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Jesse Draxler and Jen Whitaker
Courtesy of the artists

Beauty and the grotesque

Weirdly sexual and visually challenging; meet the American art duo deconstructing beauty to find the flaws beneath

The creative partnership of artist Jesse Draxler and photographer Jen Whitaker would have been a match made in heaven – that is, if heaven was a darker place. Draxler, a Minneapolis-based artist who has worked in the medium of collage (including 3D) for over five years, has been busy building an impressive portfolio of weirdly sexual and visually challenging images of deconstructed beauty. Whereas LA-based Whitaker is a photographer and visual designer drawn to monochrome, the illusion of perfection disrupted by flaws and icy dust tones. Looking at their rap sheets, it was only a matter of time until the two found a common ground of shared visual aesthetics, a mutual love for black and an interest in the body; its shapes and place within the picture. Their collaborative series Primer, published exclusively here, combines photography and collage for a captivating visual narrative full of movement, sexuality and darkness. Below we talk to the artists about the synchronicity of their creative worlds, collaborative projects, plans and misunderstood movies.

How did the idea of a collaboration come about?

Jesse Draxler: We kind of mutually reached out to each other after seeing one another featured on the same blog a while ago. A follow and follow situation. I think right away both of us could tell that we had similar aesthetic taste levels and a shared point of view. One of us emailed the other saying, "Hey we should work on something together" – and we've been working together since. 

Have you known each other for a long time?

Jesse Draxler and Jen Whitaker: Forever and not that long.   

Have you worked together before?

Jesse Draxler and Jen Whitaker: Everyday. We work together on a constant basis via text, email, and telepathy. One of our main ongoing projects is Blxcklist, which along with two others – garment wizard Sasoon Markarian and set designer and creative director Kelly Fondry – is essentially a clothing brand plus creative agency.

What did you have in mind as the initial idea of the series?

Jen Whitaker: Human error. Stripping all methods to create our own. Rejecting all uniform/conformity/fashion. We started with the selection of the model Sara Cummings. She embodied the interdimensional species that paralleled the initial concepts and ran with it. She wrote this role for us by being her.

Where the title Primer came from?

Jesse Draxler: Primer (2004) is the name of a movie released about 10 years ago now. I remember watching it twice, back to back, the first time I saw it though I barely understood it – but I knew it was about time travel and I felt the vibe deeply. It's quiet and unnerving with this icy tension – beautifully shot. I used it as an aesthetic/vibe example early on in the conversations between J and I. She had seen it and felt on par as well. So when the series was nearly completed I mentioned that we were hitting on some of those themes we had discussed a while back and we agreed immediately that Primer was the name. 

Is there any narrative behind it?

Jen Whitaker: Extreme awkwardness, grotesque, against the grain application to an editorial. Broken, yes. How deep could we dig, how far can we go, what was she willing to do.

Jesse Draxler: Overall I think the narrative is derived from the process we went through to get to the end product. The end product is the culmination of endless texts, emails, and conversations about the unique point of view we both share and how to visually execute that through this medium. Or it’s an alien demon ghosting through dimensions.

Did you have a straightforward division of work when Jen was responsible for photography and Jesse for collage, or was it somehow different?

Jesse Draxler: It was definitely different from any collaboration I have worked on because I was on set for the shoot and helped direct it and then conversely when I was working on the collages I was sending J in progress images while we were discussing themes and ideas about the work – so the division of labour was clear in that she was holding the camera and I was holding the xacto but overall it was a jointly executed and balanced collaboration from inception to completion.

The images look fascinating as a study of a body and its shapes, and breaking its conventions. Are you both interested in body and its graphic representation? Did you explore it before in your work? 

Jen Whitaker: Yes and yes. It is a body study. I think we are both highly captivated by body works and imagery of or relating to body parts, by either celebrating them or negating them.  In this case, the results are most visually pleasing by the placement of the incisions, the unmasking of parts and masking of others. Jesse is a serial killer [winks]