By KURT MCVEY February, 2019
It’s safe to say it’s going to be harder and harder from here on out, in both the mainstream media and the contemporary art world, to dismiss, let alone ignore the artist who calls her base reality persona, Leah Schrager. On February 22nd, Schrager will debut a collection of 16 new works from her Reality Instagram Project in Manifestations, a new solo show at Roman Fine Art in East Hampton, New York. The works are essentially digitally manipulated impressionistic selfies and romantically glitched-out self-portraits that push Schrager’s autoerotic imagery into finer, more “female friendly” realms.
Leah (a softer Sigourney Weaver in relaxed Gatekeeper mode), who lives in Brooklyn, has at least two other clearly defined personalities that can slip and slide back and forth across the nebulous online and IRL divide. The cumulative cultural impact of these avatars (in the West) are coinciding nicely with a major shift in the rapidly evolving discussion regarding sexual performance, taboo, self-representation, sex work (post-millennial “work” in general), creative agency, the expanding and/or retracting definition of “Art” and feminism, #MeToo, and the Phoenix-like rise of post-modern American Puritanism.
It should be made clear right up front that Schrager isn’t exactly comfortable sharing personal, mostly logistical information, primarily because her lack of hesitation regarding the sharing of her most holy of holies online with thousands-scratch that, millions-of pseudo strangers (potential stalkers) puts her at something of a security risk. “I’ve been advised that I shouldn’t share personal details,” she says. “I’ve gotten used to it. It’s pretty weird. If anyone asks my age or where I was born, I say, ‘Sorry, I can’t.’ ”
A brief search online-if you were investigating Schrager as a journalist, landlord, or government employer might-will give you a few solid leads concerning her age, the city and state where she was born, and even a rough estimate of her net worth, which is rising as fast as her impressive Instagram following. Though certainly up for debate, these factors are not essential in appreciating the artist, the enigma, and the very much present, in the flesh human being, now becoming something of an unlikely pioneer and ambassador for a braver, newer world.
“I always hoped that in my work I could be the model, the artist, and the photographer,” says Schrager, who over coffee and cookies remains highly engaged, polite and very much in control of the conversation, which she prefers to steer faithfully back to her evolving art practice. “What most people seem to be complaining about is, women don’t have their own voice. But I’m authoring this. This is who I am.”
The problem for Schrager, as she sees it, is that “who she is,” regardless of which iteration of her performative trinity she’s speaking to (to varying degrees), is not exactly “mainstream friendly.”
There’s Sarah White, “The Naked Therapist,” a rather self-explanatory online character she created in 2010 after recognizing a larger (mental health) crisis in masculinity, now playing out post-Harvey, high (or low) water mark in the ongoing #MeToo saga.
Schrager (the seemingly nuclear persona, though this may or may not be her real name) saw the extent of engagement nude models were garnering online while designing and maintaining high-traffic erotic websites in a freelance capacity. She also built and continues to build each of her own websites from scratch, rather impressively.
“I was batch loading and doing a lot of processing of a site’s server and I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” she recalls. “That was my intro to erotica online; the back end. It was a work thing. I was trying to make ends meet as a dancer in New York City. I never really did it [make ends meet] until Naked Therapy took off. It paid for art school. I was a bad waitress. I tried!”
While building websites, Schrager continually ran into bad experiences with mostly male coders and collaborators. “I was building a site for somebody, a tech person, and they were really rude, not helpful at all,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if the person was really nice and friendly?’ ”
So Schrager decided to combine her love of performance, her kindness, and her “back end” digital insights into a new, niche project. In the beginning she contemplated not only Naked Therapy, but also Naked Tutoring and Naked Coding as well. She built a website offering these three options, but people were clearly only interested in Naked Therapy.
“Naked Therapy is an incredible combination, like peanut butter and jelly,” she says with a confident but goofy giggle. “I was super into Marina Abramović and Cindy Sherman, but I knew the frontier was the online world. That was the stage.”
Though she had done some modeling for photographers willing to push the envelope, Schrager had never posed nude, let alone performed naked over webcam. “I was pretty terrified,” she recalls. “I had never really done anything [nude] before that. When I look back or when I think if I had daughters, I would say, ‘Yes, there is power in your body, but that is something that took a while and through the act of doing and engaging.’ It wasn’t discussed in my family-sex and arousal and the details. For me, I had no idea. I learned through the act of performance.”
In May, 2012, after an attempt to take The Naked Therapist above ground and into the art world mainstream, Schrager put out a paid press release announcing the opening of her own open studio at The Hotel Americano in protest of her alleged blacklisting from West Chelsea Open Studios, whose administrators rescinded their invite, hiding behind the fig leaf that Schrager was a commercial entity and not an artist. The press caught on and her client list, as well as her cache of pre-Instagram haters and admirers, began to grow.
The question of whether or not Sarah White would host a session for Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, or other members of the growing excommunicated American male rogues gallery, is posed. “Yeah, actually Sarah offered Anthony Weiner a naked therapy session,” says Schrager, referring to her own characters as disembodied entities. “That got some press buzz back in the day. But he didn’t take her up on that.”
Sarah White’s Naked Therapy is talk therapy via webcam in which the client and the therapist can become naked and use that experience to illicit unique patient insights. “The real thing that it does, is, it says to a male, ‘You can say whatever you want, you don’t have to hide. Be who you are.’ There’s no stress of, ‘I want to see her naked,’ because it’s already there. You can move beyond that anxiety and be really open,” says Schrager, who offers that the men are also free to masturbate. The cost for a session was originally $150 an hour. Now Sarah White asks for $400. White has been referenced and interviewed by many practicing, licensed therapists, including the clinical psychologist and author David J. Ley, Ph.D. in Psychology Today (2014).
“I’ve seen thousands of men and I haven’t seen a single gay woman, so there has to be something in the science there. I think men are more visual. That’s just what it is, and to deny that is to deny reality.” Sarah White doesn’t faceoff with other mentalists offline or in person however, especially those of the male variety. “I once had a psychoanalyst who wanted to meet, but he proceeded to get naked within the first ten minutes of our meeting,” she says. “I was a little torn because he wasn’t paying me. But there was some professional value. He talked about his mom, his wife. It was a lot.”
The success of The Naked Therapist helped finance Schrager’s MFA degree (2013-16) from Parsons School of Design. Where Schrager, a trained ballet and modern dancer, had previously explored the foundational elements of her current practice as a Biology (sexuality) and Dance (body-based performance) major at the University of Washington, and later the “self” as an aspiring artist and model in New York City, Parsons put her on the path towards complete creative autonomy. “As a model or dancer,” begins Schrager, “you don’t own the image. It’s very disembodying.”
Schrager had previously found herself on the muse side of the lens of Roe Ethridge, Noritoshi Hirakawa, Ben Ritter, Andrew Tyson, and other photographers in the fashion and art worlds. After emerging from the somewhat passive muse chrysalis, Schrager made an attempt to reclaim these same portfolio images in various “Phoems” or photo-poems, by manipulating the image into pseudo-obscurity and later, adding text. These were Schrager’s earliest fine art works, in part, an act of protest. These were shown at The Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) in Seattle in 2010 in her first solo show, PRETTY WHATEVER. This thread continued with My Modeling Portfolio (2012).
The real breakthrough for Schrager, it would appear, was her entry into the now ubiquitous world of Instagram. “The first time I created an Instagram page was in 2013,” she says. “No one followed me. I was like, ‘I hate Instagram. This sucks.’ In 2014, I started my personal art one, Leah Schrager, and ONA Artist, with more sexy modeling pics. I started them at the same time and ONA’s took off.” Schrager speculates it took roughly eight months to really hit her stride on the app. “I asked myself, ‘How are these people doing it? How are they growing?’ I started emulating them (other models and influencers) in a way,” she recalls.
ONA started out with the idea of celebrity as an arts practice. At Parsons, she was both the model and the photographer, while taking inspiration from Richard Prince’s hyper-meta appropriation work with a healthy injection of highly curated, carefully composed T&A with the intellectual and sexual insights culled from her Naked Therapy sessions.
“The leap was when I learned how to start trading,” says Schrager. “I saw which photos did well and made more of those kinds of photos and went from there. She (ONA) didn’t crash land; she slowly grew. Now she’s growing at 10,000 a day. Sometimes she’ll flatline, but it’s all natural growth.” ONA is now at a healthy 3 million followers.
One of the ways that one grows on Instagram is you “trade” with other models. It’s called SFS (Spam For Spam). “They send you a couple thousand followers in the trade,” says Schrager. “There aren’t many who self-identify as artists, but there are models I trade with.” Many of these models are what Schrager calls “Tits-Girls,” which, unlike ONA, a clear “Ass-Girl,” or Leah Schrager, an art-centric “Face-Girl,” often post their Instagram photos with a strong emphasis on their fake breasts. These indirect trades (of attention and eyeballs really) lure in followers who might identify more as “Tits-Men” as opposed to “Ass” or “Face-Men,” all well worn out tropes of bodily preference in the modern bro lexicon.
“The kind of ass photos that ONA does didn’t really exists a few years ago,” claims Schrager. “She’s kind of a forerunner. You want followers and there’s just something about the roundness. It’s either your tits or your ass. The Instagram algorithm has intensified the reality that only if your photo does well will people see it. You have to be posting tits and ass.”
Here’s Schrager, you may have noticed, and primarily through the lens of ONA Artist as a separate online identity, essentially reducing female, online models, including herself, to sex objects, with an inverted but nevertheless embraced, micro “male gaze” focus on their particular sex parts, or various “cheeks of the body.” Where Leah Schrager would reject or ignore the patriarchal lens through which female artists are viewed, as explained in her excellent essay, The Female Painter for BodyAnxiety.com, she’s not looking to disrupt the highly visual, deeply entrenched, highly-calibrated male gaze in terms of how it engages with the unabashed, male-seducing, sex-kitten “Ass-Girl,” ONA.
“I think of myself as the scientist behind ONA’s performance,” she says. By this token, is she also the scientist behind Schrager the artist? Is Leah Schrager, the avatar about to show actual framed, sellable, manipulated digital works in the real life gallery, Roman Fine Art, as much a fabrication as ONA or Sarah White? Does this even matter?
“I’m at this crux now where I’m trying to figure out how to talk about these two large performative projects that I’ve done,” she admits. “They’re completely different online performances, which is how I think about them.”
What’s interesting about art dealer Damien Roman, is he seems to be at the forefront of not giving a flying you know what about the reality or critical perception of artists who take having their cake and eating it too to a completely different level, one outside the critical art realm that pretends to trade in “authenticity” or God knows what these days. But where many curators and dealers see Schrager as an affront to the “fine” element in art or a threat to feminism, Mr. Roman, who’s previously shown the oft-salacious Kaplan Twins, seems to see an opportunity. “Guys have a much more fluid understanding that an image can be both artful and arousing at the same time,” says Schrager. “Not all guys. For a lot of women, once it seems arousing, it’s inappropriate all of a sudden.”
Schrager remembers having to discuss her recently exposed nude derrière online with her family, her mother in particular. “My family is very supportive,” she claims. “They’re open minded, cool people. It wasn’t until Instagram that it created a lot of tension. I mean, it’s my ass on the Internet and unapologetically. My mom said, 'Who wants to see their daughter’s ass on the Internet?' "
It’s noted, that yes, sex certainly still sells, and sticking your bare ass and lace-covered vulva straight into a camera worthy of a perverted Mr. DeMille and the reactive fact that it gets butt loads of attention isn’t exactly rocket science. (Schrager’s online following skews 95% male.) “What I would say, is, ‘Show me the girls doing the same thing and tell me why they’re not as big,’ ” poses Schrager, calmly, but defiantly.
What is strange is how a page like ONA Artist can exist and thrive, but considerably tamer art pages and posts are often censored. At one point, when ONA hit 70K followers, the account was deleted, only to mysteriously reappear a few days later. It should be made clear again, that Schrager, the core persona, the one who meets you in a Brooklyn café and leaves you with a pleasant bittersweet afterglow, doesn’t seem to be searching for any mainstream validation, especially from male critics. That being said, she isn’t immune to the critical and financial interests and intrusion of men.
Enter “Man Hands;” an unknown and possibly unreal “producer” of an abstract variety, a Phantom of the West Coast that recently handed over one million American dollars for Schrager to focus on making less sexually provocative work, allegedly. She doesn’t offer up much regarding the nature of this relationship, though she does leave a trail of breadcrumbs on Leah Schrager’s Instagram page. “I can’t mention who this person is,” she begins, “but it’s an unknown project for a year. I can talk about this at the end. What’s interesting for me is my work is starting to become more female friendly. Now that I’m shifting, people are starting to appreciate my past work.”
Man Hands (originally a metaphor for male imposed artistic validation and projected value) and Schrager’s monetized relationship to him (Schrager neither confirmed or denied if the relationship was sexual), nevertheless recalls artist Andrea Fraser’s 2003 video piece, “Untitled,” which went on view at Frederich Petzel Gallery in Chelsea in 2004. In Fraser’s piece, the artist is seen having sex with an unidentified American collector who paid $20,000 for the privilege to anonymously co-star in the roughly hour-long art film. The video was filmed-somewhat coincidentally considering their shared surnames-in the Royalton Hotel in Manhattan, owned by Ian Schrager.
The word “producer” does evoke a sort of manipulative, musical Dr. Luke archetype, but Schrager seems to silently swerve the conversation away from the possibility that Man Hands is music-related. ONA did take a concerted crack at music, releasing her debut album, ONAMANIA in 2018 and the 2016 EP, SEX ROCK. These didn’t get as much attention as she felt they deserved. Despite this, Schrager is planning another full-length album with a tentative 2020 release. “What happened was, ONA’s not gonna’ make any mainstream waves because no one wants to touch her and that was tragic to me,” she says. “She seemed so female empowered and self empowered and no one cared at all.”
Despite ONA still claiming $500 an hour for private, highly sexualized webcam sessions and an all access pass to her Snapchat and NSFW website for $29.99 a month, Leah Schrager is doubling down on, well, Leah Schrager.
The relationship between ONA and Leah Schrager the Artist, is the most fascinating thread in the larger narrative, as this juxtaposition allows for a meta-dialogue around how women navigate and present themselves online and in the art world. Schrager, though her “Face-Girl” Instagram page is still highly sexual, is able to comment on ONA’s successes and failures the way any removed critic, male or female, could or would. This was the crux of her most celebrated piece in her sold out booth (also with Roman Fine Art) at Scope Art Fair at this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach: Face Girl vs. Ass Girl, comprised of two of the artist’s Instagram posts (Leah and ONA), with comments blown up large and inkjet printed on paper. Viewers were able to see these personas, their respective social media posts, and all their highly differentiated comments blown up on the booth’s wall. ONA’s engagement of course dwarfed that of Schrager’s, leaving a long, cascading, ribbon-like scroll folding over itself onto the floor of the booth.
Schrager can look objectively or subjectively at ONA, and say with equal derision, “Well, if I showed my ass like that...” This is the new, “My kid could have painted that!” Schrager’s work invites all of this and more. But most people, as we know, are too chicken shit to do either. It’s so much easier to judge from the sidelines. Also at Basel, Schrager put ONA’s Instagram on sale for a dollar per follower ($2.6 million at the time), in Buy My Life, recalling Fraser once more. No one bit. “I don’t have an answer for what people should or could do if they bought it,” she says, in many ways, saying it all.
Still, it’s hard to deny Schrager isn’t giving post-muse Natalie White a run for her money as she is now brazenly flirting with the old guard: Prince, Sherman, Abramović, and Emin. “I’m at this point now like, ‘Ok mainstream media, you win,’ ” Schrager concedes. “I’m trying to play it and hopefully game it.” So what does she say when critics, whether uptight exclusionary feminists or man-handed but well-meaning journalists question whether or not Leah Schrager is a true artist? “I just say, ‘Of course. Absolutely.’ ” WM
Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.
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