Hallie McNeill, Contributor, Lookie-Lookie
Lee Relvas is an artist and musician residing between New York and Los Angeles. Hallie McNeill had the opportunity to interview Relvas about her newest sculptural work on the occasion of her upcoming participation in “At Night the States” at the Hammer Museum this January, and the debut of her first solo show in New York at Callicoon Fine Arts in April 2017.
Hallie McNeill: Admittedly, I’m most familiar with the body of work you've been doing more recently - the linear wood pieces you showed at Artist Curated Projects last winter and recently at Frieze London. The show in Los Angeles was titled "Longhand," which conjures an obvious relationship to writing. Does the process of making them relate in any way to the process of writing as well?
Lee Relvas: While there are formal echoes between what hand-writing looks like and these pieces, the most explicit being the vocabulary of loops and lines I see in cursive writing and in the gestures of bodies, it’s actually the process of reading, rather than writing, that provides a guiding light for me, and shows me a way to move through my desire and suspicion that are equally and always present when I am making work.
For my specific brain, a book—actually, a novel—is a perfect piece of technology for me to receive the kinds of information I hunger for, which is: an experience of another person’s consciousness. Many experiences of many people’s consciousnesses! When I read, the character is revealed to me through what the character does and says; the novel is a form that allows me to experience someone else’s interior reality. And yet, however close I feel to this character’s experience, they are never under my surveillance; I would not be able to pick the character out of a police line-up, and if we passed each other on the street, I would not recognize them.
And it’s this kind of intimate un/knowing of other humans that helped me find a way through this intense and contrarian suspicion I have around visuality. In that, I’ve always desired to engage with the body in one way or another in my work—the body as a porous mesh where external reality becomes interior reality and vice versa. But! As we know, there is a long and violent history of the categorization of bodies through visuality, from the idea that you can tell anything at all about a person by looking at them. This simple and brutal idea has life and death consequences for humans, and becomes a way of determining and circumscribing the range of possible movement for any particular body.
So, I wanted to figure out how to make or show or depict a body that acknowledges the shaping of experience by external categorizations, but also always has an interior reality which is, even if only in a tiny part, free from those categorizations. It is active in the creation of a selfhood or consciousness, which may be dissonant or wholly different from those categorizations. It is free from surveillance, from being seen. As the rapper Open Mike Eagle says in his song Ziggy Starfish, “My aim’s to honor your physical/ And leave room for all your secrets.”
My sculptures are both outline, drawing mass and volume by demarcating space within it, and skeleton, imagining mass and volume building upon it. I want to give just enough information to show how the body might move, cross their legs, poised to speak. I want each object/body to speak through what it does instead of what its surface looks like. The sculptures change as the viewer walks around them so that the viewer’s translation of gesture is always changing based on their position in the room. It’s the closest I’ve come to manifesting in my work what I experience when I read: I’m not sure what they look like, but I can tell you how they move.
HM: I love this idea of being motivated by suspicion and desire: terms that define a torrid affair, which is an accurate way to conceive of an art practice. Do you or have you ever kept a journal?
LR: Oh boy! I have sporadically kept a journal since puberty, and the writing that comes out can only be described as gruesome spurts of self-loathing and self-recrimination! I don’t know why but whenever I try to write “in a journal” I end up just transcribing the most admonishing voices in my head, the ones that recite litanies of faults and indulgences, falsehoods and laziness. And hey, they’re not wrong! But. It’s not a generative form for me. Those voices would have me give up and die alone in a room somewhere. So. My only daily writing is note-taking, mostly observations of people I know or don’t know. I see a stranger nodding, talking to her friend on the bus, and my note will be “She squints and then nods in agreement, as if she just added her signature to something.” Or another conversation between strangers: “She’s nodding rapidly, as though to forestall any pause of condescension.” There are so many different kinds of nods! And I like this kind of translation, linked to something observable, but clearly coming from the brain behind my eyeballs. It ends up being self-examination, I think, without being the grueling self-cross-examination that is unfortunately inextricably tied to journal-writing in my mind.
HM: Ha, I feel similarly. The me that comes out in any sort of journalistic monologue is never a me I like or a me that I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed the back and forth of correspondence; the presence of another recipient both fuels and edits my thoughts in a productive way, and keeps me from wallowing in my own head. On that note, what have you been reading over the summer/past few months?
LR: Haha welp thank you for asking because—I just happen to keep a list of all the books I’ve read since I was twenty-five, so nearly a decade now. I’m pretty sure it’s the most accurate way of keeping a journal for me. I like to read anything, everything. Well, mostly fiction I guess. And I re-read books a lot too. Some of my very favorites from the past few months were: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, The Women by Hilton Als, Artful by Ali Smith, The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams, Zong! by M. Nourbese Philip, Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, The Van by Roddy Doyle, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (a re-read), Leave It to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse, Art & Culture by Bruce Hainley, In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, When Watched by Leopoldine Core, and Bliss by Katherine Mansfield. I’m perpetually re-reading Zadie Smith, Lorrie Moore, and Edward St. Aubyn, and have been slowly reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time for about eight years now. And even though I read it last year, I’m happy to use this platform to mention a book that I found randomly at the library but have never seen it written about or met anyone else who’s read it: a novel called The Kills by Richard House. Its starting point is the real-life event of the 12 billion dollars that were airlifted into Iraq by the US government in duffel bags in $100 dollar bills, in the year after the beginning of American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and this money just kind of vanished. It’s a critique of the privatization of the military, the globalized flow of capital, the gendered and racialized violence of war, the lack of any kind of governmental oversight, and war-profiteering. But the critique is made both in content and through form: through the creation of highly specific characters with ambiguous motivations, and the complex fabrication of a dense but tenuous net of personalities and forces. If it were music it would never have a resolved chord, would introduce motifs which are repetitive but never recognizable enough to imply simple cause-and-effect characterization, would start by picking up in the middle of some unknown happening and would trail off ominously without really ending. It’s the most unsettling book I’ve ever read, and it’s incredible.
HM: Wow! I want to see this list. Did you come from a family of readers, or was it something anomalous to you? Have you always been a big reader or was it something that you came into later?
LR: My mom is a big fiction reader, and I remember her reading aloud to me and my two older brothers a lot. I learned to read on my own as soon as I could, and I remember feeling, the moment I realized I was reading on my own, a visceral whoosh of relief, this feeling like I would never be lonely or bored ever because I had this endless friend in books. This certainty has never gone away. As soon as I could read, there was never a time when I wasn’t reading, or didn’t want to be reading. I just wanted to be left alone so I could read. This means that when I was growing up, I guess I had a reverse experience- I didn’t read to find reflections of my experiences in books, instead, I lived so that I could see and feel refractions of what I had experienced in books!
HM: What about music—your description of House’s book makes it impossible for me not to ask. Did you grow up playing instruments or singing?
LR: I grew up singing. I sang in a neighborhood children’s choir from an early age, and we performed show-tunes and oldies in malls and nursing homes around Boston, that kind of thing. Then around age twelve, I fell in love with opera (by reading a book about an opera singer!) and started taking voice lessons and singing in competitions- which all stopped around age eighteen when I realized I wanted to smoke weed and listen to free jazz! So other forms of music beckoned. But it was so formative; being a young singer rather than a musician can give you an interesting relationship to the idea of “mastery,” because even if you're singing advanced arias, your approach can still be fairly unschooled. I learned so much by ear without knowing much of the theory that is usually compulsory for classical musicians. And the things that you do try to learn—breathing techniques, mouth positions and how they adjust tone—they’re all just inside of you, completely visceral but utterly intangible.
Being a singer gave me the experience of an intuitive embodiment that felt strangely-- resourceful! Not exactly about comforting yourself, but just a weird feeling of self-sufficiency and joy, even if only for yourself. It feels physically good to sing! Without an audience, without an instrument, without anything external, but still somehow alien, surprising. So then, following my non-future as a classical singer, I found this feeling in other genres of music and by teaching myself to play other instruments, particularly in my twenties in the DIY music scenes in Chicago. Although I did go through a period where I really wanted to prove that I could shred!, the important part in these scenes isn’t necessarily mastery either; instead, it’s to participate, to communicate. Then, just before I turned thirty, I started making music on my computer with my solo project, Rind, the process of which I love because with a computer you can lay something down really roughly and then tweak it to your heart’s content. You don’t have to master playing a riff before going on to the next one. And the immediacy reverberates: the route from having an idea in your head to having an idea in the computer to build upon is so direct it’s almost like singing.
Music connects these important points- embodiment, non-mastery, and participation—to make this beautiful triangle of social space that I’m so happy to spend time in. From singing in nursing homes with other kids, to playing guitar and bass in various noise and metal bands, to finding a community of musicians who were doing all kinds of crazy stuff on their computers—I love participating in that sociality of musicians and listeners, no matter what genre it’s magnetized around. I haven’t put out an album in three years, but I know there’s always one on its way because it would feel so lonely to lose that kinship.
And I love how comfortable everyone tends to feel around music, how welcoming it can be—which also allows it to be pushed to its extreme edges. People might not have a favorite painting or a favorite book, but they do have a song they love. I love the flexibility of music, how it moves so fluently from the communal experience of going to a club to the quotidian intimacy of listening to an album when you’re cleaning your apartment or having sex. That intimacy of communication with the listener that is possible and specific to music is something that I don’t ever want to give up.
HM: In the past, you've engaged music and performance in your work, such as the solo operas The Porous World (2012) and The Kinship Structures of Ferns (2009). How did you think about the shift from using your own body as the singular site of enacting a work to using sculptural objects?
LR: The shift was first motivated by a growing discomfort around the gap between some of the joy that I wanted to enact through my performance pieces, and the awful fact of how terrible, and lonely, it actually felt to perform these pieces 99% of the time. In my early and mid-twenties, I made a series of performances that tried to make a temporary utopic space built around queer kinship structures and this idea of “radical happiness.” They often had sing-alongs, and were audience-participatory, and were messy and hammy and fun. People seemed to enjoy them! But the performing of these pieces just often felt so awful, I would cry after I performed nearly every time. As a performer, you can empty yourself out—and still not get back much from the audience. Which doesn’t mean they didn’t necessarily feel things. But I found it hard to receive any of that energy when you are performing. That 1% of the time that it feels good to perform are those rare times when you can feel the energy flowing continuously back and forth between the performer and the audience, and it’s something that you can’t really predict or create the conditions for. It’s just this brief magic that happens every once and awhile.
These performance pieces about radical happiness and queer kinship also came from some of the saddest and most isolated times in my life, and I realized that these utopias were so wrapped up in the despair of feeling like I was living in a dystopia. And I felt more and more like this polarization between these two extremes was too simple to be honest or true to my experiences of the world. I wanted to figure out how to truly love the world more, and I could only do that trying to think about how complicated it really is.
Pieces like The Kinship Structure of Ferns and The Porous World were the beginnings of my trying to make work from a place other than the polarization of utopia/dystopia, but there was something important I still felt was missing, something I was blindly feeling around for that wasn’t being manifested in those performances. I began to feel like my body in performance just gave too much instantaneous information from the very minute it was visible. And like I said before, I never want to belittle or negate the impact of the forces that shape our lives in very real ways that comes from the visual categorization of bodies; there are so many incredible performance artists who have worked with those very expectations to subvert them, to make space for bodies who are not white hetero cis-males, to explore exactly that dissonance between seeing and being seen, to learn and teach how to see each other differently. I wanted to perform being seen/unseen the way characters are in books. So I feel like these sculpture pieces, they are doing the performing for me. I make them, and because they are pretty hard to make, hard to balance, and the plywood does what it wants to do as much as what I want the wood to do, I am always surprised by who and what they turn out to be. They come out surprising, and go off and lead their own mysterious lives. And that’s performance, for me, right now.
HM: I'm interested in this idea of performative objects. Your take subverts the Pygmalion narrative: instead of looking for the singular ideal beauty who will love you back and be forever indebted to you, you are interested in leaving the objects open to a range of potentiality, even that of going forth into the world without you. Is this something that you think about as your objects leave you and go on to perform in your absence/without you? Additionally, do you consider them gendered or queer, or do you prefer to leave that open-ended?
LR: I feel them as queer. In their half-outline/half-skeleton form, and their usual lack of primary or secondary sex indicators, I try to show that gender is partially in the eye of the beholder (as well being an internal feeling and/or an accrual of experiences), that gender is social. Our bodies are gendered by the status quo, by our communities, by people we pass on the street, by our friends and lovers. It’s not necessarily an authoritative or oppressive thing- I love how my sweetheart genders me! And my friends. But people do usually want to decide what gender the sculptures are. So I don’t want them to be mere projection screens for other people’s ideas of gender—or of race or age either. I want these bodies to be defined but not limited to what gesture they are making, what action they are performing. So they do have the ability to express something about themselves that may include their ideas about their own gender, but doesn’t necessarily allow the viewer to categorize them in one gender or another.
Also—they are so pervy in their process! They are so touched by me, I spend hours upon hours sanding them with finer and finer grits, because what I’m after is not just a look or a line-- which I could actually achieve with much less sanding—but also a feel under my fingers. And I’m always awkwardly contorting my body to sand them without making them fall over and break in the process! Which is sensuous and painful and pleasurable. I was hand-sanding a piece today, and my body was aching and my hands were nearly numb—and I was reminded all over again just how perverse sanding is, as a method of sculpting. To slowly change something’s shape by rubbing, rubbing, rubbing it! Rhythmically! It is perverse, slow, willful, nuanced, bodily, and contrarian- all qualities I believe and hope that queerness has too. Constantly vibrating on the strings of pain and pleasure.
HM: I would like to go back to this idea of radical happiness that you mentioned earlier. There’s often an expectation that your studio and your practice is a mirror of your mental state. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes it is more complicated than that. Going out on a speculative limb: I wonder if this push to generate scenarios of radical happiness was a push to create a utopia for yourself with others and the fact that it was coming out of something such as a sing-a-long, which is ultimately unsustainable by virtue of its energy level and duration, highlighted the overall unsustainability of the idea of utopia itself, queer or otherwise? And perhaps in this sense creating these objects, which don’t necessarily need to stop to go to the bathroom or to sleep or check their phone, is a more viable alternative to this problem induced by some of these performances?
LR: My feeling that these objects go on to have their own lives separate from me is so strong that there’s a part of me that thinks maybe they do go to the bathroom, maybe they do check their phones! In whatever way their materials demand, just as our materials demand things of us. Their materials will degrade and excrete over time—just on a different time scale than ours—and they probably are communicating with each other in a way that’s invisible to us—sort of like how birds might not understand what we’re doing when we’re thumbing our phones all day! So I think they have their own separate lives and might do any number of things.
But I dunno, I don’t want to go too far down that psychedelic road because I am interested in what our human senses can pick up on, and I am interested in a human-scale of time, of what our senses can experience during a lifetime. I am interested in other humans! And I suppose that’s what caused the shift more than anything. Depression, in one way or another, makes you obsessed with yourself. And people have made incredible works of art from that mental state, or from their attempts to fight that mental state. But I found that the more generative place for me was through my interest in other people, once I came through that long depression that was much of my twenties. It’s like the difference between my journal-writing and my observations. My journal is an inescapable feedback loop; the observations look outward from a particular consciousness. So for me, the difference lies not between performance and sculpture and the limitations of each form, but rather whether my work looks inward or outward. For now, sculpture is where I can access more easily that sense of looking outward, of honoring the complicated ways of humans without needing them to be entirely under my control or reflect something about myself back at me. But my desire to communicate with other humans is so constant, and so eager, that I’m sure I’ll continue to experiment with forms and ways as long as I live. Whatever works!
Lee Relvas is a 2016 recipient of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant. She has performed and shown her work at Frieze London, Artist Curated Projects in Los Angeles, ZieherSmith in NYC, Park View Gallery, The Brooklyn Museum, Honor Fraser Gallery, Art in General, Suzanne Geiss Company, Dumbo Arts Center, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, The National Gay and Lesbian Archives, Shanaynay, Sculpture Center, and the Hammer Museum. She has toured extensively throughout the US in collaborative performances, with her solo operas, and with bands. Lee Relvas’ work has been written about in the New York Times, ArtForum, ArtNews, The Comics Journal, The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Proximity Magazine, Chicago Reader, TimeOut Chicago, New City, Louder Than War, Transgressor Magazine, Workhourse Journal, and Portals. Relvas is the musician behind the solo project Rind, and is now working on the fourth Rind release. She was among the USC 7 and has spoken about the experience at the 2015 Creative Time Summit and in ArtForum.
All images courtesy the artist.