How does an artist make an object feel had or handled? What is the relationship between fetish and craft? And what type of material transformation occurs in the spaces between? The work of the four artists featured in this issue wrestles with questions pertaining to this alchemy of skill. Employing a variety of strategies ranging from earnest craftsmanship to tongue in cheek clumsiness, these artists challenge the commonly upheld relationships between craft and product, between aesthetic and gender norms. Materials utilized in the work become representative of the body, bringing to mind various ancient practices such as tattooing, piercing, dyeing, and ritual mutilation. But despite their obsession with exteriority, the work of these artists seems to suggest that there's something frivolous and immoral in preoccupying oneself solely with form. So how can nasty be sexy, gender-bending and smart? Examining the work of these four artists makes me see more clearly what the DIY movement has been missing from its hip roster.
In Yevgeniya Baras' Untitled, layers of goopy grey paint are excavated to reveal a raw pink interior space. Black thread is affixed to the surface by four, liberally applied blotches. This thread functions first as a sort of diagram, a logical pattern superimposed onto the paint's unsightly debris. But it also becomes a cat's cradle, a torture device of sorts, pulling the skin of the painting away from the surface to reveal the wound underneath. The painting gives off a sense of being touched so fervently that a gash is created. Is this the trauma of an abused painting? Or a healing moment, occurring through transference of infliction? Employing typically feminine techniques such as knitting and crocheting, Baras conjures up images and textures which, by their sheer brutality, contradict the assumed sweetness of those activities. Through staging a sullied version of women's work, Baras seems to be mocking the accepted notions of ornamentation and domesticity. There's something scandalous and smeared about these little paintings, as if they are wearing cute aprons over bruised and unbridled nakedness. Perhaps, if craft had such risqué attributes, it would appear less tame and self-satisfied.
Kristen Kee's text pieces mix hedge fund jargon with an aesthetic evocative of spell casting, ransom notes, and homemade embroidery. The holes are punctured with a thick needle, and the letters are sewn into vellum with yarn of earthy colors. The milky translucency of the surface, which crumples during the handling process, allows you to see the behind-the-scene of each symbol, making it simultaneously rudimentary in structure and mysterious in content. The final product is strangely remote from the world in which signs are meant to signify something quickly. Kee's signs, which are displayed in transparent, pastel colored, office folders, certainly signify, but it takes time to unravel the knotted meanings. In her piece, Dark Pools, the seemingly childish scrawl of the text has a petulant quality that grows more deliberate and ominous the longer you stare at it. In finance, dark pools refer to trade networks useful to those who want to move large numbers of shares without revealing themselves to the open market. Thus the clandestine, voodoo-doll quality of the craft displayed in Kee's piece embodies the sense of arcane knowledge necessary for the concept to operate. The visual presence of these drawings is both awkward and elegant; the content feels oracular while being mundane enough to be legible to a banker.
The traditional masculine ideals found in finance, politics, and sports, get another jab, or perhaps some adulation, in Betsy Odom's sculptures. In her piece Bulldog 30, Odom combines molded plywood, bent birch, tooled leather, ribbon and fabric to create a hybrid form reminiscent of football shoulder pads and a Victorian corset. The silky ribbons transform the hard look of wood into delicate petals that unfold like a flower revealing a quilted center. The intricately worked leather takes on the appearance of lace, an accoutrement to a devotedly crafted traditional costume from a culture that feels simultaneously familiar and strange. Despite the dainty colors and refined materials, the sculpture reads like a truncated torso laid out on the floor with care often reserved only for the disabled. When the fetishized athletic equipment fuses with the sexualized demands of Victorian bondage, the resulting cripple is put on display with a sense of pride and tender completion.
The concern with materiality as a stand-in for the body can be further evinced in Lee Vanderpool's paintings. Translucent slashes of color encroach upon thick passages of paint layered as if it were cake frosting. The pleasure with which these paintings are made is immediately evident, but it is not their sole objective. In I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, prurient fingers and toes press, dig and tickle a yellow sphere busting white sparks or, perhaps, emitting rays of glee and euphoria. Rectangular color fields in the bottom left allude to (fore)play with balloons and finger paint. Meanwhile, two disembodied paws perch sweetly next to the title text of the painting itself. There's something artlessly disarming about this image. In a way, Vanderpool's paintings are not embarrassed by their bodily functions, their direct tenderness, their softness; they don't apologize for their vulnerability. Their campy sincerity belies a serious concern with form, and the queer content suddenly delivers itself like a punch from a clown at a circus show.
Leeza Meksin is a Moscow-born interdisciplinary artist who makes paintings, videos, installations and multiples. She also designs sets and costumes for short films, and has recently co-directed a documentary funded by the George Soros Foundation. She received a Joint BA/MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago, a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from Yale School of Art. Her upcoming site-specific installation for Cosign Projects in St. Louis involves a bespoke spandex outfit for a two-story row house. Meksin teaches at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and the New York Art Studio in Manhattan. She lives in Brooklyn.