The artist on the dark undertones of classic girl group music and the richness of image archives.
Your upcoming show, If You Gotta Hurt Somebody, Please Hurt Me, is described as trying to address the violence underneath white American queer desire. What made you decide to make that the focus of that body of work, and how have you come to understand the underbelly of white American queer desire?
I think we are at a critical point in our culture where it’s impossible to ignore toxic masculinity and its ties to whiteness. The gay community has grappled with subversion and transgression for a while. Many of the images that I rework stand on a knife's edge. It’s important to be able to look at these images and be critical of their origins. They’re so embedded in the ways people view desire that it’s a difficult subject to tackle. It’s not always pleasant, but I feel it is really important work to be making.
I'm wondering if the show has sparked any compelling conversations between yourself and queer people of color in your life, whether they're artists or not?
It’s really important for me to seek out conversations with other artists who can bring a different perspective and their own experiences to the ideas I am exploring. I had a lot of really important discussions about the themes of this new work with artists that I admire. They helped challenge me to really think critically about these images and what it was I wanted to say. I’m really grateful for those talks and I’m a better artist because of them.
You often reappropriate and recontextualize imagery from the past to create new work. How did that process become a part of your practice and how has it changed or evolved since?
I became interested in appropriation while in grad school at the School of Visual Arts. I was studying under Sarah Charlesworth and Penelope Umbrico. They really challenged me to rethink what a photograph could be and how it functions in our collective consciousness. It sort of broke my brain and now all I think about is image culture and how it influences every facet of our lives. I have been working with found imagery for a decade now, which is really crazy to think about. When I first started out it was very much about collage and cutting materials up. It has evolved to a hyper-focused, tight crop where I am honing in on details that hold a charge.
When it comes to how your work is interpreted, are there ever things you feel are misunderstood, given too much focus or not considered enough?
For many people, the work was about only one thing: HIV/AIDS. I always knew it was more complicated than that; the work was about how images go out into the world, transmute over time and are informed by our experiences. Few have talked about the signifiers of masculinity that are appropriated by gay men in these publications and how fraught that can quickly become. But it was always there in many ways.
HIV/AIDS, of course, remains a really important issue in queer communities, but do you think the trauma of that plague has pigeonholed queer artists by others in the art world and beyond in the decades since the disease first appeared?
The HIV/AIDS crisis is a part of our history that we all carry with us. It is a profound loss that the queer community has to contend with and artists often have to make sense of that through their work. I wouldn’t say we are pigeonholed, but sometimes the meaning of our work can get flattened by those who aren’t as familiar with our experiences.
When it comes to imagery in general, there's so much out there right now, but what are some experiments with imagery and photography that you find really exciting?
I’m really drawn to other artists who are working with the archive and making their own interventions. Marley Trigg Stewart, Andina Clarkson, Rehan Misckci and Ann Weathersby are some of those artists who are making really thoughtful, poetic works that everyone should be seeing.
Shifting gears a bit: What are some of the things outside of your practice that you're really passionate about?
I really enjoy good cinema. I try to see everything as soon as it comes out and follow filmmakers closely. I pay attention a lot to politics, always have. But when I need a break from the heaviness of the world, my friends and I have group chats where we just send each other videos of animals doing cute things. I have two Boston Terriers that I love more than anything so they keep me busy as well!
What's a favorite movie that means a lot to you?
My all-time favorite film is Mulholland Drive by David Lynch. It’s a riddle of a movie that you have to spend a lot of time with to understand. You start out thinking you’re watching one thing only to slowly realize the glamor and sheen of the first act is all a facade, and what is revealed is actually much darker and more sinister. I think it’s the perfect metaphor for the times we are living in.
How about music? Do you tend to have anything on in the background as you work?
I listen to A LOT of Lana Del Rey while I’m making the work. I think she's an incredibly gifted songwriter who really taps into the darkness of Americana. I also love girl groups from the wall of sound era like The Ronettes and The Crystals. They sing these really sweet love songs that become more sinister the longer you listen to them. I named the new show after a lyric from The Crystals, “Please Hurt Me.”
Whether it's intentional or just something that's happened all on its own, have you found yourself collecting anything over the years?
I have a pretty extensive vinyl collection and I love concert T-shirts. I miss live music. I need to go to a concert soon. I haven’t been to one since Covid hit.
What was the last concert you went to pre-Covid? And what do you love so much about the live music experience?
The last concert I saw was Lana Del Rey on the Norman Fucking Rockwell Tour at Jones Beach. I think my favorite part of live music experiences are the other fans! You’re allowed to just geek out over someone you collectively love. It’s a thing we don’t allow ourselves to do more of for fear of judgment.
You take in a lot of imagery in the course of your work and I'm sure do a lot of research. What are your favorite resources for stumbling upon really great imagery that people might not expect?
For many years, I relied heavily on Ebay for collecting queer ephemera but then they banned adult materials last summer. I have found success though by looking through special library archives such as NYU’s Fales Library.
It's potentially a big question, but feel free to interpret however you like: Is there anything you wish you could start over?
I know so much more about the world a decade into making work with found images. It makes me wonder how my work would have evolved if I knew what I know now. I’m always thinking about things like that. It’s funny to think about how long it’s taken to get to where I am and all of the hard work and sacrifices that went into it. But I guess I would be a very different person and might not be making this work if I changed something.
Last one: What's something you wish you were asked more often?
“What’s your sign?” I love astrology. A lot of people think it’s dumb, but I have always thought there's a bit of truth in there about everyone. I’m a Pisces for the record.