We at Beacon Gallery recently had the opportunity to interview the delightful Raleigh Strott, whose work is part of our current show, Mixed Messages. Strott’s work is smart and complex, drawing on retro pornography to create beautiful, geometric or organic-looking pieces of cut paper artwork that question the status quo.
(And a big shout out to Beacon Gallery’s intern Sasha Carnes for her smart, incisive questions below to Raleigh and the wonderful writing in the entire Mixed Messages “Meet The Artist” series! Thank you Sasha)
1. What was your path to becoming an artist, and how did you develop your style?
My becoming as an artist began as a teenager: I read the right combination of fiction to consider a path as a fine artist a linear goal. In hindsight this is wholly amusing. I enrolled at Mass Art in 2007 because I loved to draw, which led me to printmaking. Which in turn dismantled my love of drawing, and removed some of my more precious attitudes, while instilling more respect for “assembled” or “built” images and deliberation in my making process. After graduating I had only intermittent access to printing presses, moving into collage became a logical next step for me.
As far as subject matter and content are concerned, my work has always been an investigation of sexuality. This has taken many forms over the years: from illustrative etchings drawn from essentially soft core photography shoots I organized and documented personally, to text based pieces with my own prose and poetry. I first started cutting from porn magazines about 7 years ago. The initial appeal of those experiments lay in bending the explicit nature of the images to my will, but over time I’ve grown to love the materiality of the glossy paper, the changes in qualities of color and light through the decades, and the intersection of ephemera and fantasy.
2. What do you draw on for inspiration for your work? I’m probably going out on a limb, but personally—much of ‘iconogasm’ reminds me of Warhol’s ‘Disaster Series’, where the explicit nature of the image is initially obscured, but reveals itself with extended ogling.
I think you make a really interesting point about the explicit nature being at first obscured in my work; this touches on a piece of my exploration that is important to me. The images I construct are not focused on the sex appeal or agency of the specific models from these pornography shoots. Through obfuscating the original compositions, I am able to highlight the sexualization of bodies themselves, each body presented is a stand in for the whole project of feminine objectification as a cultural phenomenon. However, I’m not making a moral judgement about pornography: I think it’s fantastic. Porn provides a more or less safe way for people to experiment with sexuality alone or with others.
My “Icons” derive their visual language from Christian icons and devotional objects. These were considered at once to be venerated objects offering protection to their stewards, but also completely idolatrous and worthy of only destruction and damnation. Using gold leaf and static, portrait-like central compositions, I am invoking historical icons, updated with modern line and color. Further, the very nature of the work itself is an iconoclasm: the original document must be destroyed in the creation of each piece. Working in such a way, I’ve sought to queer the narrative of objectification, to venerate the obscene in a way that feels true to my politics and my personal proclivities.
As far as other art historical and critical cultural references are concerned I look more towards works by Mike Kelley, Laura Aguilar, Chitra Ganesh, Mark Bradford, Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus, and Samuel Delany.
3. In your artist statement, you share that you “continuously reevaluate the nature of my work and its message.” How would you say your work changed over time? Has your work and philosophy changed in light of the turbulent reality we live in now?
I’ve mentioned that I’ve been working with pornography as a medium for several years. I began with a much cheekier tone, re-inventing lesbian and/or feminist book covers with hand-drafted typography cut out of porn magazines. In addition to being quite legibly humorous, I think it was here that I’ve been most successful in queering the original media, in shifting the inherently male gaze of pornography to something else.
As my studio practice continues to develop, I’m not so sure that I am subverting that patriarchal gaze. I’m not sure that identifying as queer, or for that matter having a history as a survivor of sexual harassment and assault, is enough to disrupt the violence of the cis-gendered heteronormative culture of objectification and oppression. I wonder if this sort of queer auteur-ship is enough, is it a strong enough lens through which to recast pornographic material as some Other Thing? Though this is something I wrestle with on a philosophical level, it does not prevent me from proceeding to work with the materials I’m familiar with. These questions motivate me to continue working in the spirit of investigation and exploration. I don’t think I will ever arrive at a unified theory, or a singular method of working through these issues.
4. What projects are you working on right now, and what would you like to accomplish in the near (or distant) future?
Currently I’m working on a few more sculptural pieces. I’m working on some things where I cut not just through the paper, but through the panel as well. I’m experimenting with three-dimensional panels, simple prisms to start with, but seeing where those experiments take me. I’ve begun weaving paper in addition to cutting it. As my studio practice continues I find myself gravitating towards motifs of internet art, rather than the historical contexts of the Icons.
Farther down the line I foresee myself working on other sculptural work, like sex toys constructed on a comically large scale that their function is completely inhibited. I also want to try my hand at video editing. I want to take my visual language of lines and glyphs into time based media, I want to follow the migration of pornography onto the internet.
5. Any art, books, movies, recipes, media, etc you’ve been enjoying recently?
I’ve truly been missing going out to see art during the pandemic, but I did sneak in a visit to the RISD Museum just under the wire back in March. I really enjoyed Nicole Eisenmann’s Raid the Ice Box Now. As you might imagine, I’m very interested in queer readings of art history.
My media consumption throughout quarantine has been, in a word, avid. I often drive or work in the studio with podcasts in the background. Favorites include Revisionist History with Malcom Gladwell, Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect chronicling the after effects of the rise of Pornhub, and the endlessly amusing My Dad Wrote a Porno.
In recent weeks I was delighted by Pablo Larraín’s film Ema and Park Chan-wook’s Handmaiden; both are hugely entertaining, whip-smart revenge tales centering women with excellent story-telling. Outside of that, I think in the last three months I’ve watched more television than I have in the past ten years, my favorite gems have been Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Dorohedoro.
When my hands haven’t been occupied in the studio, I went on a small kick of what I like to think of as proto-feminist literature: I read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and re-read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, both are dazzling in their own ways. But my favorite read this year has been Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor, a real romp through gender, sexuality and punk rock in the early 90’s.
I seldom cook the same recipe twice, but I’ve really been loving this New York Times Cooking recipe: shrimp and green beans marinated in gochujang, soy sauce, honey and olive oil; cooked under the broiler in 7 minutes or less.
Thanks for reading, everyone! Another “Meet the Artist” will be published in a week!