By Cailey Rizzo
Adira Schiff does not give a fuck about what anyone thinks of her --- or at least if she does, she won't let that change anything.
In the five years that I have known her, I have never been bored. My friend loves color and flash and awe.
One evening in a scuzzy dorm, early in our freshman year of college, she rolled her eyes at everyone exchanging names and majors. When the conversation turned to her, she puffed her cheeks, sighed and, in her unique brand of deadpan and enthusiasm, announced, "My name’s Adira and I major in being myself." She hasn't changed since.
Schiff grew up in Sea Cliff, New York — a one-square mile town on Long Island. "It’s such a beautiful place and there’s such a beautiful community of people there; if you’re going to have to live in the suburbs, that’s the coolest place you can do it," 23-year-old Schiff said when I recently interviewed her.
Admittedly, it is also a very wealthy town. Sea Cliff calls itself a "Victorian Village by the Sea." The town's median family income is $100,576. The fictional home of Jay Gatsby and the very real home of J.P. Morgan are nearby. It started as a site for Methodist revival meetings and quickly became a beach resort and party town for 19th-century New Yorkers looking to escape the city.
But now there’s a high amount of untimely death and serious drug problems, Schiff said.
This unseen friction between affluent glamour and "stuff lurking under the surface" intrigues Schiff and can be found in much of her oeuvre, which spans digital collage, installation and performance art.
"I use this bright, poppy exterior to mask --- but not do away with --- darker things," Schiff said. "I’m not trying to make that stuff disappear, or hide it, but the way that I present it is in that flashy aesthetic."
In a rebellion against the "tasteful, aesthetic-driven" world that she grew up in, Schiff became obsessed with icons of early 2000s commercialism: Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith, The Girls Next Door. "I’m so inspired by early 2000s reality TV," Schiff said. "And it was all just shiny, hard, pink plastic bitches with gold and excess and ridiculous shit."
"People don't want to respect pink glitter."
"But I think that people think that if you care about aesthetics a lot --- and if your aesthetics are my aesthetics --- they think you're dumb. People don’t want to respect pink glitter. But why not? What did pink glitter ever do wrong?"
"I hate when people just assume that I’m dumb and that being a little vapid equates stupidity."
Her argument is oft-repeated, but it bears more repeating: Taste that disregards both seriousness and taste itself is seldom taken seriously.
There is a serious lack of intellectual diversity in many circles today. In a recent article for the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof bemoaned the lack of conservative professors at universities with the argument, "We progressives believe in diversity ... we're fine with people who don't look like us, as long as they think like us."
The argument is equally applicable in art.
Although the art community is almost always progressive-minded, it is much more difficult to find individuals who are open minded: especially towards female artists who reject time-honored (often male) aesthetics.
We talk about the lack of respect people have for frilly, traditionally ultra-femme things --- or anything relegated to "guilty pleasure" at best.
"I’m sure people say plenty of stupid shit about science," Schiff said, "And people are just impressed that they’re even talking about science at a cocktail party."
"But if you say a really smart thing about Pretty Wild…" I countered.
"Then they’re, like, “You’re an idiot!'" she said. "'Why are you telling me about this reality show that only lasted one season on E?'"
But besides reality TV stars, Schiff also admires the women before her who were able to create their own ultra-femme worlds to live inside of: Betsey Johnson, Patricia Field, Dolly Parton and Pipilloti Rist all top her list of inspiring artists.
Like these women, Schiff often uses her own body as subject.
The above pictures from a series entitled, "Something's Fishy," were taken on a selfie cam --- a multifaceted, multipurpose medium, according to Schiff. There's the classic art of self portraiture and the shallow photos posted to social media seeking "attention and that weird, very surface level, positive feedback," she said.
It was very intentional that these photos, taken in her parents' home on Long Island, evoke and question the medium.
"I think it’s more self-centered to spend six months just painting your own face than it is to just use this amazing tool that you have," Schiff said. "Like, Van Gogh, he just sat there and looked at himself every day. Every. Day. And was like, 'Yeah! That looks right, yeah.' So is it really fair to put that on a pedestal and then trivialize me for taking pictures of my butt and looking at them on the subway?"
Which touches on another theme dominant in Schiff's work: Sexuality.
"My entire life I have been boy crazy," Schiff offered as explanation. "I cannot remember a time when I was not. In preschool, I picked one out of the crowd and I was like, 'That’s who’s gonna marry me.'"
But she quickly realized that sexuality is, put simply, a complicated thing.
"I think I saw it as a way to get a little bit of attention --- as gross as it is to admit it --- and then I don’t know as I always liked the result of that," Schiff said. "I saw pretty early on that it was powerful and something that everyone is always trying to harness. Everyone has it within them to be a sexual being and I’ve always been a little fascinated with it."
Schiff reclaimed her sexuality, as many female artists do, through her art. "When you’re documenting things and making work about it, you’re not really letting yourself be in a submissive position," she said.
But at the end of the day, in Schiff's world, there isn't time to worry about putting yourself in a submissive position, wondering how people interpret you or adapting yourself to any time-honored traditions.
"Everyone should just be themselves. That’s really what I think," Schiff said. "Just be your fucking self and don’t let anyone tell you you’re pretending to be dumb. And if you’re not happy with yourself, you’re probably just a late bloomer."