“Dear Danielle Steel,
My name is Sean Fader. I am a queer artist and a professor at Tulane University. I am writing to you from Stove Works, an artist residency in Chattanooga Tennessee. I have been asked to produce a piece for a show at Antenna Gallery that will open as part of a multivenue triennial in New Orleans. The exhibition’s theme is sugar, and I decided to investigate the history of the sugar daddy, in particular the story of Adolph Spreckels and Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. I was immediately consumed by their story which eventually led me to you.”
This exhibition, Sugar Daddy: Dear Danielle, opening May 19 and running through June 24 at Denny Gallery, New York, is a culmination of the artist’s years of research into the life and interwoven stories of the wealthy socialite Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, her husband the sugar magnate Adolph Spreckels and their relationship which formed around the Spreckels Mansion now owned by prolific romance novelist Danielle Steel. With each new twist, turn, and revelation, Fader has fallen deeper into the larger-than-life saga, in which carefully constructed public images take on lives of their own. Rather than treat these fascinating lives as specimens to be studied or kept at a distance, Fader has imagined himself in their worlds. These new works employ headlong identification and fabulation, blurring the facts from the fictions. It started with a common enough phrase—“sugar daddy”—which Fader learned Alma had “invented” and bestowed upon her much older husband, the head of the Spreckels Sugar Company. “Sugar daddy” gets used today to reference those whose relationships are governed by unequal wealth and transactional love, and each offhand application of this term echoes Alma’s inaugural, chiding, and appreciative name for daddy Adolph. Alma was, herself, formidable to say the least, and she became one of the most important art collectors and patrons of art in early 20th century America creating her own museum, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. That sugar went a long way, and Fader’s work recaptures the rambunctious history of this social circle, its romantic entanglements, its scandals, and the ways in which it put art at its center. This story comes to resemble the wild plots and passions of Danielle Steel, who has lived in Alma’s mansion for decades. Fader’s cycle of photographs offers a queer recasting of these coincidences and intrigues, asking how passion and influence take on lives of their own.
Fader has interrogated the images through which people represent themselves, and his career has paralleled the rise of digital photography and social media, both of which Fader sees not as supplemental to the history of photography but, rather, its current baseline. His earlier series of works have questioned the status of portraiture, the profile pic, the hashtag, and the selfie in contemporary image culture. In each, Fader exposes the fault lines between crass self-representation and emotionally vulnerable exposure. He treats his own self-image as a collaborative and dialogic creation that speaks to others’ desires more than any self-expression. In the current work, he appears again in a new guise, offering himself as a character in Alma’s, Adolph’s, and Danielle’s worlds. Whereas his earlier work has been presented primarily through social media and the distributable digital image, the works in Sugar Daddy: Dear Danielle look back to the medium of painted portraiture. The society portrait—a means of generating attention and envy—was Fader’s guide through the odd yet true story of Alma’s visionary art patronage, Adolph’s sweet money, and Danielle’s endless epics of passion. Fader has presented these portraits in custom frames mimicking lavish gilded frames of nineteenth-century portraiture to evoke the opulence of Spreckels’s era. Fader’s work is neither historical nor recuperative. Rather, his obsession with these heterosexual dramas and fictions becomes an opportunity to talk about the queer identifications and projections that might be possible in the unlikeliest of places. Seeped in camp, Fader’s works critically examine the excess of his subjects while asking how they might be seen as queer melodrama. His colored and leather frames reference the queer histories affiliated with the Spreckels family and looks to the narratives embedded within Alma story alongside the personal and written narratives of Danielle Steel. The wealth of Spreckels and the sexual abandon of Steel’s novels are both loved for their excess, but neither are coveted. Instead, Fader’s work examines how those extremes were other means of self-representation. He imagines the rooms of the mansion—inhabited by these two powerful women of different generations—as a setting for self-fictionalizing and self-imaging. Much as his earlier work had questioned the gap between the selfie or the profile pic and the actual life of the one who posts it online, Fader’s arrogation of the milieu of Spreckels and Steel is meant as an opening to question how such self-fictionalizations have real effects. Fader’s imagined immersive scenes express adoration for these fascinating women but nevertheless ask what our contemporary culture—with its endlessly circulating images of wealth and status—can learn from their commitments to a never-ending quest for influence and respect.
Fader’s imagined world is not documentary but invented, and his sugary palette of saturated pinks and purples along with the purposeful rainbow palette applied to the family portraits bring humor and underpin the queerness of the group depicting the diverse characters who frequented the Spreckels Mansion. It also situates the work very much in the contemporary sphere, where continuous reproduction of photographic images often distorts color, so the hand coloring of each family portrait breathes new life and symbolism into the scenes and gives them a digital quality that we have come to expect in the bright, enhanced photos online.
As befitting of the depth of research, Fader presents a collection of photographic editions, adapted family portraits and video works with stylized audio narration befitting the swooning romance novels written by Danielle Steel. This inextricably ties the work to the current doyenne of the Spreckels Mansion and her fabrication of family sagas and relationships. Denny Gallery becomes the stage by which to tell these stories and through this, Fader uncovers a surreal history of this elite social group entangled in romance, scandal and art, investigating how lives become legends through the fabric of the internet and the retelling of stories.
Sean Fader received an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a MA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and a BFA from the New School in New York City. Fader lives in New York City where he is an Assistant Professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in the Department of Photography and Imaging. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and internationally in Dubai, Canada, Mexico, and England. Recent exhibitions include: Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum (Buffalo, NY) traveling to the Beall Center for Art + Technology at the University of California, (Irvine, CA), Sugar at Antenna Gallery (New Orleans, LA), Contemporary Performance at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts (Tampa, FL), Thirst/Trap at Denny Dimin Gallery (New York, NY), We Are People at Galeria Labirynt, (Lublin, Poland), Apparatus for a Utopian Image 2 at the Center for Contemporary Arts, (Prague, CZ) Picture Yourself: Selfies, Cellphones, and the Digital Age at the College of Wooster Art Museum (Wooster OH), Drama Queer: seducing social change at the Queer Arts Festival, (Vancouver, Canada).
Fader has been awarded prestigious residencies at Loghaven, (Knoxville, TN), Stove Works, (Chattanooga, TN), The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, (New York, NY), Art Omi, (Ghent, NY), Center for Contemporary Arts Prague, (Prague, CZ), GlogauAIR, (Berlin, Germany). Fader was awarded the Catalyst Support Grant, MASS Design, Public Memory and Memorial Lab, Boston Mellon Fellow for Community Engaged Scholarship, Tulane University, Boston, and was named a NYFA Fellow in 2013 and A Blade of Grass Fellow for 2012-2013. He received Magenta Foundation’s Flash Forward Award for Emerging Photographers in 2012. His work has been featured in the British Journal of Photography, MOMUS, Hyperallergic, Art F City, the Huffington Post, and Slate. Sean Fader is represented by Denny Gallery, New York and Hong Kong.
Celebrate Pride Month with artist Sean Fader discussing the queer narratives woven through his exhibition.