Cosmetic Justice: Exhibition Tour & Interview with Ali Hval
Today we’re thrilled to share a special tour of interdisciplinary artist Ali Hval’s solo show, Cosmetic Justice, currently on view at North Iowa Area City College in Mason City, Iowa. We asked Ali to give us the inside scoop on her latest work, her relationship to jewelry, how she began making her quintessential giant wall jewelry sculptures, and what’s next for her practice. Read on for all of that, plus what material she’s working with next, why she’ll never get sick of rhinestones, and of course, lots of images of her gem-encrusted work. Let’s tour Cosmetic Justice!
Before we dive in, here’s a bit more background on Ali:
Ali Hval is an interdisciplinary artist currently living and working in Iowa City. Her work combines painting, fabric, ceramic, sculpture, and installation. She received her MFA with Honors at the University of Iowa in Painting and Drawing with a minor concentration in Ceramics in 2019. Ali was a 2015 Windgate Fellow through the Center for Craft in Asheville, North Carolina, and is also a 2021 recipient of the Culture & Resilience Grant from the Iowa Arts Council.
My work is a balancing act: one between the sensuality of forms and the innocence and playfulness of the materials I use: sparkling rhinestones, oversized plastic gems, feathery pom-poms, sumptuous fabrics, glossy vinyl, and liquid latex. I am interested in how women collectively and individually discover their sexuality through clothing, experiences, and relationships. My work is an ongoing attempt to explore ways to embrace my sexuality in ways that are liberating opposed to limiting and based solely on conditioned social and familial expectation. There is some in-between area that exists between these two extreme points on a spectrum, a balance I unearth in my work to understand my own relationship to my body.Ali Hval’s Artist Statement for Cosmetic Justice
The sculptural wall pieces I make are an unconventional marriage between era-specific jewelry, bodily forms, objects of pleasure, and home decor. They embrace, highlight, and empower sensuality and femininity rather than hiding or denying it, as well as acknowledging the awkwardness, humor, and performance that can come with it. My pieces are interdisciplinary in nature, joining the craft-based mediums of ceramics and fabric with painting and sculpture. I use ceramics in an unconventional way, beginning a piece by sculpting something structural that other parts and pieces will later be attached to. Then, I paint the fired ceramic piece with metallic paint (often mixed with eyeshadow!) and meticulously dot it with tiny rhinestones one by one. Finally, I attach other forms made from a variety of materials, like fabric and beauty supplies, to this ceramic component. The completed forms I use reflect my interest in adornment and the relentless critique and politicization of the body: they imply bodies, brooches, earrings, and nipple tassels, among other adornments.
Future Heirloom: What led you to start making these oversized jewelry forms?
Ali Hval: Increasing a piece of jewelry’s scale automatically gives them a more powerful presence. Being quiet and understated never felt like the right move for my work, especially now during a time where women’s bodily autonomy is being threatened. Hanging at the height of an average person, my pieces move beyond being a pair of earrings to asserting an overwhelming presence in a room: they become a stand-in for a body. They are assertive and loud, demanding attention. Covered in materials seen as archetypically feminine, like rhinestones, glossy latex, and glitzy fabrics, these objects call out to a viewer from across the room. The specific forms I use have elements to them which, when increased in size and wrapped in shimmering fabric and rhinestones, become more seductive and bodily.
A lot of the forms I use are actually drawn from jewelry and accessories I already own, and the ones that aren’t are a culmination of what I unearth from the vast world of that wonderful little thing we call online shopping. A lot of my research for the appearance of these things comes from browsing accessory stores online: I pluck elements from vintage and contemporary jewelry alike, collecting and organizing screen captures into a folder on my phone or computer. I study the chain of a necklace, the post and hook settings of an earring, or the proportions of a bracelet, then work to collage and edit them into three-dimensional works in my studio.
The very first oversized jewelry form I created was a massive pair of five-foot tall tassel earrings inspired by a pair I own: ones with a very similar form, although with slightly different proportions and coloration. The tassels are made from a deep pink fabric that shimmers red and white, and the earring “caps” are ceramic painted in gold and studded with iridescent rainbow rhinestones. Increased to this size and hung on the wall in a pair inches from one another, they resemble nipple tassels as well. After making my first piece like this, I wanted to continue exploring this feeling of how adornment generates awareness of being seen in a space. I am treading this line between something sexual and something more seemingly innocent. A small piece of jewelry enlarged and abstracted becomes performative from across the room, an expression of bodily autonomy and self-awareness of femininity.
Future Heirloom: A quintessential description of your work would be decadent material use. How did you start working with the materials you use most frequently in your work? Do you have a favorite material?
AH: The first time I ever worked with fabric was as an undergrad student. In art school, one of my professors always repeated the importance of artists being resourceful above everything else. Taking his words to heart, I chopped up my twin-sized bed sheet into squares which I then covered in bleeding black shapes. This became my first floor installation—absolutely punk rock compared to the gilded and sugary-sweet colors saturating my sculptures now. Regardless of what that first piece looked like, I recall enjoying the fluidity of fabric and how easily it could be folded up, carried, and worked on elsewhere.
Later in grad school, I attended an artist talk by Faith Ringgold, a woman who uses the medium of a quilt. She spoke about how she could have a show ready to travel simply by rolling up her quilts and throwing them in her car trunk. I loved the ease of that and still think about portability and storage in my work, especially as someone who lives alone and makes a lot of sculptures! I think practicality and sustainability is not discussed enough in the production of art. You not only have to enjoy making your work, but also be able to sustain the way you’re making and storing it depending on your living circumstances. There’s only so much of your own art you can hang in your living space, and with my work, I can easily fold up the fabric bits as they are not permanently attached to the ceramic structures.
I began incorporating shimmery fabrics and sparkly beads throughout undergrad and during my time spent working under the Windgate Fellowship, but rhinestone-bedazzled ceramic was a new addition to my work in graduate school. I loved being able to use ceramics to create a rigid structure that the softer, fabric-based elements of my work could play off. My ceramic components, though thick and heavy, are still fragile. The material lends itself to the delicacy of jewelry, regardless of how large the resulting sculpture is. I keep my ceramic components small and compact enough to be portable—I can dot them with rhinestones at a table in a cafe or even travel with them on a plane safely if they’re covered in enough bubble wrap.
As for a favorite material, I think it’s impossible I’ll ever really get sick of rhinestones. I love how they can transform a surface, smoothing out the imperfections (which I see as a metaphor for how filters and screens alter our online appearance) by distracting from what is below. I use rhinestones so much that at this point in my life, they’ll just randomly fall off my body or from my clothing, leaving a trail of sparkles in my wake (and, unfortunately for them, in my friends’ homes.)
FH: The dramatic, oversized scale of your work is so fun—I’m curious if you would ever consider making wearable works? Why or why not?
AH: A few times, I actually have produced works which are wearable, though they are clothing-adjacent pieces used in a performative context: they are flowing, cumbersome garments with hand-sewn tendrils and long sleeves draping from them. Such garments, however, are not practical for day-to-day wear! I have actually been thinking about making smaller maquettes of my work with porcelain and the tiniest rhinestones. I’ve had sketches for what seems like ages on them, but have not yet gotten around to creating them. I can also envision these smaller pieces being thorough sketches for larger projects that need an abundance of planning. I’m interested in being able to move through ideas a bit faster by shrinking the scale. I would not, however, see them as my actual studio work since they wouldn’t hold space in the same way, which is one thing holding me back from producing them.
Regardless, since my work already holds such an obvious relationship to the body, smaller pieces make sense in that regard. To literally put them on a person’s body would be a more direct and accessible version of that relationship, albeit much smaller. I think another roadblock I have is constructing every part of the jewelry. For example, I don’t just want to create a bedazzled pendant and stick it on a leather rope and call it a necklace; I would need to be thoughtful in how I approach making the necklace strand integrate with the rest of the jewelry.
FH: What feelings/thoughts do you hope to evoke in the viewer with your work?
AH: Some viewers feel uncomfortable when first looking at my work—mostly in that they are trying to figure out what these objects are. Some people immediately jump to, “Earrings, jewelry!” while others cock their heads and think, “Nipple tassels? A chain that is somehow sexy?” The general forms of my work feel familiar, sensual, and bodily, but once engulfed in shiny fabrics and glittering rhinestones, tread the line of being giant jewelry pieces. I hope this relationship between the sensuality of forms and playfulness of materials brings to light the effect that adornment can have on a body. Since my pieces act as stand-ins for a person, I want viewers to think about how a body can change based on how it is adorned.
One thing I have been thinking about in regards to all this is the history and timeline of the high heel. The first high heel recorded was a product of war made for Persian soldiers (in what is now Iran) as far back as the 10th century. Men would wear them to retain a stable position in their stirrups on horseback during war, specifically when they stood up to fire a bow. Centuries later in France, King Louis XIV was documented as wearing a colorful variety of heels, as seen in painted portraits of him. He also encouraged noblemen in his court to wear them. For him, the higher the heel, the more powerful the wearer. As soon as the 18th century rolled around, men and women were both wearing iterations of the high heels we think of today with a block near the wearer’s heel. Naturally, men wanted to seperate themselves from what women wore, and there was a divide in heels for each gender: women’s heels were narrower and more decorative, and men’s more utilitarian. Eventually, society deemed heels as purely decorative and solely reserved for women. Of course, now we see contemporary examples of men wearing heels: David Bowie, for instance, broke a lot of boundaries in gendered fashion.
There is much more to the trajectory of high heels than what is described above, but it is so intriguing to me how social hierarchies, gender constructs, and adornment altered this one object in the eyes of many. My work feels like a similar conversation to how a wearer can alter the context of something being worn. Instead, how can a material’s context change based on the body it inhabits?
FH: Do you have any new jewelry sculptures in the works that you’re particularly excited about?
AH: I recently acquired a grant from the Iowa Arts Council that allowed me to indulge in materials I normally wouldn’t even dare to glance at. One of these materials is a few yards of powder blue liquid latex fabric. I typically work with a color palette imbued with pinks, reds, and purples, as they feel more bodily to me, so powder blue will be a new color for a new series! I’m working on a variation of a pair of nipple tassels with some chains dangling from them that will be wrapped in this blue latex and then tangled into a huge knot. I’m trying to incorporate some new moves in my pieces to disrupt the symmetry of my work.
FH: What is your own relationship to jewelry? Your work, of course, is pretty maximal—is that indicative of your personal style as well, or is it specific to your work?
AH: My day-to-day style is not minimalistic in the least! The jewelry I wear is gold and glitzy, and I do my best to blend atypical pieces with more classic ones into my wardrobe. I shoot for wearing heirloom and vintage pieces, or jewelry which is crafted from more sustainable materials. Most of the vintage jewelry I purchase is sourced from eBay or Etsy, and I can spend tons of time scouring those websites for quirky but timeless looking pieces. My jewelry has dangles, chains, tassels, gemstones, and hoops that function like tiny door knockers—very reminiscent of the work I make. Though my jewelry choices ten years ago were less conscious of my work, now I find myself choosing jewelry which echoes forms I use.
FH: What does The Power of Jewelry mean to you?
AH: I have heirloom jewelry passed down to me from my mother’s and father’s side. Even when I thought a certain piece of jewelry wasn’t my “style,” it became part of it since it was the style of my mother, my grandmother, and so on. It adapted into my style while still retaining the unique histories of the previous wearers, just as my family history plays a role in the genetics that give me my appearance and personality.
To know that I have an ivory ring, pin, and necklace set that my great grandmother wore is not only indicative of old jewelry’s durability, but it connects me to anyone who has held this piece of jewelry in their collection for such a long period of time. Clothing can be a bit more difficult to pass down as everyone is a different size and shape, and clothing cannot always be as sturdy as the metals of jewelry. Jewelry, however, is always the perfect fit. A necklace will fit every wearer. A ring can fit on any finger, and even if it can’t, it can be strung on a gold chain like a bead. Earrings, both clip-on and pierced, are one-size fits all. Jewelry has lasted for centuries and will continue to do so! It traces the generations of a family tree and garners meaning as it traverses time.
The Power of Jewelry is the compelling force that radiates from a piece. It manifests itself visually in that it doesn’t need a tag or sign that tells you its creator, origins, and meanings. I aim to create power in my work by giving it the ability to hold its own space; my pieces do not need to be worn on a body to hold meaning. Rather, they project power through their size and the abundance and repetition of materials I use on them, materials which are viewed as typically being meant for women’s adornment. By doing so, I create sculptures that are empowering, self-aware, and unabashedly feminine. For me, this is The Power of Jewelry.
FH: Finally, how can our readers best support your work?
AH: You can follow me on Instagram @alihval and share anything you like with a friend or colleague! For anyone out there who works in an art department and needs an exhibition full of sparkling gems or a guest lecturer, I’m your lady!
Cosmetic Justice is on view until October 15th at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City, Iowa. See more of Ali Hval’s work on her website, alihval.com, and follow her on Instagram at @alihval.
Special thanks to Ali Hval for taking the time to share her work and insight into her process with us. Artist statement and interview responses written by Ali Hval; interview conducted and edited by Jackie Andrews. Exhibition images by Alexis Beucler; images provided by Ali Hval.