A Conversation With Artist Elizabeth Harney, NYC (Interview)

Installation view, Elizabeth Harney: With This Love, We Protect Your Wealth at The Border Project Space

JM: Elizabeth, I wanted to first thank you for showing your work at The Border Space. It’s a pleasure working with you and seeing the show come together on such short notice. Tell me about how you got interested in the arts and what brought you to New York?

EH: Thank you, Jamie, for offering me the opportunity to show at The Border Projects. It’s been super fun to reimagine and experience my work in that space. Also, I love the name and origin story of the gallery! 

I was first exposed to contemporary art when I took my first drawing class in community college. I was in my early twenties, living off an abusive relationship, and pretty aimless. Through the work of artists like Ida Applebroog, Adrian Piper, and Nancy Spero, I learned about feminism for the first time. That was a total paradigm shift for me. After that, I spent most of my time at the public library devouring feminist theory, art, and psychology books. I found that I had many ideas and feelings to express, and art gave me an outlet to work through them. Since then, I have been working through many of the same concepts I was dealing with in my first paintings but with different materials and hopefully better skills. 

I was told that I had to move to New York to be an artist, so I moved here after getting my BFA at New Jersey City University. I don’t necessarily agree now that artists have to live in New York; however, I’m glad I was convinced enough to make that leap because I have never loved a city or an artist community more. Also, it is the perfect city for someone like me, who hates to drive. 

JM: I agree, you don’t have to live in New York anymore, but there is no other city like it for artists. Has living in New York influenced the direction of your work? If yes, then how?

EH: One of my favorite things about New York is the amount of shared public space. For instance, most people who live here travel via subway or walking, so the sidewalks and subway stations become sites for all sorts of random engagements. One effect of this is that I am super aware of my body in relation to others. One reason is that I have been assaulted by random men more than once. Also, it is courteous to be aware of how much shared space one is taking up. In my first year here, I did a performance in which I created 4ft long foam replicas of my hands and wore them through crowded subways and sidewalks. I was doing large paintings of powerful white men’s hands at the time, so my big foam hands were a parody of privilege and power. I “obviously” took up too much space and then needed to ask strangers to help me swipe my MetroCard at the turnstiles because my big hands, although impressive in size, were functionless. Maybe not surprisingly, everyone was very accommodating to my passive-aggressiveness. Encountering thousands of people every day, I appreciate that New York never fails to remind me how little I matter, even when I am acting like a fool. 

Installation view, Elizabeth Harney: With This Love, We Protect Your Wealth at The Border Project Space Space

JM: Let’s talk about your current show at The Border. There is so much leather. You can smell it when you walk into the gallery. Why did you decide to use veg-tan leather, and how does it help you get your message across for this series?

 EH: Leather is considered veg-tan when an animal hide is preserved (tanned) using exclusively natural extracts derived from wood and nuts. It’s been around since the stone age. It’s fun to work with because when it gets wet, it becomes soft and almost spongy. You can shape it into anything. It remains malleable and responsive until it’s dried and sealed. It’s very durable, yet the effects of time are visible on the surface. 

 The veg-tan leather I use comes from cows. Domestication seduces these powerful bovines into submission with the promise of safety. I guess I recognize myself in the cow’s desire to submit while also being critical of that. I am interested in how the characteristics of this leather, being resilient yet malleable, mirror the desirable qualities of a commodifiable and domesticated body. With its distinct aroma and supple softness, I want the leather to combine concepts of commodity and violence with feelings of comfort and familiarity. 

JM: “With This Love, We Protect Your Wealth” is an intriguing name for your first solo show in New York. How does it relate to the work being shown and your commodification and Romanticization of “the hero”? 

EH: The title of my show With this Love, We Protect Your Wealth is meant to trigger thoughts about the intersection of intimacy and economy. In my experience, love is inseparable from the economy and to pretend otherwise is only ever beneficial to the wealthy. Putting a price tag on intimate labor such as artistic expression, sexual companionship, child-rearing, and even violence is uncomfortable and often considered callous because true intimacy should not be compensatable. When paid for directly, these services often become taboo. This means that those “unpayable” services are regularly under-compensated and exploited. 

The title actually comes from a song I wrote a couple of years ago. The chorus goes, “I am the martyr, willing to dissolve this self. Call it God, call it country, call it freedom, with this love, we protect your wealth.” I was listening to a lot of pop and country music at the time and noticed that in both the romantic love songs as well as patriotic love songs, there is an expression of a desire to submit to the love object. Just like in the song Hero, popularly sung by Enrique Iglesias, his declaration of love is synonymous with a willingness to sacrifice oneself in service to a seemingly greater bond. While some might think of the hero as a dominant Marvel super killer, throughout various mythologies, you see that love and the commitment to serve and submit is what actually defines the archetypal hero. I relate to the desire to be a hero. Still, while I have always been swayed by the romantic promise of empowerment through submission to something greater, I am continually confronted with how that sentiment is exploited to garner greater wealth for the few. 

Installation view, Elizabeth Harney: With This Love, We Protect Your Wealth at The Border Project Space

JM: In Hero Baby with leather pillow installation, I noticed that many visitors enjoyed mimicking the projection by putting their hands on the pillow and pushing it down. This continues the soft sculpture conversation started by Yayoi Kusama, except you added a video to it, and people can touch the work. Can you discuss how this artwork started and the process of combining these unique materials? 

EH: I love Yayoi Kusama’s Penis Chair because the soft protruding forms on its surface are cute and, at the same time, aggressive. I imagine if I were to sit on the chair, it would be soft and yielding to a degree, but the penis forms would assert themselves, pressing into my body and denying comfort.  

 Sianne Ngai, in The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde, writes, “the cute aesthetic depends on a softness that invites physical touching–or, to use a more provocative verb, fondling…It bears the look of an object not only formed but all too easily deformed under the pressure of the subject’s feeling or attitude towards it.” 

 You can see how this definition of cuteness inspired my Hero Baby video of the man’s face being manipulated and the leather pillows filled with memory foam for which the viewer can manipulate. One thing that I require of my soft sculptures is that they take a beating well. Like the veg-tan leather from which they are constructed, they are soft, wielding, and yet resilient. These qualities tend to evoke a sadistic desire in the viewer. I appreciate Ngai’s text and Kusama’s Penis Chair both acknowledge the relationship between cuteness and violence. Not only because there is violence in objectification but because the promise of comfort and domestication that make cuteness appealing do not exist without violence. Unfortunately, to be comfortable means that someone is enduring or committing violence to protect that comfort. One thing I think about a lot is how comfortable is uncomfortable? When I am anxious, I like to surround myself with pillows, building a soft fortress around me. It is comforting but functions as a fortress all the same because, at some point, it becomes suffocating. 

Elizabeth Harney at The Border Project Space.

JM: What kind of things are inspiring your work right now, and do you have any other shows or events coming up that you would like to share?

EH: Many of the same things that have always influenced my work: fear, desire, memories, dreams, relationships, conversations with friends, martial arts, and the work of my peers. I have also been reading a lot of Ernest Becker lately. His books “The Birth and Death of Meaning” and “The Denial of Death” have been particularly influential for me. With the pandemic being a sort of memento mori for humanity, Becker’s theories about how the fear of death motivates the creation of meaning seem as relevant as ever. 

 No events planned thus far. I plan on enjoying the summer and the rest of my time making at the Key Holder Residency in the Lower East Side Printshop. 

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Jamie Martinez

Jamie Martinez is an artist, the founder/publisher of ArteFuse Magazine, and the Founder/Director of The Border Project Gallery. His artwork strives to disrupt the prevailing colonial paradigm in which we exist. His intentions are to ignite contemplation regarding the eroded indigenous beliefs, investigate the potential of art as a shield for the journey beyond life, and orchestrate meaningful rituals and communal assemblies that underscore the significance of cultural interchange in society, encompassing labor as well. Instagram: @jamiemartinezstudio

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