Jenny Gheith: Performance provides a space where reality and our expectations can be suspended. What is it about performers, particularly comedians and magicians, that interests you, and how have they influenced your work?
Lindsey White: I love the idea of a “show” and the way a show can inspire me to look at simple things, like how someone ties their shoes or reacts to a funny story. Artists, magicians, and comedians rely on observation to suspend disbelief and upend preconceived notions. The attention to detail shared by these professions is a lesson in how to reconstruct or change a given narrative. To turn an everyday occurrence on its side by shining a light on it taps into a familiar language and structure for an audience.
When you go to a show everyone knows what’s going to happen: you’re going to laugh, or magic is going to happen. It’s just a matter of getting from point A to point B. It’s like a scene with Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, where they have to get from one side of the street to the other—they’re going to slip and fall, or a building might topple over, but they’re going to get there. I’m interested in those pivotal moments when the audience isn’t paying attention and the performer capitalizes on that—that’s usually when the action happens or the punch line hits. An art exhibition is a type of performance, too, with a specifically conditioned audience.
JG: You’re particularly interested in female comedians such as Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. They both faced challenges as women in what is primarily a man’s world.
LW: Phyllis Diller was at the forefront of women being accepted in stand-up comedy. Male comedians would go onstage and make jokes about their wives, so she made fun of her fictitious husband, Fang. She was ridiculed for having the presence of a man—and her laugh was so out there. [ laughs ] And Joan Rivers would talk about issues that weren’t accepted, like sex and dating. The documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) shows how much of a hustler she was, how much she craved being onstage, how organized her jokes were, and how willing she was to do anything to get ahead. I’m interested in success and failure and the ways age affects how the public perceives you. I gravitate toward older female comedians because they have a lot of wisdom. Their jokes are often about being ignored. One moment you have a comedy special and everyone is into you; then a couple months go by and you’re forgotten. It’s like when you build up to an art exhibition, the show ends, and you’re depressed. The comedy and magic worlds are similar to the art world in that they can feel like closed-off clubs with a strong male lineage.
JG: Do you find that including humor in your work allows you to push boundaries?
LW: With a humorous entry point, you can talk about heavy things. If a comedian says something that unnerves audiences, they’ll often nervously laugh. You can get away with it because there’s a fantasy world that exists onstage. I try to use humor similarly in my work. Of course, some comedians still get torn down because people are afraid to laugh at things that are problematic or scary. I’m someone who often laughs at things that are inappropriate in everyday life. If someone says something a particular way, I’ll just crack up.
JG: And what about Ron Lynch? He’s someone you’ve collaborated with from the comedy world.
LW: Ron is a physical comedian with a classic slapstick, vaudevillian, old Hollywood vibe. He was at the forefront of the alternative comedy scene in Boston in the 1980s and gave Louis C.K. his first break. He taught comedy classes, which appealed to me because I teach a class about the intersection of humor and art. At one point he mentioned how there was nothing sadder than teaching people how to do comedy—people think they’re funny, but they’re not. That’s hilarious. [ laughs ] When the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco commissioned me to work with someone outside the visual arts in 2014, I knew he was the guy. He helped me push my ideas and guided my work into a more theatrical realm. I was particularly interested in his alter egos, including the Animatronic Comedian. He can cycle through these characters at warp speed, mixing handmade props with more refined ones. You generally see all the strings, which I think is what makes it so funny.
JG: The objects you make and depict often look like they are performing jokes orare onstage.
LW: Objects made for performances are more interesting to me than the performances themselves. I look at how they’re built and what happens when someone holds or points at a prop. Ron helped me gain perspective about how objects can perform. I often exhaust props because I want to see if I can reinvent them on an art stage. I like to flatten the space in which objects appear to create another dimension entirely—one where you can see what an object is doing or what you think it’s doing. When you flatten an object in a photograph, there’s an illusion that it is active or in flux. This technique is clearly illustrated by the two hands in the photograph Often Imitated, Never Equaled. I like when things transform from objects into photos and back.
JG: How do you decide what to photograph and what to turn into a sculpture or film?
LW: I’ve been making photos for so long that everything starts as an image in my brain. But sometimes an idea is more interesting as an object than a photograph—it has to do with tactility and depth. And sometimes I need to make a photograph to realize it doesn’t work as a photograph. I try to be flexible and open to intuition and chance. The truth is, I can often box myself into a corner. It took me a little while to realize I was the only one keeping me there.
Excerpted from an interview conducted at Lindsey White’s studio in San Francisco on February 16, 2017. Originally published in Jenny Gheith and Erin O’Toole, eds., 2017 SECA Art Award: Alicia McCarthy, Lindsey White, Liam Everett, K.r.m. Mooney, Sean McFarland (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2017).