For her latest series of works, sculptor, fiber artist, and painter Alyssa McClenaghan uses materials typically found in construction to examine concepts of labor, femininity, and gender.
McClenaghan transforms traditionally masculine supplies such as insulation boards, spray foam, and joint compound into a traditional female experience within the domestic space. Through this recontextualization, the artist discusses the long history of the female in a supporting role. The work in its final state, however, releases its full weight and incorporates a sense of humor using phallic forms or breasts as references.
McClenaghan’s work is part of the group show “Leaving the Body,” curated by Morgan Everhart and also featuring Mel Reese, Natasha Wright, and Poppy DeltaDawn. The exhibition is on view at The Yard City Hall Park in New York City through November 5, 2021.
We spoke with Alyssa McClenaghan about how her parents influenced the work she does, who she’s making artwork for, and what advice she has for younger artists.
How does your artwork relate to your identity?
Alyssa McClenaghan: Working with materials typically used in construction, my work mines the ideas of labor, femininity, gender, and my own history. My most recent body of work, the Radiator series, explores the relationship between household radiators and the human body.
I see many parallels between the two, and specifically through the lens of the female experience. At the root of the work, the sculptures could be thought of as a personal narrative, although the forms are refined and abstracted, allowing viewers to bring their own understanding to the work. I think artists mine their ideas from what they know. My father is a realtor, and my mother is a nurse. My mother was in nursing school when I was a small child, around six or seven.
From a very young age, I was constantly in other people’s homes alongside my dad, accompanying my mother to the hospital or flipping through her anatomy books. Being in so many homes led me to think about what a home means, how we function in them, and what makes a home. It incited curiosity for the things in a home, such as furniture, radiators, and architectural features. I remember when my mother was in nursing school, we had to go to the hospital one day for her to pick something up. There was a room filled with beds, holding mannequins that I would assume were used for practice in her classes. My brother had nightmares for weeks about those mannequins, but I was the opposite. I found the body, and all of its functions intriguing. My mother also had a love for Frida Kahlo and had a large book full of images of her paintings. Around the same age, I remember flipping through that book and being scared, sad, and curious about the way Kahlo depicted the body. In retrospect, I think it was a critical moment for me in understanding the impact a work of art can have.
What characteristics of the human form do you incorporate into your artwork? Conversely, what characteristics of the human form do you consciously refrain from depicting in your art?
Alyssa McClenaghan: Often the human form is referenced in my sculptures. Legs, bellies, and breasts recur in various abstracted ways. In addition to referencing parts of the human body, I will also animate the sculptures into shapes that the body can take, such as sitting up or bending over. I have not intentionally omitted any specific characteristics of the human form, but throughout my most recent series, there have not been any references to heads, hands, or feet. The ideas and gestures the sculptures take, circulate around the torso, and the legs. I’ve recently become quite interested in the negative space and holes in the forms. What does it mean to have a belly with a giant hole in the center, or legs that are hollow? I think the negative space in these forms readily speaks to an emotional state.
Who do you make your art for and why?
Alyssa McClenaghan: Selfishly and foremost, I make the work for me. It is necessary for me to keep making art in order to stay happy and healthy. I learned that the hard way with a few years of not creating. The work is entirely narrative and labor-intensive and helps me process the things that happen or have happened in my life. While the work comes from a very personal place, which is, in turn, referential to my experience as a female-identifying woman, I think on a larger scale the work is for everyone. The ideas and feelings that the work is derived from, really at their core, are a circumstance of being human. My hope is that the viewer is able to find their own relationship to the work based on their own lived experiences.
Thank you for making work that effortlessly moves past the binary, null logic of form and content. The art world has split from this false dichotomy since modernism. However, history has a terrible habit of repeating itself, so we see many artists focusing on formalities and missing out on really finding meaning in their life and art.
I think your focus on contextualizing your personal, deeply psychological experiences reveals the challenges of accepting who we are and what made us. Could you tell us more about the happiness you’re finding in your explorations?
Alyssa McClenaghan: It’s an interesting process to go through, to take an event or feeling and transform it into an object. I think through that act, I am able to take something heavy, exorcise it in a way, and turn it into something tangible. The work in its final state, can release that heaviness from me, and also turn it into something playful or a bit humorous, like a radiator pipe referencing a phallic form, or valves referencing breasts. I think the process is a good way to remind myself that nothing is permanent, and it’s okay to let things go.
What are your artworks recontextualizing or exposing?
Alyssa McClenaghan: I make my sculptures out of construction materials. Foam insulation boards, spray foam, joint compound, household primer, and exterior house paints are all components of the work. Using these materials, inverts the idea of the “archival,” “elevated,” art material, being that construction materials are accessible in their availability and affordability. They are also typically considered a more masculine material, and the construction industry is very much male-dominated. I am interested in the idea of the re-imagination and transformation of these materials into something that references the domestic and fem experience. By the time the sculpture is complete, it is unclear to the viewer what the object was made of. This covering-up, sense of ownership, or inversion of power is exciting for me. Speaking to the feminine experience and psyche in relation to domestic space through these combinations of human forms and domestic objects seeks to highlight and discuss the long history of the female in a supporting role.
Everyone wants to know what your work is made out of and that’s the first thing they’ve asked me. The next thing the viewer wants to do is touch the work, even though the stability of the object is also in question. This feels like a sexual inclination to me. What do you think?
Alyssa McClenaghan: Mmm, interesting. I would think so, to a degree anyway, being that many of the forms are incorporating easily or often sexualized parts of the human body. I think it likely stems from both a sexual place and from a very primal or infantile urge to understand the things around us through touch. Especially, when we aren’t sure “what” something is.
What is some advice that you would like to share with other artists?
Alyssa McClenaghan: Just keep your head down and do the work. Creating is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing, as we each have our own paths to walk. Find a great group of friends and support each other. You don’t have to have, or be in, the largest art community to have a fruitful one. Don’t be afraid to experiment with materials and ideas. Nothing is permanent and no one needs to know if it fails. And, failing is key! Fail a lot, and then do it again. This is starting to sound a bit like a self-help book, but I truly mean it. I think tenacity, the love of making, and a bit of stubbornness are what you need in order to survive the art world and keep producing. Oh, and lastly, you decide what success means, don’t let anyone else make up that definition for you.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or events?
Alyssa McClenaghan: I am gratefully just coming off of a very busy year of shows. I don’t have anything else lined up at the moment. But, I am looking forward to seeing what comes next, both in the studio and out.
Besides Leaving the Body, what are some of the other recent exhibitions you’ve had?
Alyssa McClenaghan: I was able to start out 2021 with a solo show of the Radiator series at Collar Works gallery in Troy. Collar Works is an incredible, and beautiful, non-profit gallery in my hometown. It meant a lot to me to be able to see all of the completed pieces in one space and to be able to do so in a place so close to me. I had a two-person show at Peep Space in Tarrytown, which is a great gallery run by the best people, Jane Kang Lawrence and Monica Carrier. That one was super special because it was a show with myself and one of my dearest friends, Debbi Kenote. She’s an incredible painter, and it was the first time we were able to see our work together since graduate school. This past spring, I was also in a group show at Hesse Flatow, curated by the amazing sculptor, Carl D’Alvia. That was so dreamy, as I was in the company of really, really talented artists. And, I just came off of participating in Upstate Art Weekend in the NADA x Foreland exhibit with Paradice Palase. They are another organization I would recommend supporting and checking out. They are a Bushwick-based networking community for artists, with a focus on their online platform for connecting artists and art professionals. Those are just a few highlights, but I feel really lucky to be able to have had such wonderful opportunities this year.