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Nine Lipstick Photo Stacy Greene
Courtesy of Stacy Greene

Why Stacy Greene’s seminal used lipstick photographs still resonate today

30 years after she photographed the lipsticks of friends and strangers, Stacy Greene’s work continues to draw people in and challenge them to decide whether they are a Gwen or a Rosie

Everyone was worried about Gwen. Someone who was clearly concerned, wrote, “Someone needs to check on Gwen.” Another person wrote, “Gwen is going through it.” Nobody really knew Gwen. However, they knew what her lipstick looked like – and they were worried. The small bullet of red looked like someone had scraped off the sides with a sharp object. The other lipsticks alongside Gwen’s were not in much better shape themselves. The top of Wendy’s lipstick had an extended protrusion like a duckbill and Jean’s had slopes on both sides.

These lipsticks made people uncomfortable, sparked their imaginations to wonder what kind of people Gwen and Wendy and Jean could be to have caused the lipsticks to arrive in this state. They also imagined who Linda and Ellen were, if they used brushes to apply lipsticks and if they were like them. They agreed that it was possible that some of these people were eating their lipsticks and that Ellen needed to be arrested immediately.

The lipsticks are all part of a series by visual artist Stacy Greene, who photographed the varying, unusual and at times alarming shapes of lipsticks belonging to friends and strangers alike. Though the photographs were taken between 1991 and 1993, they have stood the test of time and 30 years on are still delighting and surprising viewers. When pop culture Instagram account Violet Shell posted images from the series recently, it quickly went viral with over 52,000 likes and nearly 300 comments – including the above concern for Gwen and co, and people turning the lipsticks into archetypes that they can identify with. “I’m a Linda kind of girl,” as one commenter wrote.

“I’m surprised and getting used to it,” Greene laughs when reflecting on the Instagram post and this lasting popularity. “But I was always a little surprised how popular it remained and I’m really happy for that. Sometimes I’m like ‘oh my god, I can’t seem to top this peak’, because it just goes into so many worlds – it’s not just the art world.”

Greene first had the inspiration for the series when she picked up a lipstick dropped by her friend outside the Whitney Biennale and opened it to find something so fascinating that it seemed better than all the art at the exhibition. She realised other people must also have unusually shaped lipstick bullets and she and her friends started to look out for them wherever they went. “You have to ask people ‘show me your lipstick’ – it seems kind of intimate to even say that. And then they have to give up their lipstick and I always say, ‘I’ll buy you a new lipstick if I can have your old one.’”

Since the lipstick series, Greene has continued to weave beauty products into her work – photographing perfume bottles and the extreme manicures that were popular in New York in the mid-90s. At a party, she once invited men and women to put on lipstick which she would then film, and recently she has been working with synthetic eyelashes. Through Greene’s lens, these ordinary everyday objects are seen in a different light. “I wanted to make an abstract object that fools people for a few minutes,” as she says about the lipsticks.

You’ve called these lipsticks personal sculptures. What do you mean by that?

Stacy Greene: Well, one doesn’t even know they’re making a sculpture. Because they just think of it as a lipstick, a commercial product. So, they’re not thinking in terms of conceptual art or anything, but still, every lipstick is very personal once it starts to be used. And it’s not a product anymore. It’s your own personal extension of your lips in a way. So, I do think that the thing that really excited me was a subconscious sculpture in the making that was constantly being reshaped.

You’ve explored the transformation from factory-made to the final product after it’s been used a lot in your work. What interested you about this?

Stacy Greene: [With the lipsticks] I think it started more with the shape, the uniqueness of the shape, and that was stimulating in terms of just an aesthetic thing. Then the conceptual element too. Those two things were very exciting to me, that’s why it had to be a photo project. You can make up anything when you’re painting, but if you take a straight photograph and you don’t alter it, that’s a real document and that’s what I like. I like looking at the person and what they did to that lipstick, it is very human and very unique and no one else can copy it. That’s why it had to be a photograph. 

What is your fascination with lipsticks and lips? 

Stacy Greene: Growing up, my mother would always apply her lipstick in the mirror with a brush. She was a single parent, my father had died very young, so she was starting to date again. She would put on the lipstick with a little brush, and the one lipstick you might’ve seen – the Ellen one – that’s the one with a corkscrew, that’s applied with a brush. That’s why she keeps turning it around so she can use every aspect of the lipstick. That’s why it’s like a corkscrew as she’s using the brush. I would just stare up at her, watching her put on her make-up. 

I used to wear red all the time in the 80s in New York because it felt powerful. It felt like you’re walking down the streets and it’s kinda like don’t mess with me. Look at me but don’t mess with me, with the red. And I liked that power statement. I don’t wear as much red anymore, but I do love it, and I think it’s probably the most powerful colour you can wear on your lips.

Is Ellen your mother?

Stacy Greene: No, Ellen is just someone’s aunt whose lipstick I saw. My mother is Maradee.

Who were these people? We always make their personalities up, but what were their actual personalities like?

Stacy Greene: Well, let’s see. My mother was a perfectionist, which is why she used the brush. My sister Roberta is an animal lover and that one actually has a lot of hair on it and dog hair, cat hair, so it shows she’s a little messy, kind of a tomboy – she doesn’t really wear lipstick actually. So, I think that lipstick was more of a joke lipstick. Ellen, my friend’s aunt – very New York, very sophisticated – worked for a make-up company. I think she worked for Guerlain, and she was very fastidious. She did the corkscrew, using the brush. India, the one that’s kind of a lump of clay – she’s a slob. I don’t know if that was in her pocket for so long that it melted into a blob, but she gave that to me. 

Gwen, who was my friend’s mother, was disabled – I think it was muscular dystrophy – her lipstick ended up in the wash, so that’s why that one looks the way it is, but I love the texture. I just thought it was another way of thinking about sculpture, just all the textures on it. I’m not trying to do a beauty product magazine shoot, [I’m focusing on] things that can happen and the person’s personality. 

One of my favourites is Wendy – the one that I think of as a duckbill. My friend found that she was waitressing at a restaurant in New York and she saw this woman putting on her lipstick after she had her meal. Another favourite was Jerelyn. She’s an artist, actually she works at Marvel. I always think of that as the chisel – I do have nicknames for each one. Brenda, the purply shiny one, was married to a very wealthy man and she always had to present herself just right. She was a very interesting, very quirky woman, and just was always out in the public eyes, so I think her lipstick is a little more pristine.

Today people have ascribed different meanings to the series but what did you want to convey with it?

Stacy Greene: I wanted people to see the abstract element and the individual as the individual and to see what they can make subconsciously. It’s not a conscious thing usually, it’s an everyday habit that one is doing – and also that was fun to witness. They were all printed large, 20” x 24”, and if I had more money at the time I would have printed them huge. I would have taken them super out of scale, so they become like gigantic shapes that most people wouldn’t even know what they were – they just think of them as a shape. A lot of men – mostly men, not women so much – when they see the photograph, at first they don’t know what it is.

Do you still notice lipsticks today and if their shape is kind of weird?

Stacy Greene: You know, sometimes I notice. I’ve not seen bright colours as much as I would think. I don’t go out, I mean, I’m not going to clubs that much or I might notice something if I go to an event, an opening perhaps. Maybe it’s a little unfortunate, but I think everyone’s so casual in New York now, I mean unless you are going to an event.

Did you notice more of these weird-shaped lipsticks in the ‘90s, in the clubs?

Stacy Greene: Well, you did because everybody went to the bathroom. They were putting on their lipstick, maybe doing a line or two of cocaine. So, you were looking at everybody, you were looking at the clothes and everyone was crowded around the mirrors. Maybe that still happens, but I don’t really go to clubs that much anymore. I can’t remember the last club I went to. I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff going on now, but it’s just a younger crowd than me. Not that I’m old.