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Playful Paradox

A unique blend of pop sensibility and painterly realism

Oil on floppy disks, by SJ Fuerst, 2019

A woman sits on an oversized director’s chair, surrounded by an inflatable tiger and a herd of blow-up pigs. She looks straight at us; her look is challenging, commanding even. Another, wearing a swimsuit that gives her the torso (and testicles) of Michelangelo’s David looks straight ahead, barely tolerating the cardboard biblical figures that surround her. There is nothing coquettish here. Their more demure sisters are engaged in perhaps more modest tasks: one herds an inflatable sheep, another takes a blow-up Godzilla for a walk, yet another is caught guiltily taking a bite out of an inflatable doughnut.

This is the world of SJ Fuerst: a world where mass-produced becomes beautiful, artificial becomes natural, toys become symbols and women – above all – are in control.

SJ Fuerst lives and works in Gozo, combining her contemporary and classical art training to create these magical, paradoxical worlds: hyper-real from a distance but soft and delicate up close. She studied in New York, Florence and London and has now chosen the Gozitan light and island peace as a base from where to work and create these magically real paintings.

Fuerst builds these worlds – sometimes taking a few years to do so – by assembling inflatable animals, coloured backdrops, costumes and models to create a self-sufficient universe. The world is built around the female figure – she is queen of her kingdom: the inflatables, the costumes and the props all exist within her orbit.

And what seems on the surface to be a decorative or fanciful image, on closer inspection proves to contain many contradictions. Firstly, Fuerst’s women are sexy, sometimes underdressed, but they are never anonymous and are definitely not passive. Art-lovers will be familiar with the claim of the male gaze, creating a world to be seen through male eyes only. Fuerst’s women negate this; they are sexy, yes, but they do not exist for men – they are looking right back at us.

Another paradox in Fuerst’s work is the juxtaposition of elements of the natural world and the almost trashily fake objects that mimic it. Sateen jellyfish, synthetic bunnies and latex mermaids claim their place in front of equally fake painted backdrops of heavenly skies or idyllic bowers.

Fuerst herself is not straightforward. Of course, she is sparkly, young and gushingly positive, with an infectious enthusiasm. But her smiles hide a serious side in her character and a determination to paint, to work and to create her worlds exactly as she imagines them. In describing her work process – choosing the model, selecting the props, printing the backdrop, even stretching and preparing the canvas – she reveals her artist’s mind that is utterly focused on the task in hand.

Little Oil Spill, by SJ Fuerst, oil on canvas, 117x122cm

She laughs as she describes her inflatable animal collection, and gushes over some of the costumes she has accumulated. But she is deadly serious about creating her work; her worlds are hers alone and they need her to come into existence.

The images that Fuerst presents to us are contradictory in their beauty. Little Oil Spill Mermaid depicts a figure leaning back gracefully, with a mermaid’s suit and tail. There’s something ominous in the title and in the fact that her face and figure is completely covered in an almost bondage-like costume that contrasts with the light-hearted evocation of the mermaid in the work’s title. Of the costume, Fuerst tells us that she found it ‘unbelievably beautiful, but also unbelievably eerie’ – these oxymorons, it seems, attract her.

Daphne After Apollo also contains a paradox. Daphne is dressed in what is – to be honest – a pretty humiliating costume. She is wearing an oversized car air-freshener that just about preserves her modesty, representing her transformation into a tree, following Apollo’s advances. The work refers to a classical myth and is set in a bucolic scene, but this natural world is made, quite clearly, of a printed backdrop and the air-freshener fir tree is so realistic you can almost smell its ubiquitous sickly perfume. The allusion to the me-too movement is obvious here, but it’s not a straightforward reference; if anything, it’s a tongue-in-cheek and playful reaction to a tale of female harassment.

Daphne after Apollo, by SJ Fuesrt, oil on canvas, 96 X 137cm

There is, of course, an element of SJ Fuerst herself in her work: young and optimistic with a great sense of humour, but definitely nobody’s fool. I imagine she enjoyed assembling Maul; a Darth-masked woman in black stilettoes brandishing a repurposed light-sabre. Or Jellyfish, which shows a girl wearing a beautiful incandescent jellyfish headpiece – made by Fuerst herself – standing in an underwater scene.

But the image about which she talks with the most glee, and which seems to be her current favourite, is The David: that painting with the biblical figures and the marble testicles. Three men, looking for all the world as if they have wandered out of a Maltese festa, surround the painting’s heroine. On either side of her, St Peter and St James look downwards dubiously while, behind them, Noah has his hands raised above his head in horror. Yet it is the woman at the centre of the painting – that woman wearing a silly swimsuit and heels – that comes out as the winner here. She is serene and confident, the sky behind her gives her a halo-like glow and she looks straight at us, without giving a thought to the men surrounding her.

This, I think, is SJ Fuerst: carefree but deadly serious, schooled in the classics but referencing pop, painting sexy women and in full possession of her own feminine strength and talent.

Forest Fresh: An exhibition of paintings on canvas and floppy disks by SJ Fuerst opens on 22 March at 7.30pm and runs until 20 April at Lily Agius Gallery, 54 Cathedral Street, Sliema, Malta. For more information email and see

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