don’t see it only that way,” she said, suggesting that both she and her subjects are more complex than that.
“It’s a little bit creepy. I wasn’t interested in doing only sweet. I have a sweet spot and I have a dark spot and I try to manage with both.”
“If you get into it, it’s not scary anymore,” she offered, gesturing to one of her subjects who gazed back in blasé acquiesce to the two feathery creatures springing from her scalp. “It’s a little bit creepy. I wasn’t interested in doing only sweet. I have a sweet spot and I have a dark spot and I try to manage with both. We all do I guess, we are not just one thing,” she said. And this duality may well be the point of many of her works.
Her early work was scary for its incongruence: a cute, chubby little girl-woman, maybe holding a bunny or cavorting with a fawn, but with a made-up face and a murderous expression. Sort of like one of Yoshitomo Nara’s sweet little Japanese girls with a cigarette in her mouth or a knife behind her back.
After that came the masks. Imagine a Slipknot cover band at a girl’s juvie hall.
After that came the masks. Imagine a Slipknot cover band at a girl’s juvie hall. How about a topless redhead in a tutu giving you the gimlet eye from beneath a pink bunny mask. Or maybe you’d prefer a rosy cheeked young woman in a black zippered bustier, with blue hair and water buffalo horns wearing a child’s version of a plague doctor’s mask.
There are, of course, many consistent threads in Miss Van’s work over the decades. The subjects are at once alluring and forbidden with pouty lips and voluptuous curves. They are confrontational, rarely looking away from the viewer. They tend to have certain animal characteristics, often feline. Some have animals in them; in this latest batch, for example, the women and the animals appear as one, becoming unsettling, dreamscape chimeras.
But one constant that is unmistakable and that has transcended the various periods of her career is that all of her subjects, even the little doll babies, are imbued with a sense of boundless feminine energy, confident, independent, unafraid and strong. Strong. STRONG.
Miss Van’s artistic style is her own. While she has drawn inspiration from other women artists – predecessors, contemporaries and successors, alike – she has eschewed traditional street art techniques in favor of brushwork. She doesn’t use spray paint like Lady Pink or Alice Pasquini, wheatpaste like Swoon, or stencils like Miss Tic.
“I wanted to put some images in the urban environment and make people stop and take notice and enjoy it.”
Born Vanessa Alice Bensimon in 1973 in Toulouse, Miss Van began painting in earnest while enrolled in art school. There was no real plan. “I wasn’t focused, I just wanted people to notice me, I guess. I wanted to put some images in the urban environment and make people stop and take notice and enjoy it,” she said.
And there was Mademoiselle Kat, another woman graffiti artist from Toulouse who would gain some stature in the art world. The pair formed a two-woman graffiti team, a rarity today that was virtually unheard of in the 1990s. The two painted together, motivating and challenging each other at the same time, for a year.
Toulouse may be France’s second city when it comes to graffiti, the movement’s southern Mecca. Another woman street artist from Toulouse who gained some notoriety was Fafi, who followed Miss Van into that graffiti scene and was seen as an imitator by some. “I left a (graffiti) crew and she came into it; she sort of tried to replace me there. It’s more complex than this, but now we’re good, now we’re okay.”
“It is a movement that has exploded in this short period of time. With street art it just happened so fast, almost too fast.”
Reflecting broadly on the genre, Miss Van said street art is more than just a means for unknown artists to get their work noticed outside the stifling and elitist gallery environment. “It is a movement that has exploded in this short period of time. With street art it just happened so fast, almost too fast. Look at Keith Haring and Basquiat, they absolutely exploded,” she said.
While she doesn’t paint in the street as often as she used to, her work can be found in the wild in this country. There’s a well-known Miss Van mural among the Wynwood Walls in Miami and there are pieces in Detroit and LA. In 2015 she painted a triptych of a cowgirl wrangling a pair of horses on Coney Island. And, of course, some of her best known work is in and around her long-time home town of Barcelona.
While she acknowledged that street art is certainly the most important artistic movement of this century, she sees herself as more than one of its female pioneers. “I don’t consider myself just a street artist, I’m a painter. It doesn‘t matter where I paint,” she said.