Rowen Foster

Commentary by Kascha Semonovitch

​​Rowen Foster lives with a pig. For a recent sculpture, Animal, they kept his bristles and inserted them into the back of a prostrate gelatin figure. The pig is male, but the sculpted body has female characteristics. Such amalgamation of human and animal characterizes most of Foster’s work. Literally and metaphorically, Foster obfuscates the line between genders and species.

And they manage this with a high level of craft in multiple media. Over the last few years, Foster learned how to live cast in both silicone and gelatin, to fire life-size ceramic work, and incorporate video into installations. In their final MFA exhibitions, they created two cast, self-portraits in different media and placed them in different works in two galleries. They controlled many techniques to achieve these distinct installations. Each final product conveys disturbing situations. In one gallery in the CMA, a gelatin body melts in a heated tub, filled by Foster during a performance at the opening reception of their exhibition. The situation echoes a sculpture by Robert Gober, one of Foster’s influences. In the other gallery, they suspended a silicone body from the wall. Cow print skin covers the body. The face presses its lips together, as if in pain, and the body clenches in a fetal position. Across from the cow-printed body sits a T-bone steak bench on which the visitor can sit and watch videos of beef-eating competitions. The performance, the videos, the cast bodies — all express pain caused by appropriation and exploitation. 

Why do they make this provocative, even painful work? The art is both personally and socially driven. Rowen and their partner identify as queer. Their relationship shows up in the work directly and indirectly. For example, in “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue” (2021), Foster cast their partner, pigmented the body blue, and partially covered it in white fur to make a silky, male Yeti-like figure. Holding a Yeti-brand baby bottle, the hum-animal creature walks toward a blue cradle that holds, within cozy blue blankets, a copy of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. In this piece, they explained that they are “interested in queer theory and swapping gender roles. I’m showing this thing that’s masculine but taking a more maternal role but also thinking about paternalism in multiple senses of the word.” Like much excellent social justice work, their art is intersectional. In the same piece, they address human-animal interrelations alongside gender relations. They hope to reclaim some of the animal terminology that has been used to abuse women, trans, queer, and other oppressed groups. They’ve been particularly influenced by Jack Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failure which discusses, in their words, “gender failure as something that’s liberating actually.”

In the piece called Illegitimate Fusions for the Henry Art Gallery portion of the MFA exhibit, Foster collaborated with a Photo/Media graduate student, Sadaf Sadri, to train an artificial intelligence program to combine photos of various animal species that exhibit homosexual and transsexual characteristics. Foster then created a sculptural translation of these images alongside a video projection created by Sadri showing the process of the AI morphing and synthesizing the different species together. In Glitch Feminism, Legacy Russell wrote: “Othered bodies are rendered invisible because they cannot be read by a normative mainstream and therefore cannot be categorized. As such, they are erased or misclassified within and outside of an algorithmic designation.” As Russell advocates, Foster and Sadri, through a glitch in the binary system, made a queering algorithm that frustrates and attempts to categorize bodies along similar lines.

As a maker, Foster is a planner. Given the scale and their choice of media, they have to be. They described the challenges of their demanding techniques: “It was kind of difficult last year when we were encouraged to experiment more….I got some push back regarding my planning process and was encouraged to let go and experiment more. But I was also trying out a lot of new processes I had never done before and developing the life-casting…and there’s a learning curve to that.” Their experimentation involved investigating the possibilities of the media rather than the outcome in the work. As they put it, “for representational work…you kinda have to know what you’re going towards and then figure out the chain of processes.”

They came to the UW MFA program from a ceramics background, albeit a less traditional one: “In undergrad, I did predominantly ceramics in a sculpture program, and I never took a ceramics elective. So I was kind of trained in ceramics as a sculptor. And kind of in a less technical way but with a bit more freedom also.” Throughout their art practice, they say, “I’ve been working large scale, usually life-size or bigger for a while and it’s my preferred scale.” This places the viewer in a real-world size situation, bringing them close — likely uncomfortably close — to the work and its implications.

Foster ranged outside the MFA program to take electives that they found transformative: “I took two incredible electives outside of the School and an Art History 509 course with Adair Rounthwaite that absolutely blew me away and pushed my thinking on many levels. One was a Romanian art, film, and lit class from the last decade; one was a gender studies/cross disciplinary feminist theory course that focused a lot of indigenous, queer and BIPOC global feminist perspectives. The class with Adair was a contemporary global art history class that mostly focused on Central/Eastern European art movements….Adair’s class [was] great and really helped me understand the art and social/political reality around Soviet censorship and policy and the aftermath post-Soviet dissolution….The gender studies class really helped me deepen my thinking of intersectional feminism and the various conflicting movements within the umbrella of feminism. All of these courses directly fed into my personal studio research and influenced the work I’ve been making this year.”

Foster talks fluidly about their work and refers often to theory and texts. I asked them about the relationship between making art and talking or writing about work. Perhaps too much theory or — written essays like this one — take the attention away from the material project. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about art?

The content and the quantity of their response speaks to their enthusiasm for talking, writing and theorizing. They answered: “I think a great deal of art is intended and created to spark conversations. I think if no one said anything and just looked at art silently that would either mean that the art is awful, completely disinteresting, or just be a very sad situation. I can appreciate just enjoying it and taking it in and I understand visual art as a medium that can communicate beyond words in many ways, but I definitely enjoy talking about art and hope that humans always do talk about and keep making art.

“I do understand that there can be an interesting power dynamic between art writing / promotion between artists, critics, gallerists, curators, art institutions, etc. I think that Adrian Piper wrote a lot about this in a really important way. That being said, I think I learn so much from writing about my work and it really helps me connect the dots and get out of my own head (considering I am often writing for others when I write about my work). I think writing about one’s own work may be the hardest thing to write about but it’s a muscle that the art world requires of us (constant submissions, artists statements, project/exhibition proposals, etc.).

“Perhaps too much is required of artists in advance of finishing work when it comes to writing and applications, especially when applications are so competitive and artists often end up pouring all their resources into applying to things that don’t pan out and only ever had a tiny chance of panning out (I speak from personal experience). I do think that some art, or viewers, or the ways art is displayed and contextualized in some museums or galleries can at times rely too much on the text rather than letting people think about and connect to work on their own, but I do appreciate some extra info and context when I view art and when I display my work.

“If someone else ever wants to write about my work, I’d be honored and just hope that they have mostly positive things to say. Ultimately, I think as artists, our lives and livelihoods are so precarious and unstable that any and all support is welcome and necessary. So everyone should write about art!”

Foster’s work provokes a conversation with the writer or viewer who they hope to see. It also prompts self-reflection for Foster. From their focus on non-human animal life and in particular the cow, one might assume Foster is a vegetarian or even vegan. But they’re still struggling to match up the values in the work and the material world. Of eating meat, they said: “I am aware of the atrocity. I have some dietary problems, and I can’t eat a lot of vegetables…I’m also a bit nihilistic, I guess. But I am really trying to consider at least lessening my consumption.” They worry about using silicone because of its environmental damage; on the other hand, they’re concerned that while gelatin is a reusable material, it is an animal product. 

Fosters’s concern saturates their work. They want to save them all: cow bodies, female bodies, trans bodies, pig bodies. Perhaps after some time spent in the presence of their work, you might too.