Jessica Westhafer is an expert in nostalgia. The shelves of the artist’s Bushwick studio are filled with stuffed animals and toys that would strike wistfulness into the heart of any millennial: a plush Barney, a bug-eyed Furby, an oversized rubber duck. More than a dozen characters sit shoulder to shoulder, watching over her as she paints.
“I’m just a big kid,” Westhafer said on a recent afternoon. Clad in paint-splattered overalls, she offered a behind-the-scenes tour of the new works that comprise her first solo art-fair presentation, organized by Vito Schnabel Gallery at Independent New York this May.
These paintings finalize a break from the style that first garnered Westhafer attention from the art world: portraits of big-eyed, dark-haired characters that looked a lot like her. Her surreal compositions now center on objects such as vintage cookie cutters, candlesticks, and old clocks. Perhaps counterintuitively, the further away Westhafer gets from the figure, the more specific her work becomes—and the more she is able to find the universal in the personal.
Born in 1990 and raised in the tiny town of Flippin, Arkansas, Westhafer was drawn to art and pop culture in equal measure. Growing up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she did not celebrate holidays or birthdays, play sports, or engage in extracurriculars. Nor did she socialize with children outside the church. But she was encouraged to draw, often competing with her father to see who could produce the better napkin sketch at restaurants. Pop culture, meanwhile, became a way for her to craft an identity apart from family and religion.
Westhafer’s new body of work goes back to her ’90s childhood for source material— beloved television shows, toys, and books all provide inspiration for the paintings that will be on view at Independent. “I’m intrigued by how an object can immediately rekindle a specific memory—some great and some terrible,” she said. “I started chasing that feeling, hunting Etsy, eBay, and thrift stores for objects from the past that have been forgotten.”
Take the two cookie-cutter canvases that will be shown in Vito Schnabel Gallery’s booth. One depicts a gingerbread mold at larger than human scale against a saccharine pink background, surrounded by thickly applied smears of paint-frosting. Westhafer uses emulsified gesso to apply oil on top of a watercolor base, giving the surface a dimensional quality. “I wanted it to look like a messy kid or a tired housewife was making these cookies,” she said.
The second depicts a collage of silvery cookie cutters, Girl Scout patches, and images showing how to handle a pocket knife, sourced from a vintage scouting manual. Both paintings capture symbols of gentle domesticity and then undercut them with an off-kilter palette and carefully chosen accents that feel vaguely threatening.
The cookie cutters recall the ones Westhafer’s grandmother owned when she was growing up. They, too, embody a sweet memory with a bitter aftertaste. “We didn’t celebrate holidays, but once a year we’d get together and have a sugar-cookie day,” Westhafer said.
After the death of her grandmother—the only family member who stayed in touch with Westhafer after she left the church in her late teens—the artist wanted to collect her cookie cutters in remembrance. She was saddened to learn they had already been thrown out. So instead, she scoured eBay for versions that reminded her of those charmed childhood afternoons. “I’m collecting them because there is something sentimental [in them],” Westhafer said. “I can also look at them and think of home and family and what was lost.”
Westhafer got her MFA from Indiana University in 2020 as the craze for figurative painting was peaking in the art world. Her early expressionist portraits, reminiscent of the work of Nicole Eisenman and Dana Schutz, were greeted with enthusiasm. But she got restless, and resisted the pressure to continue working in her earlier style. “I think I’ve always been really rebellious because of how I grew up,” she said.
She debuted her new approach at her most recent solo exhibition, Somewhere That’s Green at Vito Schnabel Gallery, which closed in January. Eliminating the figure enabled her to explore the emotional charge of childhood and adolescence through other kinds of tableaux, like a dissected frog (7th Period Science Class, 2022) and a beach viewed through the shiny film of a bubble (Bubble Wand, 2022). Westhafer added broken glass to the work’s surface to create the effect of glittering sand.
This shift reignited a long-held interest in texture, which she had cultivated through weaving and ceramics courses in grad school. The works at Independent take this preoccupation further still: not only is Westhafer depicting objects of nostalgia, but she is literally affixing them to the canvas. A painting of a bat is punctured by figurines of the vampire Muppet character from Sesame Street. The result is essentially a mash-up of Dracula, PBS, and the stormy-night ghost stories you were told as a child.
Like many kids of the ’90s, Westhafer remembers Sesame Street as a TV staple in her house growing up. “I recently went back and watched a few episodes on YouTube, not only admiring its educational purpose but its pure aesthetic,” she said. “TV just isn’t made like that anymore, which is depressing—it’s all too fast and digital. I miss the handmade.”
V is for Vampire Bat channels that interest in making, incorporating Westhafer’s own polyurethane casts of the found vampire toy. The shift into three dimensions also became a way to “decentralize the image,” she said, and simultaneously add another layer of meaning to the painting.
For Westhafer, an object’s cultural value is determined not by its elite status, but by how much meaning it brings to an individual. In grad school, people didn’t know what to think when they saw reproductions of Fairfield Porter paintings next to a Bart Simpson sticker in her workspace. But Westhafer is comfortable with the contradiction. In fact, she doesn’t consider it a contradiction at all.
Julia Halperin is an arts and culture journalist, editor, and cofounder of the Burns Halperin Report, the largest report of its kind tracking equity and representation in the art world. From 2017 to 2022, she was executive editor of Artnet News, where she oversaw editorial operations for the world’s most widely read art news site. Before that, she served as museums editor of The Art Newspaper and news editor of Art + Auction magazine. Her writing has appeared in WIRED magazine, T: the New York Times Style Magazine, and New York magazine.