Queen Museum Studio, New York
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP? DO YOU FEEL THIS HAS ANY IMPACT ON YOUR WORK?
I grew up in the suburbs of Wilmington, DE. I went to Catholic school–private Catholic high school. We weren’t super affluent, but we lived in a house that was my grandmother’s and it was full of shag carpet and textile art and all this kooky stuff that was popular at the time [she lived there], but seen through the lens of gaudy Italian aesthetics too, so it was really full throttle opulence as far as color and texture. I was super inspired by that–seeing latch hook pillows and embroidery and shag carpet. Those were things I associated with creative expression and “Art” before I’d gone to a museum. Actually, museums were disappointing by comparison because they felt so austere and removed.
Strangely enough, I became inspired way later, when I moved to New York, by Jonathan Adler and this idea of Decorative Art. Then I found out that he, too, was from Wilmington, DE, so I think we were seeing a lot of the same weird stuff. It was very weird to have that revelation because he was a designer and a potter, but the commercial world he created around himself was so aspirational to me–it’s so Queer and celebratory. You’re now seeing Queer artists embracing the awesomeness of being Queer, but for years–especially when I was younger–you were embracing the challenges of being Queer or the nightmare of being Queer. I came out in high school and had a very positive experience. That was rare in the 90s. I don’t take it for granted, but that, I think, informed how I saw my Queerness. I always saw it as something that made me special–a positive thing. And now that I’m an adult, I get to have this world full of choices that I get to make about myself, like monogamy or whether to have kids or not. I have so much more freedom as a Queer person, and I actually wish that I could give that freedom to the world. I want to express that kind of freedom. My work is very colorful, attractive, and textured, and I’m strategically making things that are traditionally considered beautiful both because I like those things, but also because I know that if I can embed enough complexity and meaning in those things, it’s so much easier for my viewer to want to suss that stuff out over time. There’s this instant allure of this object that is scaled beyond what is a small decorative object in their home would be. The language of those things is kind of scalable, so they still understand it even though it’s six feet bigger than it should be, but that’s what’s exciting about the work for me–taking those humble moments and scaling them up. All of that comes from appreciation of art from where I came from.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN YOUR CURRENT STUDIO?
I’m coming up on the end of two years here at the Queens Museum and it’s been an amazing opportunity–to have institutional support is like…I knew it would be awesome, but I didn’t know how awesome. Really the coolest thing is obviously having a big space to work in. First and foremost, it is amazing. As a New Yorker, it’s such a struggle just to have 200 sq ft, and then to have someone hand you 350 sq ft that you only have to pay a tiny fee a month for is amazing. The other thing that I didn’t anticipate is that having institutional support gives you this kind of protective forcefield of what I like to call the sign wave–the emotional sign wave that artists experience. It’s when you feel amazing and everything you make it awesome, and then all of a sudden you slip into this thing where you’re questioning and doubting yourself. You get paralyzed. You’re scrapping ideas that you just should have seen through. I think the closer you get to an exhibition, the more insane it gets and so thank god I don’t live with another artist! My boyfriend is so pragmatic and organized that he keeps me a little stable. But when you have institutional support, when I start that slope downwards I realize this museum validates me everyday and gives me this space, so clearly I shouldn’t stress. That’s not something I would have thought of. Grad school kind of does that too, but in grad school you’re also in a pit fight. There’s this pit fight going on that you’re unwillingly getting thrown into with all of these other young, aspiring artists and no matter how good you feel about being in your graduate program, that’s still terrifying and a mess. I think it’s an important mess to experience because it’s not unlike the real world. But–this [experience] is not like that. This is super chill. And my colleagues here, when I barely see them because we’re all on different schedules, are just really supportive. We all make work that’s so aesthetically different, so I don’t think we all love each others’ work, but we love that we’re here and that’s enough.
CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR CURRENT PREFERRED PROCESSES?
I’ve always been into textiles–yarn specifically. I have like 10 cooler sized bins of yarn. Some of it I’ve had for decades. I don’t throw stuff away, which is good because I often need a small amount of a certain color, so I build this archive of materials that I can pull from. Now I have color swatch sheets from companies, so I can be even more fussy about color.
Color is really important to me. Beyond material. I feel like for the last ten years I saw so much gray, austere, minimal expressions of color, or colorless work. I felt really outside of that conversation. I felt like I had no way in because that work seems so serious, and in some ways it is interesting and valid and important, but after ten years…I’m so happy with what’s happening in the art world right now because I feel like there’s so much exuberance and a leaning toward surrealism that’s really exciting to me. There’s an embracing of abstraction and color and joy that I haven’t seen in my entire history of being an artist since the 90s in New York. I haven’t seen this much joyful, and at times, silly work. And it is–thank god!
The writing around art has also become more approachable. The fact that Art Forum pivoted from what is was, which was these long academic essays, to putting an HIV positive woman of color on the cover who is an emerging artist, Kia Labeija, and just running with that. Thank god, because without telling the whole story or more stories, or including more points of view, it just gets so boring. It’s so elitist and so boring, and it’s the reason why artists, when they’re depicted in film and tv, are always jokes. For years, the art world only focused on its very elite core, which included people with academic and financial privilege, which is ridiculous. Artists are more than that. And that doesn’t mean that poor people have to go to Spencer’s and buy a poster to have art on their walls at home. Art can be for everyone. There was a time in the 50s and 60s when you had people like Alexander Girard, textile companies like Marimekko who were helmed by artists and decorative artists who were blurring the lines of those practices and reaching more people. Everyone could have beautifully designed things cheaply. That visual culture is why the house I grew up in was so exciting, because there was no safely terrible Thomas Kinkaid landscape on the wall, there was weird stuff. Weird stuff was allowed in peoples’ homes because it was colorful and accessible and colloquial and friendly, but something happened and that went away leaving Ikea to make choices for people about what tasteful art was cool for your house. Dedicated professional artists became adversaries of those kinds of suburban, domestic settings. There’s lots of good reasons for that, and I don’t want to get into all of it, but there’s no reason why it can’t be reclaimed or won back. The art world doesn’t want to talk about that because talking about decorative art is not talking about contemporary art. My work, stubbornly, kind of exists somewhere in between. It’s a scary place to be, but also a challenge for me to make something unique. Or stake out a territory that’s been dormant for a very long time.
I don’t want to make anything that an imaginative six year old can’t feel a connection to, because who then am I making this work for? The Art world? That’s a terrific audience for art of course, but I want to share my work beyond my elite professional world. I think my work used to be way more concerned LGBTQ identity, and some autobiographical representation of that…but it felt like a burden after a while. What kind of work would I make if I didn’t have to “fight the fight” every day in my studio? I started making abstract work, and it’s still Queer regardless of the content because I made it. If there’s anything that running a residency for emerging LGBTQ artists has taught me, it’s that there’s so many different ways to be a Queer artist or an artist who just happens to be Queer. There’s no right or wrong way, or rules, and everyone can succeed with a different strategy, but for me…I just wanted to indulge my decorative instincts. And it was scary because I thought people would think that’s dumb and people would think I’m an idiot. An idiot with taste who can make pretty things. And on my worst days I still feel that way, but I don’t have as many of those bad days because I feel like I’ve created a visual language that’s all my own that references the decorative, but it’s also strange and unfamiliar to me – revealing things visually and psychologically I don’t even anticipate until it’s happened.
WHAT ARE THE UNDERLYING THEMES IN YOUR WORK? WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO ACHIEVE?
The themes in my work are more the influences on my work than the themes. I’m influenced by interior design and decorative art, but I’m also influenced by video games and the flatness of the pictorial spaces in the games that I played in the 80s to the 2000s, before everything became polygons. Everything was flat and moved from side to side or up and down on a plane. When you spend a zillion hours in those spaces, even if you’re not trying to recreate them, that becomes part of the visual language that you produce. Or at least for me it did, so I definitely think there’s something about those video games that’s in the work in a more subtle way, an architectural way than in a thematic way. Theme-wise, there’s not a lot to pull from the video game world, it’s pretty boring, cliche, heteronormative, heroic narratives that are not that interesting to me. I do like the idea of making those video game scenarios really Queer. Or what it would look like if the goals were not to destroy something, but to caress it. The imagery I’m working with is definitely adversarial, but it’s also gentle and balanced and careful, so it’s a different kind of adversarial relationship. When you’re dealing with this kind of graphic style, if you’re trying to convey an idea of something being perfect–and I think of plants as perfect because they’re so self-sufficient and universal and attractive–I like the idea of making that very balanced and precise. And then all the things that reference the human body are squishy and boneless and floppy; a little more clumsy. I feel like that’s our relationship to the environment, at best. When we’re not destroying it, we’re just clumsily existing with it.
HOW DO YOU WORK THROUGH GETTING STUCK IN YOUR STUDIO PRACTICE? HOW DO YOU MEASURE SUCCESS AND/OR MEANINGFUL WORK?
Artist block is real. You get to these roadblocks. I like to work with series, so that sustains me for a while. But eventually things start to feel like you’re phoning it in. I don’t want to be like Peter Halley or Richard Serra and make the same work for forty years. To me, that’s something that only a super rich straight white guy in the art world would be able to get away with. The rest of us always have to constantly innovate (and thank goodness!). They get to come up with one idea, get canonized by other white dudes in Art History, and boom–they’re on easy street. They can just noodle around and self-reflect on the same, single idea that they come up with.
So when I get stuck, I do this thing where I fantasize about what I want over my couch or bed. And if that isn’t my work, it’s some imagined thing, then that imagined thing is the next thing I’m going to make. If I trick myself into thinking like a decorator since those instincts come very easy to me, I can trick myself into thinking of a new idea. I’m funny in that I’m one of those artists who likes their own work in their house. It’s a little tacky and I feel kind of dumb about it, but for years it was just necessity. I didn’t have money to buy another artist’s work that I like as much, so now I try to trade with people and I get stuff I like. But the large things that take up the most real estate are the things I’ve made. So if I get sick of something that I’ve made and put over my bed or couch, the two most sacred places in the home for art, then I have to re-evaluate what I’m doing. It’s very easy to fantasize about what a decoration would look like, and then I can conceptually think about what got me there later, once it’s done and I’ve made ten of them. I’m not in grad school anymore. I don’t have to overanalyze this stuff to the point of no return. I think it’s healthy to spend time as an artist having to do that, and learning to articulate your ideas, but it is not a sustainable way to continue to make interesting art. I started making my archway drawings maybe four years ago. I just had this urge to draw a hanging plant in an archway. That’s all I wanted to do. And then the next one was two hanging plants, and then I thought that it needed some conflict. What is it about my desire for this perfect domestic portal? So I put an arm in there just reaching, and then it rolled from there. I kept doing it in as many different variations as I could. It wasn’t until I had about 25 of them that I made my first sculptural piece. I was able to say, which one is the best or work the best as a sculpture.
DO YOU HAVE ANY PROJECTS OR EXHIBITIONS COMING UP THAT YOU’D LIKE TO PROMOTE?
There’s Grizzly Grizzly in Philadelphia which is a brilliant, artist-run space that reached out to me and asked me to be in this two person show with Jesse Harrod, someone I’ve actually been conspiring to be in a show with for the last two years. The show is open and it’s up for the month. There’s a summer show at the Bureau of General Services Queer Division, which is this crazy, giant, cavernous space in the NYC LGBTQ Center that’s an independent bookstore, but it’s also an event and exhibition space because it’s so much bigger than a regular gallery. The owners do this amazing project of this store, but then almost every night of the week they have an event of poetry, art, performance–they’re constantly programming it and it’s really amazing. This artist Liz Collins who was in the Trigger show at the Whitney, she’s also on the board of the residency I run, is organizing a giant portrait show with around 100 artists in that space. She’s going to do wallpaper, floor coverings–the whole space is going to be transformed into this contemporary Queer salon. So I’m really excited for that coming up.
And then in November I’ll be in a show at Law Warschaw Gallery at Macalester College in Minneapolis St.Paul Minnesota For once I have a lot of stuff going on, which is kind of new to me. I always have something down the road, or a “maybe something” down the road, but to have shows open at the same time and then have other stuff I have to make work for is really exciting and pretty new for me. I also teach Intro to Sculpture at NYU as an adjunct.