At the Malta Society of Arts in Palazzo De La Salle, Valletta, Gozo-based American figurative painter SJ Fuerst presents Gimme Some Sugar, a surprising solo exhibition which runs until May 23.

It is an unashamed celebration of sweets, candy and colour with a paradoxical twist, playfully documenting candy’s presence in pop culture and her own love affair with sugar.

As an artist, Fuerst was classically trained and enjoys the challenge of painting people. “When a painting includes a person, it makes it easy for the viewer to connect with it,” she explains.

“Inspired by pop art and fashion photography, I mix the figurative with fun to present contemporary topics in a way that teases traditional perceptions.”


By including sweets in her paintings, Fuerst challenges standard assumptions about what it is appropriate to record in art, and what’s important to people in today’s world.”

“Why not paint something that makes so many of us happy every day? Surely that’s worth celebrating?” she smiles.

“I’m giving familiar everyday consumables a significance and I hope they’re capturing something of the moment.”

Although stepping into the show is like entering a sweet shop, these delicious works are not quite as innocent as the unabashed pink and candy coatings might suggest. Beneath the childlike innocence, there’s a dark seductive undercurrent to unpick. Are the women depicted, perhaps, to be unwrapped?

<em>Cotton Candy</em>Cotton Candy

To create each of the large paintings in the show, Fuerst dressed a Maltese model in a sweet-packet costumes with giant props. Having taken hundreds of quick snaps, Fuerst then chooses the best for their body language, their mood and stance, using the photo series like a sketchbook from which to paint with a sassy realism.

“The models are spectacular – they have a gift for coming alive in front of the camera. They’re adorable to look at, at ease with having fun, and exude a badass confidence. I love to portray that ‘This is me; I have this’ attitude in women,” she explains.

“‘Eye candy’ is a commonly used phrase describing women as tasty to look: women are expected to be sweet and are judged by their appearance,” SJ continues. “In these paintings, however, the models are taking ownership of that description. They’re saying, ‘Yes, I’m gorgeous but I’m strong too’.”

<em>Blow Me (Bubblegum)</em>Blow Me (Bubblegum)

In Fuerst’s pieces, the protagonist is looking directly at the viewer, holding your gaze, and Fuerst invites you to ask whether that’s provocative or powerful, or perhaps both?

Why not paint something that makes so many of us happy every day?

“Earlier this year,” continues Fuerst, “the UK banned a new Calvin Klein advert featuring musician FKA Twigs on the basis that it was ‘overly sexualised’ because, partially clothed, the musician looked straight out of the photo. It’s hard to imagine a similar image which featured a man looking the viewer directly in the eye receiving the same censorship.

“For me, these women are in control and that’s aspirational – Girl Power is liberating, and their candy costumes are the icing on the cake!”

<em>Cream Pie</em>Cream Pie

A second series of work is based on Candy Land, a popular board game in the US, which spawned a whole merchandising empire and influenced Katy Perry’s pop song California Gurls. It’s a simple game of chance – and who will get ahead?

In the exhibition, on a series of vintage boards on which girls and led through the landscape by boys, and women appear as fairy godmothers, Fuerst has updated this journey through the decades of popular culture, adding gently subversive images for the 21st century. There’s a honeypot, cream pies, a pearl necklace, aubergines, and a shot of Barbie in a motorboating action scene.


It’s no surprise to see Barbie make a cameo appearance in this exhibition: and although Fuerst started on this project long before the movie came out, it’s a perfect fit with the current zeitgeist.

Superficially, the pieces are entertaining confection; and yet, stopping to think beyond the light-hearted love-hearts, they serve as a commentary on a contemporary conundrum beyond gender politics.

They touch perhaps on the use of social media, and the planning of each piece which mirrors the approach of today’s youngsters to their curated on-line feeds, and issues of consumerism and diet – and the way sugar addiction is ingrained in society.


“I’m a sugar addict,” Fuerst confesses. “When I was first working on the pieces for this show, I’d decided to give up sugar and it was all I could think about. I’m back on it now – after all, what’s the point of a world without marshmallows? – but now I have my coffee without sugar so that’s a small win.”

The exhibition also includes several contemporary candy boxes onto which SJ has painted tasteful vintage erotica, framed pieces of sculpted lollipops in resin and polymer clay, and a small number of toasted marshmallows adorned with portraits that look good enough to eat.


In the final room of the show, these marshmallows are presented around a glowing fire, below the direct gaze of Grand Masters in colourful robes, celebrated figurative art that tells its own story of another era. The comparison between these and SJ’s 21st-century art is fascinating, and you can’t help but wonder, where will society take us next?

Gimme Some Sugar at the Malta Society of Arts runs until May 23.

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