Artist Orli Auslander grew up in a traditional Middle Eastern household in London, in a Bukharian Jewish family in which boys were favored over girls. The effects of growing up in this environment ripples through all of her work. It’s evident in her wood carvings in which she burns the Hebrew blessing Shelo Asani Isha, which thanks God for not making one a woman, into the wood; in her series of comics detailing all the things she feels bad about; and in her graphic novel, Vagina Money: a True Story, about a woman who gets a tampon stuck inside her.
Her newest series consists of darkly humorous dioramas depicting scenes of women who spontaneously combusted after the dual forces of sexism and misogyny became too much to bear. They’re on display in Auslander’s first solo show, “Pretty/Ugly,” which opened last weekend at Woodstock Framing Gallery in Woodstock, N.Y., near where she lives with her husband, the writer Shalom Auslander, and their children.
I spoke with Auslander about the exhibit and the ways her Jewish background continues to influence her work.
You mention your family was strict—religiously?
They were very traditional, not Orthodox, though now they are. My father’s Bukharian, which is one of the oldest Jewish communities in existence and very insular, very patriarchal. When he came to London he held on tightly to that tradition. He became even more traditional than some of his siblings who stayed back, which is common. So, that was the strictness I grew up with. It was very much ‘Boys are more important, girls are baby makers.’
You moved to New York when you were 18 and never looked back?
Well, no, I had a hard time doing that. I was very ambivalent about it because I wasn’t a naughty girl. I wasn’t a rebellious kid until I got to the point where I was like, “I can’t do this.” It was easier for me to leave the continent than for me to just move out of the house, so I came to the States and I fell in with a Jewish religious crowd because I became a counselor at an Orthodox camp. So when I was 18, I became religious for five or six years. I felt like, my father can’t fight this now that there’s God involved.
Did you draw and paint back then?
I did. I painted murals on the bedroom walls—all of the walls, actually—just to do something. There happened to be paint in the garage and nobody seemed to mind my painting the walls. I never really considered it something I could do to make money.
You were a milliner for a time. That must have been a creative outlet?
It really was. Once I was finally legal in the states, I decided to take a class. I’d wanted to be a milliner for a while. I did it for five years. I opened a store and it definitely got creative. I think I painted and drew very little during that time.
When did you get back into it?
When my son was born, I couldn’t believe where my head was—not in a good place at all. I suddenly felt I had no life for myself. I was breastfeeding and really, really depressed and sent my husband out to get some pencils and paper. I had to do something while I was pumping milk. When my son was about a year old, I got a studio and I worked there for maybe five years without really showing anything. Really just getting back to myself, which was great.
The work seems really cathartic.
Yeah, it was a lifesaver. As soon as the kids were born, I just suddenly felt like I don’t have any time to waste on something that I don’t want to do. I feel like everything comes very much out of a visceral reaction to what’s happening in my life.
In the “I Feel Bad” series, reason #55 is “I feel bad for saying no.” One of the things you say no to is an art exhibit. Is this show a rare thing for you?
I’ve participated in a few group shows, but when Sneha (Kapadia, the gallery owner) asked me to do this, I was really kind of down on the whole showing thing. I hadn’t really considered it because the work’s really personal and I have to say I don’t have the best feeling about contemporary art in general. It just seems like there’s no point. Art has become rain rooms, corporations almost. It also just seems that it’s not even a game I can get into. For starters, I have a vagina. That resembles Middle-Eastern tradition to me: run by men, organized by men. What’s the point? But we’ll see how it goes, it definitely feels good to just have somebody come in and go, “Oh my God, I feel that! I get it!”
It’s not about making it in the art establishment, whatever that is. For me it’s a tool. I need it. If I don’t do it, I’m a miserable bitch to be around. I’m not going to be a very good mother if I don’t lock myself up occasionally and make something.
Pretty/Ugly will be on display at Woodstock Framing Gallery until July 20.
Amy Griffin is a freelance writer living in upstate New York.