Interview with Sculptor and Performance Artist Doreen Garner

Doreen Garner is sculptor and performance artist based in Rhode Island. Her work is beautifully grotesque and carves into ideas of sexuality, gender, and race. Her sculptures capture the essence of the body in its most physical state: skin, blood, hair, MUSH. The body, host to an infinite amount of perfectly choreographed systems, is mysterious and spiritual. Doreen captures the essence of the body with material genius, and each sculpture is a votive to this “thing” we each call home.

Can you describe your visual language? What is your practice like? How much of your work is planned vs being a product of chance?

My visual language is bulbous, wet, shiny, and concentrated. It maintains the same combination of visual textures that can be found in an emergency room, a bakery, a porno, a candy store, etc. In a way, I take all of the visual properties of those places/contexts and blend them together to create what I call my studio.

My practice circulates around “judgement”. How do we judge what is beautiful, acceptable, repulsive, desirable, normal, abnormal? Solutions are revealed through juxtaposition and comparison of subjects and unlikely materials. Conceptually, the work is very planned. I often times will research several subjects simultaneously and find the connective tissues that bind them together. However, physically, my process involves a high percentage of chance. I use many many mixed materials that are relocated throughout my studio and often forgotten. As I build new pieces, I rediscover the materials in new locations, and they begin to repopulate the works. At times the palette blends, and the works become incestual.

You also work in video and performance.Two of the pieces that struck me most were Gaze and Uniqa Revisited. Both toe the line between sexuality and the grotesque. Is this something you consciously play with? What kind of reaction do you get from viewers?

I find that the sexual and the grotesque go hand in hand. I like to leave enough room for people to define their boundaries of what is appropriate and inappropriate. To elaborate on Uniqua Revisited, I wanted to address contradictions within the term “eye candy”. Combining controversial but highly viewed youtube videos with a woman (myself) in a bikini rubbing condiments all over her body, I was able to conjure up feelings of confusion, disgust, and attraction simultaneously from the viewer. The ultimate goal was to complicate the objectification.

What kind of headspace are you in when you are performing or creating a video? Are you Doreen? A persona? A character?

When I am performing I feel that I become another character by default. Definitely not any type of Beyonce Sasha Fierce alter ego stuff, but forgetting who I am allows me to continue performances when people I know are watching. Although, I prefer to not hear my name during a performance.

Do you have any rituals before creating a piece or doing a performance?

I don't have any rituals before the performances. I am always very nervous, and I question myself, “why am I doing this why am I doing this why am I doing this why am I doing this?” Largely because I put myself and my body in such vulnerable positions every time, and five minutes before viewers are allowed in, I get scared. Blowing the glass pieces I do have somewhat of a ritual. It consists mostly of arranging the fiberglass needles in a C shape or an I shape. This pattern yields an organic glass shape that closely resembles the stomach or kidney, which I am fond of.

What kind of themes are you exploring right now?

Right now I am working on two major elements of medical history regarding the black female body and exploitation. The first is the story of Henrietta Lacks and He-la cells. The second is the story of Dr. J. Marion Sims and his monstrous un-anesthetized gynecological procedures on black slave women.

What is your favorite material to work with right now? I love that I can look at your sculptures and have no idea what is blown glass and what is a condom.

Of course I love glass, but right now I really love working with silicone. I’m currently using Ecoflex, which is the same silicone used to create the fleshlight, to create a skin material that won’t decompose. I am interested in using Dragon skin (a silicon armor) as well. I’ve been finding glass alternatives that have the same physical properties and are a little more cost effective. The condoms are an example. They are transparent, fragile, shiny, inflatable, and can form a thin membrane.

Can you talk about how gender is addressed in your work and your practice? I'm interested not only in the concepts, but the tradition of glassblowing and your use of materials.

Gender is one of the important elements in my work mostly because it is an important element of my life experience. The reason that I create work is to express myself and my experience, as cliche as that may sound. My journey into womanhood on multiple occasions involved confronting black fetish in white art institutions, racist colleagues, white obliviousness, objectification, misogyny, spectacle, and many other things that have infected my studio practice. I am making new work focusing on Henrietta Lacks and the victims of Dr. J Marion Sims because the exploitation and destruction of the black female body specifically continues to be ignored and swept under the rug whether it occurs in 1845, 1950, or 2014.

From a physical standpoint, gender resurfaces often in my work because it resurfaces in the objects we use, actions we perform, and ways we communicate with each other. For example, I recently purchased a silicone baking mold of miniature bundt cakes from a baking supply store in Manhattan. I recasted those bundts using pink dyed Ecoflex. The bundts resemble vaginal openings, navels, assholes, and perhaps even tiny mouths that are squishy and pliable. I use objects like these to reference gender in my sculptures even when source is completely unrelated.

The body and the bodily seems to be a really important part of your work. What does the body mean to you?

I had a few entry points into the body as the focus for my work. When my sister was 8 years old she suffered an AVM rupture. It happened all of a sudden. I watched her relearn how to walk and talk. She was physically and mentally disabled for 11 years. I had a lot of time to hate the body and its ability to fail. Another was my first job at Infinite Body Piercing in Philadelphia. I worked the counter, mostly filling out paperwork and selling jewelry. My piercings were free. I used to have many more than I do now. Whenever I got pierced I became more in touch with my body, pain, and healing. I did research on tribal practices and tradition. I am also Christian. The body is a very important vessel physically and spiritually. I use many elements from the Bible that reference the body in my work. The word describes the grotesque in ways especially an artist can appreciate.

How did your upbringing or environment inspire or inform your work and practice?

My upbringing and environment has influenced every part of my work and practice. I think 1996 was the most important year in my life. It was the year that changed from black and white to color. My Grandfather died, my sister was in the hospital, I became an individual, I tried to get 10 year old street cred, I understood the power of the gaze, I drowned myself in MTV and BET music videos, I went from being a North Philly kid to a Germantown kid. In a way it is when and where my entire practice began. I find that I am still working through events that occurred during that period in my work today.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?