Interview with Gracelee Lawrence
Gracelee Lawrence is a New York based artist, receiving her MFA in Sculpture from the University of Texas at Austin. Gracelee co-founded Pig & Pony, a house gallery located in Austin, TX, is a contributing writer for the International Sculpture Center Blog, and is member of the MATERIAL GIRLS collective. In this interview she speaks to Vanessa Murrell of DATEAGLE ART about how residencies have impacted her work, the play of digital and physical in her process, and her unique approach to sculpture.
VM: You received both a BA and an MA specializing in sculpture. What draws your attention to this particular medium?
GL: I have always had an intense attention towards objects and their care. This was fostered at a young age as my mother is a graphic designer/ceramicist/painter, and my father is a builder and an incredible spatial problem solver who can make just about anything. I learned to sew from my mother, and power tools from my father. This laid the foundation, along with growing up on a farm a lifetime of riding horses and caring for the equipment necessary, for my love of both making and tending objects. I have an unshakable attraction to the physical world, which leads to a compulsion to deal with my ideas in physical reality. I make in order to physically/materially understand my thoughts. For me, this is a process of true actualization, to push ideas from emotional to mental to physical space, delivering something that I have to contend with corporeally.
VM: The body is a recurring motif throughout your practice. Why are you inclined to represent the female form, as opposed to the male figure? And in what ways do your sculptures not only represent, but also interact with the body?
GL: My work up to this point has been focused on the female form as an extension of my own experience, and in this often carries undertones of the autobiographical. I can authentically speak to my body, the experience of moving through the world while wearing this particular façade. I have been invested in feminist theory since high school, a line of interest that has only grown stronger throughout the years. In the series of fountains that I’m presently working on, for the first time I am using a clear representation of the male body. The backing of the work is looking at the effect of (toxic or misguided) masculinity in contemporary heterosexual relationships and thus requires an image that signals the viewer down the proper path. Zooming out, my interest in the body stems from its relatability- we all know the feeling of tension between two people, the weight of an apple in the palm of your hand, fingers interlaced with a lover, the tenderness of a flower petal between your fingers.
VM: You recently undertook a residency in Thailand at Chiang Mai University. Would you describe this experience and your shift of mediums during the time as a turning point in your practice?
GL: My time in Thailand marked a hugely important shift in my work. After three intensive years in graduate school, I immediately uprooted and threw myself into the Multidisciplinary Department of Art at Chiang Mai University, where I was both teaching and working as an assistant for its founder Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook. Everything was new to me: the language, the social expectations, the departmental pedagogy, the climate, the food, and the people. I felt like a baby, slowly learning a completely new language and social system, at first paralyzed by the stimulation and newness, and slowly learning to crawl. For the first several months in Thailand, before I found a strong community, I felt immensely detached from my people in the US. I mediated this through digital communication, attempting to fill the void with endless texts and FaceTime calls. It was at this point that I began to acutely feel the divide between my physical and digital selves, the disconcerting disconnect yet also the potential power in this separation. I began to think about digital space as a place, as I could feel the translations necessary to move emotions or data from physical to digital space, or vice versa. As often happens, these thoughts paralleled my making. The only tools I had at my disposal were my 3D printer and scanner (my department didn’t even have a drill or screwdriver) and so I began to make work about the translations between digital and physical space, the unlikelihood of digital empathy, and my attempts to understand my complicated place within the social spaces I encountered in Thailand. In all, my use of digital fabrication shifted from pragmatic to critical, now the bedrock of my practice.
VM: During 2018, you have been fortunate to attend to seven residency programs in the US and abroad – having this in mind, how has traveling and the logistics of making work overseas shaped your overall practice?
GL: Logistically, my work is not particularly well suited to travel, as it is often simultaneously cumbersome and delicate. Scale is a constant negotiation; the physical work wants to be large and only very recently have I been able to make smaller objects that feel at all satisfying (I’ll dive deeper into scale later on). I have two strategies for dealing with the physicality of being a transient object maker: my beloved F150 truck and digital renderings. While at most domestic residencies I bring my truck, meaning that I am able to make and transport large objects (and ultimately bring them back to my storage barn in North Carolina) with relative ease. Without this vehicle, the majority of my work from the past eight years would not be possible. While traveling abroad or to places where negotiating with my 3D printer or huge chunks of CNC routed foam is burdensome, I switch to working in digital space by collecting and processing 3D scans and planning or sketching in Rhino.
Travel does actively affect the underpinnings of my work as new places, people, and situations filter through my consciousness and into the work. One aspect of this is through the archive of 3D scans that I have been building for the past several years. Maintaining and expanding this archive of 3D scans collected in my travels and day-to-day life is an exercise in context making, which clearly drips into the conceptual backing of the work. When a piece is conceived in a particular place, it is marked by that place and it becomes a part of its framework, a constellation of research, conceptual bounds, and my lived experience. At the same time there is a future potential link, say if a scan from Spain is used in a sculpture made in Mexico. It feels apt in our era of globalism.
VM: Your work, ‘A World Without Genesis’ responds specifically to it’s surrounding environment through its scale, materials, and concept. In what ways did you adapt the landscape to the work and vice-versa? What caught your interest in making a work that also adopted the function of moving water?
GL: A World Without Genesis marks another important shift in my work, as it was my first time making a truly site-specific and site-responsive object. Situated on a stream and copper vein running down a mountainside in the Green Mountains of Vermont, this fountain runs completely on a gravity flow system that is dictated by the water levels of the stream, the weather, and other environmental conditions. Instead of co-opting natural space by making a fountain meant to mimic a mountain stream, this object is in the middle of that very environment. In this, it must converse rather than imitate.
While I have been making fountains for several years, this piece is my first off-the-grid fountain that is not reliant on electricity. While this decision was at first practical because of the incredibly remote location, it quickly shaped into a conceptual tie for the piece as a whole, underlining its connection to place. Another aspect of this connection was through the 3D printed copper components, as it was my first time using 3D printed metal, making it all the more poignant when I learned that the stream itself was a copper vein running down the mountain. They will patina based on the environmental factors of that place, a further reciprocation. These tiebacks make the object all the more interesting and relevant to that location.
I am in awe of the subtle tenacity of water, its astonishing persistence and malleability. I love the way that water shifts the intention of an object. It has a job, a new purpose and relationship with time. Water not only changes the delineation of the object but it also shifts its material being, meaning that it operates on a timeframe out of my control. This is particularly true for A World Without Genesis, as she is at the mercy of her environment. Traditionally coded as feminine and associated with the expulsions of a woman’s body (blood, tears, sweat), water adds a little elemental wildness to my objects.
VM: The digital and the physical are both interwoven in your process, to the point that both of these either merge or adapt to one another. Can you guide us through the making your works, and how you jump between these realms?
GL: Recent studies have determined that in 2018, the average American adult spent over three and a half hours per day using a mobile phone. In this compressed screen space, relationships are built and destroyed; products ordered and reviewed, porn and cat videos watched, food is ordered delivered to our doorstep. There is a waning tension between digital and physical space, and the boundaries are quickly dissolving as we spend almost one-fifth of our waking hours on our phones (and that’s not even counting computer time!). I’m interested in this new shift I’m feeling, ranging from my newly formed desire to draw emojis in the margins of the books I’m reading to the ramifications of the widespread acceptance of dating apps as the new normal in relationship procurance. My work is paralleling these translations and our shifting perception of reality that is no longer merely relegated to sensations of the physical.
The work begins as a sloppy pencil on paper sketch and is then quickly transferred into Rhino space as a rendering. The objects and images in the work are acquired from a wide variety of sources- from 3D scans, digital files made by others on the internet, objects I have built completely in digital space, VR sculpted objects, hand-sculpted forms, and more- that are then pressed, pushed, pulled, and skewed in digital space before they are pressed or carved into physical reality using a 3D printer or CNC router. The physical objects are then subjected to hand augmentation, a process of smoothing, seaming, carving, and more that obscures their differences in origin and creates a continuous whole. I see these translations as a parallel to our contemporary complicated state of “reality”, that the objects are both digital and physical in origin and then pressed together into a final undeniably physical form. The final object is a parallel of my understanding of reality, a convoluted amalgamation of information that is undeniably present. This series of translations and recombinations of the physical and the digital come into existence from a reciprocation between the two, and end with a completely real physical manifestation. In our current globalizing and technology-focused world, the action of physical making through digital means underpins my ultimate belief in both the potential of technology and the power of objectness, the importance of things that unapologetically hold their mass in the world.
VM: Throughout color history, certain colours have been interpreted as heavily gendered, or even childish. Is this an idea you are striving to push with your use of pastel tonalities?
GL: Several years ago, upon reading Chromophobia by David Batchelor, the way that I conceived color shifted. The idea that, in the postmodern western world, color has been relegated to the “other”- associated with the infantile, the feminine, the vulgar, the superficial, or the pathological- resonated with me. If color as a whole has been marginalized, how do pastels and heavily gendered colors fit into this narrative? I looked to the sculptor Karla Black and her often de-saturated, immersive sculptures made from raw, amorphous materials ranging from eye shadow to plaster powder. She talks about pastels as almost-colors, colors with unfulfilled potential and desire. They are moving towards or away from saturation, and it is in this mobility that I find them fascinating.
The way that I use color does not completely align with Black’s, but her staunch refusal of gendered associations in her work brought me to research color history. In the 18th century, little boys more commonly wore pink as it was related to the color red, a passionate and active color thought to be more appropriate for males. Even into the early 20th century, this was believed to be true and only in the 1920s, as widespread manufacturing and advertising gained control over consumers, were pink and blue gendered, as we know them now. This fickleness interests me, as well as how these particular reads of color are now taken as an unwavering truth. By applying pastel colors to my objects, which are often agender or feminized bodies, I hope that it complicates the read. It is an optimistic and utopian view of color, to be sure, but one I feel is necessary.
VM: I’m interested in how you remove the three-dimensionality of walking around your works, by placing your sculptures on the wall. Why are you particularly interested in only revealing the frontal view of your works to the viewers?
GL: I recently realized that my desire to place sculptures on the wall is not related to a diminishing of their dimensionality, but instead a suspension of gravity. On the wall, they can float, disconnected from gravity and thus our messy mortal plane. They are not rooted to the earth but instead the architecture and often hung at the torso level. I could read into the correlations of this height to bodily experience, but that may be a disingenuous stretch…
VM: When encountering your ‘Handheld’ works, I, at first glance, doubted whether the works were actually the object or the photographic image of the object. Are you interested in representing your works through a typically consumerist language of advertisement or product imagery?
GL: There is a specific clarity of contemporary consumerist imagery that interests me, a spare and evenly lit scene with a flat pastel background (seemingly made popular by the media company Gin Lane). It seems as though this luminous straightforwardness is supposed to signal trustworthy transparency and direct company to consumer relationship, with which I see some interesting similarities between the ubiquitous documentation styles of sites like Contemporary Art Daily. Your read was spot-on as the intention of these smaller works was two-fold, both in pushing myself out of a large-scale comfort zone and as an experiment in making handheld and affordable editioned objects. At this moment, when art is often only experienced in digital space, I wanted to play with that paradigm in the documentation of this work. Ostensibly the photographs and the sculptures are two different pieces.
VM: Where do you source the titles of your works? Does language directly or indirectly inform your practice?
GL: The majority of my titles are poetic rather than descriptive, intending to induce a particular emotional state in the viewer. The titles are pulled from a list of phrases and words that stick with me, harvested from books, articles, or conversations. While in Thailand, this expanded to also include snippets of Google translated essays sent to me by my Thai students (I adore those little poetic miscommunications: one of my favorites is “sparkling banality of flesh”). Short story collections like When Watched by Leopoldine Core and Man & Wife by Katie Chase have been particularly pivotal, so much so that When Watched was the title of my 2017 solo show in Bangkok. That collection of short stories had a huge impact on the work I made during that period, as it dealt so heavily with the gaze, the main concentration of that series.
VM: I’m interested in your use of fragmentation throughout your entire body of work, and in particular, with your ‘Pear Shaped’ pieces. Can you explain to us about these works further, and your recurring exploration of fragments?
GL: Fragmentation allows me to recombine disparate objects/bodies/thoughts into a singular object. I was originally drawn to the fragmentation of bodies because it allowed for an ambiguity of gender and a removal of personhood, as well as a nod to art history in the fracturing of Classical marble sculptures. Fragments belong to everyone and no one; there is an alluring openness in a disembodied hand or floating foot. In the Pear Shaped series, this engagement with fragmentation brought forward questions of the digital/physical divide with moments like the Boolean difference of the pear on the chest in Biddable but Frigid and the confluence of the butt and the hub of the wagon wheel in More About the Pull of Nothingness Than Sex, Really. The Pear Shaped series paved the way for the bio-cyborgian A World Without Genesis to consider the dualisms of nature/culture, masculine/feminine, human/animal, analog/digital and more.
VM: Let’s talk about the scale of your works, in what ways is the size of these both related and separated from the human scale?
GL: The work is stubborn about scale. I feel a need for the body fragments to be larger than life, at the size or height of a monumentally scaled object, to feel relatable yet also slightly removed from lived reality. Looking at a pear the size of a human, you still know how it feels in the palm of your hand, the taste and the juice running down your chin. Visual perception links back to lived experience, regardless of the scale. In the same way that a fragment can be all yet none, a scaled-up object is not related to one particular person or narrative. That is a freedom.
VM: Mythology helps create boundaries in the way people understand the world. In that sense, do you look into myths and tales when thinking about your work’s narrative?
GL: I am fascinated by thinking about mythology and folklore as forms of social control, ways to share information, boundaries, or warnings from down through generations. While I am not usually drawing directly from one specific myth, I love taking little pieces and incorporating them into a larger object narrative in order to shift their function. This action feels similar to referencing Classical sculpture, a nod to the ways in which the past affects the present.
VM: How do you see your works evolving throughout the future, and are you open to experimenting with new technologies as these emerge?
GL: My work changes with the technology that I experience and access, meaning that it will always be responsively shifting to my context and our global technological movements. For the past two months, I have been an artist in residence at the Visible Futures Lab at the School of Visual Arts in New York, using their incredible cutting-edge equipment to make four new fountains. This has already markedly changed the way in which I’m using color, transparency, and image in my work, as well as underlining a move away from the monochrome that began with A World Without Genesis. In the short term, I’m interested in translating some of the work into AR/VR in order to further mine the transfigurative space between physical and digital reality. So much more is possible, and I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me.