Leeza Meksin’s body of work is vast, including site-specific installations, watercolors, figurative oil paintings, and mixed-media paintings that incorporate fabrics and fiber materials. This past summer, Meksin expanded her visual vocabulary by introducing vacuum-formed plastic molds into her oeuvre, creating frozen still life exo-skeletons that she manipulates, playing with their form, transparency, and image. Though largely abstract, Meksin’s work is reflective of the body, human experience, and constructions of socio-political culture. Meksin’s work can largely be summarized as a large process of experimentation with materials, form, and subject. Her practice focuses on constructions of binary systems, such as perceived oppositions of gender, public vs. private space, contradictory materials, or notions of naked vs. dressed forms. However, her means of exploring these binary oppositions is through a process of materiality, thinking of the material mediums -- space, paint, fabric, plastic -- as the building blocks that form these narrative representations.
In one piece, Screen, dyed neoprene is paired with metallic spandex and treated burlap, all stretched over a rectalinear wooden frame. The contemporary material of the neoprene and spandex butts against the burlap, and Meksin cuts, peels, folds, and stretches these materials in a visual duality of tension and harmony. Though abstract in their representation, the materials themselves allow viewers to extrapolate the narrative relationship that is shown. As a fabric, burlap is rarely used beyond constructing utilitarian materials such as rope, sacks, or nets. As an article of clothing, it was used out of resourcefulness and necessity by slaves in the 19th century as a means of creating garments that protected against intense heat and dust, with limited to no access to serviceable clothing made from homespun fabrics like cotton. It’s sturdy, fibrous texture is scratchy, dry, and rough and antithetical to the human body. It isn’t thought of as a wearable fabric, and constructions of class are tied to material. Meksin pairs this with neoprene, a synthetic rubber, and spandex, a synthetic fiber -- two textiles whose histories of manufacture are much more recent, and whose value as fabrics and reproducible textiles are completely opposite to that of burlap. Neoprene and spandex are synthetically manufactured materials that are incorporated into other fabrics and material applications. They are malleable, elastic, and cling to whatever form they encase and possess. They are manufactured in a multiplicity of colors and patterns, and they are strong and durable. Thinking about just these materials alone, viewers can dissect various relationships, histories, and questions that arise by their arrangement and marriage on the canvas. The way Meksin manipulates them, marks and cuts them, and sews them together creates another narrative layer that speaks to questions of perception, experiences of bodily contact, and ideas of strength. These are but a few readings of the piece, but it exemplifies the experience of viewing one of Meksin’s pieces and reading the content she transcribes upon her materials. It is a process of translation, peeling back layers of materials and marks and understanding her manipulation of what we see and understand, and what their combination and relation can mean.
Leeza Meksin was born in the former Soviet Union, immigrating to the United States with her family in 1989. She holds a BA/MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago, a BFA from the School of Art Institute of Chicago, and a MFA from Yale School of Art. She has shown work in group and solo shows across the United States and internationally, recently had a solo exhibition, Purse Strings and Body Bags, at Miller Contemporary in New York City this past year. She has created site-specific installations for The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (2016), The Kitchen, NYC (2015), BRIC Media Arts, Brooklyn (2015), the former Donnell branch of the New York Public Library (2011), and in a National Endowment for the Arts funded project in New Haven, CT for Artspace (2012). In 2013, Meksin co-founded Ortega y Gasset Projects, which is an artist-run gallery space and curatorial collective based in Brooklyn, NY. She currently lives and works in NYC and teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.
Can you talk about your artistic trajectory leading up into this current body of work?
Despite making art from an early age I had a round about way of becoming an artist. Some of my very first memories are of making stuff with plastiline at home, making flower arrangements, or messing around with different materials. I didn’t think that I would become a professional artist and when I went to college I studied comparative literature and translation. I was really interested in languages; my family emigrated from Russia when I was 12, so being bilingual and loving to read made me feel like an academic career in comparative literature would be a better path than pursuing art. I continued to make art in college: oil portraits of friends and family, and costumes for the student theater. I was immersed in these extracurricular activities and when I graduated I had to come to terms with the fact that I actually didn’t want to do anything but make art, so after working full time for a few years, I ended up going back to school to get a BFA and then an MFA. In retrospect, I’m glad I studied other things in college because they all inform the work I make now. There are influences of costume design, theater, and fashion in the work, but a lot of my work is also very narrative. I think about the different kinds of ways in which meaning is made and conveyed through language and images.
My art practice is pretty spread out. I have this public, large-scale, site-specific installation practice that is project-based and changes from site to site. I do a lot of planning for that work, but things change and there are time pressures and challenges that come up that make me think differently than in the studio. The installations have a lot to do with architecture and gender and queering space. When I’m in my studio working on my paintings, the process tends to be slower, more meditative and full of doubts. I also continue to make oil portraits of friends and family. I never exhibit these portraits, so they’re a more private part of my practice and important to me not necessarily as art, but as a way to connect with people. In addition to that, I make watercolors. The watercolors are more diaristic so I don’t limit myself in terms of content or style. Usually in the studio, I start off by making a few watercolors that are fast and instinctive, kind of like warm ups.
I also run a gallery space (Ortega y Gasset Projects) with some great artist friends, which we’ve been doing now for almost five years. That’s been a really influential aspect of my practice because I meet so many artists this way and I find it really inspiring. I also teach, which connects me with a community of other artists. I mention both these things because I feel like my work is really a social reflection of all the different things that I engage in. For a while I was bothered by the fact that my work changes so much and there are so many different things that I try to do and experiment with. Just this summer, for instance, I was in residency at the Banff Centre and I made a whole new body of work using a vacuum-former, which I’d never used before. So now I’m looking at them and thinking about how they fit it. For me it’s really important to have that experimentation because it has to do with amplifying a freedom of expression.
What is your work process and how do you approach engaging narrative elements and themes, such as gender or binary oppositions, with your materials?
I think a lot about the gender of the material itself. Concrete has a particular kind of implicit gender versus chiffon, which has a different kind of implied gender. These implied genders have a lot to do with our social norms and the performance of gender that we expect, so they’re obviously not inherent in the material itself -- concrete was not born male -- but the way we talk about maleness makes concrete take on male characteristics. I’m interested in how objects and raw materials have a gendered life and how when you make things with your hands, you’re using all of these materials together and essentially swinging a pendulum through the gendered binary, which of course is a false binary. All that stuff in the middle is really important to me and I’m really interested in the ambiguities there. That’s how I approach other binaries as well, like private vs. public, sculpture vs. painting, or civil work vs. domestic labor.
It’s interesting that humans are so drawn to binaries despite the fact that there are so few true ones. I think a lot about that desire for classification and order, and how snaking your way in between classifications is really uncomfortable. There is something about these in-between states that creates slippage or a lack of stability or coherence in the way that these classifications have existed.
In terms of my process, a lot of it is very intuitive. I really like to put the thinking part of my brain on hold as much as possible. I don’t think it’s very possible, but it’s like when you meditate and try to access a different part of your brain, maybe quieting down the more superficial aspects of our thought process. I believe our subconscious knows more than our conscious mind, and I want to be surprised by the things that I make. I’m not someone who plans things out super precisely. I don’t like that kind of control. I like to make a lot and then really look at it and see what is working -- that’s when my brain is allowed to judge and curate things out. But in the actual process of making, I try not to censor myself and use my body’s intelligence to make decisions.
The way you brought up socially implicit genders for objects makes me also think about your interest in language and translation, and how a lot of languages have words that have genders and operate grammatically in that way.
In Russian we have gendered words, and maybe because I grew up with that I really thought of objects in gendered terms. The words for particular animals have gender. In English for example, ‘cat’ itself is not a gendered word, but in Russian ‘Кот’ (cat) is feminine and ‘собака’ (dog) is masculine. And then there is a neutral gender as well. So I guess it was kind of an intuitive understanding of gender, though obviously language sits on top of reality and points to things and is not inherently right, but it was very interesting to me that when inanimate objects have gender as words you feel more sensitive to how everything is part of this gendered continuum.
You also mentioned an interest in in-between states, which I see that present in your works specifically through how materials interact -- there are moments of materials meeting and seams that are created, as well as moments where materials overlap or where something is revealed. Can you elaborate on your interest in this and how you go about representing it within your works?
With the paintings, the way that the materials meet is really important to me and that’s where a lot of the narrative content comes from. I want the materials to speak about the things that I care about. A lot of times I work through juxtaposition of materials, let’s say combining linen with spandex or burlap with neoprene. I’m really interested in traditional vs. nontraditional materials and how these new materials, that were invented half a century ago, really change the way that we relate to clothing. What happens when spandex and linen and oil paint all live on the same pictorial plane? They’re almost like characters in a play, or that’s how I think about them. There’s a narrative that’s made up by the composition, but then there’s also a narrative that’s made up by the materials themselves and how they are talking to each other, clashing or harmonizing.
Painting was my initial entry into art making, and I love it because it’s such a challenging thing to do well. It’s a very concise presentation, so you have to really take out any things that aren’t essential and have restraint. You also have to figure out how to make this very old form feel new and relevant. I really like those challenges. However, what I don’t like about painting is that it’s a super commercial form that a lot of times can be highly decorative but lack substance. I’m also suspicious of painting because of its connection to class and status symbols, but my suspicion makes me want to go there and challenge that aspect of them. I feel like if I don’t then painting and the history of painting will continue to only include certain kinds of voices. I think it’s important for women and people of color and non-heterosexuals to make painting because it ends up being a record of who gets to say what. I’m always trying to undercut the things that a painting is supposed to do, so I like to make holes in them or make them very three-dimensional or non-rectilinear, or have no paint on them. Every time I make a painting I try to break at least one convention of what a painting is thought to be. Despite this though, I also really do like the conventions of painting and how they resonate with architectural conventions.
A lot of your paintings are presented on a rectilinear canvas, but then you also have works that burst out and create these moments of the materials bulging or expanding away from the canvas, which to me are very reflective of the body or a figure. I know you are thinking about the body, so how do you approach reflecting that within these works? Can you talk about these pieces that challenge the rectilinear plane?
Around 2012 I made a series of paintings that I called The Pregnant Paintings. Despite the fact that they had rectilinear supports with stretcher bars, the canvases bulged out into a three-dimensional space and had titles that referred to objects that are made for the body, like furniture for example. In those pieces I used upholstery tacks and zip ties, lots of things that are very un-painterly and almost denigrating. Painting is thought of as this fine art form and furniture is seen as a craft, so I liked making the paintings and calling them something that had to do with furniture. They also looked cushy, like maybe a weird armchair or a pillow. They were bound or restrained in some way, and a lot of my thought process at the time had to do with the frustration that I felt about the art history of painting -- who it excluded and what style, taste, and class sensibility is the accepted norm. It is all sort of neutralized by the white, male gaze, as if that perspective is the human perspective and all other perspectives are leitmotifs. It doesn’t matter how many other perspectives there are, they’re always compared to this neutral, universal norm that happens to be of a white male. That caused a lot of rage in me, and I think those paintings had an almost sadomasochistic-bondage feel because of that.
Those bulging paintings remind me of your site-specific works, which I see marrying those same ideas with a space by either confining it or redefining it. Can you talk about your process and approach to your installation works?
The site-specific installations are always architectural. When I go into a space, it’s usually an institution that invites me to make an installation. I’ll do some site visits, I’ll make some sketches, and then I’ll bring a bunch of materials to the site and start making a garment. I think of it as making an outfit for a building, either as an interior or an exterior part. A lot of my logic then has to do with thinking through clothing and how clothing relates to a body. We don’t nail our clothing to our bodies, so I never pierce the walls or make new holes. Everything is held up by ropes, zip ties, and weights, and it’s all kind of rigged. It’s somewhere between an outfit and a sail on a boat, which I also like as an analogy because a building is a stationary object, it’s rooted to the ground and it’s not something that can just go anywhere. Part of its implied gender has to do with that solidity or grounded-ness. I always think about how I can queer the gender of the building, make it a little more irreverent or playful, so sometimes it feels sort of like carnival or masquerade. Like some kind of glitzy, drag costume that’s a trap or a net, something that could ensnare you, at the same time.
I’m also questioning why buildings are so antithetical to our bodies. This wasn’t always the case, and it coincides with the Industrial Revolution and capitalism; how suddenly the grid and these rectilinear structures, which paintings are a part of, became the most important way to organize space. I wonder a lot about how these structures subconsciously affect our thoughts and movements. Humans obviously battle feelings of shame about the body. There are certain parts of the body that we don’t talk about. The body is full of processes that are kept under the rug and it’s considered impolite to talk about it. Bodies are soft and flawed, they don’t have a single straight line or angle, and so they are totally antithetical to how buildings are structured. So if the buildings we make have an implied male gender, it follows that our bodies are implicitly female (regardless of what actual gender they may be). These days there are more buildings that have flowy lines and, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s happening now as opposed to twenty years ago. But I also think it’s still an incredibly male dominated field, so for me architecture is an ultimate representation of how in every conscious and subconscious way we are governed by these patriarchal tastes that are presented to us as if they are universal.
It’s interesting that you don’t place new holes in the walls because it amplifies moments of tension or stretching with the fabric through your use of weights and the ways in which they are rigged. You already mentioned how you select oppositional fabrics and materials, but I’m also curious also about the patterns that you are choosing, such as the galloping horses or floral swatches.
I think my choices in patterns go back to my interest in words and languages. When my family immigrated to the United States, I was 12 years old and didn’t speak any English. I came from a Communist country into to the Capitalist West that spoke a different language and had entirely different customs. I was thrust into this notion that language is arbitrary and it tells you more about the culture itself rather than any kind of authentic description of reality. Fifteen years ago, a lot of my work was text based. I played around with letter forms to the point where I started making patterns with them, thinking about how each written language has a very particular character that says something, almost like a code conveying something subtle about the culture itself. It’s very hard to put into words what it is conveying, but it is recognizable and visible, you can perceive it, like it’s making a different tone.
I really love thinking about text as an image and that is how I arrived at pattern. My mom is from Uzbekistan, my dad is from the Ukraine and I grew up in Moscow. There were patterns in our household, like flowers on kitchen towels for instance, that were either from Uzbekistan or from Ukraine. They were all super different patterns and styles, and I didn’t really think about it growing up, but once I came here all of a sudden I began to have so many associations with different patterns that I saw here. I started thinking about what makes a pattern connect to a particular culture, or what makes a culture give birth to a certain kind of pattern. These shapes are not just decorative, they’re letters and they’re spelling something out.
That’s also when I started using a bunch of fabric in my work because I started thinking about the pattern as a raw material in and of itself, and by introducing patterns I was ringing different bells from different geographic locations. These horses, for instance, are a pattern I bought and it doesn’t have any personal meaning. But as horses, there is a particular way in which the horse is positioned and is repeated that conveys something without me doing anything. It is in motion and in an aggressive state. So the “raw material” of the print points to something that already has a whole set of associations and then I introduce my own connections to that.
Do you try to use found material or fabric that you already have or own, or are you selecting and buying specific swathes specifically for your work?
At this point I try not to buy any more fabric, although it’s hard. For a while I thought of my fabric collection as a library, and every time I bought new fabric I would make a little swatch and staple it to a card as a way to catalogue it. I’m interested in the disposable quality that fabric has recently acquired in comparison to when all fabric was woven. Back then it was more work to put a pattern onto a piece of fabric, so it was much more deliberate and you didn’t see flippant or silly patterns that you see appearing now. I was really interested in cataloguing that, but now I’m more interested in finding ways of using and reusing the materials that I already have.
There’s a real dire problem with garment saturation because as a society we buy so many clothes and the fashion industry is set up in a way to make last year’s styles and trends completely uncool, forcing people to buy more and more stuff and constantly throw away clothes. It’s a huge ecological problem because a lot of fabric, especially new fabric, is not biodegradable and landfills are full of it. So I think about how I can reuse my fabric. Sometimes when I take down a big installation, I’ll have some kind of community even where people can just take stuff and make what they want out of it so it doesn’t just come back to my studio and sit in a bag.
How do you approach color?
If I had to pick a formal element of art that matters most to me, it would be color. So much of my own inspiration is drawn from how I perceive color relationships. I love how color is so dynamic and surprising. It feels very alive and insubordinate. It’s hard to control color, and I like that. I like super saturated colors; colors that are very relevant to our present moment, like different neons and metallics, but I’m also very interested in relating them to more traditional palettes. I like how the color is an additional coded layer of the fabrics.
My goal in the studio is to connect to a sense of joy that you get when you’re making something because you’re excited to see what happens. That sense of discovery and exploration is really fueled by my interactions with color. After I graduated from college, I had a couple of years where I was working full-time and really struggling to figure out what I was going to do, knowing that I wanted to be an artist but feeling fearful of failure. I remember thinking at that time that I just needed to do something that allows me to play with color and that would be enough to make me happy.
Your works are very playful and fun -- how does humor enter into your work?
I love humor in literature, especially dark humor like Kafka’s. Not a lot of people find him funny, but I crack up reading Kafka because he’s humor is so lugubriously slapstick. Without the humor his work would be unbearably heavy and dark. Charlie Chaplin is another good example because his movies are so sad, but he also makes you laugh and the laughter is helping you process and sit with these very difficult feelings and realities that we try to avoid at all costs. Humor for me has always been something that I need in order to make it through the day. I love to laugh, not because everything in my head is funny, but because everything in my head is not funny. Humor and fooling around is a way to get out of very dark states. With my work, a lot of what I’m thinking about is very difficult and dark, but the way I want to deliver it is through humor. Color is connected to humor because it’s very therapeutic and generous. Color and humor are these two friends that are always there to help you think more positively so that you can help someone or help yourself.
Can you talk about your current work and what you were making this summer during your residency at Banff?
I have all these plastic forms, there are about fourteen of them, and they’re molds of my fabrics and materials that I use. I was interested in how the mold becomes a fossil or an indexical print of my materials, but it’s made out of plastic which is so much about consumerism, and that seems like an oxymoron. I spray painted some of them after I made the plastic mold, but then I also have some that I left clear and some that I have with their objects left intact. There are also some that are clear and have parts that I melted down onto the other side, and also others that I painted. So there’s one thing happening in terms of the indexical print, and then there’s another in terms of the image painted on top of it. So even within something as narrow as making fourteen plastic molds all the same size, I made each one differently. Some of them are mounted on top of dyed pieces of linen, so some of the color is coming from the mold and some from the fabric you see through it.
The fabric is like a backdrop or a stage for the other piece to engage with and sit on top of.
Yes, and that’s part of what I’m trying to figure out. Do they need a backdrop? I’m still in a really experimental stage with these works, which is of course my favorite stage to be in. I also did a lot of hand-painted dye application on linen while I was at the residency. I’m interested in dye because of its historical reference to the textile industry, but also because of how it seeps into the actual material rather than sitting on top. I’m really interested in that and seeing what happens when you actually change the material through the paint itself. I made these linen dyed pieces with the intention of having them as backdrops for the plastic works, but a lot of them are just interesting to look at by themselves. Whereas the plastic works lose something when just by themselves because you can’t see as much. They need a bit of color in the background to give definition to the textured relief.
Have you ever used this mold process before, and how were these pieces made?
This process was totally new for me. When I got to Banff, they gave us a tour of all the facilities and were showing us the various available pieces of equipment, one of which was the vacuum former, and I always wanted to play around with that process. There were a few plastic sheets available for me to use, and I immediately fell in love with it. It’s a very immediate -- you arrange something on the bed and the plastic sheet is melted by heat coils before you lower it onto the vacuum table where all the air is sucked out so the hot plastic molds to the objects in a matter of minutes and you’re left with a mold. I thought it was a really interesting and satisfying process, so I ordered ten more sheets and kept playing with it.
They’re almost like still-life paintings. Were you thinking of that or approaching them in a particular way?
Definitely. I thought about how it was a still life that then becomes a landscape because once you put it on a wall it starts to feel like some kind of frosted window or sepulchral space due to the indexical quality and the translucency. Both of those things are also connected to the body in these oblique ways, because pictorially they’re stages for the body.
How often do you do residencies and how does that tie to your normal studio practice?
For the last few years I’ve done one residency per year because I teach full-time and it’s hard to do more than that, especially now that I have a kid. Having a whole month of nothing to do but your work and going to the studio every day isn’t possible in my regular life, but everything grows much faster when you’re able to work on it every day, so residencies are extremely important for that reason, like a wind-up mechanism. Also, since, we live in a society that doesn’t seem to value the labor of artists, it’s important to get out of our regular lives and come to a place that does actually value that labor. I think it’s psychologically good for artists to be in a place that is welcoming and facilitating, where everything is there in order to help you.
Beyond just working through this current body of work from Banff, what else are you thinking about or working through in your head in terms of questions and frustrations in relation to your practice?
I think of the practice more as a person that I have a relationship with rather than my own underling. It’s like another individual with their own agenda and concerns, and if I’m not listening to what they’re telling me then we’re going to have a problem. It’s a source of both satisfaction and frustration that I continuously do so many different things. There have been times when I really felt like I needed to focus, but when I would try to do that, life would drain out of my desire to make stuff. I turned 40 this summer while at Banff, and it was kind of a revelatory moment because having given myself the permission to just do whatever -- to experiment with the plastic stuff, to work with dyes, to do watercolors -- I felt so invigorated and it finally hit me that this is what drives my process, that all these various methods of making inform and feed into one another. This directionless abundance enables me to cover a larger territory that in its scope is really fertile, freeing and open to chance.