Contributed by Sharon Butler / While I was a Visiting Artist at the Vermont Studio Center earlier this month, I met Lisa McCleary, an Australian-Irish artist who completed the MFA Program at Parsons in 2018. She was working on a series of intriguing paintings for “Edging,” a solo show that opens on April 29 at MC Gallery in Manhattan. During a visit to her spacious, light-filled studio in what looked like an old New England schoolhouse, we talked about her photo-realistic paintings and followed up with an email exchange about our embrace of screen culture, the body, and queer feminist art.
Sharon Butler: I find it interesting that in your process you make squishy Play-Doh sculptural models that become the subjects of your paintings. Imagining this, I think that the process seems perfect for a performance piece–like Hermann Nitsch or Janine Antoni. And yet you are making paintings. Is there some kind of distancing that takes place in the process that appeals to you?
Lisa McCleary: Yes, my work centers on the distance between pleasures of the flesh and the way we consume imagery through the interface; while there may be representations of touch, there may actually be nothing to feel. I utilize the traditional surfaces of painting as a medium through which to examine contemporary screen culture, the denial of pleasure and the tactile sense. I explore mediated corporeality at turns rendering the body into an abject and sensuous landscape filtered through myriad screens.
The series of processes I utilize to create each work aim to distance the viewer from bodily experience and haptic sensations, functioning analogously to the distance created by technology. There is something that is lost and gained through the mediation of the real.
Both Nitsch and Antoni’s performance practices resonate with my own. I appreciate Nitsch’s existential performances, and the way he relates the erotic to the spiritual, which is something I do in my own practice, the notion of transcendence and a sacred bodily experience. My large sculptural painting Corp agus Fuil/Body and Blood, considers the dynamics of sexual play as well as religious imagery from Renaissance painting. I look to Antoni for her embodied approach to confronting issues of materiality and cultural perceptions of femininity.
SB: Your paintings draw metaphorical connections between their surface and human skin. How does that sort of thinking help you through the process of making, and how does it influence your engagement with materials?
LM: Much like aluminum, the skin takes a lot of wear and tear. I think that conflating the flesh and industrial materials can create visions of alternative futures; moving us towards some kind of mechanical anthropomorphic being. I appreciate the range of possibilities for materials, and how notions of the body can be rendered through paint or embodied through 3-Dimensional surfaces that inhabit the viewers’ physical space.
This series of new works refers to screen culture and mediated corporeality so I was drawn to aluminum for its thin cold industrial feel. There’s no weight or body to the material, it feels like a thin sheet of mechanical skin. I utilize the trompe l’eoil effect in my paintings, creating illusionistic depth in the rendered landscapes, and I like how the paper-thin sheet of aluminum counterbalances that.
SB: You are making paintings about touch and yet, in galleries and museums, we are never allowed to touch the artwork.
LM: I aim to create that sense of longing with the audience. I want them to question their sense of touch, and reflect on their desires. How does their need to experience the palpable overlap with their relationship to the screen? My upcoming show at Gallery MC centers on the idea of a continual longing to reach full euphoria through touch. It’s interesting the way we maneuver our bodies through the gallery space and abide by the unwritten rule to not touch the art. If a viewer were overcome by their need to touch my paintings, I would feel that I have succeeded.
SB: Sydney has a pretty temperate climate. Do you prefer wearing fewer clothes or bundling up? This seems related to your interest in the flesh.
LM: There is nothing better than walking along Coogee Beach, Sydney, in a sundress with the hot summer breeze on your skin. There is a freedom in not being restricted by clothes, tight jeans, uncomfortable straps or buttons that dig into your stomach. I spent half of my youth growing up in Ireland too so I also have a fondness for bundling up in layers on a cold rainy winter’s day. I like all of the above. It’s important for us to feel comfortable in our bodies no matter what way we choose to express ourselves.
SB: When you say that your practice responds to femininity and queerness, what do you mean? Do you see your work as especially feminist or queer? Or is this simply because you are a queer feminist?
LM: I think my identity plays a huge role in how I conceptualize my work; especially considering my practice discusses issues of the body, pleasure and sexuality. My work straddles the gap between masculinist materiality and feminist representation in the hope to denaturalize both in the process, to allow use to rethink how we define gender through form and content.
Conceptually I was considering the very tangible and physical practice of BDSM and the pleasurable capabilities of affected flesh. The body becomes a medium for mark making and a vessel of haptic sensations. The works approach queerness through the ambiguity of the body and fluidity of the fleshy landscape. It is not about sexual preference or gender but more about the universal experience of pleasurable touch. This series of work stems from my longstanding investigation of painting as a form, which can access deep psychological states while negotiating notions of desire and the queer body. The erotic quality of the oozing landscapes and wet folds of metaphorical flesh suggest the sexual arousal of something ‘other’. For me, this otherness relates to the otherness placed upon queer or marginalized people.
SB: Your work seems to have a sci-fi or fantasy aspect to it.
LM: I have a great mentor, artist Peter Rostovsky, who introduced me to the intersection of art and sci-fi. It broadened my approach to the body, and allowed me to remove the constraints of the real from my work. For the past few years my practice has been concerned with different aspects of human connection, sexuality and the virtual and real body. I appreciate sci-fi that approaches the potentiality of technology and AI, what we are advancing towards and what kind of effect that will have on our culture and the way we relate to one another. What if in some future vision our contact with the screen directly affected another body? What if the screen and the body become one? These are ideas that inform my artistic approach to my current series of haptic screens.
SB: In some of the MFA Programs that I visit, gender fluidity, queerness, and LGBTQ issues have begun to dominate the discourse. Can non-queer non-feminists appropriate (or critique) the ideas that have been percolating in the LGBTQ community or do you think this conversation limited by identity?
LM: I think appropriation is a huge part of art. All artists take inspiration from others. Of course artists are allowed to explore queer feminist ideas in their work. I’m trying to think of an artist who didn’t have queer feminist beliefs but pushed a queer feminist framework in their art, but none are coming to mind. Ideally that would be a move towards equality and further representation. I think it is up to artists to do the research and take the time to understand what they are appropriating. It is important to consider what it means to adopt another artist’s language and how that change of context can create new meaning. For me, I think it is imperative to acknowledge embedded power structures, erasure and oppression; there is appropriation of art and then there is colonization. Issues arise when artists appropriate marginalized communities, cultures, or identities when it is not their lived experience and they claim it as their own, or when they give no consideration to what their work is saying. It’s 2019 and thankfully this is something that is being discussed more openly.
I think it’s an exciting time to be able to have these conversations and to openly identify as a queer woman and receive support from the arts community and society at large. The more queer artists who receive positive representation in the creative community the better.
“Lisa McCleary: Edging,” Gallery MC, 549 W 52nd St, 8th Floor, New York, NY. April 29 – May 3, 2019 / Reception: May 2, 6-9pm.