[Editor’s Note: Artist and dancer Miles Jackson sat down with artist and performer Cameron Clayborn to discuss Clayborn’s recent solo show “Bawdy”1 at Boyfriends. The exhibition is a culmination of his material and conceptual investigations over the past few years and showcases a series of objects that encompass both introspective narratives and global histories. Jackson visited Clayborn’s studio following the opening and transcribed the following conversation.]
Miles Jackson: Let’s first talk about the exhibition’s centerpiece.
Cameron Clayborn: I call it “Coagulate 1” or “Coagul-ate 1”, it’s like ‘Car-a-mel’ or ‘Car-mel’, you can say it however you want. Coagulate means to stiffen, it usually relates to blood thickening inside your veins, if something coagulates it becomes hard. A lot of the terminology I use to name my pieces are either completely vague and formalist or relate back to the body. In thinking about the forms as solid objects, in building them up, and making them solid with sand, it made sense to bring them back to the body with a reference to the inside’s stiffening. Making the larger ones was a real physical feat. The coordination is one thing, any artist deals with coordination, but there was so much physicality in getting them to stand straight each time. I had to pull it down and heave it up.
MJ: Totally, at the opening I found myself considering their weight as one of the many iterations of the body that can be found in the show. The sand creates its own weight, but also points back to its maker’s muscles, your physicality in the process of filling. Once they become larger, more of your muscles are engaged, like a growing child almost.
MJ: The center pieces are simultaneously phalluses and whole beings, love handles and personalities, little characters next to each other.
CC: Or even a larger person that I have to carry and maneuver around. Here, I think the objects start to drift into the political or social realm, it gets into the care of a black body.
MJ: For you, are these layers of reference to the body are all linked to blackness? Or in some places do the bodies exist in an exclusively material sense, like fat or bone, and not in a socio-political way. Can these even be separated?
CC: I was thinking about this even today. I think it’s both of them. I think the social-political and the material become inseparable. Often when I’m approaching making these things I think about my research. I’m obsessed with animism, things having souls, things that are inanimate being animated through me. If I think about what a black thing is, a black body, a black object in space, then it becomes so much about substance and material. The political part is inherent – but it becomes more interesting for me to think about what that substance is and how it’s created. I’m not ignoring the fact that they are brown like my skin when I render them into the Object /Furniture things.
I also think they are transported into a sexual realm too. I love to investigate that realm. To me, it’s vital to the objects that you see in the show. Not only am I thinking about the black body in space, but also me as an individual, as a person, what my black body does sexually, my way of seeing things. This is where the picture of Caleb comes into play. In and out (frame 1) the one where Caleb is tying his shoe, that work was an exercise in thinking about my relationship to other bodies being a gay man, sexually or otherwise. The strong white male is a dominant image in gay culture. Is that image something that I still believe in or not? What are the bodies that I’m attracted to? It becomes an introspective way of working.
MJ: Do you consider the forms in Coagulate 1 separate considerations from the wall works, like the glitter vinyl pieces?
MJ: What separates them, because they have glitter?
CC: Because it’s glitter and it’s because it’s a wall piece too. I made the glitter vinyl works before I was making larger objects on the floor. The investigation started with the glitter vinyl works, which to me had a relationship to the club or bar space. When you think about those spaces, they are rooted in fantasy, rooted in this inebriated state of fun ‘WOOOOO!’ and for me, being the sculptor that I am, my relationship to painting is that it’s always a fantasy. As soon as it becomes flat and on the wall, it becomes some sort of fantasy picture.
MJ: So you’re painting a club almost.
CC: Yeah! Once my work started coming off the wall and I made the transition to three-dimensional space, there had to be a material transition as well. I started thinking about my grandma’s couch for some reason. I loved that, especially ones like hers which are from the 70’s. I remember laying on it and falling asleep. My body heat would produce all this sweat and I would get up wet and sticky. I decided I needed something tactile and something more related to skin, the vinyl works are still related to skin, but a different fantasy of the skin.
MJ: It seems like the glitter works are something that your skin would come into contact with, and the coagulates are themselves a skin.
CC: Yeah, and they start becoming erected, I hate to use that term, but they start to rise and puff up as actual things in space. Once I shifted away from fantasy it became a contact with real, like this is a real mass, and now you can’t play.
MJ: In that case, are the newer wall works, In and Out (Frame 1) and In and Out (Frame 2), a kind of fantasy as well?
CC: They do they totally read as fantasy to me. In In and out (Frame 2) you have this rotting banana. That one came directly out of the studio, for me, the banana is such a weird phallus-y object, yet it still has three or four of these things compacted into one.
MJ: So like: Gay.
CC: Yeah! It’s like a bunch of dicks! So weird. But what I love about that image too is the reference to the fruitfulness, the bountifulness that penises have represented in history, but in this case, these bananas were once fruitful, but now they are rotted and brown and no longer of substance or sustenance. It’s fascinating that once something is rendered as dead, it becomes dark. This dark brown object which is very close to the aesthetics of my penis!
My research into West Congo fetishism has revealed how much darkness and blackness, the occult, fantasy, and death play into reading the black figure both historically and presently2. I like tracing back, or finding out how these identity politics run up against sexuality. You can almost never ignore that shit, cause you’re attracted to who you’re attracted to. It makes you wonder how these histories reveal themselves in aesthetics alone.
MJ: I didn’t know you were doing this research. Is this new? It makes so much sense that you are doing it!
CC: Shit, yeah it does! I’ve been interested in fetishism for a while and always questioned why. Whenever I would ask someone about it the definition would become slippery. I knew there had to be a long history of the idea and the practice. Once I started researching I realized fetish has a direct relationship to my body. At first, I thought that fetishism was only an odd sexual interests like piss, shit, and blood, but it’s so much more than that because it stems directly from a colonialist way of seeing things. This viewpoint created a weird phobia against the black body because it was rendered fantasy, and it was rendered scary. Scary but hyper-sexualized. Some things we’re fearful of can be quite sexy.
MJ: The first read I had of the In and Out works was a kind of controlled violence, as a viewer I was beckoned inwards towards the photographs, but am also being poked in the gut. That subtle violence acts like a drop of dye that tints the whole show.
CC: To me that comes from the relationship that sex has to death. Sex historically has always had some sort of relationship to dying. Once you have sex the younger person that you used to be, dies, allowing this new person to originate. The sharp point is also a remnant of the occult interest or fetish interest I have in which sharp tools are jammed into things to activate a kind of power.
MJ: What about the curtain hangings?
CC: This was a new piece for me.
MJ: Are they silk?
CC: Yeah they’re silk, well no, I wish I could afford silk! It’s satin. I’m always looking for a specifically luscious material, something that you want to put into your mouth. The construction of it is the colors of Neapolitan ice-cream was a culminating factor. I love that they move outside of the Crayola box of pure color, into a different kind of sensation. You could like really eat them. That piece to me was an extension of a piece titled Body Bag I made earlier with the same material. I wanted to make something that would allude to a domestic space instead of death. They also exist as a part of a dance I do behind them, they are hung at a height so that bare feet can be shown.
MJ: There’s something exciting about them even though they are quieter works. I knew that there weren’t windows behind them, but I still peeked behind to see. Something about that act of concealing felt spot on. It offered a playful mysteriousness that exists in the rest of the show.
CC: They are also quite haunting. We get a haunting feeling like is there a voyeur behind that veil.
MJ: There is also something about the way they hold the wall which allowed me, pushed me, to look elsewhere.
CC: They set a backdrop, like how curtains exist in a home. Once they’re no longer utilitarian and become decorative they don’t need to be there, but without them there the room wouldn’t look as good!
MJ: True, you’ve got to make the house look nice! What about the title of the show?
CC: Bawdy! Yeah, so I thought that the word was just drag nomenclature, but it’s actually a real term that means to deal with sexual matters in a comical or humorous way. I was coming at it as a play on words or like a weird nomenclature for body used by a specific group – and I love one-word titles, you know: Boom, Simple.
MJ: That’s so good. For someone like me who is less attuned to drag culture, I initially understood the title to be a purposeful misspelling of ‘body’ as a way of lending the show humor. Many of the themes in the work are incredibility serious (colonialist fetish history) but you treat them playfully, you create a lightness, sex is fun, dressing up is fun, going to clubs is fun. For me the title was so successful because I could get something that had high relevance to the show even though I lacked certain information, it met me at my level.
CC: I never thought about that, that’s great. In previous performances, I would talk, construct a character, you know, when “she” starts to come through. I’ve always been looking to give her a name, and I’ve come to name that character Bawdy. That’s why it looks like a signature on the flyers for the show. Now that character exists and has signed the poster.
MJ: If the curtains create a kind of domestic space then would you say that in some ways you created a home for that character? And we as viewers were visiting Bawdy’s house?
CC: Yes! I would call it a house, but I would also call it a landscape. I wonder how me being this character starts to blend into me being Cameron the artist. Like drag, there will always be parts of the original person’s identity that seep through, whether on purpose or not. So this is like my abstract drag.