Lilly McElroy

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Lilly McElroy, I Throw Myself at Men #4, 2006

 

Lilly McElroy is one of my favorite artists. I often laugh out loud while looking at or thinking about her photographs and videos, although it is not only the humor of her work that engages me. There is always a bit of magic when an artist manages to speak on multiple levels, making work that is accessible yet rich with intellectual and esthetic associations. The sites she chooses for her work —bars, city streets, western landscapes — are ripe with personal and mythic references, and her simple and precise gestures echo with the quotidian and the cultural. I Throw Myself at Men, for example, connects the stereotype of a loose woman with Yves Klein’s Leap Into to Void. Her sensibility, it seems to me, is uniquely American, and I mean that in a good way. Like Buster Keaton meeting John Wayne, filtered through conceptual art and feminism.

McElroy earned an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2006, and now lives and works in Los Angeles. She is represented by Rick Wester Fine Art, New York.

This interview took place via Skype on December 14, 2015.

 

MAD: One of my students just wrote a paper about your work.

LM: Oh, what work did he write about?

MAD: Actually I haven’t read it yet. They just turned in their final papers. But I always like what he says in the class though.

LM: That’s super sweet!

MAD: I showed stuff off your website – I talked about your projects I Throw Myself at Men, A Woman Runs Through A Pastoral Setting, I Control the Sun, and Hopeful Romantic. He told me that what he loved about your work was that it was serious but light and accessible and that he aspired to that. That’s what he told me when he turned in the paper. He’s a Filipino immigrant, first in his family to go to college and he is super smart.

LM: That’s a really solid compliment. It’s amazing that he has chosen art. I teach at Cal State Fullerton and there is a lot of first generation students and it blows my mind that they choose art. A lot of them study graphic design, illustration and animation but still, for that to be a viable option is incredible to me.

MAD: Do you have a working class background?

LM: No, but we didn’t exactly fit into the traditional description of middle class either. My dad was a school psychiatrist and my mom was a school teacher but my dad retired when I was five. He as been flying hawks since he was 18 and when he retired we moved to Ecuador. We lived there for a while and then in Peru and Mexico while he flew hawks. There was a very active falconry community wherever we moved. I don’t know what that qualifies my background as, I genuinely don’t know.

MAD: Esoteric.

LM: It was a beautiful childhood. My dad’s relationship to the landscape shaped my artistic practice.

MAD: How were you first drawn to art?

LM: Through books, literature, Hemingway, A Moveable Feast especially. I loved reading about art and artists.

MAD: You studied literature and creative writing in college right?

LM: Yes, I was a creative writing major for a while. I am not a particularly gifted writer but I love narrative.

 

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Lilly McElroy, I Throw Myself at Men #14, 2008

 

MAD: Do you think literature has had a detectable influence on your work?

LM: Inevitably yes, my work is not overtly narrative yet there is always some kind of backstory to what I am doing. I don’t think I would have made art without having a background in literature. Some of the ideas I was trying to work with when I was trying to be a writer, I was better at making images about those ideas. My stories were kind of flimsy.

MAD: On your website you talk about your work in relation to clichéd notions of the American west. It seems those clichés invite narrative, mythic narrative about identity and individuality in relation to dramatic or theatrical landscapes. Can you elaborate on that?

LM: We were living in Willcox, Arizona, which is a relatively small town. I think I graduated high school in a class of about one hundred. It’s an old ranching community. The biggest day of the year is named after Rex Allen, the singing cowboy. There is a parade and a rodeo. It had all the stereotypes of a ‘Western” town – the cowboys, the dust, the bars. When I was still in high school, I saw the movie 8-Seconds. It is about Lane Frost, a bull riding champion. It was odd to realize that my lived experience fit into the movie’s clichéd representation of the American west. That movie got me started thinking about what it meant to be masculine within that culture and the fact that I was surrounded by this weird machismo that is associated with the West.

MAD: Did that create a distance or remove from your surroundings?

LM: I always felt a bit of distance simply because we moved around so much when I was young. I was always a bit of an outsider. I have been a feminist from and early age and there was a moment when that masculinity became simultaneously seductive and repulsive. There is something beautiful about the lone cowboy in the west riding around wrangling cattle but there is something awfully frustrating about the violence or danger they can sometimes embody.

 

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Lilly McElroy, I Throw Myself at Men #12, 2008

 

MAD: Were you interested in photography in high school?

LM: I did get a camera at that age, but made very bad photographs. I took a lot of images of girls peaking around trees. I’d say that I romanticized the idea of being an artist. Actually, my parents bought me a point and shoot camera when I was eight or nine-years-old and I kept taking pictures of sunsets. It drove my parents crazy. They called it a waste of film. Now I do that a lot, take pictures of sunrises and sunsets. (Laughter) But I didn’t understand, until I got into college, that being an artist was something you could really do.

MAD: I love your piece I Control the Sun. There are so many things going on with that work. I like the connection to conceptual art; especially in the way you use photography in this playful affectless way. It also connects to the tradition of the mythic landscape, romanticism and the myth of the self, mocking the conceit that one could control this celestial ball of fire. All of these deep and profound things are evoked by rather simple and humble images.

 

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Lilly McElroy, I Control the Sun #11, 2015

 

LM: It is a durational project; I intend to keep working on it for the foreseeable future. The accumulation of images is important. For me the project is about futility and hope in the same way that the Bruce Springsteen boom box piece, Hopeful Romantic, is about futility and hope. You keep going despite the fact that something is not possible. The conceptual structure of a duration project also allowed me to make images that are, for me, just straight up beautiful. Structure allowed that beauty could be part of the content.

MAD: I had a similar conversation with John Divola, specifically about his Isolated Houses project. He photographed small isolated structures in desert landscapes all over the west, where, presumably, people are who want to live off the grid. The only caption for each image is the latitude and longitude of the structure, which is funny. But what accompanies this conceptual play are these extraordinary landscapes. He allows himself access to the beautiful without indulging in kitsch.

LM: I love his work, especially that series How far I could get in 10 seconds. In I Control the Sun, I do try to ride the line between kitsch and poignancy. Also the gesture is universal. If you do a Google search for ‘hold the sun’ images you will see so many fantastic photographs of people out in the middle of a landscape essentially doing what I am doing.

MAD: It’s an epic communal gesture.

 

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Lillly McElroy, I Control the Sun #24, 2016

 

LM: Yes, and its quite satisfying. I am interested in those universal gestures, partly for their accessibility, and partially because they suggest a deeper meaning.

MAD: Trying to make art with a capital ‘A’ often leads to failure. This is often true of younger artists and sometimes-older artists as well. I am reminded of the summer of 1999, I think it was. When what turned out to be Stanley Kubrick’s last film came out, Eyes Wide Shut. Being a life-long fan, I was looking forward to it yet I found it pretentious and ponderous. That same summer I saw the South Park movie and it was so much better. I had a bit of an epiphany. South Park was not trying to be ‘Art’ yet it was so smart, funny, irreverent and about everything. I loved its lightness especially compared to the creakiness of Kubrick. I think that spirit is in your work. I Control the Sun evokes Stonehenge, Caspar David Friedrich, Western kitsch, silliness and conceptual art. You’d think that one would have to make a complicated structure to connect all of those things yet you accomplish it with a seemingly simple gesture. It’s kind of magical.

LM: Well, Thank you, that’s what I am going for. (Laughter). I have a question for you about the Kubrick film. I have often wondered this about people who get to a certain point in their career. Do they lose the people who help them edit? No one is telling them no, that’s not a great idea. They believe in their own legend. Kubrick could get Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to do whatever he wanted. Or David Lynch with Inland Empire, I love David Lynch, but that movie was painful. I think it’s important to have restrictions, whether they are financial, material or conceptual.

 

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Lilly McElroy, Hopeful Romantic (video still), 2011

 

MAD: Some artists become hypnotized by their own aura and begin to believe in their own shtick. Artists who stay lively are ones that reinvent themselves.

LM: I like it when artists can maintain a sense of play and experimentation over a long career and allow themselves to make mistakes. Its hard to do I imagine, I am hoping to do that.

MAD: I wonder what happened to someone like Marina Abramovic. Obviously she has made significant contributions to contemporary art but at some point it was as if her legend was commodified and she became the celebrated goddess of all things performance. She is a bit of a parody of herself now.

LM: She has done so many frustrating things, not paying her workers for example. She advertises for highly skilled interns and then pays them nothing, just for the privilege of being around her.

MAD: It’s hard to pay the rent and eat off of someone’s aura.

LM: I love so much of her earlier work and I saw her lecture when I was a graduate student and it was profound. I had never been so enraptured by someone talking about his or her work, but she does seem pretty wrapped up in her own ego now.

 

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Lilly McElroy, Hopeful Romantic (video still), 2011

 

MAD: I went to the MoMA retrospective and got in line to sit across from her but the line was too long. I was there with my four-year-old son and we decided to have our own staring contest to pass the time. (Laughter)

LM: That sounds significantly better. (Laughter). Actually it sounds like a nice moment of intimacy with your kid.

MAD: It was great – it was fascinating just to be there and observe the phenomenon, which was not just about Abramovic but about the validating power of MoMA, art celebrity and the spectacle of the tourist attraction she became. And there I was, a harried dad of a young kid, trying to keep him entertained and we found our own way of communing with the moment.

LM: If nothing else, what I do appreciate about that piece is that it made performance art more accessible, more widely talked about. As someone who makes performance-ish art, that was nice.

MAD: I want to ask you about some older pieces beginning with 2009 was a Rough Year. Let me describe it in brief. You asked people to submit photographs that represented their worst experiences from 2009. You posted the images you collected on your website and people submitted all sorts of pictures, some where horrific, some were funny or obscure. I assume you did not edit what you received. How did you put the call out, who did you ask?

LM: I started with the obvious methods, like Facebook and I emailed anyone who had ever emailed me for any reason. (Laughter) I put up flyers in coffee shops. I made this project during the last recession. I was unemployed and so were a lot of other people in Los Angeles. The coffee shops were always busy. Later on, I bought ad space in some small neighborhood newspapers. One of the papers was called Coffee News. I’d also say that a lot of the submissions came from word of mouth.

MAD: How many responses did you get?

LM: In the hundreds, not as many as I wanted but a satisfying amount.

MAD: And you posted everything you got?

LM: Yes, It wasn’t about my curatorial choices. It was about what each person chose to represent their experiences of 2009.

MAD: You also asked them to submit a joke.

LM: Yes, I was playing with the ‘laughter is the best medicine’ cliché, so I gathered the jokes and began performing them in comedy clubs in Brooklyn. It was attempting to, ineffectively, fix things with humor. I performed in 4 or 5 clubs. It was completely nerve-racking. I was going to open mic nights, the kind of places where actual comedians go to practice new material. And there I was telling these ridiculous bubble-gum jokes. One of my favorites was, “What do you call a pile of kittens?” A meow-tain! (Laughter)

MAD: (Laughter) That’s my kind of joke. One of the ridiculous things about that project, in a good way, is that one assumes that a comedian is trying to hone a sensibility, to develop a comedic voice, but your jokes were just a random assortment of things that strangers thought were funny. There was no continuity only a pastiche of oddly assorted jokes. And telling jokes itself is a weird phenomenon. Most humor is situational, right? It doesn’t necessarily come from jokes….

LM: And most of them are not funny. I think you end up laughing at how unfunny most jokes are – the absurd lameness becomes kind of amusing. That was the most effective part of the project for me – having people dictate what I said on stage – it was this strange childish form of entertainment. I liked it.

 

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Lilly McElroy, Pushing Cowboys (video stills), 2005

 

MAD: One of your earliest works, at least on your website is I Throw Myself at Men.

LM: Yes it started in 2006 and ended in 2008. We were talking about Abramovic earlier and my piece Pushing Cowboys, made in 2005, was a direct reference to a work she made with Ulay in which they are pushing and bumping into each other.

MAD: Titles are important to you. To state the obvious the title of I Throw Myself at Men takes a cliché or stereotype about a promiscuous or needy woman and literalizes it in the real world. It is hilarious but also courageous, there was a lot of risk-taking in terms of not knowing what the resulting reaction might be to your actions.

LM: That was what was exciting about it for me. I didn’t know what the images were going to look like and I didn’t know how people were going to react to me. I like the possibility of failure. There is something satisfying and scary about that. For me that project is about the desire to have a connection with someone else and how universal that desire is. It’s so ridiculous, the idea of the desperate woman, because that feeling is so human, it’s not just ladies who wants to find someone to love, everyone wants that. So for me I Throw Myself at Men was a way of taking ownership of that idea of the desperate woman and turning it around a little bit.

MAD: Did any of those encounters actually lead to friendship or connection?

LM: Not really. I gave the men my card and website info but for the most part there was a lack of interest in a continued conversation. I think mainly we just had a weird moment together and they got to go home and talk about it. However, one guy, who is a bar owner in Kansas City, got in touch after seeing his picture in a magazine. Now, whenever his image gets shown anywhere I email him and let him know. He and I are Facebook Friends.

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Lilly McElroy, The Square (After Roberto Lopardo), video stills, 2004

 

MAD: To me that work speaks to the power of the idea that a piece of art can communicate with a literal and figurative punch. Again balancing playfulness with seriousness, the work suggests hefty things such as existential loneliness, gender relations, and photography’s role in the quotidian. I love how they are not precious ‘fine art’ photographs; they are essentially snapshots. They are democratic in their making, and in their reading.

LM: The issue of accessibility, of making work that speaks to people that might not have an arts background, is really important to me. I don’t know what that stems from but it seems ridiculous to me to need an advanced degree to understand a piece of art, or to have access to the experience of art. I did a class in grad school with David Robbins called “High Entertainment” and it was about that mixture of entertainment and art and what happens when you marry high concept ideas with something that is entertaining and accessible, although I don’t think you have to be entertaining to be accessible. I am interested and invested in that combination.

MAD: How did you know when the piece was over, when you had enough images?

LM: It stopped making me nervous. I did not want it to become formulaic. The 14 images I have is a solid number. I don’t think adding more images would complicate the idea is any sort of way. By contrast, with the I Control the Sun images, the more photographs I make the more ridiculous the project becomes.

 

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Lilly McElroy, The Square (After Roberto Lopardo), video still, 2005

 

MAD: That spirit of play, aggression and not knowing how people will react is also evoked in your piece The Square, which was performed on the street in Chicago. Again, it’s funny and fierce and sociological.

LM: The presence of the camera was such a visible part of the piece that perhaps the camera created a zone of safety. People encountering me could see the camera, could see the square, and from a distance see what I was doing as they approached. I have done other projects where the parameters were not so visible and maybe there is something inherently cruel about that. But with The Square (After Roberto Lopardo), I think the rules of engagement were clear enough that it became much more of a game than if I had hidden the camera.

That moment of fear, excitement and anxiety, that I don’t know what is going to happen is important to the work and is part of the fun of making art for me. It has been interesting to transition from those very social performative pieces to isolated performative pieces. Now I am largely making work that is about me being alone. Although the desire to see what happens, or what something looks like when I do it, is still paramount.

MAD: If you look at a lot of the documentation of 1960s and 70s performance, especially with people like Yoko Ono, Abramovic, Carolee Schneeman, Josef Beuys, Chris Burden and many others, one senses a real risk to the performer, physical, emotional, psychological risk. Much of the performative work today is staged for the camera, and as much as the image may be provocative, or engaging in some way, the artist is safe. But what distinguishes much of your work is the fact that you put your body on the line in a public way. Related to that is that we rarely acknowledge the experience of the artist as part of the piece. Clearly artists want to experience this risk, to perform without a safety net. Is that an important part for you?

LM: Yes, having those moments of unexpected reaction and unexpected experience is part of what makes making art interesting for me. I have very little control and no reasonable expectation for how it’s going to unfold. It’s invigorating. I get to set up what becomes, for myself, a genuine experience and in the end that is significantly more important to me than the art artifact. I do love the artifact, whether it’s a series of photographs or a video, but it’s the experience of drawing a square on the sidewalk or climbing a mountain or driving across the country and stopping in these isolated places is intensely satisfying.

MAD: Do you think of yourself as a landscape artist in any way?

LM: Yes I do. I don’t know if it goes back to my father’s relationship to the landscape, going hunting with him as a child. But more and more the landscape is what I am interested in, specifically the American landscape and how that relates to what it means to be an American now. We have these myths based upon landscape but those myths are more and more unattainable. Hopeful Romantic and I Control the Sun are related to the myths of Manifest Destiny, and what it means to believe you can control things.

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Lilly McElroy, I Control the Sun #4, 2013