Three Questions with Leah Schrager

Leah Schrager, from series Infinity Selfie
Leah Schrager, from series Infinity Selfie

Leah Schrager is a woman of her times. Using social media as her gallery, Schrager’s art explores digital identity, celebrity culture and the almighty selfie.

A resonant voice in the new feminist art wave, Schrager’s work often triumphs sex positivity by reframing the power dynamic between model and photographer and challenging the notion that provocative imagery is less than art.

Taking the “social” of “social media” to heart, Schrager’s curatorial work is also worth noting. Her online exhibition Body Anxiety (2015) brought together female artists whose work covers self-representation and performance on the Internet. Her latest curatorial endeavor, ArtGirlTV, turns Snapchat into a live art portal by featuring female artist and art viewer takeovers by girl artists across the world.

We chatted with Schrager about women’s place in the art world and the social criticism that comes with starring in one’s own work.

How does starring in your own work in a provocative way affect your day-to-day life? Do you get recognized on the street?

Leah Schrager: I’m not recognized on the street because I’m very different when I’m performing for my camera. It’s interesting because I’ve always felt really different IRL than I am online. I very much “perform” online. In my real life, I’m a normal person. The Instagram account started off on a rather bad note in terms of my family having trouble with it, and friends from middle school and high school having trouble with it. It’s so weird—I put up a sexy photo and everyone freaks out. It was really difficult. I’m still trying to figure out what it means.

There’s definitely something to the fact that I have an M.F.A., so everyone’s like, “Why are you throwing everything away?” On principle though, I think it’s wrong to judge a person by an image of them because the judgment is how we censor and keep women from being free. But it’s rampant in society. It’s so bad to treat anybody like that, to say that putting up an image of yourself, whether it’s sexy or not, would hurt your career. But I do know that I’ve cut off a lot of professional opportunities for myself. I’ve had galleries say they’re not interested because I have photos of my ass online. I think it’s a really interesting time for women.

Also, it’s weird because this regulation of what a woman does with her image comes both from people who identify as feminists and people who identify as conservative. It’s hard in that way. It’s pretty unpleasant and very emotional actually. I’m hoping that in doing it and also seeing other people do it and speak out about it, that it will mean change for people and for the next generation of women.

I never really expected that this was what I was getting into. In a way, the message behind my current work, Ona, Celebrity Project is a lot less radical than the Naked Therapy (2010) that I did before. But for some reason, I’ve felt a lot more controversy around this project. Perhaps because it’s closer to home. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about it lately too which is cool, like Emily Ratajkowski from a model’s perspective and Bree Olson from a porn perspective. I feel like people are talking about it but we’re still really far from society as a whole embracing it. It affects all women though, and I wish we could get to the point of freedom and non-judgementalism.

Wow, that was a lot of negative stuff. But the good part is, it’s really fun and interesting. I didn’t expect my Instagram account to do so well, but it just sort of took off. I’ve learned a lot about how Instagram works, which is cool. It’s led me to meet more people and to have a different perspective on where art is happening and what’s interesting in art. I’m creating a lot of work. It’s very much in progress.

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Leah Schrager, from the series Not yet titled, Digital C-prints, 2016

Are there any other milestone moments that you’re proud of?

Leah Schrager: Being covered by Artforum [Women on the Verge, April 2015] was really exciting and unexpected. I actually see curating the show Body Anxiety as a precursor to ArtGirlTV. I picked women who had some relationship to their image in their work.

And I’m starting to sell my artwork to collectors, which is really exciting. I was meeting with a curator yesterday and she said she’s doing an art show about women and social media and that she has a lot of artists who are negatively critical about social media. She said that she liked me because I seemed to be more celebratory of it. And I definitely am, so I’m hoping that I can start carving out a bit of a niche in terms of being pro-social. It has such positive potential. A lot of that comes from Naked Therapy. I have been really able to help people, and that was completely through the Internet. It was true, good helping. I think that people get so down on the Internet and porn and all this stuff, but I think that part of the issue is that people are so negative. Then there’s all this guilt that gets associated with it and it’s not helping anything. Hopefully, people will start recognizing that we want a full spectrum of approaches.

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Leah Schrager, from Digital Paintings, Acrylics on Inkjet, 2014

Was there a time when you felt yourself coming into your own? Or have you always felt as comfortable with yourself as you appear now?

Leah Schrager: I’ve been coming into my own since I started, I guess. But when I was first starting—I mark the beginning of this creative trajectory to around 2009—it took a long time of having my work out there and getting responses to my work and engagements with my work to figure out more and more what it was that I really wanted to say with it. I’ve also honed in on what I want to say and what is fully open to interpretation. I know that and am fine with the fact that when I put my work out there it’s not didactic—there are many possible interpretations. Now I work only with my own image and that’s definitely a process that I went through figuring out. My M.F.A. program was useful for that actually, in that it was a constant challenge due to people not really liking my work because “sexy isn’t supposed to be art.” So I had to keep fighting for why it was ok for my image to be in my work. It made me in a way even more set on that. It’s hard to remember while you’re in it, when you feel frustrated and upset, but opposition is often a sign that you’re doing something you’re truly invested in and you want to try to figure out more and understand. It’s been five years of that, really. That’s another thing: sometimes you don’t realize until five years later what it was you were trying to do five years ago. It takes time.

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Leah Schrager, Barcode I, 18 in × 24 in, Digital C-print

Leah Schrager’s art is viewable now via Instagram on her main account @leahschrager and also @onaartist, the digital home of Ona, Schrager’s alter ego project. Add ArtGirlTV on Snapchat for daily, global, girl-powered art experiences.
Image courtesy Leah Schrager. Featured image from Leah’s series “Infinity Selfie, or SFSM (safe for social media), digital C-prints, 2016”