Sarah Sitkin’s South Los Angeles warehouse studio looks like a mad scientist’s laboratory. Or maybe a serial killer's basement dungeon. With scraps of silicone flesh strewn in discard piles on the floor, disembodied heads on sticks, baskets overflowing with art implements along the wall, it's apparent there's some Frankensteining going on here. Sitkin's studio is a place of shape-shifting, experimentation and alchemy, as she takes molds of the human body, casts them into silicone positives and meticulously crafts the forms into prosthetic sculptures that are the stuff of delightful nightmares.
Since June 1, amid a sporadic, inverted sleep schedule and 16-hour workdays, Sitkin has been churning out a body of 12 new works for her debut sculpture exhibition at Superchief Gallery. She admits there’s a self-imposed torture in her process. “To create something I have to sacrifice of myself," she says. "Some people create when they’re totally in bliss. It’s not like that for me. It’s painful.”
The multidisciplinary artist is a next-level creep genius. She works with scientific precision to create disturbing, fleshy characters and prosthetics, which she then photographs in a highly stylized manner. This year marked her rise from underground favorite to viral social media sensation with her piece “Custom Ear Phone Case,” an iPhone case made of a skinlike silicone with a hyper-realistic human ear on the back. Commissions from fans and collectors steadily roll in, and she’s attracted well-known creepy collaborators, including noise-rap band Ho9909 and singer/performance artist Genesis P-Orridge.
I spoke with the artist in her cozy living room area, a tiny corner of the warehouse that's dedicated to the comforts of a normal home amid the artistic chaos teeming around her. The space is decorated with the usual trappings: a small couch, throw pillows, a shelf of books and a coffee table. There’s a candy bowl on the table, except Sitkin’s bowl is filled with swatches of fake skin (which she has refined for tattooing) and the table is strewn with floppy, fake sunny-side-up eggs and silicone samples of facial features.
“I’m really drawn to the body," she says. "When I was a kid I used to play with dental alginate," which dentists typically use to make diagnostic models of teeth.
“I would take molds of my hands and face for hours and make little plaster castings out of them.”
Growing up, Sitkin’s family owned a hobby shop called Kit Kraft in Studio City. Situated near several behemoth film studios, the clientele evolved from neighborhood kids doing crafts to top-notch special-effects designers seeking specific materials while on the job. As the shop specialized its inventory to meet changing demands, damaged merchandise would find its way into Sitkin's hands for her early experiments. If the clay arrived at the store a little too hard, or a plaster package was ripped, or the paint was half dry, her father would hand it down to her. “I grew up having an indispensable amount of materials to just fuck around with,” she recalls.
When she got older, she worked in the store and informally mingled with special-effects veterans who frequented the shop to consult with her father on the best materials. With a clientele that included Jordu Schell (of several Alien and Predator films), Miles Tevvis (who sculpted Robocop), Don Lanning (Hellboy) and Christopher Darga (The Mask), a family friend who has sculpted dinosaur replicas for the Natural History Museum, Sitkin was constantly inspired.
“I loved being at my dad’s shop," she says. "I could make whatever I wanted to at any time. I had total freedom.”
Sitkin’s father eagerly displayed his daughter’s crafts as examples — her models, molds and various artworks from those earlier days still can be found on the store’s shelves.
Today, her principal artistic output is highly stylized photography, in which the prosthetics she creates act as still-lives comprised of human remnants, often including strips of facial features, real human hair and the occasional pregnancy test or popsicle stick. She considers these media fluid forms of portraiture and resists classifying herself as a “sculptor” or “photographer.” Having come of age in the ’90s, squarely within the transition from analog to digital, Sitkin enjoys the latitude in using elements of both.
The upcoming show at Superchief, however, is decidedly sculptural, which is a departure from the controlled conditions she’s so comfortable with in her photo studio. Presenting these artifacts of her work is to some extent laying bare the process. “[This exhibition] is a confessional,” she says.
At our interview, 10 days to show time, there’s an excited apprehension in Sitkin’s voice as she discusses the work: “I wanted to work with a theme of disguise. I’m thinking about skin and body … masks and wearables as another form of skin.
“When you put on a mask, it’s a temporary façade. It isn’t actually who you are. It’s your form in a certain time and place.”
While all of the work is aesthetically cohesive, adhering to a frank, if surreal, fleshiness, some of the masks in the show take on political themes. There is a mask that is force-feeding itself in a form of self-consumption. “Its face is its own gluttony.” There’s a flesh mask shaped like a bondage hood whose mouth hole is framed by labia modeled after the artist’s own genitalia.
“It’s bizarre to see your body out of context,” she says, commenting on the circumstances of her work. While many equate what she does to horror art, she approaches her subject matter with a sincere irreverence. “I’m just a giant landscape of these fat pockets and weird wrinkles,” she says. “I’m perpetually fascinated by how shitty the human design is.”
After working directly with the body so long, she has a distanced, surgical air in her talk of it. To Sitkin, the human form is mediocre, wrought with limitations: “[Bodies are] fragile, always on display, weak and need to spend eight hours asleep every day.”
“I would prefer not to have a body,” she waxes, leaning back on the couch to reveal the residue of work — gobs of white caulking cling to the neckline of her smock dress. “I want very badly to be able to directly plug into someone else’s brain. When I make artwork, that’s when I feel that I’m able to connect with people the most.”
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Her sleep deprivation lends a cerebral haze to her musings, which are thoughtful if uncomfortable. She rolls from word to word languidly, weighing the banal nature of the grotesque, the fickle moral implications of existing at all and a desire for bodily transcendence. She fantasizes about an extension of the internet that frees people from “the confines of material existence,” in which each person creates a personalized virtual utopia.
“I think that’s ultimately what we want — total freedom, ultimate connectivity.”
Until we get there, she'll be in her studio pushing the boundaries of our corporeal forms in a way that's at once hyper-real and surreal.
Sarah Sitkin's "Trifling Matter," Superchief Gallery, 739 Kohler St., downtown; opens Sat., July 2, 7 p.m.; runs through Sat., July 30. (718) 576-4193, superchiefgallery.com.