The Material Girls’ Exhibition XOXO at the Museum of Human Achievement

February 19th, 2018  |  Published in January/February 2018

The Material Girls’ exhibition XOXO opened at the Museum of Human Achievement (MOHA) on the 19th of January and remained there until the 28th. I discovered the Material Girls through Gracelee Lawrence who is part of the collective and with whom I also attended Guilford College. Rather coincidentally we both ended up in Texas for graduate school and The exhibition at MOHA was the first time the Material Girls had ever been in the same place at the same time. The Material Girls are a group of sculptors all identifying as female who are located in different parts of the country and have combined their powers into a sort of supergroup.

The Material Girls are: Rachael Starbuck (Austin, TX), Gracelee Lawrence (Pittsburgh, PA), Claire Lachow (New York, NY), Cameron Coffman (Los Angeles, CA), Hilliary Gabryel (New York, NY), and Devra Freelander (New York, NY).

For XOXO each artist invited another artist to collaborate around the idea of the vessel. The exhibition struck me as a room full of reciprocal empowerment, of friends having fun. The incorporation of collaborative video works added to the conversational atmosphere which felt rife with synechdoche.

The Material Girls: Rachael Starbuck, Gracelee Lawrence, Claire Lachow, Cameron Coffman, Hilliary Gabryel, Devra Freelander.

  1.     Of the four collaborative exhibition projects that Material Girls has endeavored thus far what has been your favorite moment?

Many of us had energizing and gratifying experiences in the interviews and virtual studio visits that we did for HELLO GIRLS!. It was the first time we included artists beyond our initial group of 6, and was an amazing way to meet new people by peeking into their studios and brains. We held an open call for self-led studio tours on instagram, and also invited some of our personal friends and heroes, so the end result was a show that revealed unexpected connections between artists who had never met, and built the framework for future collaborations. Several of the relationships formed in the digital visits for HELLO GIRLS! continued to develop into our Austin show, xoxo. The fluid evolution of projects is an exciting part of MATERIAL GIRLS that continues to delight and surprise.

  1.     How does your work negotiate space in the interest of Feminism in ways that may be metered beyond the corporeal or perceptions rooted in physicality?

Any feminist understanding must be embodied. There is no realm of pure intellect or perception that is not filtered through one’s body and experiences. The clean delineation of mind/body has always been a patriarchal construct- looking back we can see how it made European men into all-seeing “subjects” and everyone else into “objects”. However it’s a philosophical framework that is deeply embedded in Western thought and therefore hard to escape. To that end our work probes and plays with these boundaries, negotiating what it means for something to be an object, for something to also be a body, for a body to be both an object and subject.

  1. Do you feel like your work affiliates politically or theoretically? How is this affiliation made manifest?

As a collective, the content of our work is heavily influenced by the ways in which we collaborate. We take pride in the fact that our collective is non-hierarchical; without a defined leadership structure we are able to be more agile and responsive to each of our individual needs and desires, as well as to the needs of our projects. This quality of fluidity bleeds into our work- sometimes we speak in one voice, authoring singular works together as MATERIAL GIRLS and sometimes our collaborative voice is curatorial, finding new ways to contextualize our individual works and the work of others in our community. This way of working is in line with a tradition of other collective, cooperative, and intentional communities— sociopolitical projects formed to combat the alienating effects of capitalism. In the greater scheme of history, a group of self-organized unmarried women consolidating their power and skills to intractably occupy space in society is itself a futuristic, utopian model. Our artistic aims are explicitly concerned with community-building and creating alternative platforms for marginalized voices.

Hello Girls, Organized by Alt. Esc, November 10–12, 2017. No Vacancy 3, Brooklyn, NY.

  1.     For XOXO you each invited another artist to participate in the collaborative exhibition. What motivated your choice?

GL: I invited the wonderful New Zealand painter Emily Hartley-Skudder, who I first met in a virtual studio visit for HELLO GIRLS! While in New Zealand last year I met a friend of hers, the incredible Erica van Zon, and through mysterious Instagram algorithms found Emily’s work. I fell in love with her work immediately and was so thrilled to have a reason to reach out! We vibed really well in the virtual visit and so I asked her if she would be interested in making collaborative/responsive work for xoxo. We planned and made the work at the same time so that both her painting and my sculpture were truly responsive to one another. It was such a treat have an inside perspective on her process and better understand the inner workings of her making during the of planning of xoxo.

Installation of XOXO at MOHA

HG: I also met my collaborator Sydni Gause through our HELLO GIRLS! Project at No Vacancy 3, back in November. I had interacted some with Sydni on Instagram prior, but got a deeper look into her practice with the self-led studio tour she submitted for the project. I was drawn to her energy and related to her works’ southern gothic undertones – systemic of both of our upbringings in the South.

CL: I invited a dear friend, E.M. Joseph, because we were simultaneously moving into making 3D work, and I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to engage in a dialogue about that.

RS: I invited my good friend Anne Rogers, she went to UT with Gracelee and I and is currently in Provincetown at the Fine Arts Work Center. Anne is one of my favorite humans and a truly magical object maker, but I knew I had to invite her specifically for this project because we were thinking through vessels and Anne has made a lot of forms with mysterious interiors and orifices.

DF: I invited an instagram crush of mine, Barbara Cartier. Barbara and I have never met; she lives in Panama City, and I live in New York, but we found each other through the opaque magic of instagram’s discover feature. Her work instantly appealed to me, and I felt a deep affinity for the forms, colors, and subjects she engaged with – brightly saturated geologic referents. I sent her a DM on a whim, and now we’re friends! The internet is wild.

CC: I I invited my friend Cara Chan (another CC!) who was at UCLA with me in sculpture. It was important to me to bring another west coast babe to the mix of artist since we’re east coast heavy at the moment.

Installation of XOXO at MOHA

  1. In what ways have you become more efficient in your manipulations of your materials? How has this informed your work?

CL: I often change tactics once I become too comfortable with any process- partially due to boredom, but also I find that the most interesting results come from an exploratory/unfixed approach.

RS: My practice is more often than not stubbornly and intentionally inefficient. Much of my process consists of experimenting with materials and trying to make them behave in ways they’re not supposed to, making paint feel like fabric or plaster, making paper feel like plastic, metal or stone, it is a constant negotiation with material properties and boundaries. Like Claire I usually move on to a new material process as soon as I feel like I’ve mastered something.

HG: My work was completely transformed by my move to New York four years ago. I had to adapt and become more efficient with my time, space, resources. My sculptures are modular as a result of this, the objects and materials – sourced from my surroundings and characteristic of my experience living in Queens, NY.

GL: Digital fabrication has completely changed how I think about form and materials. While it seems like it may be a more efficient choice in the traditional definition of the word, I find that it does not always speed up my process. What it has done, though, is encourage me to think about my work in layers and intersections. The hundreds of hours spent in Rhino in the name of precise planning and forethought have given me new dimensional tools in my brain. Sometimes when I’m working on a drawing I have an urge to Ctrl+Z.

CC: The work is always changing material so each piece becomes a challenge in manipulation.  Right when the work feels slightly comfortable in the construction I move on. Right now I’m making a book and working on a video.

  1.     Does your working environment constrain your process? Where do you find yourself proud of problem solving?

RS: Absolutely, my practice is super sensitive to my environment. I recently moved from a large clean climate controlled studio in grad school where I had access to an incredible array of tools and facilities to the garage in my backyard. My practice is fairly flexible but I have had to learn to work in a much smaller less fully equipped space that is subject to extreme temperature shifts. It took a little while but I have begun to appreciate the challenge of having a studio practice that can fluidly adapt to the current weather and seasonal changes, it feels like an appropriate form of environmental sensitivity.

DF: Living in New York has definitely changed my practice. High real estate prices means my studio is barely big enough to hold all my tools, let alone to accommodate large-scale sculpture. This means my larger projects have to happen off-site, at residencies or sculpture parks, while my independent studio practice has become much more digital, small-object, and research-oriented. When I travel, I bring my camera to film videos and expand my studio into the wild. I’ve been experimenting more with video and virtual space in response to my financial and geographic constraints, but I still fantasize about traveling and having room to make all the massive sculptures I dream of.

CL: Not only has my working environment significantly informed my process, the work I’ve taken on to sustain my practice has also steered me in unexpected directions. When I first moved to Brooklyn at 22, I was completely broke, without a studio, and trying to make messy drawings in my small windowless bedroom. It was terrible. Then I took a few jobs archiving and retouching other artists’ images. Over time I became interested in using that skill-set in my own work, which led me to move away from fine art and toward digital processes.

GL: I’m currently transient, jumping from residency to residency, and the uncertainty of space is a part of how I’m considering my new work. Sometimes I ignore it, making big awkward forms even though it’s not in the best interest of my current mobile situation. Other times I feel a little crushed by the lack of storage and home base. Regardless, I am compelled to do whatever the work asks of me, even if it is illogical.

 CC: The work is almost always small pieces that can be packed individually and then rearranged. I am thinking a lot about size, constraint, bodies, and money. Through my limitations of space and tools I enjoy negotiating what objects fit together and how my immediate surroundings can dictate unforeseen occurrences in the work.

HG: For the past four years I have worked out of a storefront studio shared with four other women artists. A friend and I took on the space as a project – ripping out carpet and painting the yellow walls white, we kept the space open and didn’t put up any dividing walls. It was important for me as a sculptor to be able to step back from my work, even if i was in tight quarters. I also have prioritized working modularly!

Installation of XOXO at MOHA

  1. If you were able to collaborate with anyone of our time or any other, who might that person be?

DF: Nancy Holt

CL: Ana Mendieta

HG: The Ballet Russe

RS: Anne Carson

GL: Karla Black

CC: Always my friends

  1. What does your process of ideation look like?

DF: It begins in the landscape. Ideally in the midst of geologic sublimity, but lately it’s been happening while I watch the sun set past the McDonalds logo into the National Grid Plant next to my studio. I try to isolate a form or vector within the landscape that synthesizes the emotional core of that moment, and then I translate that loaded fragment into a sculptural object.

CL: It usually begins with an idle thought, “wouldn’t it be funny/interesting/weird if _______” Then I follow that train of thought to its natural extension and research the ideas/language around it to unlock new associations, perceptions, etc.

RS: Like Dev my process is also deeply influenced by the landscape and brief specific physical sensations that get stuck my head— floating in the ocean or taking your shorts off on an incredibly hot summer day have been particularly sticky lately. I then try to translate those feelings or places through my hands into more tangible objects. Much of my work also develops from material experiments and I am constantly negotiating with gravity, weight, softness, tension, and touch.

GL: I’ll notice something- the way that my back fat folds when I lean, spinning rotisserie chickens, a wobbly chair. These things will somehow be fragmented and remixed in my subconscious, arriving in some kind of whole image form. This is then translated into a sketch and then a rendering, mushed into reality with a 3D printer or sliced with a CNC, and then smeared with goo until it feels sufficiently fleshed out.

HG: Often I single out a particular object or product seen at 99₵ store or in the front yard of apartment buildings in Queens that I think to be aspirationally luxurious. Sometimes I buy or seek this specific object or product I’ve seen in physical space but often times I try and find it online. When I start to online shop I usually end up in a vortex and when I surface sometimes I’ve found something even better. Those products and objects are the bones of my works and then color and surface treatments – ultimately an enhancement.

  1.  What kind of listening and reading materials are close at hand in your studio?

DF: I keep my books at home, otherwise they’d get covered in resin dust. In the studio I mostly listen to music and watch trashy television – my mind has to be focused on the task at hand, so I don’t like anything too heavy distracting me from my process. Sometimes I’ll listen to NPR, but most of the time it’s Star Trek or rom-coms from the early 00s.

CL: Reading: Frances Stark’s “This Could Become a Gimick [sic] or An Honest Articulation of the Workings of the Mind”, Tor Norretranders’ “The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size”; Listening: Star Trek, Lofi Hip Hop Radio 24/7 Chill Gaming / Study Beats

RS: I listen to a lot of podcasts, usually npr or Slate or I’ll listen to the same album over and over until I kill it for myself, my longest run was with Rihanna’s Anti currently I’m on Rhye’s new album Blood. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Melissa Febos book of essays Abandon Me both tore me apart when I first read them and I usually refer to them when I get stuck in the studio.

HG: Golden Age Hollywood Films are my studio jam – so sometimes reading subtitles, usually phasing in and out of listening to melodramatic scripts, my eyes – feasting on the glitz and glamour that are the movie sets.

GL: Right now in my studio I have a 1966 Van Gogh book from my grandmother’s bookshelf, Primitive Passions by Rey Chow, a 1972 copy of How to Shoe Your Horse, The Luminous and the Grey by David Batchelor, and MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf.  I’m always listening to music and usually streaming my favorite radio station, WXYC Chapel Hill. I’ve listened to WXYC since middle school and it has truly shaped my auditory tastes.

CC: Spotify has really been aligned with my all female sexy rock, pop, hip hop, and created the best Daily Mix so singing to that a lot in the studio. Always reading the news, always weeping a little after. However, The Collected Short Stories of Lydia Davis has been clutch for brain blocks in the studio.

Installation of XOXO at MOHA

  1.  What’s on your material wish list? Were money not an object what would be your first purchase in the interest of your work?

CL: Anti-gravity chamber

GL: 12’x12’ 5 Axis CNC with a technician

RS: Is a structure a material? I would buy a building I could build out into a studio.

DF: a drone that i could use to 3D-scan geologic formations

HG: Right now, an oversize vinyl outdoor party tent with cathedral windows

CC: Same as Rachael, or personal assistant, OR sand paper that magically re-grits itself after every use.

  1.  Reflecting on your experience thus far as a female identifying working artist, what recommendations or advice might you offer to a younger version of yourself?

GL: Also applicable to my current self: don’t apologize for your work or choices, break self consciousness.

RS: Don’t be afraid to occupy spaces you don’t feel entirely comfortable in. There isn’t one right way to do anything, especially when it comes to making work and often the men in shops who like to tell you what you’re doing wrong don’t know what they’re talking about. Allow yourself to feel comfortable fucking up and not knowing what you’re doing.

DF: assert and believe in yourself. don’t be afraid of intimidating things. save your Bat Mitzvah money.

CL: Follow all of your weird passions without hesitation.

HG: Keep pretending until its real.

CC: Never apologize for not knowing how a tool works or how something fits together.

  1.  What’s next for Material Girls?

We are currently gearing up for SPRING/BREAK and the presentation of xenomorphs, an exhibition set to debut in tandem with the one year anniversary of our first show. In commemoration of the this benchmark we will be putting forth a group sculpture show,  placing emphasis on each core member’s individual work. xenomorphs will be on view from March 6-12 at 4 Times Square. We’re also working on turning a past curatorial project into an interactive website. For that project, HELLO GIRLS, we exhibited the video footage of over 50 virtual studio visits we conducted with female-identifying artists all over the world. We’d love to turn this archive into a book, with the proper funding 😉

Installation of MATERIAL WORLD May 7–14, 2017. SPRING/BREAK BKLYN IMMERSIVE, Brooklyn, NY.

–Jack Wood

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