House Coat: A Conversation between Lauren Adams and Leeza Meksin
House Coat’s short, dramatic life lasted from March 16th to April 3rd before it was stripped back to its original brick form. For the piece, artist Elizaveta (Leeza) Meksin dressed up Cosign Project’s two story building in a shimmering white and gold spandex covering, inviting responses from passersby and creating a stunning public intervention on a nondescript block of South St. Louis.
After House Coat’s close, Lauren Frances Adams, Curator and Founder of Cosign Projects, spoke with Leeza about the project’s background, its critical and communal response as well as the relationship of alternative space to artistic practice.
This is the first in what will be an ongoing feature in which Temporary will invite artists and curators to dialogue about their exhibitions, allowing more insight into the process and helping frame significant works through in-depth conversations.
Note: Lauren Frances Adams is a regular contributor to this site.
Lauren Adams (LA): I’m interested in your public installation based practice, such as the work you’ve done at The Pine in East Village, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and now Cosign Projects in St. Louis. What attracts you to sites like this?Leeza Meksin (LM): The thing that attracts me the most to doing projects in alternative settings is the immediacy of these spaces. The roof of the building at The Pine has these urns, and my first response was, “I want to wrap these urns in spandex.” The two women who live in that building were supportive, and I just really loved that kind of energy where you have an idea and you follow through on it. Instead of just dreaming, or just talking, or applying and waiting for grants, or for institutional spaces to be pessimistic and rain on your parade.
LA: So what you’re saying is that you’re interested in the possibility or potential inherent in working in alternative spaces. It’s important to define what ‘alternative’ means, to the white cube context or the institutional context — what you are really talking about is being inspired by are these places that have open possibilities, either with a lack of rules or a greater sense of risk-taking. Juan William Chavez (founder of Boots Contemporary Art in St. Louis) talks about the idea of an experimental art lab, and there are plenty of examples of curators like Hans Ulrich Obrist who take this approach of a roving nomad instigator. It’s about engaging with different places, sites, and conceptual rubrics.
LM: And a kind of casualness… artist run spaces are more on the same page as the artist who is making the work.
LA: Collective risk taking is more possible when you have people who aren’t driven by the market, aren’t concerned about their advertising sponsors, aren’t necessarily worried that the art world isn’t paying attention. There’s a different community and audience context. I’m also curious what relationship you have in your studio practice to the art market, such as in New York or nationally?
LM: Truthfully, I don’t have much personal experience in the art market. I certainly sell my work, but not usually in a gallery setting. I also do a lot of trades with other artists. So there’s constantly an art exchange going on, and I think of the art I make and the art my friends make as capital, but, as far as the NY art market and globally, I feel outside of it. Reading the prices the prices that certain art objects fetch, I think of the Naked King parable…
LA: I don’t know that one.
LM: Yeah, you do.
LA: Oh, the Emperor’s Clothes?
LM: Yes! (laughs) It was a Russian translation in my head. So, if everybody agrees on a certain price point then that establishes the value of that work, and an economist would say that’s the way it is, but as an artist, I feel some pessimism about that reflecting the actual value of something. Obviously, art objects have an economic worth — I think about labor, time, creative energy, and how to be compensated for that. All of that is very important, I just don’t know how relevant these issues are to the art market. What do you think?
LA: Right. When you see Urs Fischer’s bear sculpture fetch $10 million dollars, it seems incredibly dislocated from the on-the-ground experience of most artists. Perhaps it’s generational, or maybe a criteria of youth in general, but it seems like my peers are not concerned with the market.
Working with you on House Coat, I see this different kind of exchange happening in my neighborhood, and it’s brought about by this public sculpture that has become a kind of object through which people mirror their thoughts, desires, concerns, aspirations, fears, all these things, and this is not quantifiable in the capitalist context. Artists have historically been some of the best at finding alternative avenues for exchange and collateral out in the world.
LM: Yeah, totally. And I think spaces like Cosign are really crucial to that kind of exchange. They promote it, allow it to take place, and give it a venue. Do you think that the experience with this project for you has changed your ideas about public art? I know Cosign is no longer accepting new submissions, and I have multiple friends who want to do projects with your space — so obviously, there’s a great amount of interest from a variety of artists — will you continue Cosign’s mission in another space?
LA: Yes, I would, and I’ve been galvanized more so because of the provocative exchanges that have happened with House Coat. I’ve been questioning in my studio for over a decade about how interactions outside the white cube context can be a viable model.
Everyone has a license to respond in the public context, and you have to be incredibly strong and confident about your work’s premise. I would argue that there are tons of cases in art history where the failure of an art object is just as viable as the success of it.
Cosign Projects is so tied to the building, and all the artists have responded specifically to the house or neighborhood. Like the project The Other Side by Cheryl Wassenaar and Brigid Dolan, the poem Brigid wrote was for that particular house, about the bullet holes in the brick, and the public face of the building paired with domesticity and safety.
Also, curating and organizing the Sweet Jesus exhibition last November at Lemp Brewery, where regional and national artists came together in this amazing space for just a few days, has given me much to move forward with in my own studio.
LM: I’m thinking about Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking” from Poetry, Language, Thought. He makes all these distinctions between a building that is a dwelling, and one that is not, and basically ends up tying the etymology of these words to Being — to being human, and what it means to be, and how thought is related to that.
I find it a profound irony that I was acting out of total love for this house, that it would prance around in an outfit, just kind of thinking of a house as being capable of experiencing the joy of dressing up. Dressing up is not what men like to talk about, but drag queens and women know that dressing up is quite delicious and fun, and I’m trying to parse through this and understand why an outfit for a house could potentially cause some people to feel very uncomfortable, insulted, or appalled, or whatever. I’m happy it had a range of responses. That’s a good sign.
Try searching Twitter for keywords like ‘spandex’ and ‘house’ and you’ll see these disparaging tweets about fat women leaving house in too-tight spandex, like, “Your belly and titties be all hanging out.” and “Didn’t they know better to dress that way.” There’s this kind of body slamming going on, or a sense of disbelief that you left the house that way. So it’s a weird kind of permission that has to happen. And House Coat possesses an abstraction that could inspire polarized positive and negative responses, slavery to royalty. It’s because you can’t put your finger on it and place it that makes it dangerous to some people.
LM: Unbeknownst to someone who might call House Coat insulting, they’re playing into the ideas that inspired the project.
LA: One thing that’s clear is that you bring a very personal humor and levity to the art production experience. You also brought Anya and Meesha, your siblings, and also Katie Lofton from Connecticut and Andrea Carey Fama from LA. It was sort of a happening within the house. How did you arrive at that kind of fluid artistic process, and what are the risks and rewards?
LM: We’ve all started talking about these projects as a way to punctuate our lives together. Part of the sadness is that the actual distance starts to equal an emotional distance, but what better way could there be to offset that than a really intense event in time and place?
The disadvantages of that kind of work depend upon the group. I have had sad collaborative experiences too — where I felt, “should i do this again? Was this a faulty premise to begin with?” So, there has to be trust, camaraderie, and good will. Seeing it for what it is — outside of normal time and place, as a moment of liberation, a transformative experience. Everybody got on the boat, the metaphor of us being in the house, and wrapping it, like a crew on a ship and everybody pulled their own weight — more than asked for. It was inspiring and humbling.
LA: I want to know how you had the fabric manufactured in Korea and what global or sustainability concerns you have about that.
LM: The printing was an exciting part of the process for me — it was my first time designing my own pattern and thinking about scale issues and having the pattern relate to the size of the house – that being the primary reason for designing it in the first place.
And I am still thinking about what to do about that now, and I’ve considered a closing event where people in the neighborhood could take some of the fabric for themselves, and that’s still exciting to me and feels appropriate so that I can share it, and not have it languish in storage. So, recycling it is part of the project. I recycle my materials always, so it is natural to think about it in this way, but what is unnatural is recycling this amount of material.
LA: The project began going up Mar 16, came down April 3, and over 18 days the spandex looked good being outside that long.
LM: Spandex is surprisingly resilient. It is claimed to be stronger than rubber. Not sure what that really means. But you know how rubber gets brittle and hard over time, and loses softness… spandex doesn’t do that, but it does get extra flaccid. It doesn’t fossilize, it sags. And I think that’s like the body, like skin…
LA: What did you anticipate through how you designed the pattern, versus what happened through the evolution of the project? With the formal issues like color, and the premise of the project about architecture and gender?
LM: The basic premise had a lot to do with the gender divide. Things that are traditionally thought of as masculine or feminine, and how that reflects onto actual people who happen to fit somewhere between the two binaries.
Architecture is traditionally thought of in masculine terms. It’s a field still highly dominated by men but also a lot of the materials used in architecture, when people talk about them, they may as well substitute “building” with “dude”: Solid; generating respect; hardy, weathers the odds.
As you brought up when we were working, the Marina Abramovic piece (Rhythm 0, 1974), the artist puts something out there that people think they could violate, or respond to drastically. You couldn’t come up to a brick house and poke it with a stick, it would break the stick. (laughs) But you could poke a spandex house. You could do all kinds of things to it.
The offering and taunting of that, “I am soft and pretty and shimmery and I’m excited to be here, but you may not be excited to have me — what do you want to do to me for being here in just this way?”
So the gender relationship of exterior materials, by sheer necessity, having to be hard and durable. This situates masculinity in a more appealing context than say, the frivolity and vulnerability usually associated with clothing and disguise.
LA: It reminds me of haute couture, as opposed to the normalcy of red brick — which in St. Louis, once you’ve been here a while, it disappears. It is absolutely enchanting for a newcomer to witness the city’s red brick structure. But for the average viewer in St. Louis, being shocked out of the everyday with a project like House Coat — it’s like a woman in a nice dress walking down the street.
LM: I thought House Coat made the other houses on the street look spruced up and ready for a party. A beautifully dressed woman gives the party a whole different energy. That energy is enjoyed, but also sometimes at the expense of that woman. She puts her self out there, makes herself vulnerable, the center of conversation, a point of ridicule for some and admiration for others. In one way or another, her presence and flamboyance, produces a kind of shimmering, flouncing effect on a place (and this is also true of a drag queen, which is why I think of them in same category in this regard).
Do you watch Rupaul’s Drag Race? I think it’s such brilliant satire on shows such as America’s Next Top Model, and other design and cooking television programming. Rupaul’s Drag Race takes all of that and satirizes it, by performing the same set of rituals, which of course brilliantly align itself with drag culture in general. Anyways, my dream is to get Rupaul to commission a spandex outfit for some exuberant structure!
This goes back to what were my expectations, and what were my disappointments. I was thinking about drag as something that masquerades as fabulous but is actually kind of hurt, or somewhat troubled inside, and how the exterior reflects that. It takes decoration to such an extreme that it kind of betrays instances of anxiety and tension. That was lacking for me in the project. It wasn’t drag enough. It was a little too beautiful.
It was nice to see people responding to the sensory aspect of it, but I feel like this other undercurrent of it being made out of spandex, which is considered to be kind of cheap and gaudy, an unrefined material. Having it kind of participating in masquerade on different levels… that the gold chains are masquerading, because they are just printed, not actual. So I was thinking of authenticity, another word that is very gendered. Authenticity of brick makes sense, but authenticity of spandex does not. What does that suggest?
LA: That is the investment some have in ‘playing it straight’ so to speak. That can be inauthentic to people who have an investment in straight culture as some kind of validity or reliability. Or that if you cover the brick, it’s a very serious violation of this straight-laced, conventional attitude needed for stability, such as historic neighborhood accreditation (a “what would the neighbors think” mentality). This makes me think of one of the main criticisms of the work, that it is a “Christo rip-off.” What’s your take on that?
LM: I love Christo and Jean-Claude, they are definitely a big inspiration. Quite frankly, I wish there was more art like theirs out in the world. I see my work as something that continues that tradition, but I also see it as very different. Wrapped Reichstag creates a queenly, regal image of power — the ancient roots of the Roman Republic. They’re dressing a monument that is already a tourist attraction and already a sightseeing destination, so putting that outfit on it is kind of a reconfirmation of those ideas. Overall the meaning of that building isn’t changed, it’s actually reinstated and solidified, so the irony of something soft solidifying something hard is a really beautiful part of their work. Me going to St. Louis to dress up a no name building — yes, it’s Cosign Projects, but its a non-location, a non-site — makes a site happen. And it is also giving validity to something that inherently seems to say “I have some validity? Nah…”
That house has so many quirky, endearing, special details that make it tender in my eyes, but it’s certainly not something I’d direct a visitor to the city to. Making that kind of destination happen in a city that is not known for installation or public art scene was exciting to me, that part did align with my desire to kind of flaunt drag and make something that is humble and not all that noticeable all of a sudden have this vibrant and very specific identity. The men who participate in the culture of drag, that’s what they’re seeking, a somewhat bland masculinity is traded in for a peacock flamboyancy of over-the-top glamour and sauciness.
St Louis is the heart of the Midwest, a no-nonsense region. I wanted to act in this place that is somewhat counter-intuitive to ideas of queerness — not to say that doesn’t exist in STL, but it doesn’t exist in a public outpouring of a visual statement.
Also, my installations involve patterns. For Christo and Jean-Claude, the fabrics were solid one color. That may sound minor, but I think about pattern as meaning, as code. Ukrainian patterns are inherently about Ukrainian culture, and Moroccan patterns evoke the specificity of Moroccan culture. Having that recognizability and readability — what can you read about a culture, an object, when it’s covered in a particular pattern? So that’s something that’s a big part of my project, and it goes back to my interest in language, and literature, and reading, how to incorporate those tropes into visual culture.
LA: Right. As someone who teaches painting, I just took my students to the textile conservation lab at the St. Louis Art Museum. There’s an increasing level of awareness at the fine arts level that pattern and decoration provide a case for understanding cultural contexts. We look to patterns in a similar way as we look to photography, or a highly crafted painting, in that the layering that occurs down to the materiality of a thing — the painting can tell us about who the artist was, their process, and what was happening around them culturally, politically, and in technology. Historically, there is an uneasy hierarchical relationship between patterned decoration and fine arts.
LM: And I think that it’s not a coincidence that this reevaluation is happening during a time when the gender dynamics and the power dynamics between the genders are being reevaluated as well.
LA: Absolutely. Since you’ve lived in Columbus, Ohio where your parents emigrated from Russia (and still live), and you’ve also lived in Chicago for almost a decade and now New York — what’s your take on the Midwest arts scene and specifically what you’ve found in St. Louis?
LM: I had a really positive experience in St. Louis. I was kind of stunned by the feeling of community and solidarity in St. Louis and what great conversations I had with people about my project, their projects, and the art scene in general. I visited many spaces like Good Citizen, Contemporary Art Museum, and The Luminary, for example. I was impressed by the resources available and frankly surprised there aren’t more artists in STL after seeing what the infrastructure offers — amazing buildings and cheap space, visual inspiration. It’s a beautiful city to be in. There’s this historic past but it also has an inner city urban grunge. A lot of culture, and a lot of anti-culture, in a sense of “culture doesn’t have to be everywhere” or maybe things that we think of not being culture are culture, too — and all of those thoughts were exciting to me. I left St. Louis hoping I’d come right back.
LA: What’s next for Leeza Meksin?
LM: As you know, I have to make a whole lot of Kickstarter rewards — these absurd objects like the Deez Doggs, Douchebags, and Dykelets that will go to the various backers and supporters of the project. I am excited to make something as a token of my appreciation for those who supported my project. I will also be doing an installation at The Lot in New Haven, which is almost the inverse of the house, an empty lot that is also a bus station. I’m excited to do that, using the same fabric, but installing it in very different ways and how will the meaning of the fabric change due to the change in the location. New Haven is a very different feel, history, demographic — how will these things affect the installation? My long term dream these days is to cover the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
LA: They have a residency or some kind of installation program, right?
LM: Yeah, I’ve been in touch with them a couple of years back talking about this idea and not surprisingly they are worried about covering the walls of a historic landmark. They say people who come want to see the brick and not the spandex. But I’m thinking… EST is in financial crisis, and the building has been declared a ruin. There are many parts of it that can’t be visited and they don’t have the funds to fix it.
My hope is to raise money for the renovation through creating an outfit for the exterior walls of the prison. We’ll see if it happens.
So, I have one last question for you. The project you did at The Luminary (The Nymph’s Reply). I wanted to ask if going through this collaborative experience with House Coat changes what next paintings you want to do? I know you have a research based practice. I love how discursive they are, coded in how images create a pattern. I feel like there are rich intersections between the way we work.
LA: I feel a renewed contract with my work relating to a site specific context. I’ve wanted my work about Elizabethan colonialism to go to the port in Plymouth, England, and also to Roanoke Island in North Carolina and to do a transatlantic project.
You know, the scale of the House Coat project needs just as much scale of distance before I can understand its indelible effect. I worked with artist Allison Smith last year, and working with you this year has raised my awareness of what Claire Bishop recently called Pawel Althamer’s ‘civic dada.’ To be truly engaged in artmaking is to be open and capable of acknowledging those possibilities. It doesn’t behoove the artistic spirit to be locked in and planned.
LM: Totally. But the selfish mode in the studio is also crucial — without it, collaboration can be flat, bringing out the worst of the collective. Everybody brings in their uninspired, half-baked ideas, and what you get is flat-footed. So I think this solitary labor is a huge part of cultivating yourself and your ideas and then sharing it, letting it all flow. So, not to say all the solitary labor moments in studio should be done with that end goal in mind, but we know so much of art is ultimately about communication and even when we are working on projects that are completely solitary the end result is only as successful as the communication that it produces.
LA: And you have to have something credible, you have to know who you are and have that grounding before stepping out. Alternately, there’s also the process of finding the self through the making, which is inherently an artistic and creative process.
LM: I know. It’s a wonderful paradox.
For more information about House Coat and the many responses that it spurred, see the links below.
Images courtesy of the artist.